How can this be?

March 16, 2014





Rev. Ivan Poole

Genesis  12: 1-4a,  Psalm 121; Romans 5: 1-5;John 3: 1-17


“How can this be?”



Today we look at a story that is possibly very familiar to all of you, the story of Nicodemus and his visit with Jesus.  It is a story in John’s gospel, that follows the dramatic story of the cleansing of the temple where Jesus certainly raised the ire of the priests in Jerusalem.


I want you to imagine that you are in a theatre.  It’s a theatre in the round where you are in the audience which surrounds the brightly lit stage in the middle. As with all theatres, at the beginning of the performance the auditorium where you are sitting is in darkness.


A solitary figure, Jesus, is on the stage.  The light from the stage spills over into the first few rows of seats and you are sitting there, and in the light you can see a few faces around you in the audience.

There is old John, the beloved disciple, and also Fred Jenkins who runs the local service station and in his spare time helps build homes for the older people in the town.  There is Peter the fisherman, and also Jennifer who tutors some of the intellectually handicapped children.  There is Mary Magdalene and also the man who works in the Information Centre and sings in the choir on Sunday.  There’s Betty, who teaches the third grade at the school and leads an after-school class for the children whose parents have to work and don’t get home till late.  And there is that quiet man who comes to Church every Sunday and sits by himself.


In other words, gathered in the light around the stage are the frightened and tentative followers of Jesus – saints who are also sinners, believers who struggle to believe.  Those who get up each morning to put one foot in front of the other to do what they can. Behind them are the dark shadows of a vast auditorium.

Suddenly a man emerges from the darkness and walks onto the stage.  His name is Nicodemus and he has come to see Jesus.  He is a ‘leader of the Jews’, a character in the Bible, but we recognize his face.


He is a person from our long ago past, who, when we spoke softly of our faith, wondered whether we were getting carried overboard by this ‘religious thing’.  He is the skeptical neighbour who has no use for ‘organized religion’.  He is the person at work who smiles at the backwardness of people who pray in times of trouble.  He is the roommate at University who wondered how anybody could believe that religious rubbish.  He is that voice inside all of us that wonders at times if our faith is an illusion.


Nicodemus has the insight to see that this Jesus is up to something extraordinary and he wants to know more about it.  ‘Rabbi’, Nicodemus says to Jesus, ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God’.  ‘We’ he says, so Nicodemus is speaking for more than himself.  He represents a group.  What group?

The Pharisees?  Yes maybe.  The group who have been impressed by Jesus’ signs?  Yes, perhaps them too.


But Nicodemus represents an even larger group than these.  He represents all those who in John’s words  ‘belong to the world’.  He is the symbol of all humanity standing in the shadows attracted to and threatened by Jesus at the same time.  Those who recognize that there is something different about this person but who are not yet convinced and who do not believe.  John tells us that Nicodemus comes in the night.  ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God’, a sort of  gratuitous approach to Jesus, but if you read carefully there seems to be a hidden note of sarcasm.  ‘How can this be?‘ he says.  How could a teacher like you, lacking all the usual credentials, get such a divine privilege?  To use the vernacular, ‘Come off it!  Where are you really coming from?


Those of us sitting in the audience have heard the question too.  The culture is always trying to break down religious experience into something less than a mystery, to something that it can understand, to manage and control.  The culture observes people praying, serving and thanking God, but is persuaded that if you really pursue it, it is really about self-fullfilment, or greed, or deception, or habit, or parental control, or neurosis, or perhaps the opiate of the people.


Jesus’ reply is not a matter of self-fulfilment, or status, or learning, or greed, or neurosis, or control of anything that can be analysed in earthly terms.  It comes from above.  In order to understand the life of the Spirit, one must experience that life.


But Nicodemus hangs onto his preconceived categories and tries to make Jesus make some sense in terms that he, Nicodemus, can understand.


‘Right, he says: ‘are you supposed to crawl fully grown back into your mother’s womb?’  The challenge is not only to Jesus, but to his followers as well.  Every day we hear the voice of some Nicodemus saying, ‘You claim to have a changed life, but how can this be?  You say you are a new person, but that’s not really possible.  Born anew, my foot!  You’re just the same old person with a little piety lathered on top!  In short, they say, the experience of the Spirit is really a complicated religious way of talking about an ordinary experience with another label.


It is really better described in psychological or sociological terms and not clouded over with all this theological clap-trap.  Back and forth the debate rages, but Nicodemus and Jesus continue to speak out of different frames of reference, from a different understanding.  Jesus is speaking of ‘Spirit’, but Nicodemus is speaking of ‘flesh.’


Nicodemus and the world cannot understand what has happened to the followers of Jesus.  Parents, friends, religious authorities, and others from the community constantly badger them;  ‘What happened to you?’  ‘How can you justify this strange behaviour?’  ‘Why do you no longer believe what the rest of us believe?’


The conclusion to the argument comes when Jesus says, ‘We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.’  No better statement could be made concerning faith as it was understood in the church that John was writing about.  For John’s church, the experience of Jesus in the Spirit, was their only defence. In arguments with the religious establishment, these early Christians, did not or could not, advance airtight philosophical theories or theological arguments for the rightness of their doctrine.  They simply spoke of what they knew and testified as to what they had seen.


I can recall an incident at school when taking a class of religious Education being asked by a student:

Sir, do you believe in God?  I replied. no I don’t!! (minor constination that the chaplain didn’t believe in God)  After peace was restored I said,  No, I don’t believe, I know!!


The Samaritan woman who met Jesus, does that, and so to does the man born blind.  So why does Fred Jenkins from the service station help build houses for the aged in his spare time, and Jennifer teach the intellectually handicapped, or the beloved disciple fall on his knees at the sight of the empty tomb?  It is not because of wrinkles in their psyche, and it is not because of ontological proofs of the experience of God.  It is, rather, that the Spirit has spoken to them and their lives have become witnesses to what they have experienced.  Will the world ever understand this?  Probably not.


Realistically, the experience of the Spirit will be a constant source of irritation, a confounding impossibility. ‘The light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness, rather than light.’  Ultimately though, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’  Do you want proof? There is none.  But you could ask Nicodemus, the leader of the old way, who nevertheless shows up later in John’s gospel, as a follower of the new way, a ‘disciple of the light.’


How can this be?  Someone must have surely asked him and he probably replied, ‘I can speak only of what I know.  The wind blows where it will, and so it is with all those born of the Spirit.  Nicodemus initially thought that faith was simply a matter of tracking the signs and weighing the evidence and drawing logical conclusions.  He thought that there was no risk to it, no need for commitment ahead of time.  He just listed all the positives and if the list of positives was longer than the list of negatives…its easy!!  This is the way that Nicodemus made all his decisions.


But Jesus’ point is that the decision of faith is not made that way.  It takes an act of the Spirit, to reorganize Nicodemus’ perspective on life and then he sees everything differently.  Those disciples of old were changed on that Pentecost day and many others through the ages have been similarly changed.  We have a new perspective on life that sees the world in a different light.