Nick at Nite
This last week I experienced a rite of passage in my life as a priest in Newport. I attended my first Diocese of Rhode Island clergy retreat. We gathered at the Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in Hartford, Connecticut, roughly two hours from Emmanuel — unless, of course, if it’s a little over three hours due to lane closures in Hartford on the return.
I left Emmanuel a little after noon on Tuesday — actually a little TOO MUCH after noon on Tuesday, so I joined my gathered colleagues already deep in conversation about our work together in the Diocese of Rhode Island. We had a lot to discuss about how we can work together, and help each other. And it also gave us the chance to talk in person about how we can continue to worship together while being careful to keep everyone healthy and virus-free.
While was away at clergy retreat, I also experienced a deep kinship with all of you here — a shared experience and context. I had to go off-island — to travel overseas. While the retreat was enriching — and an important duty of all clergy in the diocese — I really felt the distance from you — and the joy of returning to our community of Emmanuel like a real Aquidneck Islander, even if I’m a new one!
I’ve been reflecting on my experience at the clergy retreat as I have been preparing for our worship today. It was my first time at a DoRI clergy retreat, and while the whole group of us were American Episcopal priests, and all but the presenter (who was an Episcopal priest from Arizona) lead worshiping communities in Rhode Island, I still felt like a newcomer. I had the sense of learning the customs, taking into account the relationships in the room — who had known each other for a long time, who had worked together before, how many had come from somewhere else, had done someTHING else before becoming a priest — or went to divinity school right after college. I was eager, but kind of on the outside, trying to figure out the right questions to ask, and whether there were helpful points to make, and whether I should be the one to make them.
My new colleagues are kind, welcoming, and generous, and eager to help new priests join in. AND I think this experience helped me to see our friend Nicodemus in John’s gospel today in a new way. I saw Nicodemus for the first time in this story as a human being reflecting his own experience with the holy, rather than just as a foil for Jesus. I found myself sympathizing with Nicodemus — and identifying with him as he follows Jesus, trying to learn, but wrestling with his own context, background, and words.
The way Nicodemus’s story is often told, he is an example of a member of the existing establishment who just doesn’t get it — who doesn’t understand the new life Jesus is offering. We know from John’s gospel that Nicodemus is a rabbi and a Pharisee — the very learned Jewish sect during Jesus’ time that knew, observed, and taught the law. There are current scholars who believe that Jesus himself was a Pharisee in his training in the law and scripture. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council and tribunal of judges that decided matters of law and took appeals from lower courts.
It’s interesting that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, to discuss one of Jesus’ teachings. Many scholars point out that night is a big theme in the gospel of John, indicating those who are not able to see the light that Jesus offers. This point of view paints Nicodemus as kind of a bad guy — or at least someone who is slow to take in the ideas Jesus puts in front of him — such as being born again in the spirit through baptism. I kind of wonder how Nicodemus felt as the new guy — the one who was following Jesus — who was really curious, but nervous and cautious too.
I wonder if he came at night because he knew it was really risky for him to be seen by others who were on the Sanhedrin — which was like the Supreme Court in ancient Jerusalem. As a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus would have had many responsibilities. I wonder if he had to work all day, and night was the only time he could get away from his day job to ask the most private and close questions of his heart.
I wonder if he just felt more relaxed at night — away from the office and his Sanhedrin colleagues. Maybe he felt more able to have a quiet, private conversation at night — in the shadows or by candlelight — with Jesus, to ask the questions that were on his mind. Nighttime is often when important issues are discussed and understandings are reached. Nighttime is also a time that opens us to imagination and dream — a freedom of mind often inaccessible to us during the day. A famous professor refers to Nicodemus’s nighttime conversation with Jesus as “Nick at Night,” after the popular Nickelodeon programming, as a mnemonic for Nicodemus’s place in the Gospel of John.
In any case, Nicodemus approaches Jesus respectfully. He calls him Rabbi, because they both were rabbis, or teachers. He immediately says that he knows Jesus has come from God, because no one could do the deeds of power Jesus has done apart from the presence of God. Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus are among his most famous teachings: Nobody can see the kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” he says. And God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save it. Those words remain widely cited — think of the many John 3:16 signs at sporting events — but Nicodemus himself remains in the dark after that nighttime conversation as to their meaning.
To be fair, Jesus’ words ARE difficult to understand. I can pretend to myself, watching Nicodemus struggle, that I would be quicker than he was if I’d walked into that conversation with Jesus as the new guy that night. Jesus says right away that no one can see the kingdom of heaven unless he has been born from above. As Barbara Brown Taylor says our Lenten series book Holy Envy, poor Nicodemus hasn’t even mentioned the kingdom of heaven, and all of a sudden, Jesus has rendered him speechless with this mysterious announcement that is pretty off-topic from where they started.
Then follows a conversation with Nicodemus about the meaning of being “born again” or “born from above.” Nicodemus runs to catch up, asking Jesus how a grown person could, in a literal way, be re-born from one’s own mother, making sure that he understands Jesus must be speaking figuratively about rebirth through the Holy Spirit. This is where I want to give Nicodemus some props. It’s easy for us to see that Nicodemus is on the wrong track — that Jesus is talking about the Spirit — because we’ve read the Gospel of John before. So we’re all ready for the idea that being born from above is about being made new in the Holy Spirit.
Besides, we’re listening in on this story. We’re not in the hot seat like Nicodemus, but instead are watching this scene play out from a safe distance. We don’t have to worry that Jesus will turn to us next, exclaiming in surprise — and maybe just ironically — that “a teacher of Israel” does not understand the concept of spiritual rebirth. We’re not really at risk personally in this narrative.
So where is the good news for us in this nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus about spiritual rebirth? It ends with Nicodemus speechless during one of the most joyous, memorable, and popularly quoted lines in scripture — John 3:16:
for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that he who believed in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
For me, the good news is FIRST that Nicodemus is there. He’s a placeholder for us, so that we can watch from a safe distance — maybe feel a little sorry for Nicodemus that he doesn’t get it right away. And we can root for him — and for us — to be a little quicker next time.
SECOND, and more important: Nicodemus’s story with Jesus doesn’t end with John 3:16. Nicodemus shows up twice more in the Gospel of John, and these times during the day — not at night, so we can tell in the world of John’s gospel that Nicodemus is making progress in his understanding. The second time Nicodemus is mentioned is in John 7, where he reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, trying to make sure Jesus has a fair trial.
And finally, Nicodemus appears in John 19 after the apostles have fled. Nicodemus walks up Golgotha with Joseph of Arimathea in full view of the Jewish and Roman authorities on Good Friday, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes — about 100 Roman pounds — to bury Jesus, despite the fact that embalming was generally against Jewish custom.
Nicodemus must have been a man of means; in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI observes that, “The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial.”
And this Nicodemus’s conversion. He starts in the dark, asking questions, trying to figure it all out, and taking wrong turns at first. But he gradually, over time, and with preparation and the work of the spirit, sees the light and recognizes Jesus, not as a colleague — a fellow rabbi — but as the son of God in a royal burial, all culminating in the Easter we wait for now as we walk through Lent.
Nicodemus gives us the hope that we can do this too. And that it’s ok if we’re not sure, or we don’t get it at first. That we can’t always — or maybe even ever — control things. But there is hope because we’ve been baptized in the spirit. And what a great project for us during the spiritual preparation time of Lent. Amen