We hear about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus this week. Jesus speaks about the need to be “born again” from above, of water and the Spirit. The conversation starts out on a positive note, but as it progresses it leaves Nicodemus more and more confused.
This pattern is echoed many times in the Gospel of John. We see it with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). What starts out as a simple conversation takes a deeper turn, resulting in some confusion. Through several steps, however, the woman gradually comes to faith in Jesus.
The same pattern occurs in the episode of the man born blind (John 9). What starts out as a straightforward healing turns into a cause of division. Gradually, through several steps, the man comes to faith in Jesus.
The same pattern is repeated in the raising of Lazarus (John 11).
In fact, this is one of the special characteristics of the Gospel of John: giving an account of the process by which people come to faith in Jesus. In that process, when people encounter difficulties, they either hang in there with Jesus or they walk away.
The difference with Nicodemus, however, is that the process of growth doesn’t come to its conclusion in one chapter. Instead, it runs the entire length of the Gospel! When Nicodemus first appears (John 3), John is careful to tell us that he came to Jesus at night. Nicodemus is, on every level, in the dark: physically, intellectually and spiritually. When he shows up next (John 7), the Pharisees are plotting to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus asks: “Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?” That’s not discipleship, to be sure. But Nicodemus is coming into the light. The next time we see him (John 19), Jesus is being taken down from the cross. There’s Nicodemus, “the one who had first come to Him at night,” bringing 100 pounds of spices to assist in the burial. He’s publicly and prominently associating himself with Jesus at the foot of the cross. He’s all in.
By contrast, this week, we hear an extended account of the interaction between Peter, John and the Sanhedrin in the Acts of the Apostles. This is not a story of the process of growth in faith; it’s about the persistent rejection of faith. We also hear the very beginning of the “Bread of Life” episode from John 6, and we know how that ends: “As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.” It’s a stark reminder: It’s possible to reject the offer of faith.
If the Gospel of John specializes in teaching about growth in faith, Nicodemus is one of the most hopeful characters for us. Like him, maybe we don’t get it all at once. Maybe it takes us several steps, across a long time, before we’re all in. In the character of Nicodemus, John tells us: it’s OK. Just keep wrestling. Don’t walk away.
But we need to remember, after that first episode, when Nicodemus is in the dark, he has a choice to make. So do we. At that point, will we be like Nicodemus and accept the invitation to faith, or will we be like the Pharisees who persistently refuse? The choice is ours.