Much has been made of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus under cover of darkness. The church has seen this as a sign that the learned Pharisee feared his interest in the controversial Jesus’ message being discovered. That may well be the case. Nevertheless, the fact that Nicodemus visited Jesus at all reflects some degree of openness to one who came from outside Nicodemus’ own immediate religious context.
Nicodemus believes that Jesus’ signs point to God, but in John 3:1-17, he fails to comprehend the figurative language Jesus used to explain how water and the Spirit together make real new birth from above. Jesus’ frustration with this failure of comprehension is made clear in verse 12. Nicodemus struggles to think past his traditional Hebrew education to understand the new message that Jesus brings. Yet, at this point in his life, he cannot quite step beyond the limitations imposed by his religious education and social context to embrace the vital ministry and message of Jesus. There is some evidence, however, that Nicodemus continued to feel some affinity for Jesus’ ministry, for he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, is termed a “secret disciple” and is on hand to assist with the body of Jesus (John 19:39).
For the Christian steward, this text points to the need for disciples to be open to the new things God is saying and doing in their midst. We must strive to both honor our traditional ways of understand God’s message and learn to see beyond the barriers and limitations they may erect. For the contemporary disciple, the challenge remains the same as it was for Nicodemus: following centuries of the institutionalization of religious teaching and doctrine, can we be open to the fresh revelations of the Spirit so that we can be “born from above?”
- What does the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus say to us about the need for being open to the Spirit?
- How might a tendency to view the Bible and/or traditional doctrinal positions as “rules to live or believe by” hinder that openness?
- How has it been necessary to think beyond the limitations imposed by tradition in order to achieve a degree of openness to women’s leadership? What remains to be achieved?
- Is there an area of belief or practice to which you believe the Spirit is calling you, but which you only now feel comfortable approaching, like Nicodemus, “by night”?
- Ask your pastor for a copy of the baptism liturgy used in your congregation. Review the images of “water” and “Spirit” used in that liturgy. Consider how those images are used in comparison to the teaching Jesus offered Nicodemus.
- Do some reading in A People Called Cumberland Presbyterian about he challenging issues which called the denomination in its early days to be open to the Sprit. How were those debates handled?