REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
In our story today, we meet a man called Nicodemus. We are told he is a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was an assembly of seventy men appointed in every city in Israel. They acted as a court of justice with significant powers. In Mark 14:55 we read, “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any.”
Nicodemus is making his way to Jesus in the darkness of the night, to have a conversation. Is he hoping to find evidence he could take back to the Sanhedrin? Does he think he will confront Jesus about his teaching? Or is it curiosity that takes him there? And what happens to Nicodemus? Clearly, there is a lot of confusion in Nicodemus’s mind when Jesus tells him that he must be born anew. Nicodemus speaks of literal things while Jesus frames his words with spiritual language. Nicodemus is stuck in his own way of thinking of things while Jesus is pushing Nicodemus to think differently.
There are a lot of things unravelling. Jesus challenges the identity Nicodemus claims as a teacher with authority. Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (vs. 10) Nicodemus went into this conversation believing he knew how to interpret scripture. As Otis Moss III reminded me last week at the Festival of Homiletics, we ‘tend to think we’re owners of the story.’ We know how the story goes. We know how its typically interpreted and its meaning for our lives. We’ve heard all kinds of sermons and read all kinds of books. We’ve got this covered.
I wonder what was in Nicodemus’ mind as he walked home later that night. Was there a peace within him? Or was there only more confusion and a pile of jumbled words? Did he sense a way forward? Did he sleep at all that night? Nicodemus will disappear from the storyline for a while. But he will return. In company with another disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea. And Nicodemus will carry under his arm the heavy weight of spices that will embalm the dead body of Jesus. It is in this Good Friday narrative that we discover that the thoughts of that night’s conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus stayed with Nicodemus, and took form and shape. And he was indeed born anew; he indeed could see anew.
A commentary picks up on what ‘born anew’ might mean to us, framing it as ‘rebirth’. “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it … In fact, to be in tune with God’s reign and presence, we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and believing … When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again.”
Our questions are changing. I think it’s not so much ‘who is Jesus’ but more ‘where is Jesus calling us to’. We are asked to sit in the place of Nicodemus and to have a heart-to-heart with Jesus, knowing that whatever identities we hold will fall away, and whatever conversations we have will lead to confusion, not understanding, and, spoiler alert, will lead us to see anew what we didn’t see before.
I remember back in 2005, the 38th moderator of the United Church, The Right Rev. Peter Short, sent a letter out to all pastoral charges asking us to have conversations about things that really mattered. There was something very Nicodemish about this. Because too often I think our conversations in church committees and councils are about the business and ongoing ministry of a church. It’s not often that we gather and sit face to face to talk about things that really matter – How do we see ‘anew’? What do we need to ‘see’? What do we need to disengage from, let go, in order to see what God is bringing in? Where do we see the Holy Spirit at work? As the prophet Isaiah said, “Behold, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19)
In a 2016 interview in the United Church Observer, Church historian Phyllis Tickle spoke about ‘the Age of the Holy Spirit’. It’s rather Trinitarian in structure! She said, “The prophecy has been that there would be 2,000 years of God the Father, which goes from Eden to the cross. Then there would be 2,000 years of God the Son, which is from the cross to our time, when our focus has been more Christocentric than Trinitarian. From 2,000 to 4,000 the focus will be on God the Holy Spirit. This will be a time of deep engagement with the Holy Spirit in community.”
During last week’s Festival of Homiletics, one of the presenters asked, “Preachers, what have you imagined lately? What has the Holy Spirit revealed to you?” Asking me this question as a preacher, finds me likening it to going in like Nicodemus, to have a conversation with Jesus, going in with what I know to be certain, and coming out a lot less certain.
Preachers, what have you imagined lately? What has the Holy Spirit revealed to you? For me, there is a sense of something being revealed, slowly, painfully, fearfully. For it tells me that what I know and love is someday going to be left behind. And a new sense of church will emerge from the bones of the past, to reveal a Spirit-infused church that is thriving and glorious. People will join the work of the church, not because of beautiful buildings and glorious music and dynamic sermons from the pulpit, but they will join because they see in us the work that we are called to, being the hands and the feet and the heart of Jesus, reaching out to those in need, accompanying those who are lonely, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and being the voice of social justice.
The time will come when the church is known as those who work in the world, not those who gather in sanctuaries. The institutionalized church, which has been built over hundreds of years, and is our home, will take hundreds of years longer to become undone. This is scary to envision for me. I am afraid of it because it cancels out all that I am so certain about. It is all that I know. But I see God’s leading in it. When Nicodemus went that night to sit across from Jesus, the light of that room would have shown the confusion on his face. Jesus would have known the unease in his heart. And for me, that same light shines on my face, showing the confusion and anxiety I am experiencing when I think on this vision. And God knows the unease in my heart.
A commentary wrote, “Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening statement cuts straight to the heart of the matter: no one can see God’s reign without being born again, from above.” God is up to the next thing. And we can’t see it until we let go of what we know, and let God guide us to what will be. Our questions are changing. But the one who listens to our questions is the same God that listened to Nicodemus, is the same God that is listening to us today, and will be the same God that listens to our children’s children a hundred years from now.
In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus had died, the disciples went to the tomb to anoint his body. They felt their world had ended. They didn’t know what to next, what direction to go in. And there at the tomb, a young man dressed in a white robe told them, “Jesus is going ahead of you; there you will see him.”
And this continues to be the promise, our promise. Jesus has gone ahead of us, and is waiting for us. We just need to keep walking.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Otis Moss III, Online Festival of Homiletics, May 17-21, 2021. From notes taken during lecture on May 17, 2021.
 Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective, 46.
 Neichelle Guidry, Online Festival of Homiletics, May 17-21, 2021. From notes taken during lecture on May 21, 2021.
 Working Preacher.com Judith Jones, 2018
 Luke Powery, Online Festival of Homiletics, May 17-21, 2021. From notes taken during lecture on May 21, 2021.