This Good Friday we broke the worship service and sermon into thirds with each segment narrating a piece of Nicodemus’ story as told by John. An actor in the congregation played Nicodemus, speaking the bolded lines below. The altar table was piled with several dozen loaves of bread which Nicodemus ‘spoke’ to during the first two parts and later wrapped in linen and buried in the final segment.
You can listen to the audio here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or under the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog- however you may not be able to pick up Nicodemus’ lines.
I. Born from Above: John 3
[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, carrying a lit candle]
The first time he met him it was Passover about three years ago.
All that week the man from Nazareth had been performing signs and miracles. He’d even stormed through the Temple courts one day with a whip in hand, shouting that they’d turned his ‘Father’s’ house into a market.
That got people’s attention.
The city was filled with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the Passover Feast. It was easy for the man from Nazareth to attract a crowd. Many of those who listened to him and watched him, believed in him, believed on his name, believed he was from God.
Some had quite opposite reaction. Still others stayed silent- and safe- on the sidelines.
The first time he met him it was Passover, three years ago.
It was long into the night. The streets and the sky were dark. Dried blood still marked the doorposts of the places where the feast was celebrated.
One of those who’d seen Jesus among the crowds, came knocking. At an upper room. Jesus was asleep when he heard the sound at the door- it would be a while yet before his Father’s will kept him up all night.
Nicodemus knocks on the door. The city was filled with travelers and pilgrims; he would’ve had to ask around to find the right address, or he would’ve had to follow Jesus and wait in the shadows.
Nicodemus knocks on the door and waits to step inside the threshold before he pulls his hood down. No one’s awake but why chance it.
The first thing the man from the shadows says is: ‘Rabbi.’
As in, ‘Teacher.’
As in, ‘you know something I don’t.’
Still standing in the entryway, he says to the groggy-eyed Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know you’re from God. You couldn’t do the signs you do were you not.’
Teacher, we know… We know. He doesn’t say ‘me.’ He doesn’t say ‘Teacher, I know.’ Jesus notices that beneath the cloak his visitor is wearing the robes of the ruling priests. He’s come by candle light, in the dead of night- not an official visit, Jesus guesses.
‘Teacher, we know…’
Jesus can see there must be more to it than that. This priest didn’t come all the way out here in the middle of the night just to say that.
So Jesus rubs his eyes more awake and motions to the table for Nicodemus to sit down. He lights some candles and notices how Nicodemus sits in the shadows with his back to the window.
Jesus breaks a piece of leftover bread and pours a cup of wine and offers it to him. Nicodemus says no thank you.
And Jesus can tell by looking at Nicodemus’ anxious, edge-of-your-seat eyes that there’s something about Jesus that reveals something about Nicodemus.
Something that is empty.
Even though Nicodemus has it all.
The truth is, Jesus tells him, it’s one thing to see what I do, to listen to me teach. It’s another thing to see what I point to: the Kingdom of God.
To see that, to experience that- it’s like…being born all over again.
Something in what Jesus says strikes a threatening chord.
Nicodemus hears the challenge in it: ‘The life I have now isn’t enough? I’ve got to be born again, a second time, from above?’
Nicodemus, he’s a teacher of the law. A Pharisee. He knows what Jesus meant. It’s not that complicated. He just doesn’t want this to be about him so he pretends to not understand. He asks questions, poses qualifications. Clergy are good at that.
How can this be? You can’t mean that… What are you saying?
‘You’re not listening,’ says Jesus. And Jesus tells him that for someone to enter God’s Kingdom, you’ve got to learn how to live all over again.
All Nicodemus can think to say is: How can this be?
Jesus goes on to say something about how much God so loved the world and how no one will really believe until the Son is hoisted up for everyone to see.
Nicodemus goes on pretending he doesn’t understand.
Except, he really doesn’t understand. It was still night when Nicodemus went home.
He left without ever asking what he’d come to ask, without ever confessing what it was he secretly believed
[Nicodemus enters from behind pulpit, carrying palm leaves and empty pitcher]
Nicodemus didn’t see him again until later that fall.
The leaves had turned, the air had cooled and the harvest was in. Once again thousands of pilgrims had returned to Jerusalem, this time for Sukkoth. The Festival of Booths- the holy days when Jews gave thanks for the harvest.
For the week long festival, make-shift booths were set up all over the Temple grounds and in every nook and cranny of every side street. The pilgrims slept in the booths to remember the forty years Israel had wandered in the wilderness and how the Lord had satisfied their hunger and their thirst.
Every day during Sukkoth, bulls would be sacrificed. Every day prayers for rain offered, and even prayers for the Resurrection of the Dead.
At night, there’d be dancing around fires as worshippers waved palm branches and called upon God to send a Messiah.
Jesus had just fed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread. He’d just told them that he was Living Bread, Bread from Heaven.
So Jesus comes late that year for Sukkoth, about the fourth day. As soon as he arrives he starts teaching in the Temple.
Some in the crowds, like Nicodemus, press him by asking: ‘How do we know you’re from God?’
And the man from Nazareth responds bluntly that ‘if you were doing the will of God you’d see that I’m from God.’
Others in the crowd conclude that the Messiah himself could not do more than this Jesus can.
The holiest day of the week long festival is the seventh day.
Day seven comes and inside the Temple priests (priests like Nicodemus) process around the altar, carrying basins filled with water from the well at Siloam.
[Nicodemus processes around the altar table with the pitcher of water]
Seven times they process around the altar and on the seventh turn around they pour the water over the altar to praise the God who never lets his People go thirsty.
That’s inside the Temple.
Outside the Temple, on the seventh day, refusing to go away, Jesus declares to the crowds: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’
That gets people’s attention.
The priests and the Pharisees send the Temple police to arrest Jesus, but the police, at least for now, are afraid to touch him. They come back empty-handed, and the Pharisees go through the roof, screaming Jesus is a fraud and anyone who listens to him is accursed.
Nicodemus is there when the police come back empty-handed. Biting his lip and not meeting anyone’s eyes, he just listens to their rage.
After a few moments, finally and hesitatingly, he speaks up and asks his fellow priests: ‘Doesn’t the Law require us to give this man from Nazareth a fair hearing?’
All eyes pivot to Nicodemus and they snap at him: ‘Why, are you one of his disciples?’
Standing there in the light of day with all eyes on him, Nicodemus says…nothing.
Not one word.
Whatever he thought about Jesus, whatever he believed about Jesus, he kept it to himself. He kept it private.
He still didn’t understand what Jesus had said about being born again.
[Nicodemus walks away down center aisle, stops and looks back as though filled with regret]
[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, stopping middway, just watching, cowardly, recognition gradually coming over him]
The third and last time he sees Jesus it’s Passover again.
The city’s filled with the same familiar strangers. This time Nicodemus doesn’t come knocking in the dead of night.
And that week when his fellow Pharisees try to trap Jesus with questions, Nicodemus doesn’t rise to his defense.
When a plot is hatched and Jesus is arrested, Nicodemus is certainly there and presumably says nothing.
When Jesus is put on trial, Nicodemus doesn’t speak up, doesn’t step out, doesn’t risk the life he has for a new one.
I don’t know where Nicodemus was exactly when they crucified Jesus, but I wonder if he was there.
I wonder if, when they nailed Jesus to his Cross, Nicodemus remembers and suddenly understands what Jesus had meant when he told him that many will believe when the Son of Man is lifted up for all to see.
Or, when Jesus cries out in agony, I wonder if Nicodemus begins to understand what Jesus had meant that God so loved the world that he gave…
Or when the soldier spears Jesus’ side and water rushes out, I wonder if Nicodemus is there and remembers the man from Nazareth saying: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.
I wonder because when Jesus finally dies, all of his friends have fled in fear or shame. Even his mother is gone.
To do anything but leave Jesus’ body hanging there on his Cross was to out yourself: as a follower, as a believer, as an enemy.
I wonder because it’s Nicodemus who steps from the safety of the sidelines to bury Jesus in the plain light of day.
[Nicodemus walks up boldly to the altar rail, carrying flask of holy oil]
The perfume he purchases to bury Jesus costs the equivalent of seventy-five years’ worth of wages.
And surely when he drained his savings account someone would’ve asked what all the money was for and Nicodemus would’ve said: ‘Jesus. It’s for Jesus the Messiah.’
And the size of the perfume, 100 pounds, would’ve been eye-catching and sensational and would’ve required help to move.
And again, someone would’ve asked ‘What’s all this for?’ and Nicodemus would’ve had to say a second time: ‘For Jesus. I’m doing it for Jesus.’
[Nicodemus starts to form loaves of bread into shape of a body and wrap the body in linen]
Only a few hours have passed since the trial. The crowds would’ve still been angry and lingering as Nicodemus bore his awkward burden down the same streets and up the same hill that Jesus had carried his Cross.
It would’ve taken time to bury him, and in the light of day anyone can could have found him out.
Anyone could have watched as he and Joseph pulled the twisted nails out of wood and bone.
Anyone could have seen them as they gently carried his broken body down and, with the attention of midwives, wiped his still raw wounds and cleaned his body and combed his spat upon hair.
Anyone could’ve spotted them anointing his body with a 401K’s worth of perfume and spice.
Anyone could’ve watched as they respectfully wrapped his naked body in linen and then buried him, rock by rock, all the while singing psalms of lament.
[Nicodemus starts to sing...What Wondrous Love]
Singing like they didn’t care who heard them or how different this would make their life now.
Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be many things but it can’t be PRIVATE.
Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be practiced in many ways and in many places but NOT IN SECRET, NOT IN YOUR HEART.
There in the open, in the light of the fading day, anyone could’ve listened as Nicodemus, this priest, performed the funeral rites over Jesus‘ grave and then prayed, as Pharisees did, for Resurrection.
That day, Good Friday, is the day Jesus died, but I think it’s also the day Nicodemus is born.
[Nicodemus takes a few more minutes to ‘wrap’ the body, then in silence lays it at the foot of the cross]