Pastor Emily Hartner:
When 9/11 happened, back in 2001, I was in Paris, studying abroad.
At first, the response of the international community was incredible.
The French, in particular, were both sympathetic and accommodating.
“We are all Americans,” read the newspaper headline on September 12.
Paris, though, is an incredibly diverse city, and once our country declared a war on terror, anti-American sentiment exploded.
One day I walked into the computer lab of the school where I was studying to find that someone had changed the wallpaper on all the computers to anti-American political cartoons.
The American professor who accompanied our group cautioned us against speaking English in public and on the subway, so as not to reveal our American identities.
She also cautioned us against going to certain parts of the city that were thought to be potentially dangerous for Americans.
For the first, and perhaps only, time in my life, I had to hide my identity in order to feel safe.
Despite what the newspaper said, we were not all Americans.
There was a division among us, and that division did not feel safe.
Though many people are forced to hide their identities day-in and day-out, it’s the closest I can come in my, by-global-standards, life of privilege, to imagining what Nicodemus felt like when he sought out Jesus “by night.”
Nicodemus sneaks out at night presumably so no one can see who he really is or know what he’s really up to.
There’s something about going to Jesus that feels risky to him and it seems a lot of it has to do with that which separates him for others.
We don’t know a lot about Nicodemus, but John identifies him right off the bat as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.
Jesus calls him a “teacher of Israel.” He’s knowledgeable, especially about the law. He has a certain amount of status.
He’s part of group of people that holds a lot of power.
The Pharisees did not always approve of the way Jesus went about his ministry, and yet there’s something about him that intrigues Nicodemus.
We can assume that it was the way he turned water into wine, since that’s what Jesus has just done, and since Nicodemus refers to the “signs” that Jesus has done at the wedding at Cana.
And yet, because of his status as a Pharisee it feels dangerous to him to show any interest in Jesus or any desire to follow him.
Even asking him what feels like innocent questions might give the wrong impression. He can’t risk it, so he goes at night.
The interesting thing about Nicodemus, however, is that he shows quite the progression in the Gospel of John.
Nicodemus is only found in John’s Gospel and he only shows up three times at that.
He first shows up, of course, here, where he goes to Jesus “by night” to find out more about this guy who’s been doing these “signs.”
The next time he shows up is in chapter seven, where John states what Nicodemus had perhaps known since chapter three: “There was a division in the crowd.”
The people are starting to debate whether or not Jesus is the Messiah and the Pharisees would like to have him arrested.
But Nicodemus, who was one of the Pharisees, crosses the line dividing them and sticks up for Jesus instead in direct dialogue with the Pharisees.
He reminds his fellow Pharisees that their own law calls for a fair trial, and maintains that Jesus should not be arrested until he has such a trial.
Finally, at the end of the Gospel, in a beautiful act of devotion and in the broad daylight of the afternoon, Nicodemus is found anointing Jesus’ body for burial, as if all those divisions that forced him to sneak out at night at the beginning no longer mattered a lick.
I wonder if Pharisees were looking on from a distance, judging him and wondering how they could disown him as one of their own.
What do you think it was that led to Nicodemus’ progression?
I think it was something Jesus said that gave Nicodemus the courage to venture from the dark of night to the light of day.
I think he heard something in that conversation “at night” that made him believe it was okay, after all, for him to cross that dividing line.
Of course, a first reading of the Gospel of John would suggest otherwise.
John uses a lot of dichotomies.
The distinction between darkness and light is perhaps his favorite, as in, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
The very first chapter sets us up to think in an “either/or” type way.
You’re either darkness or light.
You’re a Pharisee or a disciple.
In my case, we were American or not American.
You’re black or white. Documented or undocumented.
Republican or Democrat.
You live in the “wedge” or the “crescent” of Charlotte.
Or, using another one of John’s dichotomies, you’re earthly or spiritual.
At least that’s what Jesus says in his conversation with Nicodemus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
It’s as simple as that. You’re flesh or spirit.
But, what does it mean to be born of the flesh?
And what does it mean to be born of the spirit?
What is it that we, as flesh, create apart from God?
Because that’s what I think Jesus is getting at, not that there’s a total separation between flesh and spirit, or that the body is bad and the spirit is good, but that we have the ability to create some things–like certain dichotomies–that are not “of God.”
What is born “of flesh” is that which we, as humans, manufacture, like the lines that separate us.
And if we aren’t careful, those dichotomies can become labels and those labels can make it either safe or risky for certain people to live or exist, or to dare to cross the dividing line.
What Nicodemus saw in Jesus was a safe place–a place where it was okay to question the world as he knew it and to sneak out from the facade behind which he was used to hiding.
Now, we’re supposed to think of baptism here when Jesus talks about being born “from above” and being born “of the spirit.”
And, given that, it makes sense that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
The impartiality of baptism (and communion, for that matter) is of the Spirit and is characteristic of the kingdom of God.
When we are born of the Spirit–which we are in our baptisms–the divisions that separate us disappear.
After all, God so loved the world, not just one subsection of it.
There was a story circulating on Facebook recently of two boys, maybe nine or ten years old.
Maybe you saw the story.
These boys were best friends.
One of them had the great idea of surprising–and confusing–their teacher by having his hair cut just like his friend’s.
He was convinced that their teacher would not be able to tell the difference.
There was only one small problem: one of the boys was Caucasian; the other, African-American.
There they were, posing for a picture–arms draped around each other’s shoulders, grinning–clearly proud of the joke they would play on their teacher.
This is what it looks like to be born of the spirit.
It doesn’t always mean ignoring our differences or pretending they don’t exist, but it does mean recognizing that God would prefer that we not live in fear of one another, but that we delight in our diversity.
It means that it’s okay to sneak out of our comfort zone and that discomfort does not mean dangerous.
So let us thank God that Nicodemus the Pharisee came to Jesus by night.
Thank God Jesus engaged him in conversation.
Thank God Nicodemus listened.
Thank God he stuck up for Jesus.
Thank God he anointed Jesus’ body in the broad daylight.
Thank God we are born of the spirit.
Thank God for so loving the world.
Thank God for setting of vision of God’s kingdom before us and for this other way of living, based not on fear, but on love.
And thank God for our opportunities to live according to this kingdom.
And let us thank God that “God so love the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may eternal life.”