Based around Romans 8: 12-17 and John 3: 1-7
Sometimes in our lives we might cross paths with someone on various occasions. At some time in the future we might look back and wonder what became of that person.
In the Bible too some characters appear and disappear and we wonder what became of them. Nicodemus is one of those characters. He only appears in the Gospel of John but he does appear, named, three times: first, here at the beginning of the Gospel, early on in Jesus’s ministry in this encounter where he seeks Jesus out at night; then later, with the priests and temple authorities when he asks whether it is right to condemn a man without a proper hearing; and lastly after the crucifixion where John records Nicodemus bringing spices to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body before the Sabbath.
But who is Nicodemus? And does he become a true follower of Jesus and an active disciple after the resurrection? We don’t know. All we do know is that he was a Pharisee and close to the high priests, moving in important circles in the temple. He is an intriguing person. As a Pharisee he was well versed in the Scriptures, the law and the traditions of the Jewish faith and people. It would appear that he saw something in Jesus, early on in his ministry, that raised his interest.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and so we can assume that he did not want to be seen approaching him, and perhaps we can presume that he did not think his fellow leaders would approve of his seeking out Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly, Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying that he believes Jesus is from God and that what he is doing is evidence of God’s work. We know later that other leaders were more sceptical.
Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus however, comes back with with something of a curveball saying “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born anew”). This is an unfamiliar concept and Nicodemus takes the obvious approach and asks how anyone can be born a second time. Jesus qualifies his statement by saying that this is rebirth through the Spirit of God and Nicodemus again asks how this can be.
Jesus again come back at Nicodemus and asks “Are you a teacher in Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus goes on to say that he has come down from God, and will be lifted up like the serpent on the staff that Moses raised to save the people from plague. Jesus seems to foretell his crucifixion and death for the salvation of all. He goes on with those words that are so well known: “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.”
We don’t know Nicodemus’ reaction to this, we are not told, the story moves on. But this is a strong testimony at the beginning of John’s Gospel of key themes in this Gospel – of the power of the Spirit, of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection and of the difficulty some leaders would have in seeing past their traditions and pre-conceived ideas and worldly grounding to understand the spiritual realities of Christ.
Could Nicodemus have taken all he heard on board and spoken up for Jesus? We don’t know. He did speak up loudly enough to say Jesus should be heard and he did respect him enough to ensure he was buried properly – but beyond that Nicodemus remains something of an enigma.
The other famous Pharisee – Saul of Tarsus – who was stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus and challenged by Jesus to stop persecuting the Christians – became Paul who wrote to the Romans in our other reading today. Paul reminded his readers that they had received the Spirit of God, to bring them into the family of God as adopted children of God. They were born into earthly families, and now have been reborn into the family of God as adopted children and heirs. Paul knew the power of the Spirit to transform, to heal, to teach and to guide. He knew the power of being born anew from above. He encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was transformed by the Spirit and came to know God in a new way.
He experienced the vibrant reality of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together.
Today is Trinity Sunday where we especially focus on the three persons of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three and yet one, living and reigning in the unity of love.
The Trinity is a concept that some people really struggle with – how can three beings be one? Trying to explain the Trinity in rational language can be hard. Paul knew the experience of the three persons of God – and we too can know the three persons of God, but we may struggle to put into words just how they operate and how they can be three and yet one.
Jesus was trying to open up the concept to Nicodemus – of his presence and role on earth and the indwelling power of the Spirit and the heavenly existence of the Father. Paul knew the reality of Jesus in his encounter on the road to Damascus and the power of the Spirit in his conversion, healing and development as an apostle.
The Trinity is a dynamic unity of love and can be easier to experience than to describe or pin down. Pinning down the Spirit can be especially hard. Even Jesus knew this – describing the Spirit as like the wind, blowing where it will. The Trinity is united in love – embodying love, inspiring love, breaking down hostility and hatred with the power of restorative, recreative and saving love.
We can spend too much time trying to get our heads round the concept and not experience the reality touching our hears, minds and spirits, changing our lives.
Nicodemus was courageous enough to seek Jesus out, but we cannot be certain whether he ever truly became a disciple, whether he came to know the power of Jesus and the Spirit in his life to draw him closer to God. Paul knew the power of the Trinity – and the rewards of adoption in God’s family and he lived his life in the light of this knowledge.
May we know the power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and live in the truth of the Trinity.
Reader Anne Grant