Canon Chancellor - Rev Mandy Ford
It was easier to visit in the dark. No-one will see him, so he won’t be judged. He can ask his questions, but Jesus won’t be able to see his face, maybe Jesus will not know him in the dark
So the well established, well respected, religious leader justifies his visit to Jesus by night to ask about the signs of the presence of God.
This isn’t one of the more familiar cross-examinations, where the Pharisees engaged Jesus in front of the crowd, this was something personal. What is disturbing Nicodemus, prompting him to seek a private conversation, making him question himself?
It is no coincidence that Nicodemus chooses to go out in the dark. He is living his whole life in spiritual darkness, safe in the cosy womblike darkness of familiarity, rules, habits, religious observance.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, such a man needs to be careful about the company he keeps and the ideas that he flirts with. He doesn’t want any one to accuse him of being an enthusiast, a campaigner, a weirdo.
I understand this, I’m not someone who likes to rock the boat, I like a quiet life really. But recently I’ve come to understand that this is not always a position of loving compassion, but of cowardice. I don’t always want to name the truth in case someone is offended. I don’t want to upset the bishop, or the dean, and get in to trouble!
Part of this habitual way of being arises from an uncomfortable truth, which is that I enjoy status and position. Some visible and some that is invisible to me, but nevertheless excludes others. In most parts of my life I don’t suffer from being treated unjustly, so I too, can stay safely in the dark, like Nicodemus.
Until something starts to make me feel vaguely uncomfortable, to unsettle my view of the world, to make me question whether my behaviour actually matches my values or my faith.
To take one example, over many years I have been on a journey to understand the privilege that I experience as a white person in Britain, but I know that I’m a long way off really appreciating what that means.
On Friday, I listened with fascination to the experience of Layla Saad, a woman who describes herself as an East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born and grew up in the West, and lives in Middle East.
Layla has written a book called, “Me and white supremacy” which, as you can tell from the title, does not pull its punches. But in fact, it is a generous attempt to help white people to think about their privilege and to do the work to become what Layla calls “good ancestors”.
For me, race is just one of the areas I experience privilege that I would rather hang on to; there are others that may apply more to you if you are male, straight, employed or enjoy good mental health, just to take some examples.
So what does this have to do with the character of Nicodemus?
He is living in the dark, enjoying his privilege, but God is inviting him in to the light. It is as if a new person has been gestating, and the universe is just beginning to feel the birth pangs. Nicodemus is gently pushing, trying to get the measure of where he is and what he is, when Jesus invites him to be born again.
John, the gospel writer, gives Nicodemus the comedy response,
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
But I’m more and more convinced that Nicodemus knows perfectly well what is being asked of him, and is looking for an excuse. He is not ready yet for the discomfort and shock of rebirth. He is not ready to give up the cosy darkness for the radiance of the light.
Any more than I am, or, I dare to suggest, you are.
The invitation of Jesus is so radical, so far from the cosiness of everyday life, that many of us merely remain in the darkness for much of the time. Jesus is pretty uncompromising about that fact, in words that we don’t have included in the lectionary today, he says:
“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world,
and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” Jesus does not say that we are evil, but that our unconscious deeds are evil, he is drawing attention to the powers that are at work, to those things that we would rather not have exposed.
Nicodemus is unwilling to expose himself as a follower of Jesus. He is unwilling to come into the light, just yet. But he will come into the light. He will be born again, by the Spirit, into the fullness of life as a follower of Jesus.
We know this, because his is one of the rare cases of an individual whose story we see through to another episode in the gospel. After the death of Jesus, Nicodemus provides the spices for the embalming of Jesus’ body when it is taken down from the cross. This is a public act of devotion that will “out” Nicodemus as a follower of Jesus.
This should be a story of encouragement to us, as we see how the Holy Spirit was quietly at work in Nicodemus’ life, preparing him for rebirth.
One of my favourite writers, Margaret Guenther, uses the metaphor of the midwife as an image for Spiritual Direction. She notices that there are times in life when we are in spiritual darkness, but there is a nagging feeling that something is waiting to happen.
I am particularly bad at this kind of waiting, always wanting to push things along instead of letting God do God’s thing in God’s time.
I need that wise friend alongside me to encourage me to read the signs of the times, to notice what is happening in my body, in my spiritual life, and to wait until the time when the work of labour needs to be done. When that time comes, we have to do the work for ourselves, no-one else can do it for us.
To return to Layla Saad for a moment, she is very clear that it is not the task of the black person to address our racism, or the woman to address your patriarchal privilege, but rather for us to do the work on our own attitudes, behaviour and choices. In the same way, no-one else can say your prayers, confess your sins, or live your life for you.
What God has done, amazingly and beautifully, is to put that spark of life in us that can be kindled into the fire of love to shine in our hearts and in our lives. What God has done, amazingly and beautifully, Is to birth himself among us, so that we can participate in the new life in Christ.
What God has done, amazingly and beautifully, Is to provide a midwife in the Holy Spirit, Who can guide us through the times of labour.
Meister Eckhart wrote:
“Tend only to the birth in you and you will find all goodness, all consolation, all delight, all being and all truth.”
May it be so,