A Good Conversation

You may listen to Mother Takacs's sermon here.

Welcome, my friends, to the Gospel of John. For many weeks now, we have been faithfully working our way through the Gospel of Matthew, and we will get back there eventually. But starting today, and for the next three Sundays, we will be deeply immersed in John. And when I say deeply, I mean deeply. The lessons the Lenten lectionary offers us this year stories with a particular heft, a particular gravitas. In fact, they are stories with so much complexity and length that to call them “stories” is to probably sell them short. They’re more like episodes, mini-series. Some of these Gospels will focus on what John calls “signs” – healings, miracles – some will focus on Jesus’ discourse that follows and explains these signs, and some will focus not so much on a sign as on a dialogue, on a conversation between Jesus and someone and how that conversation changes that someone’s life.

Today’s Gospel from the third chapter of John is obviously an example of this last kind of episode. It is entirely focused on a conversation, on the encounter between Jesus and the sneaky, snooping man named Nicodemus. The only thing that happens in this reading is that Jesus and Nicodemus talk to each other. No miracles, no journeys, no healings; no calling of disciples or turning water into wine or kicking over tables in the temple. These things have already taken place, though, and Nicodemus has obviously heard about them. They are, apparently, the reason he’s come to check Jesus out. He’s heard about these signs, and he is drawn to see Jesus with his own eyes, and, as we quickly see, to talk with him.

The trouble with this dialogue, though, is that, frankly, it is pretty unsatisfying. It’s not a very good conversation as conversations go. Sure, it has an attention-grabbing beginning. Night has fallen in Jerusalem, and Jesus and the disciples have just settled in for a long spring’s nap, when suddenly, out of the darkness, there is Nicodemus the Pharisee, creeping up to Jesus, looking over his shoulder, asking if Jesus has time for a chat. The scene is set for a showdown: Nicodemus, the leader of the Jews versus Jesus, the new upstart rabbi – a tête-à-tête of epic proportions, a midnight theological death match.

But very quickly it becomes apparent that this conversation is no strategic war of words. This not much of a verbal fencing match – there are no clever thrusts and witty parries and ah-hah! Touché! moments. I’m not even sure that Nicodemus can find his epée, actually. He starts with out and out flattery. Jesus, my man, here’s the deal: We know, my Pharisaic buddies and I, that you are a true rabbi. You’re obviously trending right now, you’ve got a whole bunch of people following you, we heard that story about Sarah and Josh’s wedding – very cool trick with the wine, by the way – and, well, let’s just say that we’re not entirely unsympathetic to your whole kicking-out-the-moneychangers schtick. And Nicodemus takes a breath to go on, but before he says one more word, Jesus is off. He shrugs off the schmoozing and completely changes the course and the scope of the conversation. And just like that, Nicodemus is completely out of his depth. It turns out that that first statement he makes is the brightest thing he says all night, his other two super sharp comments being, “So…you want me to crawl back in where?” and “Er…how can these things be?” Scintillating, right?

Now Jesus keeps talking; he keeps speaking truth, telling Nicodemus more and more about the kingdom of God and the Spirit and the Son of Man and God’s love and grace and gift. But this isn’t really much of a quality conversation. Jesus and Nicodemus keep talking past each other, speaking on different levels. Nicodemus keeps missing things and mis-hearing things and Jesus doesn’t seem particularly inclined to walk him back to step one. Our potentially dramatic scene has turned into something clunky and clumsy; our explosive theological showdown has wound up being somewhat of a dud. There’s no banter here, only bemusement. As dialogues go, this one is kind of a disappointment. It’s just not a very good conversation.

So…why is it here? Why does John take the time to show us this awkward encounter? Surely it is not to show us that Nicodemus is stupid. He isn’t, he’s a religious leader, perhaps even part of the Sanhedrin; he’s not a dimwit. And if John just wanted someone to set Jesus up for his answers by asking stupid questions, he could have just picked one of the disciples, right? And if he just wanted Jesus to make a speech, he could have had him just make a speech; Jesus does this all the time in John. No, there’s obviously something about the dialogue itself, about the encounter, about the process of question and answer, that interests John. Maybe he isn’t so interested in showing us the intricacies of a thrilling theological sparring match quite yet. (He’ll get there – just wait for Good Friday.) But he is interested in the act of dialogue itself; he is interested in showing how not to talk with Jesus, in revealing the kinds of temptations – three to be exact – that we ourselves might stumble across in our own encounters with Jesus.

The first of these temptations, the first hole that Nicodemus falls into, is not allowing Jesus to be teacher. Rabbi, Nicodemus calls Jesus, but then he doesn’t actually allow Jesus to teach. He doesn’t ask a question; he doesn’t invite a response. He is happy to call Jesus rabbi but not so happy to call himself a student. So, the question for us is this: when we approach Jesus, are we actually willing to be taught? We go to him for strength and for comfort, but do we actually go to him for instruction? Are we willing to be changed, to have his words of challenge actually seep into our souls so that we leave our conversations with him different than when we started?

The second hole Nicodemus falls into is about his own spiritual blindness. You have seen my signs, Jesus says to him, but in order to see the kingdom of God you must be born again from above. But Nicodemus can’t – or won’t – look there. His eyes will not open to the moving of the Spirit. So when Jesus starts talking about being reborn, all Nicodemus sees is the world around him, and so these words sound ridiculous. His sight is limited by his own stubbornness and cynicism; he sees only the world, imagines possibilities only within his own context, thinks about only those things that he can touch, see, sense, quantify and explain. So, the question for us is this: when we pray to Jesus, and he invites us into the realm of the Spirit, are we able to see it? Are we willing to look around us with the eyes of our heart opened? Can we live with, even embrace, the mysterious moving of that Spirit, the ruach, that blows where it wills and will blow right through us if we let it? Can we look to see God’s kingdom – God’s priorities in the world, God’s family in our neighbors, God’s beloved in ourselves?

 And finally, the third hole – Nicodemus’s third and final contribution to the conversation – “How can these things be?” In and of itself, this is not such a stupid question. Jesus, after all, is talking about things of great cosmic and spiritual scope – the kingdom of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the call to rebirth. How can this be, indeed? The problem is, Nicodemus doesn’t stick around long enough to find out the answer. Just as he asks this question, he fades away, melting back into the darkness. Jesus is still talking, his words pouring out through the page, past the Jerusalem night into our place and time, but Nicodemus is nowhere to be found. He does not respond to Jesus’ words of promise with a statement of faith like Jesus’ own mother did when she followed up her own, “How can this be?” with “Let it be unto me according to thy word.” And so the final question for us is this: when we enter into conversation with Jesus, do we have the tenacity to stay and watch his promise come to pass? Are we willing to stick it out, even when what we’re hearing is impossible to believe?

Because this is impossible to believe. It is impossible to believe that God so loved this world that he made that he sent his only Son, that God’s love for you and me isn’t just a feeling, or a hope, but an action, a gift, his Son, our salvation.

And so for all of his bumbling, Nicodemus is a critical character in this story, a kind of type for us. He bravely falls into these holes so that we might see to walk around them. He has a terrible conversation with Jesus so that you and I might have a good one. This Lent, Nicodemus invites you into a conversation of your own. Go to Jesus and ask him for a chat. Go to him in secret, in the dark if you need to. Listen with the ears of a student, open the eyes of your heart, and plant your feet in the holy ground at his feet and do not allow yourself to be moved. He has a story to tell you, and it makes for very good conversation.   

Posted on March 16, 2014 .