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Lenten sermon series


Lent II -  2008


Encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus: Millennium Goals 2 & 4


What gives a painting its power? An impressionist painting communicates differently than a photograph. In some regards it shows me more. The colors, the perspectives, the subject matter, all contribute to the power of the painting. The Gospel readings for the next four Sundays, from St. John, function in a similar way. John tells of encounters between Jesus and others. The conversation in each encounter has an edge -a sharp edge in some instances. The images that inform the conversations give these stories their power.


Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus is well known. Preachers and evangelists quote the famous verse "you must be born again". It's often repeated as if it is an accusation by Jesus against Nicodemus, and against us. I've often thought that making this kind of "born again theology" the pivot point to be very much like saying that a Van Gogh (painting) is pretty, but kind of "blurry".


Herbert O'Driscoll (1) describes the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus as one of the great encounters of the bible.


There are several powerful elements in the telling of the encounter. I want to draw your attention to just two of them. One is education. The story would not be what it is without the premise of education and learning. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. As such his knowledge of scripture and tradition is comprehensive, learned, detailed, simply impeccable. In the story Jesus refers to him, wryly but I think respectfully, as " a teacher in Israel". Nicodemus, in turn, addresses Jesus as rabbi. This is a form of address for Jesus also found elsewhere in John's Gospel. Nicodemus describes Jesus as " a teacher sent from God". His teaching has credibility because it is matched with signs. He "talks the talk", but it has been noticed, he also "walks the walk". The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is at Night. Two biblical scholars, Pheme Perkins (2) and Raymond Brown (3) both note that it is at night that the learned and the wise study the law. It's a night hawk routine that is customary among many scholars. I think Jesus and Nicodemus recognize their common ground. Their passion for their subject matter pours out. They begin to forge a relationship of mutual respect. According to John, much of this is based on their learning and education.


A second image, one that is at the forefront of their conversation, is that of birth and second birth. The image of rebirth, often flattened out by evangelistic types as "born again", is actually based on a word play that is quite evident in the original Greek. The word "anothen" means both again and from above. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born "anothen". Nicodemus, with tongue in cheek, teases an explanation out of Jesus. How can that work? Aren't we a little too big for that? Jesus suggests that Nicodemus knows perfectly well what is intended. You must be born from above, by the spirit, from God. Theologian C.H. Dodd described the relationship between birth and rebirth in this conversation. (4) The same God who gives and takes away breath in physical life, offers spiritual life. The image is so basic. Through birth we enter the world. Through Christ's birth into the world human beings are offered eternal life. Jesus can count on the knowledge Nicodemus has, aware that Nicodemus can connect the dots immediately.


Here I would like to point out that the birthing image works in both directions. Natural birth is a way of understanding spiritual birth. It works the other way as well. Spiritual birth is offered because each person born is so important to God in the first place. People are born into this world. The have potential. They count for blessings in the eyes of God. They are offered the gift of eternal life. Indeed, the world itself is important. God loves the world. Archbishop Williams Temple, a past Archbishop of Canterbury, said that what is at work here is redemption of the whole world with a scope as wide as God's Love (5). Nicodemus gets it. I know it. Even if the story doesn't come right out and say it at this point. However, Nicodemus will show later that he gets it. As Herbert O'Driscoll reminds us "At what moment this new Nicodemus is born, we do not know. But we do know that when our Lord's body was taken down from the cross, it was Nicodemus's arms that received it as it slid towards the ground...." (6)


Let's think about these two images of education and re-birth.


Education is such an important value. The result of education is that people can talk with one another more effectively, learn from one another, participate more fully in the economy, broaden their relationships, and deepen their cultural connections with one another. The human mind is a great gift from God. It allows human beings to transcend their immediate surroundings in partnership with one another. Education is one of the ways in which this potential becomes an actual reality. Education, from monasteries to Sunday schools, has been a significant value for the Christianity. Parents labor so that their children might receive an education. I can tell you that in communities populated by laborers, education is worth a sacrifice. A great many coal miners, for example, labored so that their children might get an education and have a better life. Moses Coady identified education as one of the key components of social and economic renewal.


Millennium Goal Two is directed toward the achievement of universal primary education. I encourage you to find out how big a challenge this is in our world. According to 2005 United Nations enrollment figures, seventy-two million children who were of age were not enrolled in primary school. In fact, The enrollment figures data is such that this number is likely much higher. This does not include hit and miss primary education as a result of unstable social, political, and economic circumstances. Primary education is just that-primary and basic. So many doors are closed without it.


The word birth is a synonym for hope for the future. We speak of an idea being born, or the birth of a new age. Consider the anticipation we invest in the arrival of children and grand children. Every development during pregnancy can be the cause of either excitement or anxiety. Spiritual rebirth, understood variously, is one of the central goals of most of the world's religions. The problem is that rebirth is directly related to birth itself. Without being able to thrive after birth, rebirth matters very little. Birth and rebirth, in the Christian tradition, are two interlocking pieces of the mystery of human creation. It is impossible to understand one without the other. St. Irenaeus said, "God's glory is the human person fully alive".


Reducing child mortality is Millennium Goal Four. I recall looking over a burial register in one parish I served in, for a period near the turn of the 20th century. There were pages of entries for children who died from illnesses that today are treatable and virtually non-existent in our part of the world. Not so elsewhere on the planet. The UN reports that in 2005 over ten million children on earth died before their fifth birthday. There have been improvements since 2005; but the improvements have been uneven depending on geography and economic class. According to the Millennium Goals Report immunization programs continue to be an extremely important strategy in increasing children's health and in reducing child mortality.


The Millennium Goals give us a framework for relating our faith in God to a world that God loves. God the life giver gives us The Christ. Those whom Christ encounters, he challenges on the basis of all that is life giving. Jesus and Nicodemus shared a religious heritage that was grounded in the value of life, in an understanding of God as the giver of the breath of life. According to John their education in this same religious tradition gave them a basis of establishing a relationship with one another, and exploring the ultimate meaning of human community and human destiny. Is it such a big a leap from the values embedded in the description of their encounter, and our encounter with the values in the Millennium Goals?



(1) Herbert O'Driscoll The Word Among Us: Year A Vol. 2.
Anglican Book Centre, Toronto 1999. P. 21

(2) Pheme Perkins. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: Article 61 The Gospel According to John. Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1990. # 49.

(3) Raymond Brown The Gospel According To John. (i-xii). Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY. p. 131

(4) C.H. Dodd The Interpretation of The Fourth Gospel. Cambridge University Press, 1953. p. 226

(5) William Temple Readings in John's Gospel: Chapters I-XII. MacMillan and Co., Limited, London, 1943. P. 48

(6) O'Driscoll. Ibid., p.22