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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2015:
This morning’s gospel reading forms part of an extended night-time conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, ‘a leader of the Jews’ (John 3.1). We are told by St John that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious scholar many of whose fellows regarded Jesus’ teaching with suspicion (John 3.1). Later in the story we find out that Nicodemus was, in fact, a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7.50). Only moments after Jesus had overturned the tables of the money-lenders in the Temple, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading, this leader in the Temple administration secretly seeks out Jesus. Out of sight of his colleagues, in the dark of night, Nicodemus told Jesus that the Temple authorities knew that he was a teacher who had come from God. ‘No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’, he told Jesus a few verses before our gospel reading commences (John 3.2).
Jesus answered Nicodemus that his authority and his works indeed come from God, and added that Nicodemus would not ever fully comprehend who Jesus was unless he radically changed his life. ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’, Jesus told a bewildered Nicodemus (John 3.3). And Jesus assured his midnight visitor that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3.5). No one can enter God’s kingdom without having first been cleansed from sin, without first having received the gift of understanding that the Holy Spirit bestows, Jesus tells.
Even at the end of their conversation, it is clear that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus told him. Indeed, Nicodemus will be left in the dark until the very end of the story of Jesus. He will not receive any answer to his question of how it is that people are reborn until the very end of John’s gospel. Although Nicodemus listens and seeks to comprehend, he leaves Jesus without being enlightened about the questions that first urged him to seek out Jesus. As Nicodemus leaves the only assurance he receives is that God loves his world so much that he would give his Son so that all might have life, and that to share this life people needed to be reborn.
‘How can this be’, Nicodemus asked Jesus when they spoke in secret (John 3.9). And Jesus is astounded how a teacher of Israel cannot understand what to him is clear: that God expresses his love for his world by letting his Son Jesus be crucified ‘in order that the world may be saved through him’ (John 3.17). We, who have the benefit of knowing the story of Jesus from the perspective of the cross, can understand how the world can be ‘reborn from above through water and Spirit’ (John 3.5): how Jesus sent out his Spirit to renew the face of the earth in breathing his last on the cross. How Jesus renewed the world by the water flowing from his side, when soldiers pierced his lifeless body.
But Nicodemus visits in darkness and leaves in darkness, and is given no clue beyond Jesus’ challenge that ‘all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed’ (John 3.20). And that pointed comment might have the end of Nicodemus’ story. He could just have returned to take his place at the Temple council, none the wiser, none the braver. He might have made the connection between the bronze serpent Moses lifted up to ward off the poisonous snakes that attacked and killed the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 21.1-9) and Jesus. He might have never thought that Jesus also would be lifted up as a sign of God’s work against the things that kill, be lifted up on a cross against death itself. He might have never grasped that, in being lifted up to be a remedy against death and a sign of God’s great love for humankind, Jesus would die himself. Nicodemus might never have understood what he heard in their night-time discussion: that Jesus was talking about his own sacrifice.
But that is not how the story of Nicodemus ended. At the end of John’s gospel story we encounter a transformed man. Because having witnessed Jesus’ death, all made sense to Nicodemus. In the darkness of Golgotha, as the sun hid its face, Nicodemus comprehended, and he saw for himself the full extent of God’s love. Nicodemus saw the Son of Man lifted up, saw him give up his spirit as he died, saw him breathe the spirit of rebirth. He saw the water flow from Jesus’ side, and suddenly knew what it meant ‘to be born from above’ (John 3.3). In the darkness of midday, when the sky went black that first Good Friday, Nicodemus witnessed all these events. And by witnessing, he made sense of his earlier conversation.
As he saw Jesus suspended on a cross in the dark of midday, Nicodemus was no longer uncomprehending of what it was that Jesus meant when they first met in the dark of midnight. More importantly, he knew that the dark was not for him, and he decided to answer Jesus’ challenge. There, at the foot of the cross, he was no longer afraid of the repercussions. Nicodemus resolved to come to the light, to ‘do what is true’, and to choose for himself that from now on his ‘deeds would be clearly seen in God’ (John 3.21).
At next light, Nicodemus decided to throw his reputation as a Pharisee, leaders of the Jews and teacher of Israel to the wind and go straight to the highest authorities in the land to ensure that Jesus was given a proper burial. Accompanied by another ‘secret disciple’, Joseph of Arimathea, he went to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of the crucified Jesus to be taken down from the cross (John 19.39). It was his remembrance of his conversation about how Jesus would overcome our deaths by his own death, and his resolution to leave behind the secrecy of his own discipleship that compelled Nicodemus to go into the headquarters of the Roman Prefect to ask that Jesus be released for burial.
Choosing to ‘come to the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ for Nicodemus meant a radical break with his past (John 3.21). For Nicodemus to step into the broad daylight and bury Jesus meant being excluded from the celebrations of the most sacred holiday of his people, the Passover. It was late on the eve of the Passover when Jesus died. In order to ask for the body of Jesus, Nicodemus would have faced double defilement: the defilement of entering the gentile Prefect’s headquarters, and the defilement of handling the dead body of Jesus. Nicodemus’ hands were literally tainted—twice: in contact with his overlords, and by the lifeless body he took down from the cross, cleaned, embalmed and buried that night. There was no time to seek ritual cleaning. For that year’s Passover Nicodemus would excluded, would be among the unclean, unable to celebrate the liberation of his people with his own.
Instead, Nicodemus found another liberation altogether. When they first met, Jesus had told Nicodemus that ‘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’ (John 3.16). The death of Jesus might not have immediately indicated the liberation, the beginning of new eternal life, to his secret disciple. It did, however, confirm his loyalty to Jesus. Nicodemus was no longer a secret follower: in order to lay Jesus to rest, the ‘teacher of Israel’ excommunicated himself by making himself unclean. Nicodemus deliberately alienated himself from his community of faith in order to pay a last act of love to the one whom he admired and first sought out under the cover of night.
In his decision to make his discipleship of Jesus public Nicodemus broke with his own community of faith. He did so without knowing how Jesus’ words that ‘God send his Son into the world … so that world may be saved through him’, would be fulfilled (John 3.17). Nicodemus was not to know that Jesus’ death was more than an execution. Yes, his night-time conversation about how Jesus had to be lifted up on a cross, so that all might have life, was at the forefront of his thinking. But at the time of Jesus’ burial, I suspect that there was a lot of confusion about what Jesus had said, and what he might have meant by his words. After all, Jesus was dead, not risen, and it may not have been very clear to Nicodemus how the man he had just embalmed intended to bring eternal life, eternal salvation, to all.
Nicodemus did not know that the body he was preparing for its final rest would not be contained by Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb for long. That realisation would only become clear with hindsight, from the vantage-point of the resurrection. Nevertheless he decided to put an end to his secret devotion, and publicly declare his loyalty to Jesus. People still risk alienation because of their friendship for, and loyalty to, Jesus. While here in Australia that sense of alienation might be expressed by the indifference or disbelief of others for the beliefs we hold, in other parts of the world, and particularly in the lands of the Middle East, the price Christians pay for their loyalty to Jesus may be just as costly as that paid by the ‘secret’ disciple who, at the foot of the cross, decided that he would no longer hide his faith, but openly confess his loyalty to Jesus; risking exclusion and repercussions in order to remain faithful to the One he loved.
At the foot of the cross, Nicodemus became an example of faithful discipleship, leaving behind old certainties and stepping into an uncertain future. As we journey to the cross together this Lent, I encourage you to reflect with me on the cost of our own discipleship, and to pray for all those who still face exclusion and persecution for their faith. And as we give thanks for Nicodemus’ witness, I encourage you to reflect with me on our own witness to God’s love in this city diocese and Cathedral community, and to pray that we may be good ambassadors of the good news that ‘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’ (John 3.16).
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand o the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 1.24-25)
Into the darkness of the first Good Friday, when sun and moon were eclipsed, Jesus speaks his last, ‘It is finished’. And breathed his last, bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19.30). This work of completion is accomplished alone, in darkness. It is witnessed only by those who cared for him most: his mother, his aunt, his beloved disciples Mary and John. They see the man they love wrestle with death; see him struggle against the human sadism that invented this torturous way of ending another’s life. Parched, dried out like a potsherd, they see his lips purged with hyssop and sour wine (Psalm 22.15). They see his final struggles against death and see him lose. They see him gasp for breath like a drowning man, as his life is ripped away from him. They hear his last words. ‘It is finished’. It is accomplished. All is completed, all is now done. They see his head drop in death, and see him give up his spirit.
There, from the cross, God sends again the Spirit that brought into being our universe. The Spirit that hovered over the darkness of an unformed void on the day when God called our world into being. The Spirit that called into being light in darkness, gave shape to sky and earth, created all the creatures that inhabit it. The Spirit that called into being a man and a woman, made human families and gave them life; a life God proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). The Spirit that taught us of love, and goodness, created bonds of belonging, shaped an entire people chosen by God for living. It is that Spirit which now again is given to the world. On the cross as the world is re-created in the formless void between day and night. As the world completes its descent into the dark that gave shape to the knowledge that so much of what once had been ‘very good’ had become cruelly distorted and broken by human selfishness and sin, God in Christ sends out his Spirit once more. Not to create a new world, but to complete his work of restoring the world which he has made to be very good.
‘It is finished’. The work of re-creation is complete and there, in the darkness of Good Friday, all that has to be done to bring about the world that can be ‘very good’ is already accomplished, God knows.
Where those who stand by in the darkness of this death can only see brokenness, God sees the beginnings of a new creation, the potential of a world that can be remade by his Spirit. Where those who stand at the foot of the cross can only see a man ‘struck down by God and afflicted’, God sees his servant ‘wounded for our transgressions’, sees his only, beloved Son, ‘on whom was laid the punishment that made us whole’ (Isaiah 53.5). Where those who bear the weight of grief this first Good Friday, God opens the ‘new and living way’ into his presence (Hebrews 10.20); the way that will transform the finality of death into the gate to life eternal, at the triumph of life on Easter morn. Where those who witness Jesus’ final moments on earth may only feel a dying man’s breath, God sees his Spirit call into being a new covenant. A covenant in which God himself transforms our hearts and minds. A covenant in which God will humble himself to dwell in us, by placing his laws in our hearts and writing them in our minds (Hebrews 10.16). A covenant in which sin gives way to forgiveness, and death to life.
And when, at the end of that long first Good Friday, the soldiers come once again to take Jesus—this time to remove him from the cross—those who saw Christ accomplish all on the cross also witness the signs of that new covenant. They see a soldier pierce Jesus’ side; see blood and water flowing from his body (John 19.34). Blood to sprinkle clean our hearts ‘from an evil conscience’; water to wash our bodies from sin, as we read in today’s epistle reading (Hebrews 10.22). Signs of the new covenant that God established on the cross, symbols of the faithful promise that God made of sin forgiven, lives transformed, and death defeated. Signs for us to share whenever we meet together to worship: water that reminds us of our own baptisms; blood that reminds us of the meal Jesus gave us to remember him. Symbols of our new hope that encourage us to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10.23).
At the foot of the cross, those who saw Jesus die, witnessed the death of an old order and the birth of something new. As they were looking on then, they may only have seen death. But as they came to write the story of this extraordinary death, they began to see the signs of new birth even as they documented death. They wrote down this story, ‘so that we also may believe’ (John 19.35). They knew their testimony to be the truth, and tell the story to us, so that we may share their conviction. The conviction that God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more, where we seek his forgiveness and friendship (Hebrews 10.16). The conviction that in dying, Christ has brought to life a new covenant on the cross. The conviction that because he bore the sins of us all, we might approach God ‘with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts … clean’ (Hebrews 10.20-22). The conviction that because he gave his life for us, Christ also opened for us a ‘new and living way … through his flesh’; has opened the gate to life eternal (Hebrews 10.20).
This conviction was informed by witnessing the tragedy of the cross, and the miracle of the resurrection. It was confirmed by seeing life taken by human cruelty and sin, and life restored by God’s grace and love. It was strengthened by seeing soldiers torture a loved one and by touching the same marks of death—the enduring marks in his hands and side—in Christ’s resurrection body. Today, these witnesses invite us to share their beliefs. Today, they invite us to believe with them that the words Jesus spoke from the cross, ‘it is finished’, marked not the end but a new beginning (John 19.30). Today, they invite us to share their beliefs that the signs of death the soldiers saw, the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, were the symbols of life. Today, they invite us to share their confidence that he, who has promised to make a gracious covenant of life with us by dying on the cross for us, is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).
This Good Friday, I invite you to place your trust in the witness of John and Mary, the beloved disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Clopas. I invite you to share their grief at the loss of one greatly beloved. I invite you to share their sadness at the brokenness of our own humanity, and the sorrow of our own sinfulness. And I invite you to share their certainty that the one who was broken for us on the cross, has conquered death and is alive, and delights in sharing his life with us today. I invite you to approach their beloved friend, Jesus Christ with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, and to find in him your Saviour, Lord and friend. Thanks be to God.