Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nicodemus: From Sign to Sacrament

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 17, 2008

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
(Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
John 3:1-17
Psalm 121

Nicodemus: From Sign to Sacrament

These past few days I feel like I have been haunted by Nicodemus. In today’s gospel lesson John paints a mysterious, ambiguous and powerful picture doesn’t he? Nicodemus the Pharisee, Nicodemus a leader of the Jews, makes his nighttime visit to Jesus the Son of God.

Nicodemus is interested in Jesus. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is, as he puts it “a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus has performed signs that only God could have allowed.

But, you know, John doesn’t really tell us why Nicodemus goes to see Jesus. Obviously Nicodemus already knows about Jesus and his work and his message. He knows about Jesus. And yet he seems to want more. But, John makes a point of mentioning that this meeting takes place “by night.”

Nicodemus knows about Jesus, he wants more, but he’s afraid.

Most of the commentators on Nicodemus agree that he represents those who sympathized with Jesus but were not quite able to go public. They knew about Jesus but they weren’t able or willing to publicly proclaim Jesus as messiah and Son of God. Maybe you know the type.

I think the story of Nicodemus is haunting to me and maybe to you because this knowing about Jesus, this wanting more, and this fear of what that more might be rings true to our experience.

Many of us know about Jesus, we want to be closer to Jesus, but we know very well that being closer to Jesus will come at a cost, so we are afraid. And often we end up keeping Jesus at an arm’s length. Like Nicodemus, we come to Jesus under the cover of darkness rather than in the light of day.

Nicodemus is impressed by the signs performed by Jesus. He seems to think, seems to hope, that this is all Jesus is – a miracle-worker, someone given special powers by God to do things like turn water into wine. If this is all Jesus is – miracle-worker then that’s great. It’s great because then nothing more is asked of Nicodemus or of us. Nicodemus seems to think that these signs are the truth – that the signs are all there is.

And signs are important, aren’t they? All types of signs. Have you ever said something mean about someone and then stubbed your toe? Ah, see a sign – you better be nicer. Or, your old TV breaks and so you see it as a sign to get a nice high-def flat screen set? See, honey, it’s a sign! And, of course, there are all sorts of printed and painted signs that we rely on.

Over the past six months I’ve driven back and forth between Madison and Jersey City a fair amount. I remember when I first started making the trip how it felt like an eternity but gradually the more I did it the shorter the distance seemed. Especially on the trips back to Madison I have come to notice the signs – signs that serve as landmarks, signs that point the way home.

Not long after I get on to 78 West there’s a sign for Madison Honda. Each time I see it I think, OK, I’m on my way. A few miles along and there’s a sign for Gary’s Wine and Marketplace. OK, getting closer. And then I know I’m getting really close to home when I see the familiar sign with Episcopal shield and the precise distance to church.

When you really start to look for them, you notice that we are surrounded by signs – traffic signs, billboards, notices, and of course bumper stickers. Religious groups are big into signs - trying to get their message out or to create what the secular world would call a brand. I’m always interested in religious bumper stickers.

I worked with a guy once who was a particularly devout Christian and the back of his car was covered with Christian bumper stickers. The two I remember were “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Of all the religious signs out there though, probably the most familiar is the one held up at pretty much every professional sports game. This one – the one that reads simply “John 3:16.” Which of course is the familiar verse that we just heard in today’s gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Yes, signs are all around us and signs are certainly important. But signs only point to the real thing. The Madison Honda sign simply points to Madison Honda. The Gary’s sign simply points to Gary’s. The Episcopal Church sign simply points to…well, of course, you get it.

Very obvious. But in religion, in our spiritual life, signs can be dangerous. We can think that the signs are enough. Or maybe like Nicodemus we can hope that the signs are enough! But, All the bumper stickers, all the John 3:16 signs in the world don’t make us faithful Christians. The signs point to the truth, but they are not the truth themselves.

Jesus is asking Nicodemus for more and Jesus is asking us for more. Jesus gives Nicodemus an answer to a question he hasn’t asked out loud – maybe he was too afraid to ask. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That “born from above” can also be translated born anew or born again. In a laughably literal way Nicodemus responds to him “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Is he kidding? I think Nicodemus is being literal to avoid the challenging truth that Jesus is telling him. It’s not only knowing about Jesus. Being impressed by the signs isn’t enough.

To use Rite One language Jesus is telling Nicodemus - and Jesus is telling us - that we must offer and present to God our selves, our souls and bodies.

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Does it mean being impressed by Jesus’ signs – the turning the water into wine and all that? OK. But it’s more than signs. Does it mean accepting Jesus’ teaching? Sure. But it’s more than that.

In his book The Heart of Christianity the scholar Marcus Borg points out that we have lost the original meaning of belief and believe. We tend to think of it up in our heads – well, I believe that’s true but I’m not totally sure. Or, I believe it and nothing you can say can convince me otherwise.

But Borg points out that before the 17th Century believe actually meant to love. The words believe and belove are closely related.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus and Jesus is telling us the thinking and the knowing are fine. The signs are pointing us in the right direction. But, Jesus is calling Nicodemus and Jesus is calling us to more. Jesus is calling us to belove – to give our self, to give our soul and body, to be born again and to live forever in the love that is God.

It’s a lot to ask.

In a way, Jesus is telling Nicodemus and telling us that we need to move from signs to sacraments. Our catechism defines sacraments as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

In other words, sacraments are signs that actually give us what they point to. It’s as if the Gary’s sign out on 78 actually sold wine.

Think of the two great sacraments - Baptism is a sign of our new birth in Christ and our new birth in Christ takes place at our baptism. The Eucharist is a sign of Christ’s presence and the Eucharist actually gives us Christ’s presence.

And by believing in Jesus the Son of God - by beloving Jesus the Son of God - we become living sacraments too. We become signs of Christ and we also become Christ’s physical presence in the world. We become the Body of Christ – not just a sign, but a sacrament.

Of course, we know almost nothing about Nicodemus. But he does reappear later in John’s Gospel and it seems that Jesus’ call to move from sign to sacrament has transformed him.

In John 7 Nicodemus reappears, presumably in broad daylight, and boldly stands up for Jesus against his fellow Pharisees. The Pharisees pointedly ask Nicodemus “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” Nicodemus the Pharisee who came to Jesus fearfully at night is now publicly associated with Jesus.

And Nicodemus appears one more time after Jesus’ death on the cross. He and Joseph of Arimathea handle the burial of Jesus’ body. And John gives us an important detail. John tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about one hundred pounds – which would be about 75 of our pounds.

That extravagant generosity to Jesus is no accident. John is telling us that Nicodemus has been transormed. Nicodemus moved beyond just knowing about Jesus and Jesus’ signs. Nicodemus came to believe in – came to belove – Jesus. In anointing the body of the Son of God, Nicodemus became a living sacrament.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”