It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
This weekend, the Lenten journey transitions us towards the Gospel of John, animating us with the most famous passage in all of Scripture ("For God so loved the world…"), a scene with oft-quoted words & a rarely examined context. The two episodes in John's Gospel which immediately precede Nicodemus' appointment with Jesus are (1) the miraculous water-to-wine wedding in Cana & (2) the over-turning-of-tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is performing a strange combination of signs, both comforting & confronting, both joy to the humble and a jolt to the hustlers!
Enter Nicodemus: a man of privilege & power, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council appointed by Rome to keep the Palestinian masses in order, exacting tribute from poor peasants resulting in loss of land & starvation. He visits Jesus at night, afraid to be seen with him. Jesus responds to his flattery, not with expected honor, but with a challenge: to be born anothen (the Greek: could be interpreted "again" or "from above"). Nicodemus avoids the issue by taking Jesus call for "rebirth" literally (but not seriously)!
Jesus' real challenge to Nico is for him to be "born of water & spirit:" to be inducted into a whole new Movement (baptism) & to embrace a God totally free to bring unexpected newness (breaking from the status quo that folks in power tend to cling to). Indeed, the original hearers of John's Gospel in 80CE, the Jews-for-Jesus Movement that emerged in the decades after Jesus' death & resurrection, believed that Jesus died on a cross ("so must the Son of Man be lifted up") for a two-fold reason: to end the centuries-old system of "sacred violence" (the Temple: killing innocent animals to appease God) and provide a model of self-sacrificial love for all God's children (later in John: there's no great love than this--to lie down your life for your friends!).
Remember, the first audiences of the Gospel of John, in the late 1st century, would have always listened to the reading of the Gospel in its entirety (a little bit shorter than a modern-day feature-length movie). Sure enough, a few chapters after this episode (John 7:32-50), Nico is publicly speaking out for the status quo, keeping his personal views to himself, as his fellow Pharisees question whether he might be one of them (the scandalous Jesus followers). As biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook writes, Nicodemus "wants to have his cake and eat it too: to believe in Jesus privately without paying the price publicly."
What could this episode mean for those of us who are committed to imaginatively living out this Script in real time? What are the issues that we, perhaps, "believe" in, but are afraid to proclaim publicly, for fear of being dismissed socially, losing our respectability? Again, Howard-Brook offers 3 examples of Nicodemus for our contemporary context:
(1) A politician secretly sympathetic to an activist cause but concerned w/reelection and loss of fund-raising sources
(2) A professional comfortable w/ the wealth and success of his/her position but privately critical of organizational policy/practice
(3) A church minister supportive of "new" teachings (pro gay marriage? anti-capitalist?) but concerned w/ loss of institutional authority/status
Should we work for change within the System or commit our time, energy & resources towards dismantling the System altogether? This is a live choice for all of us compelled that Jesus did, in fact, come "in order that the world might be saved through him." Eternal life starts now. And it comes with some life decisions that inevitably lead to social ostracism, family tension & the down-grading of socio-economic privilege. This is what happens when our private, personal relationship with Jesus becomes public, political & incongruent with how Life has been experienced thus far.
*For more of Wes Howard-Brook's work see this.