Nicodemus really doesn’t get it. Bless his heart. In our gospel reading for this morning, he shows up on Jesus’ doorstep in the middle of the night, wanting to have a conversation. I’m not sure why he came by night – it might be that he didn’t want the other leaders to see him there; or it could be that there was something weighing on Nicodemus’ heart, something that was keeping him up at night.
Whatever the case, he comes to Jesus, eager to talk. Nicodemus starts off by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, saying that we – not just “I,” but “we” – know that you are a Rabbi, a teacher like us, one who has come from God. Even the other Pharisees have to admit the evidence in front of their eyes, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.
And before Nicodemus can continue, Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Huh? This abrupt turn in conversation completely baffles Nicodemus. He takes it in the most hilariously literal direction and asks Jesus: How can it be possible for someone who has already grown old to somehow go back into their mother and be born again?? What??? But instead of helpfully explaining his statement, Jesus doubles down and says again that one must be born again or be born of water and Spirit, in order to enter the kingdom, and he continues on in that vein from there. It quickly becomes clear to Nicodemus that he, Jesus, and the other Pharisees are not operating on the same level at all.
In some ways, this is kind of a hard text to read. The answers that Jesus gives Nicodemus don’t really seem to correspond to the questions that he asks. And I’ll admit that even I don’t fully understand some of what Jesus is saying here. I’m guessing it probably has something to do with baptism, but I can’t be 100% sure. And as a professional theologian, I find it especially galling to read a line like verse 10, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I mean, ouch.
It’s not very surprising, then, that at the end of this conversation, Nicodemus doesn’t seem to have gained much more understanding than he had before, if any. This is also kind of characteristic of how Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel – of all the four gospels, in John we most see Jesus saying wise and lofty things that no one around him seems to understand at all. But it’s still important that Nicodemus showed up. The other Pharisees acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher from God, yet the only one who actually showed up to learn from him was Nicodemus.
And even though it isn’t clear what Nicodemus actually learned from Jesus in this conversation, it does seem clear that something about this interaction struck a nerve with him. Something about this encounter with Jesus took root in his heart and began to grow. Because this isn’t the last that we see of Nicodemus in John’s gospel.
Later on, in chapter 7, the other Pharisees get their togas in a twist because they hear people starting to say that Jesus might be the Messiah – so they send for the temple police to go and arrest him. But Nicodemus stands up to his colleagues and defends Jesus, and tells them that he at least deserves a fair hearing before they judge him. And much later on, in chapter 19, Nicodemus shows up again. After Jesus has been arrested and executed, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks to be allowed to take Jesus’ body and give it a proper burial. But he doesn’t go alone. Guess who goes with him: Nicodemus. Nicodemus not only goes to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial, he shows up with 100 pounds of spices to make sure that it’s done right.
Nicodemus’ life is totally transformed by his relationship with Jesus. We still don’t really know what exactly Nicodemus believed about Jesus, because he never says. The other Pharisees admitted with their words that Jesus came from God, but only Nicodemus actually showed up to hear what Jesus had to say, and then kept showing up. What we do see with Nicodemus is that this conversation with Jesus in the middle of the night was just the beginning of a relationship of trust and care. In short, Nicodemus’ story is much more about relationship than it is about right belief and understanding.
And all of this brings us to probably the single most well-known verse in the entire bible: John 3:16. “For 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.” For many of us, these words are written on our hearts – they are words that many of us have known since we were small. But this verse often gets quoted by itself, out of context – and the context here really matters!
This verse is about grace, but taken out of context, John 3:16 starts to sound almost like another kind of law – a litmus test for salvation. It seems to imply that only those who believe correctly can be saved. And as we saw in the story of Nicodemus – and as we probably see in our own lives – making sure we believe the “right” things isn’t always a simple, straightforward matter. And for those of us who happen to love people who don’t believe at all – or who struggle with our own belief – hearing John 3:16 out of context can be very painful indeed.
That’s why it’s important not to stop at the end of verse 16, but to keep on going and to read John 3:17 along with it, which says: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world or anyone in it. He came to save the world, out of love. We have salvation and eternal life, not because of our perfect faith or belief, but because of the perfect love of Christ.
Likewise, Nicodemus has salvation and eternal life, not because of anything he said or did or believed, but because Jesus loves him. Even to the end, when he was helping lay Jesus’ body to rest, Nicodemus probably didn’t understand the fullness of what Jesus had done for him. But he knew that his relationship with Jesus had changed his life.
At the end of the day, relationship is what matters most to God. That is what Paul is getting at in our second reading when he talks about Abraham and his trust in God. It’s not about being justified by works or by right beliefs. God knows that we humans have thoroughly proven that we are not capable of earning justification by doing everything right, by perfectly obeying God’s law. God is bummed by that, but God still loves us anyway. God still cares more about being in relationship with us than about being right. Even when we – like Nicodemus – just don’t seem to get it at all, God doesn’t give up on us. God loves the world that God made, and everything and everyone in it.
In fact, God so loves the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.