December 16, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from John 7:45-52.
So the guards went to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not bring him?” The guards answered, “Never before has anyone spoken like this one.” So the Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.” Nicodemus, one of their members who had come to him earlier, said to them, “Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
Nicodemus first made his appearance in the beginning of John’s third chapter. He was a Pharisee who went to Jesus in the night because he recognized that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God and that the signs Jesus was performing were evidence that God was with him. Nicodemus was baffled by his exchange with Jesus, taking literally what Jesus said about being born again.
Nicodemus was an interesting man, caught between two worlds. His mind was somewhat open to the new possibilities that Jesus represents, a new way of preaching the scriptures and a new way of living God’s word. However, he was also mired in the belief system of the Pharisees, an exclusionary and righteous sect of Jews. It took some courage for him to speak up, though not in defense of Jesus whom he clearly believed was acting at God’s behest. He was trapped inside his head, trying to reconcile conflicting messages, principles, and beliefs. He was a curious man, but he sought answers in literal, concrete forms. As Spong writes in The Fourth Gospel, “Nicodemus is always considering new possibilities, but he is never ready to act on his feelings.”
I’m like that and I think most religious critics, agnostics, and atheists are as well. Jesus can’t be perceived objectively, only subjectively. He can only be known through the experience of relationship. It’s an emotional thing — compassion, joy, readiness for self-sacrifice, love, forgiveness and the list goes on. Just as I can only know another person emotionally, not intellectually. I can know what they think and believe by listening with my head, but I can’t know who they are inside without being open emotionally.
Because Nicodemus hadn’t developed a relationship with Jesus, because he hadn’t yet opened his heart to God’s enfleshed love, he retreated to legalisms. He couldn’t stand up to the jeering from his peers. He couldn’t lay down his life or his reputation even because he didn’t yet love Jesus. Barclay writes, “His heart told him to defend Jesus but his head told him not to take the risk.” I think Barclay has it wrong; I think it’s just the other way around. I never take a risk unless my heart is in it. It may be a calculated risk, but it’s my heart that propels me. Barclay then seems to correct himself, “In our defence of Jesus Christ it is better to be reckless with our hearts than prudent with our heads.”
I like that notion — reckless with my heart. I wish I had given myself with abandon to Jesus long ago. It’s not too late and I like to think that Nicodemus became one of the first Christian Jews prepared to give his life in defense of his faith. It’s a frightening thing for me to live from my heart — I’m timid like Nicodemus, but I keep trying to remember that God gave me a good and loving heart and trust Him to act from it instead of from my head.