In A God Story
In the Gospel of John there’s a person that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Christian Testament, a Jewish man, an authority among the people, named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is not a towering figure of Biblical legend. He’s not wee David, the would-be king, slaying the behemoth Goliath. He’s not Queen Esther, the brave and wise, safeguarding her people against persecution. He’s not Peter, bold and brash and sometimes unreliable, who wears his heart for Christ on his sleeve. Nor is he Pontius Pilate, the executioner. Nor is he Mary of Bethany, the worshipper and anointer of Christ.
With those characters, those Biblical people who have a big story, whose tales we still tell year to year, we can find it easy to recall their names and compare ourselves to them. Are we as brave and focused as Esther? As devoted as Mary of Bethany?
Are we sometimes as weak and apathetic as Pilate? These are the kinds of questions we use to measure ourselves on our own faith journeys.
But with Nicodemus, we know little and what we do know is hardly the stuff of Blockbuster movies. Three times he is with Jesus in the Johannine story. The first instance occurs in John Chapter 3, when Nicodemus is with Jesus in person asking questions about being born from above. The second instance is in Chapter 7, when Nicodemus is among other Pharisees and defends Jesus’s right to be heard and understood before being dismissed or condemned. (In that case, the other Pharisees accused Nicodemus of being a “Galilean” (John 7:52), that is, one of those who follow Jesus. The third and final time that Nicodemus is with Jesus is in Chapter 19, when he joins Joseph of Arimathea “who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews,” in removing Christ’s body from the cross and anointing it with an exorbitant and costly amount of ointments.
Nicodemus slays no giants, finesses no kings, doesn’t martyr himself for any cause. He, as Sandra M. Schneiders says in Written that You May Believe, “. . .comes to Jesus with generous openness, acknowledging that Jesus is credentialed by God. He seems to be guilty of nothing more than befuddlement before a confusing revelation, a befuddlement the reader can easily understand! At the end, Nicodemus does not argue with Jesus or depart in protest. He simply throws up his hands, asking helplessly, ‘How can this be?'” (John 3:9)
Nicodemus, much like so many of us, finds himself in a God Story he doesn’t understad. He does not have a role in the course of religious history. He does not change or even affect the course of Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection. He doesn’t mingle with disciples or tangle more than mildly with the Jewish and Roman authorities. He doesn’t serve as an object lesson for the reader, like the subject of a living parable. And yet, as Schneiders notes, “the reader can easily understand!” We can easily understand what it’s like to be confused by Christ’s teaching. We can easily understand what it’s like to be in the position of defending the teachings of Christ to nonChristians and even other Christians–even to ourselves. We can easily understand what it is like to keep parts of our faith in our secret hearts, afraid of the judgement of others, and so silently and without fanfare to engage in prayer, to light candles, to fast during Lent, to attend worship, to donate time, talent and treasure to missions of justice.
We are a lot like Nicodemus. And like him, we will sometimes wake up and realize that we are also in the middle of a God Story, with our befuddlement and our awe, with our questions and our quiet convictions.