To say that John’s gospel is filled with light and darkness images would be the greatest understatement one could make. And here, once again, we see the light/dark imagery. This time, the dark provides safety to Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees who does not want to be detected as he approaches Jesus. Nicodemus has a lot to lose if his colleagues find out that he is seeking wisdom from this rabble-rousing enemy of the state and the temple. And for this moment in time, on the edge of the shadows from which he emerges, Nicodemus has his often-referenced conversation with Jesus about being born again.
Nicodemus doesn’t really ask a question. In fact, he simply offers a compliment, an observation born of admiration for Jesus. And then Jesus is teaching about being born again, about life in water and the spirit, about his being lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world.
But in a move that I’ve never fully understood, the compilers of the revised common Lectionary stop at verse 17, and leave out verses 18-21 of John 3. And given that Nicodemus comes to Jesus from out of the shadows of night, these verses are critical to John’s themes of light and darkness, and the type of evolution of discipleship we see in Nicodemus. Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus with:
19”And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*
This is not merely an admonition to avoid the darkness of sin and embrace the light of Christ. It is an invitation to Nicodemus, and, might I say, to the Nicodemus in all of us, to move out of the shadows and embrace the light. Nicodemus is often referred to as the one to came to Jesus at night. But in John’s gospel, Nicodemus is to appear twice more.
The next time we see Nicodemus, it’s in Chapter 7 of John, beginning at the 45th verse.
“45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ 46The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ 47Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? 48Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ 50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus* before, and who was one of the Pharisees, asked the Pharisees, 51‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
In this moment, Nicodemus has moved further out of the shadows. He makes a risky point to his colleagues, the Pharisees, in advocating that Jesus and his followers be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is no longer the Nicodemus who only appears at night. He is feeling more emboldened, more willing to take a risk. He has moved much closer to the idea of John 3:21 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’*
And Nicodemus appears once more. It is just after Jesus has been crucified. And now Jesus’ broken, lifeless body must come down from the cross to be laid in the tomb.
39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Michelangelo created more than one Pieta. The statue known as the “Deposition” is also nicknamed the Pieta of Florence. It depicts Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, and a somber but sturdy old Nicodemus, gently taking Jesus’ body down from the cross and preparing for burial. Nicodemus is prominent, central to the movement of this dramatic depiction. We look into the eyes of Nicodemus as we recall the Words Jesus had spoken to him about the Son of Man being “lifted up” for the salvation of the world. We see a Nicodemus who has been fully released from the shadows to move into the light. To echo (and paraphrase) the words of Jesus, it is now fully clear that the deeds of Nicodemus are true, and that his deeds, seen in the light, are being done in God. Nicodemus has evolved. He has recognized that to be a disciple means to be free to step into the light, regardless of consequence, because the light is where we find truth and life.
In this penitential season of Lenten renewal, Nicodemus speaks to me. He speaks to the times that I have clung to the shadows for fear of what truth I might find in the light. He reminds me of the times that I have questioned the gift of rebirth in baptism, lacking trust that I am worthy of such a rebirth, lacking openness to the breath of the spirit, the mighty wind that would move me from complacency and self-pity to a place of unabashed discipleship. The early, curious but incredulous Nicodemus reminds me of all of these things: fear, doubt, confusion.
And Nicodemus reminds me that life in Christ is dynamic. He reminds all of us that we can grow and change, and be emboldened to follow Christ despite our fears. He reminds us that movement from darkness to light may lead us to the most unlikely of places, the foot of the cross, that place where suffering becomes salvation and death becomes life. And at that place, it finally sinks in – we are born again. We and Nicodemus have now come full circle at the foot of the cross.
We embrace light and life. And thanks be to God.