In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The third chapter in the Gospel of St John is remarkably dense with reference and theological significance –and one verse –sixteen—almost sums up the entire Gospel:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Then, besides that monumentally clear declaration,  setting out that we have only to believe in him to enjoy eternal life, much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the story of the fascinating if slightly strange encounter with Nicodemus.

Few of the subsidiary figures in the Gospels have occasioned as much scholarly interest,  however, as Nicodemus in the Gospel of St john (which speaks of him uniquely as he is absent from the Synoptic tradition) and he is manifestly a puzzling, enigmatic figure, for he only appears three times and in a manner that seems to leave much unresolved

He appears early in the Gospel, as we hear today, with a rather tentative profession of faith of a sort in Christ  (3:1-21) “we know that thou art a teacher come from God’. Then there is the second appearance by Nicodemus in chapter 7 (45-52) where he, again somewhat tentatively he defends Jesus before his fellow Pharisees and gets another rebuff,  albeit much more forceful.  Finally, in chapter 19 he appears at Jesus’ tomb with that other curious and ambivalent figure,  namely Joseph of Arimathea, this time saying nothing at all —but disconcertingly– bearing a truly vast quantity of burial spices  (v 38 onwards) such as might be used for embalming,  though that was not a Jewish practice.              

All of this means that, as one commentator put it, Nicodemus “appears in the narrative often enough to evoke curiosity, but not…often enough to satisfy it”.            

And on top of that enigma,  there is the further question of just where to place him in the great divide between who have true faith and those who do not which so defines the other figures in the Gospel.   And here it is of interest to note that through the course of history some readings of him yield a positive assessment and others do not.  The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches hold him to be a Saint as does the Roman Catholic church which venerates him together with Joseph of Arimathea on August 31st. [1]And the overall picture we have of him in all his tentativeness invites reflection on what it took to convince him, what kind of evidence did he need?

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One of the great temptations – to which our culture ever more readily invites us at such times as those when our faith may falter —is  to suppose that if only we had more empirical evidence about the person and reality of Christ, faith would all be so much easier – much perhaps as we think of the Apostle Thomas desiring empirical proof after the crucifixion and resurrection.

Indeed, to the modern mind, the gold standard would presumably be to have access to a live video of the Resurrection, either from CNN or Fox news –for then all would be well, many might suppose and the truth would be clear.

But just pause for a moment and think about that whole line of thought. What could such a video actually show – be it of the Resurrection or even some other miracle that Christ performed? As soon as one asks that question, it becomes evident that the key problem would in fact remain–no matter how good the hi-definition images might be, and however impressive the number of pixels at work on your wall-to-wall television screen–and that question is about the meaning of what happened and certainly not the image of it                                                                                                                         

Thus do we see that the issue of the meaning and what it was that actually happened are shown to be inextricably entwined.[2]

But looking at the matter more theologically,  one can see much of this thinking as lying behind the periodically recurring quests to discover ‘the historical Jesus”.[3]

Moreover,  theologically, one can even say that the motivating thought behind the quest for the historical Jesus is fundamentally Nestorian.   (And that is not a compliment)

This is because such a project assumes that there was ultimately a human person, Jesus, in or through whom,  the Son of God became present to this world and that it was this human person who could be and was known like any other man which carries the implication that it is upon the encounter with the merely human Christ that we should, and indeed must, actually rely

But this is very much not the Gospel view, for the Gospels are deeply, Chalcedonian in this regard. (And that saying this is a compliment, for it references the Council of Chalcedon which emphasised the complete and perfect unity of the two natures in one hypostasis of Christ.

And just for the record, Nestorianism was an early church heresy that stands in contrast to the orthodox teachings of Chalcedon[4]  and — if I may indulge in a few brief technicalities for a moment: 

Nestorius (who lived from 386–450), was no less a figure than a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, and was influenced in his thought about how best to understand Christ by the Christological teachings of that old friend of John Chrysostom, the wonderfully named Theodore of Mopsuestia of the (Middle) School of Antioch. But Nestorius reached the point that he and his followers opposed the concept of hypostatic union (i.e. of individual existence/substance, of person) and emphasized instead that the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ were joined by will rather than personhood.   A perspective which yields a Christological position that can be defined as one of radical dyophysitism –for those who like grand historic names for their heresies.   This line of thought –as so often— stood  as one end of a heretical polarity with, at the opposite end, the error known as Monophysitism which held that Christ  had but a single nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity.)[5] 

But with all that said, in saying then that the Gospels are Chalcedonian I mean that they affirm that Jesus Christ,   the person who taught, suffered and ultimately died was actually,  in the fullness of his reality (which is to say as both perfectly human and fully divine) ultimately such as to transcend all human categories. In fact he would have to do so in order to be adequate,  not merely to the claims made of him,  but in order for him to participate fully in the triune Godhead, in which lies the ultimate cause of all of creation outside of itself.

But that fulness of reality in Christ, (i.e. as divine) could not be grasped or comprehended in a human way ultimately at all, though his life and person was such—the Gospels show–  as to ground the beliefs of his followers a body of affirmations which we capture in the Creeds and statements of faith, and thus affirm as true  – even though the full meaning of what is entailed in those affirmations and in order for those propositions to be true, is more than we can possibly know in this life, short of the beatific vision of the world to come.

All of this entails, that there was a sense in which the person of Jesus was recognized by those who were closest to him,  as somehow always transcending their reach when considered  in its fullness.

Thus it can be said that the more they got to know of him the more they realised that their knowledge was incommensurate (which is to say inadequate) to its object.

Knowing him thus was not something that comprised merely an enriching of one’s own life by sharing perceptions of another; it was ultimately to begin to approach seeing Him and the whole (of his) creation sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity—And to embark on that level of understanding is to embark in a sense upon the threshold of eternal life; for it was an adumbration made possible by the Holy Spirit of seeing him, whom no one has ever seen,  namely God the Father[6].

But getting back to that point about the ultimate impossibility of (or perhaps it would be better to say an ultimately misguided) the quest for the historical Jesus, this can be held to have a rather surprising corollary. This is that from the Gospel perspective we are invited and enabled to capture the specific, and unrepeatable historical events of his life by means of  identifying ourselves with those individuals presented to us in the Gospels and who thus witness to us the deeds of Christ.  In other words, it is not so much a quest for the historical Jesus that should engage us but rather a quest for the historical followers of Christ that we are instead more truly called.

The Resurrection indeed stands as a cardinal, or hinge concept, as well as utterly fundamental reality in all this, for it stands in a three-way relationship both to them and to us, and through them, to Christ.   The Resurrection would be nothing but a day dream, even for his closest followers,  if not for the encounter they had with the risen Christ.

Thus it could be nothing but a day dream for us,  if not for the encounter with the words and deeds of Christ, that they make possible for us,  through them,  as we identify ourselves with them.

This is something that goes beyond mere empathy, for we are enabled thereby to experience (as re-presented to us in an instance of anamnesis) something of the impact of what they experienced –as we apprehend what the Gospels set forth.

For this reason,  it has been well said that

“If we take the Gospels on their own terms, try to enter into the intentions of the Evangelists, and let their story work on us in the way that its authors meant it to, Gospel-reading (and a fortiori Gospel Commentary) will be a quest not for the historical Jesus, but for the historical Peter, James and John,”[7] and all the apostles as well as his other New Testament disciples and followers. 

Deposition of Christ or The lamentation over the Dead Christ (the Bandini Pieta), 1547-55, by Michelangelo
(who is generally understood to have offered likeness of himself in the guise of Nicodemus)

But what then of Nicodemus?

The characters in the Gospels are sometimes understood as symbols or even mere allegorical representations. And in such a perspective Nicodemus can stand for the Pharisaism and the established Judaism of his day, just as the Samaritan woman for Samaritanism and the paralytic could stand for mankind, unable to save itself. But such an approach must be untrue to the historic immediacy of the Gospels themselves,  while Christ at no point is interested in movements, schools of thought or “isms” of any kind,  but rather only and always with individual people. 

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the Samaritan woman is still with us and so is Nicodemus for he has been present as was once said from ‘….the Academies of the ancient world, and the salons of seventeenth century France, in College common-rooms and TV discussion programmes today”.  And in fact it is quite easy for many of us actually to identify with Nicodemus.

So let us look again to the context and today’s Gospel.

This was a conversation that took place fairly early in the public ministry of Christ  before the Sanhedrin had begun to take any official action (John 7: 50), but even so Nicodemus finds it more expedient to meet by night –which conveys a suggestion of something private, or even furtive about it.

Is it not all too easy to recognize in Nicodemus here the stereotypical cautious public figure wanting to do the right thing but nonetheless unwilling to commit himself or get himself involved. 

Then again there is more than a hint here that night enables Nicodemus to avoid committing himself and to deceive himself into thinking that he can have some of the advantages of faith without paying the full price. Thus does the night both hide Nicodemus’ contact with Christ from others but also it hides him from himself.

Yet the somewhat jarring dialogue with Jesus disrupts any such delusions, far from having his learning acknowledged and tastefully advanced in a dialogue enriched with Socratic method,  Nicodemus is told bluntly that no matter what learning he has laboriously acquired before,  he must start again now and go back to the very beginning.

Far from being invited into an elegant debate about ideas,  he is presented with a challenge that is almost offensively personal and particular,  and one that is set out in an almost shocking imagery of his needing to be reborn in the manner of a baby.  What he needs is a child-like heart unprotected by the elaborate and ultimately self-defeating defences and sophistical subtleties of Rabbinic wisdom.

Yet for all the implied insult, Nicodemus responds graciously, albeit with a degree of subtle irony,  by asking simply “How can a man be born when he is old?”

He would have known well that the prophets had declared that God could and would raise even dry bones to life (as set out in Ezek. 37: 1-4) And that God could give a new heart and a new spirit to his people (Ezek. 36: 26). But it was still not unreasonable to ask how these wonders were to come about – which is the point made by his question.    Can Jesus Christ seriously be saying that all the discipline,  good habits, right impulses and judgements are to be scrapped, and that an educated, decent and pious man in mid-career has to start from scratch all over again?

But Christ’s answer is uncompromising: if rebirth is to mean anything it must involve a kind of death.  Nicodemus may retain the mature wisdom of the tradition of the learned rabbis of the people of Israel but he must place no reliance on all that in the end,  for it cannot leave him aright with God or “save” him. Form in terms the Kingdom of God all this is utterly irrelevant.

For such is not just a matter of incremental behavioral improvement, or even a change of heart, but instead something far more radical,  namely total transformation and complete commitment in short,  a whole new creation. This is something far beyond well laid plans and piously implemented intentions. Moreover it is, as birth is to a baby, a gift conferred, something that happens to us, not something we do.

And if you see here at once an echo of baptism you are right.

Nicodemus is thus implicitly but bluntly presented with his need for the sacraments: water and the Holy Spirit.

Why not water alone, he might have wondered? After all,  would it not be enough that a man turn from his past life and, say, by some symbolic act (like the baptism of John) declare simply a firm resolve to lead a new life? But the answer is no, because man cannot forgive any sins –least of all his own. In the deepest sense he cannot create new life for himself. None of us can restore a right relation to God on his own.

But why not then Spirit alone?

For surely God does not require water in order to confer new life? No again, but we do –by virtue of what it is to be human– in order to receive it.

Pure spirits cut off from the rest of Creation, might experience death or rebirth as some kind of purely internal private event. But for incarnate creatures that are of flesh and blood, rebirth is appropriately enacted through a physical act that speaks to our incarnate nature.

The physicality of Christianity –with its sacraments–  reminds us that it is not just a philosophy,  or a collection of more or less interesting religious views, but instead a life that is always of, and lived out within,  the community that is the people of God, which is his Church.

Discipleship is not some mere frame of mind, or intermittent disposition or “lifestyle choice” like some kind of tasteful “exterior décor” of the person. Rather it involves belonging to the church militant.   As Augustin put it tartly,  to one who had expressed himself piously as favourably disposed to Christianity —philosophically speaking—  “I shall not count you as a Christian until I see you in the Church of Christ’ (Confessions 8, 2)

And still we have that wondering sentiment of Nicodemus who muses about all this: “how can this be?” 

And if Jesus seems almost harsh in his response it is important to remember how much of what he was saying should have resonated to a man as learned in scripture as Nicodemus.

He should readily have recalled that the prophet Ezekiel, once again,  had prophesied that in some unspecified future time God would sprinkle clean water upon his people and give them and new heart and new spirit. (Ezek. 36: 22-32).

So this should have been a conceptualization that might have been expected to receive immediate recognition, understanding and acceptance from this “this famous teacher of Israel”. But instead he raises difficulties.

Moreover such difficulty in accepting the basic imagery of rebirth would have to auger ill for the capacity of Nicodemus to accept that the agent of this needed new birth was none other than the Son of God taking human flesh and then being lifted up so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. 

But then great mysteries of the incarnation and redemption carry their own conviction among those who will allow themselves to be reached and saved. In the words Simeon had prophesied to Mary, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel….that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-5).

It is then at a quite late stage that  St John introduces for the first time in his Gospel the term the potentially terrifying word ‘judgement’. But this is understood in a characteristic and unique way.  For here, it is not primarily a sentence passed on us by Christ at some future occasion, or at the end of time, but rather something that the sinner brings on himself by rejection and a falling back into his darkness and a pulling away from the kindly light of Christ and his Cross – and it that reality of the Cross that judges us.

Yet for ultimately, all the hesitancy and ambiguity present in the Nicodemus presented to us in today’s Gospel,  it is not the end of that story.

For much later in the Gospel we see,  however quietly,  that in the end the cautious, sensible, self-reliant Nicodemus emerges again and slips back into the narrative after the crucifixion when he comes to the tomb.

This time he has no need to speak at all, for his actions are perhaps far more eloquent than his words ever were, for now we see him as one who has found the Cross and understood its meaning for the reality of who Christ was and is, after all.

In between that last appearance and the Gospel today when the Sanhedrin first sets in motion Christ’s judicial murder, it was Nicodemus alone who spoke,  however cautiously,  in the name of decency and justice (7: 50-I), and it is after the Crucifixion, when darkness appears to have been triumphant, that St John’s Gospel presents him as one no longer ashamed to be numbered openly among the disciples.

This means that for him in the end when it really counted it was it was at last no longer night.

So too must we pray —  in this season of personal reflection and preparation—that it will be at the last for each of us. Amen.


[1] But not everyone has taken such a view, see the work of Dorothy L  Sayers (1943), The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Written for Broadcasting , discussed in an unpublished paper by Margaret

[2] Lurking in the background there is of course a philosophical issue about the very possibility of uninterpreted experience —which I shall leave to one side– beyond saying that in my view the answer to a doubt about that possibility would be “yes”.

[3] A line of thought which actually goes back further than the time of Albert Schweitzer even if he most famously launched an explicit search framed thus in relatively recent times.

[4] A background that comes readily mind, given that I recently had occasion to address the subject of heresies and how to choose your own,  in a Theology on Tap event recently here in Boston for which I had a handy little list of 50 or so we could explore – another time!

[5] A brief definition of Nestorian Christology has been given as holding: “Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.”[ Martin Lembke, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, 2010.] This contrasts with Nestorius’ own teaching that the Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, ‘Jesus Christ’, Jesus thus being both fully man and God, of two ousia (Ancient Greek: οuσία) but of one prosopon.[

Nestorius. The Bazaar of Heracleides] Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon.

[6] Cf. John 14: 9; Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?, 1: 18, 1 7: 3.

[7] Laurence Cantwell, “The Quest for the Historical Nicodemus”, Religious Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1980), pp. 481-486.

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