You’ve got to love this guy! Bright. Successful. Self-confident. Leader in the community. Well connected. Spiritually curious and open. Seeks facts on which to base judgments. Prudent. Assertive. I imagine him as someone who does more than builds a list of contacts but actually works his social network! Appears to keep clear boundaries between faith practice and public life — a real 21st century kind of guy. In the spirit of full disclosure, I loved the guy back in the 20th century – he’s someone with whom I readily identify.
Nicodemus schedules his face-to-face meeting with Jesus at night. Curious but not ready to go public. Intrigued but not fully committed. Outside of daytime hours and professional routines, Nicodemus is careful to hedge his bets. Tolerance and prevailing norms prescribe keeping one’s spiritual pursuits private, personal, segmented from one’s wider life. One might even imagine Nicodemus saying, “Who am I to judge?” I trust anyone who can be that honest.
What I’ve always loved about Nicodemus is that he is more than a caricature of a man’s man. He represents so well the perennial human challenge of integrating our public life and religious norms with personal spirituality and the living of our faith. Nicodemus struggles with the same complex human reality as the rest of us. I even “get” the prosaic absurdity of a man wrestling with yet another male’s (Jesus) admonishment about the need to be “born again.” At least in the way the evangelist tells it, there isn’t a woman in sight. Don’t you just love it – two men remonstrating about the birth process! Talk about being in the dark! Truth be told, I often am too.
The Gospel for today, the Second Sunday of Lent, gives us only the first of Nicodemus’ three meteoric appearances in John’s gospel. The second comes in chapter 7 when he offers a courageous but ambiguous defense of Jesus in the form of a rhetorical question: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” My faith is often like that – nuanced, cautious, tentative, perched on the difference between what law prescribes and what human wisdom proposes, covering all the bases.
I don’t think it disrupts our Lenten practice to jump from the Second Sunday to Good Friday. It doesn’t ruin the story by pointing out that Nicodemus’ third appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea in taking Jesus’ body down from the cross – certainly a moment of profound nocturnal darkness. In the synoptic gospels the women prepare the body of Jesus for burial. In John’s gospel it is these two men who come with the spices to perform these intimate rituals. It is consoling to know that both genders are capable of such expressions of courage and intimacy.
I love Nicodemus because he is so genuine, believable, contemporary. Aren’t we all a bit like him? Curious but cautious. Committed but careful. Anchored in what the law says but pushed to break the rules. Ambiguous. Equivocal. Persistent. I hope to hang in there with my fears, questions and distractions all the way to Good Friday. I would like to believe that I might join at least another man and a few women in lovingly taking the broken body of Jesus from the cross.