Posted by: Sue Spencer | February 19, 2008

Nicodemus’ Journey

After many years of preferring the Synoptics, I’ve come in recent years to love the Fourth Gospel. I’ve been helped along in this by John Sanford’s Jungian interpretations in Mystical Christianity: a Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, which cured me of any lingering temptation to try to understand these passages on a literal plane.

During Revised Common Lectionary Year A, we’re treated during Lent and Easter to a long series of delicious Johannine passages. It started yesterday, with Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leader and Pharisee Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), and continues next week with the story of his conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42). On March 9 the passage is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45), combined with the “dry bones” prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezek. 37:1-14). I’m looking forward to preaching on these texts at St. Andrew’s Brewster.

We’re told that Nicodemus first comes to Jesus by night. He appears twice more in John’s narrative: first in chapter 7 when he speaks up somewhat timidly on Jesus’ behalf (“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 7:51), and then at the crucifixion, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body away for burial (19:38-42).

Suzanne came back from a weekend at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, with a report of the morning’s sermon. If I’ve understood correctly, one of the brothers talked about the significance of Nicodemus’ journey – from coming to Jesus at night, when no one could see, to embracing him in the full light of day, at the foot of the cross. This brother then invited the congregation to compare this with their own faith pilgrimage – don’t most of us start tentatively, with a small glimmer in the dark? The brother’s interpretation certainly rings true for me, in terms of my own faith journey.

For the most part, the Pharisees get an unfair bad rap in the New Testament – a reflection of first century religious politics in which the early Jesus-followers were struggling to be recognized as Jews. Even so, Nicodemus strikes me as an almost sympathetic character, or at least someone with whom we can identify.

Even his questioning of Jesus, which some commentators portray as entirely doltish, sounds to me like good rabbinic sparring. In fact, it takes me back to my law school days (ancient history by now) in which professors would draw us out with questions. Even if he got a brilliant answer from a student, Prof. Aronowitz would press the student to explore its dimensions further: “Do you really mean to tell me, Ms. Smith, that…?” I wonder how he’d have responded if Ms. Smith had come back, Jesus style, with, “You are a teacher of the law, and you have to ask me?”

Identification with Nicodemus may be John’s point, actually. As Sanford says of all the characters in this gospel, “a meeting with Jesus is also a confrontation with himself.” So why should it be any different for us?

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