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Nicodemus and the Cross: Journeying into God’s Light

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)

Casting wide the net: fishermen become fishers of people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Patronal Festival of St Andrew’s Brighton, on 23 November 2014:

I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of your home church at the heart of our city and diocese, St Paul’s Cathedral. I am delighted to be with you this morning, and to reflect with you on the calling of your Patron Saint and my Name Saint, St Andrew.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a story of invitation: a story in which strangers become followers, and fishermen fishers of men.

Our story really begins in the Jordan valley, the place of Jesus’ own response to John’s call to be baptised and be set apart for his ministry as the One who calls others to God (Matthew 4.13-17). By the time Jesus had returned from the wilderness temptations of Satan (Matthew 4.1-11, 12), John had already been arrested by Herod. Jesus also left the Jordan valley, perhaps to avoid arrest himself. He withdrew to Galilee, and made his home in Capernaum on the lakeside (Matthew 4.12). For the next few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel Capernaum and the Lake were to become the centre of Jesus’ activity.

Capernaum lay in the land of two ancient tribes, we are reminded by the Gospel writers, ‘in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’ (Matthew 4.13), a region that played a central part in the prophetic words of old. Isaiah, for instance, speaks of how a ‘great light’ would arise for those living in the region of the ‘Way of the Sea’, the Via Maris, an ancient route traversing Judea and Galilee, much used by traders on their way from Egypt to present-day Syria and Lebanon (Isaiah 9.1). The Galileans had been ‘brought into contempt’, we read in Isaiah; in fact, their cities had been occupied and their people had been carried into exile (2 Kings 15.29). The ‘great darkness’ that had fallen on the nations of Zebulun and Naphtali was to be lifted by the arrival of a ‘great light’ among them (Isaiah 9.2). Just as foreign powers once had plundered their homeland, so they would again rejoice, ‘as people exult when dividing plunder’ (Isaiah 9.3). For St Matthew there is no doubt that the great light that has dawned for those in the ‘region and shadow of death’ is none other than Jesus Christ.

This land, then (once called with derision ‘the Galilee of the Gentiles’ since it was seen to be on the fringe of the Jewish covenant), was to become the home for the work of the Kingdom of God. It was from here that God’s light would begin to shine forth, first illuminating the Jews and then all other nations (Luke 2.32). It was on a mountain on the lakeside that Jesus made known the light of God’s Kingdom to the people of Galilee and, following his resurrection to new life, from another mountain nearby that he commissioned them to spread that light to the whole world (Matthew 28.7). By proclaiming his message of light in the midst of darkness, the derided ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ became the place from where the good news was shared with all peoples, the place that saw the fulfilment of the prophecy of great light in the midst of darkness for all peoples Isaiah spoke about.

In this land Jesus first began to preach proclaiming, in the words of John the Baptist, ‘repent, the Kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4.17). ‘The reign of God has come among you and is close at hand’, he told his listeners. This was the first time that Jesus spoke of God’s gracious rule that would bring peace, salvation and redemption to those who longed for it (cf. Isaiah 52.7). Throughout his ministry, in Galilee and beyond, Jesus made known this message of joyful news. To those who followed him, he said that they were given insight ‘to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 13.11), and explained how they could discern its signs: the Kingdom was like someone who sowed good seed (Matthew 13.3-9), it was like a great mustard tree (13.31f), it was like a net that is thrown into the sea and brings up an incredible catch (13.47-50). For Jesus, this Kingdom had arrived, had already been planted and was now growing before the very eyes of those who turned and followed him.

This idea of ‘turning and following’ Jesus is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Indeed, it is so important that the word ‘to follow’ (akolouo) is used three times in this short passage: once Jesus calls people, ‘follow me’ (Matthew 4.19), twice people respond and ‘follow him’ (4.20-21). The image used here is of one in authority calling his followers, people who immediately recognise him, and follow. Here the master seeks out his disciples where, traditionally, apprentices would have sought out their master. Jesus calls four fishermen—two pairs of brothers—and invites them to leave their vocation to catch fish to become ‘fishers of men’, to fish for people (Matthew 4.18).

If we are looking at key words in this passage, then we shouldn’t overlook the small word ‘immediately’ (euthus, Matthew 4.20, 22). Both sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew as well as James and John, follow Jesus’ call immediately. The writer leaves no doubt that Jesus’ call must be answered at once. The decision to follow Jesus is costly: it may well, as in the case of the four, mean giving up our current vocation or leaving behind those we love in order to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 19.26). All readily gave up their livelihood and two even left behind their father in the boat in order to follow Jesus.

Four Galilean fishermen called to be fishers of men. Simon and Andrew, James and John would not have known the fishing for leisure that we know today. The brothers left behind boats and nets of the first-century equivalent of our fishing fleets, not hooks and fishing tackles. The fishing that went on around the Sea of Galilee was the kind in which a large net was dropped into the depths of the water to catch everything in its path. To become fishers of men, therefore, was the call to seek out everyone, to include everyone they encountered. They were to cast their nets into the darkness of the deep and bring to light all they could find. One of Jesus’ stories about the Kingdom of Heaven explains this:

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad (Matthew 13.47f).

Everyone is called to the Kingdom, everyone called to be brought out of the darkness that surrounds them to the great light that has arisen among them. The sorting-out of those called to enter this Kingdom­­­—those called to dwell in this light forever—is left not to those who call—those who ‘fish for men’—but to others. Once the fishers have brought up—brought to light—their catch from the deep, others are called to sort that catch. Putting the good fish into baskets, and returning the bad to the sea. As Jesus explains to his followers:

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous (Matthew 13.48).

To follow Jesus, then, means to enter into this vocation: like Andrew your patron and the first Apostles we, too, are called to ‘fish for people’. Yet it is not up to us to decide whether those we bring to Jesus, those who choose to accept Jesus’ call to enter into the radiance of his light are ‘in’ or ‘out’. That is left for others to decide. It isn’t for us to rank those who do follow on the basis of their sacrifice, either. Whether they are people who have left behind their vocations, their livelihood and families to follow, or whether they are ‘simply’ those who got caught up in the wake of the net should not matter to us. All that we are called to do is to join in the catching, to cast the net wide, and to bring many to the light of God.

This, then, is a true story of revelation and response: Jesus appeared among the four Galileans like the great light that had been promised to their people in a time of great darkness and persecution. The four responded to the call to come to this light and brought many more with them. Indeed, only a few verses on, we hear how great crowds of Jews and Gentiles followed Jesus, ‘coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordan’ (Matthew 4.25). And today, we too are called to share that light, are called to be numbered among the many who responded to Christ’s call. Whether they be strangers from the East at a birth in a humble manger, whether they be Jewish fishermen on the Lake at the crossroads between Jewish and Gentile lands, whether they be foreigners carrying the cross of a condemned criminal, or Jewish leaders preparing a broken body for the tomb; regardless of whether they be Jews or Gentiles, strangers or folk who feel they belong—they are called by Christ.

And today, you and I, are invited, like them, to get caught up in the net of grace, and to tell others of this good news, too.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Love good, shun evil, transform the world around you

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014:


This morning’s lessons (1 Peter 3.8-22, John 14.15-21) invite us to live by the principle that lies at the heart of the Trinity—the principle of the love Christ has for his Father; the love that flows from both the Father and the Son: the love of the Holy Spirit. They give us powerful insights into how this principle of sacrificial love was lived out in times of persecution and great insecurity about the future of the Christian church. They encourage us to believe that, whatever external circumstances we may face—whether we are buoyed up in times of growth and strength, or weighed down in times of hardship and persecution—‘those who love Christ will be loved by the Father’, and that Christ ‘will love them and reveal himself to them’ (John 18.21). Finally, they invite us to share ourselves in the work of transformational living—living so that others may be brought to the love we know and believe in—through our giving and our living.

Our epistle reading from the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3.8-22) was written in the second half of the first Christian century, a time of incredible uncertainty and hardship for the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire. During the brutal reign of emperor Nero, Christians and Jews were routinely persecuted: it was Nero who put the apostles Peter and Paul to death and, with them, innumerable Christians in Rome. In his Annals, Tacitus, one of the greatest first-century historians, suggests that Nero’s persecution of Christians was an elaborate cover up for the infamous burning of Rome (Annals, XV, 44).Written in the smouldering ashes of Rome and with the memory of the first generation of Christian martyrs very much alive, our epistle speaks a message of peace and love into a world full of uncertainty and hostile to people of faith.

The congregations to whom our epistle was addressed are called to live by the way of love, not share the hatred of their oppressors. They are invited to remain united in face of danger, to share in one another’s sufferings, support one another in hardship and difficulty. They are encouraged to ‘have sympathy’; now the Greek word sumpatheis really means ‘share in someone’s feelings’ rather than warm to someone: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ is how the apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 12.15). When faced with the persecutions of their Roman overlords, the early Christians were encouraged to bury their differences, to look out for one another and to share in the love that characterised their faith. As Jesus had said at the table of the Last Supper, only a few verses before today’s Gospel reading commences, ‘by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.35).

Love, for the writers of our epistle and our Gospel readings, was not just a warm feeling in the heart, or the creation of a deep emotional bond. In the first Christian century to love someone meant first of all to act with righteousness towards them; to treat them as one would expect to be treated oneself. And from this first principle flow a number of important instructions to the Christian community that go beyond the principle of love, of ‘having a tender heart and a humble mind’, as first Peter puts it (1 Peter 3.8). Faced with the ruthless and organised persecution of Christians in the capital and provinces of the Roman empire, our epistle challenges us to love even those who persecute us: ‘Do not repay evil with evil, or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.9). It is hard to bless those that insult you, let alone bless those that seek after your life. Yet this is what the first epistle of Peter instructs the persecuted Christian community to do: ‘do not repay evil with evil, but repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.8).

Evil that is countered with evil, the writer of our epistle knew, only creates further evil: the cycle of violence and hatred can only be broken where people have an absolute passion for goodness, an utter lack of provocation. Refusal to retaliate where others accuse unjustly, the writer of our epistle tells us, can break the cycle of escalating conflict. Where people return evil for the evil they have received, they only stoke the flames of conflict. ‘Repay instead with a blessing’, first Peter encourages us, ‘because it is for this that you were called: that you, too, might inherit a blessing, might inherit salvation’ (1 Peter 3.9). Those who live by the way of love will receive blessing and salvation, our Gospel reading echoes first Peter. In fact, those who shun the way of breaking evil by love, our Gospel reading suggests, may never know this love-filled way of life, nor the Spirit of God that makes known this life: ‘the world cannot receive this Spirit of truth, because it neither sees nor knows him’ (John 14.17). Rather, it is those who live lives that counter evil with good, hatred with love, who know God and will be known as his children. Who will be sustained by God’s strength to undertake their work of building up and transforming the Christian church: ‘you know the Spirit of truth’, our Gospel reading tells, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14.17).

In setting before us the way of transformational living by sharing in God’s love, our readings also make an important distinction about suffering persecution. While there will without a doubt be many who are called to suffer for their belief in Jesus Christ, not all are called to suffer persecution: ‘if it should be God’s will for you to suffer’, our epistle reminds us, ‘it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17). Though there will be some among us present here who have suffered persecution for their faith—I am thinking in particular of those who had to flee their homelands to escape the kind of persecution our epistle speaks of—for many of us the sacrifices we may be called to bring for our faith may not be through physical suffering. Not all will suffer persecution, our epistle assures us, yet all are called to shun evil and do good; all are encouraged to work for goodness and peace in their own generation. We all are called to contribute, through whatever means we may be able to do so—by offering of ourselves, our talents and our gifts, our finances (and yes, in the case of some, even by facing persecution and hardship because of the hope that lies in us)—to bringing about the vision of transformational living our readings speak about.

At St Paul’s Cathedral we have made the way of life that today’s readings speak of our Cathedral vision. Our Chapter and Cathedral team believe that together all of us can help transform our city and diocese. In the conversations that the Precentor and I have been conducting with our congregations over the past weeks, it is clear that many of our members share our vision. The transformation that our Cathedral vision upholds is both an inner, spiritual transformation, and an exterior physical transformation—as in the case of the physical reshaping of our office facilities and meetings rooms over the next few months, in order to ensure that our ministry is well-resourced for future generations. This work of transformation will not come without effort or even sacrifice; indeed, in the case of our refurbishment project it will create much physical upheaval, and a significant financial burden, that relies on the generous response of many to carry. But we undertake this, and other work, encouraged by certainty contained in today’s readings: the insight that where we all join together in the work of transformation, others will be able recognise the hope that lies at the heart of our faith, and come to share in our work of ministry.

By sharing the Good News of the life-transforming, world-changing death and resurrection of Jesus, this world truly may be changed for good, our readings tell. They also affirm that this message is not only for the first generation of Christians but for all time and all places, including our own generation and this land. Through the grace of God and the gifts, talents and vocations of each one of us, each one of us is indeed enabled to show forth the transformational love of Christ: in our congregations, and our city and diocese. Today’s readings invite to commit ourselves once more to Christ’s way of transformational living. They invite us to show forth in practical ways that we truly believe in our hearts what we profess: that by our sharing in Christ’s ministry of love, that by our bearing fruit that will last in his name, others will know that we truly are Christ’s disciples, and will themselves come to know and love the One who first loved us and called us his friends (John 15.16, 13.35).

‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20).