Talking Past Each Other
As we all know, we are in the grip of election season. As the circus road show that is the primaries and caucuses moves from state to state, as big tents get erected the clowns come out for comic relief, donkeys and elephants parade around the ring, folks do verbal high-wire acts, tame lions (or get mauled by them!), fly through the air grasping for the next trapeze, then parade out of the ring to the applause and relief of the crowd. The ringmaster (a news anchor) narrates the whole spectacle. Beneath the spectacle, the acts, such important things are at stake – we are at war (or wars, there are several), people are struggling not to lose their homes, or to afford the medications and procedures that could keep them alive. In the last general election we were assured that our wars were being won, and the economy certainly felt more stable. We had the luxury, you might say, of making election issues out of who our neighbors fall in love with and want to marry. Such important things are these candidates speaking of today, but in what different ways: what is national security and how is it best defended? What is the acceptable material standard of living in this country and what is the government’s role in providing it? To whom should any guarantee of well-being be extended – to all in our country, or just to those who can show proof of citizenship? How different are our candidates’ speeches on all these issues; they are not talking to each other, they are talking past each other.
In the night, a religious leader named Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks questions that have become central to the Christian faith – what does it mean to understand Jesus as God’s son? Who is he? How do we follow? What should we believe? Nicodemus asks, Jesus answers, and they talk right past each other.
It is easy to write off Nicodemus as a doorknob, or as someone insincere or devious, but none of that is true. He does have the thankless task of being used by the evangelist John to set up Jesus’ chance to share crucial aspects of theology. He is, basically, a foil. He sets up the questions and then doesn’t get a chance to respond. But he’s a man who deserves our respectful attention. He has been described by some commentators as a good, earnest man, but perhaps spineless. Some have interpreted him as being a religious leader – even a nascent follower of Jesus – who hasn’t the courage to talk about his faith publicly. He lurks in the background of the drama of John’s gospel; he enters the stage three times; but he stakes no particular claim to faith. He’s a hanger-on only. Perhaps he’s afraid of being corrected? Perhaps he’s afraid of being taken on, put on the spot to defend what he believes? Many of us keep our light – whatever that is – under a bushel because we fear critique. Nicodemus is sometimes said to be lost in the details of his scholarship. He is, as Jesus says, “a teacher of Israel;” he is an expert of the faith of his people. Does he – and do we – lose the forest for the trees – the forest of faith for the minutiae of scholarly argument about jots and tittles? Nicodemus apparently doesn’t get the basics of what Jesus is talking about – flesh versus spirit. Nicodemus comes off as a literalist – when Christ says we must be born from above, Nicodemus asks how it’s possible that we can crawl back into our mothers’ wombs to be born again. Jesus here is speaking figuratively, of course. We know today some of the pitfalls of literalism – when a text is applied in such a way that the resulting practice completely contradicts biblical ethics – like saying that the Bible is inerrant while it condones human chattel slavery. One scholar has said that Nicodemus is the kind of person who can end up with totalitarian beliefs, so uncompromising is he.
I’m inclined to be kinder to old Nicodemus than some folks are. The language he experienced from Jesus and his community had become, as shown by John’s gospel, very figurative. No wonder they were talking past each other! I blush to admit that Jesus is talking past me. I read our verses for today, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” I think, “Hmm. Maybe I can avoid preaching on that!” I don’t think I get it. At least Nicodemus was an acknowledged expert. Am I, just because I’m a 21st century Christian and have the benefit of 2,000 years of intentionally Christian interpretation? Jesus’ teachings continue to both guide and perplex us.
Nicodemus makes two other entrances in John’s staged version of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: in chapter 7 he would seem to support Jesus in a verbal contest against other religious authorities. He doesn’t throw his full weight behind Jesus; he hesitates; it is qualified support, in a subtle way. Nicodemus’ third and final entrance is after the crucifixion. He joins Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus’ body. That is a courageous thing to do – to so associate himself with this (obviously) failed reformer who’d endured the most demeaning and brutal death penalty imaginable. But as one commentator puts it, Nicodemus arrived with so many cumbersome spices to anoint the body he certainly couldn’t have been expecting any resurrection. Nicodemus was respectful, but he sure wasn’t hopeful. One wonders if he, even at the tomb, had yet to understand Jesus.
Nicodemus is my brother – well-intentioned and struggling for understanding. I hope I will be his sister in another way: you see, Nicodemus keeps coming back. He gets stumped early in Christ’s ministry, in their very first encounter, but he doesn’t say “The heck with it” and walk off. He later makes at least a passive allegiance with Christ in front of his own learned peers, then has the audacity to perform his culture’s respects to the body of an executed criminal. We become confounded by the New York Times’ crossword puzzle and turn the page; we stop reading books or maintaining relationships because they take too much effort or are frustrating or rely on concepts that are brand new to us. Nicodemus knows that he does not know. Every time he encounters Jesus his understanding of his own ignorance only deepens. That’s uncomfortable for anyone. It’s easy to stick with something we understand or that affirms us; it’s hard to have the patience or faith to keep coming back to something that’s hard to figure out – or may even leave us feeling, yes, stupid. Nicodemus keeps moving forward through the ambiguities of his faith, and one great challenge in his story for us is to do the same. Do you not understand everything? Then join a long and illustrious list of folks that begins with the witnesses to Christ’s baptism. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if you don’t persevere with the Times’ crossword. It does matter simply to stay present to what the Holy Spirit can teach, through the profoundest muddle and ambiguity, to ask our questions, expose our ignorance, do out best to defend Christ and, when we liturgically observe his killing in a few weeks’ time, to show up in spirit at his tomb. Our brother Nicodemus will also be there. We can only understand if we keep coming back, risking the embarrassment of ignorance, of asking the stupid question, of trying to present the truth we think we know before a roomful of our august peers. As I often say, the promise of our faith is not that the path is easy, but that it is worth it.
Our passage from John’s gospel is one of the best known in all of the Bible, but not because of Nicodemus. Few people even know he’s in these verses. What people actually know, thanks largely to placards held by cold-looking guys in end zones, is John 3:16. How many people know John 3:17? God sent Christ into the world not to condemn the world but to save it. How many people, on the left or right, have used John 3:16 to condemn others, to say that non-Christians, or Christians with different theological perspectives, are damned? Jesus and Nicodemus are talking past each other, but Jesus never condemns Nicodemus. Christians today talk past each other all the time, but we are never to use Christ to condemn one another. God sent Christ into the world not to condemn but to save. We often use Christ to justify our prejudices; he is our holy verification that the people we never liked anyway truly do not deserve our respect. Human beings will always find themselves talking past each other and on every kind of topic – political issues, religious ones – but John 3:17 reminds us that using Jesus as a weapon in the dialogue, or to condemn our interlocutor, is entirely contradictory to God’s purpose for him in our world.
Jesus did not condemn Nicodemus for his own differences in belief. He welcomed him into dialogue repeatedly, and to his credit, Nicodemus kept coming back. Let us be like him, returning in prayer and worship to learn from Jesus, who is our constant companion in life’s journey. He does not condemn us, either, even if other people will in Jesus’ name. Nicodemus is a life-long traveler in faith, through ambiguity, confusion, doubt, disagreement, and apparent failure – the crucifixion. The more he persevered in understanding Jesus, the more I imagine he was talking past his fellow religious leaders. And he just kept coming back. Let us do the same.
Gerald Sloyan, John, Interpretation Series, WJKP
www.workingpreacher.org, Karoline Lewis