Tag Archives: St John Passion

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)

Bach’s St John Passion: Re-telling the story of death and life


Bach’s St John Passion was first heard on Good Friday 1724, in Leipzig’s St Nikolai Church. Bach deliberately crafted the Passion to enable the congregation to reflect more profoundly on the story of the arrest, trials, death and burial of Jesus. Bach’s unknown librettist drew on St John’s Passion narrative, contemporary poetry – some of which had been written for a contemporary Passion Oratorio by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – and traditional Lutheran chorales to tell the story of how Jesus came to be crucified.

Bach’s St John Passion would have concluded Good Friday worship in Leipzig. The work was written for a performance at the evening service, following that morning’s extensive meditation on the death of Christ. Accordingly, in his sermon at St Nikolai following the singing of the first part of the Passion, the preacher reflected especially on the burial of Christ. In his Passion Bach turns the preacher’s message into music: the two final movements of the Passion tell of the believers’ conviction that the death of Christ has broken the power of death itself, and transformed the grave into a place of hope, Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist/ Und ferner keine Not umschließt,/ Macht mir den Himmel auf/ 
und schließt die Hölle zu (the grave, so is destined for you/ and no further misery surrounds/ Makes heaven open/ And Hell shut to me, movement 39). At the end of the Passion, the hearers are encouarged to give voice to this hope themselves in the words of the closing chorale: death has been defeated, and the grave has become a room to retreat into, a Schlafkämmerlein (little sleeping chamber) where our bodies may rest, Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein/ bis am jüngsten Tage! (gently without any torment or agony at all,/ until the last day, movement 40).

The journey to that place of rest and hope is a dramatic tale of betrayal and power-play, of agony and pain. Bach’s Passion begins and ends in a garden near the city of Jerusalem. We join Jesus and the disciples as they cross over the Bach Kidron (Kidron stream) – it is as if the composer, himself a ‘Bach’, joins the disciples on their journey in music across Jesus’ Rubicon. We take our leave from two other disciples in the garden of the resurrection, where they laid their friend to rest. The story told between the two gardens leaves little doubt that not one of the participants in this drama – not even Jesus’ followers – fully recognised the true identifty of Jesus. Throughout the Passion Jesus’ opponents struggle to understand how Jesus can be called a ‘King’ since he clearly has neither kingdom nor earthly power, just as his close followers fail to comprehend how Jesus can be the ‘resurrection and life’. Indeed, at at the end of the Passion we encounter the disciples as they bury Jesus, with no expectation of ever seeing him again alive.

Much of the musical drama of the St John Passion comes to life because of these misunderstandings. Jesus’ trial before Pilate, with its dramatic crowd scenes, in which the religious leaders of the land accuse Jesus of being an insurgent claimant to the vacant throne of Judea, thrives on misunderstood truths, and confused loyalties. Pilate himself has little understanding – nor, frankly, interest – in truth. Was ist Wahrheit (What is truth? movement 18a) he asks Jesus during his interrogation, a question that Jesus, who earlier in John’s gospel spoke of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), pointedly leaves unanswered. Nor has Pilate any sympathy for faith: he purposefully goads the religious hierarchy into professing their loyalty to the hated Roman Emperor by dressing the flogged prisoner in royal garments. In his music Bach suggests that Pilate’s sense of justice is as twisted as as crown of thorns the soldiers pressed on Jesus’ head. Many of Pilate’s statements are set to augmented fourths – tritones, the Baroque diabolus in musica (devil in music), often used as a symbol of mischief or evil intent. Pilate not only twists Roman justice, but also manipulates the Jewish leaders. At the end of the trial, the high priests are forced to affirm their fealty to Rome: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser (We have no king but the Emperor, movement 23f) they shout, at the risk of foregoing even the little self determination they had enjoyed under the occupying forces.

Even Jesus’ close friends who, John’s gospel tells, had followed and learnt from Jesus for more than two years, do not really understand their teacher. They certainly find it hard to comprehend that when Jesus spoke of the need for his followers to ‘take up their cross’, when he said that his glory would he be revealed by being lifted up on a cross, or when he foretold his resurrection, he was speaking literally. This is shown well in their differing individual reactions to Jesus: one of his followers, Judas, hands him over to the combined forces of Roman soldiers and Temple authorities. Another, Peter, denies him. The others desert him. Only ‘the disciple whom he loved’ remains at Jesus’ side and sees him die on the cross. At the end of the Passion story it is two of his secret followers who bury him. In his music, Bach consistently points to the literal meaning of discipleship. Nachfolge, following Jesus, means taking up the cross: when Peter and John follow Jesus to the high priest’s residence to witness his trial, the composer shapes the words folgete Jesu nach (followed after Jesus, movement 8) like a cross. Following Jesus did mean taking up the cross ‘day by day’; meant journeying with Jesus to the cross, witnessing his death, rather than abandoning or denying him.

Many of the arias of the Passion serve to underline this insight. It is re-told in music in the call on Jesus to support the believers’ journey of faith in the dance-like soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls (I follow you equally, movement 9) as much as by expressing the grief of betrayal and the lack of human wisdom in the tenor aria, Ach mein Sinn (Oh my reason, movement 13). The arias of the Passion, then, give voice to complex emotions. In the paired Tenor Arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel (Consider my soul), and the ensuing Aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (Contemplate, how his blood-coloured back, movement 20), those emotions are the bittre Lust/ 
und halb beklemmtem Herzen (bitter happiness and half anguished heart, movement 19) of seeing Jesus suffer: happiness that redemption is being wrought by Jesus’ suffering; anguish because it is hard to see someone you love suffer. Jesus’ suffering is at once the believer’s Wermut (wormwood) as it is the key to heaven – Himmelsschlüsselblume (‘heaven-key-flower’) – is at once the believers’ Sündflut (sin-flood) as it is the allerschönste Regenbogen (most beautiful rainbow of all). All of these emotions Bach paints in evocative music: his depiction of the rainbow in music is breathtaking – ‘literally, if you are the tenor soloist’, as the theologian and librettist NT Wright quips in his Foreword to my commentary on Bach’s St John Passion. It is this combination of anguish and happiness, terror and longing, brutality and hope, that characterises many of the arias in the Passion.

At the same time, many of Bach’s arias leave little doubt of the faith in resurrection and new life. In the aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished, movement 30), sung as Jesus spoke his last, the triumph of the Held aus Juda (Hero of Judah) and the Trauernacht (night of mourning) are beautifully juxtaposed to testify to Jesus’ accomplishment: death defeated by death. And if there had been any doubts at all as to the meaning of Jesus’ death, Bach adds another aria immediately after the short, matter-of-fact, recitative that records the death of Jesus: in the aria Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen (My dear Saviour, let me ask you, movement 32), the Bass soloist asks the dead Jesus about the meaning of death, and the hope of new life, while the entire chorus confirms Jesu, der du warest tot/ lebst nun ohne Ende (Jesu, you who were dead/ Live now without end); affirms the hope of believers reconciled to God, and new life gained through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Where the arias of the Passion provide moments of individual reflection for Bach’s hearers on the most important questions of faith – life and suffering, loyalty and discipleship, death and resurrection – the carefully chosen chorale verses enabled hearers to root these reflections in their day-to-day experience of worship: for Lutherans singing was (and remains to date) a central way of giving voice to a lived out faith. And where, as in movement 22, Bach’s unknown librettist was unable to source a suitable Lutheran chorale, a contemporary poem was set to music in such a way that it felt, and sounded, just like a chorale. It serves to express the central doctrine of the Passion, and Luther’s theology of the cross: denn gingst du nicht die Knechtschaft ein/ müsst unsre Knechtschaft ewig sein (if you had not gone into slavery/ our slavery must have been forever).

Bach retells one of the most dramatic stories told in Biblical words, devotional hymns and contemporary poetry; carefully and beautifully set to music. He helps us navigate that story by placing recurrent musical devices in the St John Passion. His Baroque tropes were intended as much for the careful listener, as for the performer: the cross-motifs or shapes in the score or the tritones that reveal that not all that is spoken by Pilate should be taken at face-value (and certainly not his desire to ‘let Jesus go’, movement 21). The sharps, in German called Kreuze (crosses), because they look like two crosses superimposed on one another that appear in the score as the story moves closer to Golgotha. Bach’s plays on numbers: the reference to the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not kill, introduced by five rising chromatic semitones on töten (kill) in the religious leaders’ protest, Wir dürfen niemand töten (We may not put anyone to death, movement, movement 16d), or the reference to all ten commandments in the ten fugal entries of their Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have a law, movement 21f). The rattling of dice as the Roman soldiers gamble for the seamless robe (movement 27b) and, finally, the musical sense of completion at Jesus’ final words, Es ist vollbracht (movement 29).

The hearers who shared Bach’s Lutheran cultural horizon would have heard and understood Bach’s story of the Passion from the vantage point of Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They would have believed that the new life Christians celebrate at Easter was born on the cross. Bach’s St John Passion continues to effect profound personal responses in listeners, whether or not they share his Christian faith. For those who do not share the Christian faith, it tells the story of relationships severed and newly-forged, of the risks and gambles of power-play and politics, of torture and human suffering, of death and the longing for certainty when faced with the existential questions of life. For Christians, Bach’s St John Passion adds a further dimension to this prototypically human story: it gives shape to their story of salvation by taking listeners straight to the cross and placing them firmly at its foot to witness the death of Jesus, in the hope that by travelling on Jesus’ Marterstrasse, ‘road of torture’, by going with him to the cross, they, too, may come to share Christ’s life reborn; to share the Leben ohne Ende, ‘life without end’ in his presence.

Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in Music History at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His book Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary, Brill Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Leiden/New York: Brill, 2014) is for sale at a specially discounted rate for audience members and can be ordered online.