The Fourth Gospel 2:28-3:21
Stories Seldom Heard
208th Edition, November 2016
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. St. Catherine of Siena is a Doctor of the Church, a theologian and a Dominican. While I was reading some of her writings the following line caught my attention. “Behave like a person in love!” As I read on, I wondered what would happen if I, or we, lived each day “as a person in love.” Would it change our attitudes and/or actions? Would we make different life choices? As we read the story of Nicodemus, we could ask the same question of him. Is he an observer or does he live as a person who is in love? What guides his actions?
The story of Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel where we meet him three times. His first interaction with Jesus is at night in Jerusalem during Passover (Jn. 2:23). Nicodemus and Jesus have a long conversation about being “born from above.” Then Nicodemus disappears. “On the last day and greatest day of the festival,” Nicodemus appears a second time. The Jewish authorities are questioning the police as to why they haven’t arrested Jesus. In the midst of their heated discussion, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, speaks on Jesus’ behalf (Jn. 7:50). Again he fades into the background. The final time we meet Nicodemus is at the end of the gospel. “After this, Joseph of Arimathaea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because he was afraid of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus…Nicodemus came as well…” (Jn.19:38-39).
It’s hard to know where Nicodemus stands. There’s always an air of mystery that surrounds him. He comes at night and moves in the shadow of the stories. Using John’s imagery, he never comes into full light. He never publicly confesses his faith in Jesus. Yet, we cannot deny his interest and persistency. Maybe that is why many of us find it easy to relate to Nicodemus. He is a seeker, but he finds it hard to fully and publicly commit himself as a disciple of Jesus. Something holds him back.
The first time Nicodemus meets Jesus, Jesus is alone. Jesus is probably walking home through the narrow streets of the old city after a long day of preaching. All of a sudden a man whom Jesus doesn’t know emerges out of a shadowy doorway or dark alley. Even though Jesus doesn’t know his name, Jesus recognizes him as a Pharisee: a lay religious leader dressed in long robes with tassels. The gospel doesn’t tell us, but we can presume that this meeting wasn’t by chance. So why would Nicodemus choose to meet Jesus at night? It certainly would have been more convenient to find Jesus preaching in the marketplace or teaching in the synagogue during the day than to track him down after dark.
Perhaps Nicodemus’ circuitous actions can be explained by the fact that he was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in agreement with some of the beliefs and religious practices that Jesus taught. Pharisees worshipped in the temple. They prayed the same prayers – the psalms. They too, like Jesus, taught and believed in the resurrection of the dead. But they also disagreed with Jesus on some major religious issues. In scripture the title Pharisee is a code word for those who leaned heavily on external observances of the law. They studied the law and scrupulously interpreted it. They believed that it was through the law that a person was justified. In other words, they taught that by assiduously following the law a person was made holy. And there’s the rub!
On the one hand, Nicodemus could respectfully call Jesus “Rabbi, teacher.” Nicodemus recognized the power that Jesus had to heal and cure people. On the other hand, Nicodemus was scandalized by Jesus’ practices and teachings. Jesus healed on the Sabbath which was against the law. He ate with gentiles and sinners and this, too, was forbidden by the law. These issues alone would have stirred up confusion and resistance within Nicodemus or any conscientious Pharisee, but there was more!
Jesus often spoke about the kingdom or reign of God. These parables, religious riddles about God, were confusing. Could God really be as forgiving and generous as a father who forgives his prodigal son even before the son asks for forgiveness? Could God really be as impractical, according to human thinking, as a shepherd who leaves ninety- nine sheep unattended to go after the one lost sheep? In Nicodemus’ first conversation with Jesus, Jesus talks about being born from above. This birth requires a willingness to live with a new sensitivity to the movements of the Spirit within this world and within ourselves. “To be born from above” means we see all of life with new eyes. It means we are acutely aware of God nudging us in creative ways so that God’s power can become more visible through our actions in this world now not just in some future time.
Believing in this new life-giving Spirit is a big leap of faith. Even though the Spirit is special, this Spirit is not rare. It doesn’t just come at Baptism, Confirmation or on Pentecost. This Spirit is the One who hovered over creation and dwells in each of us now. If we pay attention it will continually transform us.
Jesus describes this Spirit as a free gift who comes as a strong driving wind. At other times, the Spirit is described as a whisper. But no matter how we experience this Spirit, when received, it always breathes new life in us. When we listen to the nudgings of this Spirit in prayer it can be life-altering. Its breath gives us new energy to face our daily routines and struggles. When we feel stuck in patterns that are destructive, this Spirit can help us break through our hard and fast habits. If we feel held back by negative images of ourselves or experiences that have been harmful to us, this Spirit can bring healing so we can move forward with a new wisdom. If we feel dulled by the burdens of our everyday lives, this Spirit can renew our desire to fulfill the commitments we have made. If we feel tentative about our faith and our religious practices have become merely external exercises, this Spirit can deepen our relationship with God.
This Spirit according to Jesus is not an idle visitor or silent observer, but the initiator of new life. A man told me recently, that when he was growing up he thought religion was just a list of rules. But now that he is an adult he has come to realize that faith and religion are about relationships: our relationships with God and one another. “Over the years I have come to know that it is God who saves, not the law.”
In a way Nicodemus can be a foil for us. As he asks his questions, he gives us space to reconsider our questions. We, too, have unanswered questions about God, our lives and families and the world. The story of Nicodemus reflects the journey of faith that many of us have experienced. But unlike Nicodemus we are not people who fade back into the darkness of the night. Even though faith has been slowly unfolding, we realize that it is built on a relationship. Like any relationship it takes time and attention: daily prayer that includes more than just our words. Prayer is a time to listen and pay attention to what we hear in the silence. It is a time to listen to the noise of the world and evaluate what is true. Regular “quiet times” give us space to hear the Spirit’s affirmations. Prayer will help us fall in love with the One who has loved us before we were born.
I wonder what would happen if we lived as persons in love with Love? Pedro Arrupe, SJ, a former Superior of the Society of Jesus, said it changes everything. “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com.” Thank you.