Today’s Reading: John 3:1-17
I met the person who was to become my best friend in seminary at the start of the second quarter of my very first year of seminary. The gentleman’s name was Eric. And if any of you tell Eric I referred to him as a gentleman, I’ll deny it to the bitter end.
Eric and I happened to be going through painful breakups at the time of our meeting, and so that January of 2000 we made a practice of getting together every Thursday evening for dinner to see how we were holding up. That practice stretched through the month of January, then February… and before we knew it, our weekly get-togethers had stretched out over the ensuing nine years!
One interesting aspect of our friendship was that Eric and I were very different people. I had a call to parish ministry and was pursing my Master of Divinity degree; Eric had a call to teach and was pursuing a Ph.D. I was from the Pacific Northwest, Eric was from the Midwest. And I had the good sense to be a fan of Houston sports; Eric did not. Eric had the gall to be a Red Sox fan, but I digress. Anyway, it was those very differences that came to enrich and enliven our friendship.
Over the past nine years, I have learned many things from Eric about the nature of a true friend. One of the most important was the way true friends “support” each other. You see prior to my friendship with Eric, I thought friends were always supposed to "be there for you". By that, I mean they were supposed to agree with you! Eric didn’t always do that. Often, when I would finish telling a story about a difficult thing that had happened to me - and expected a pat on the shoulder and an, “Aw, that’s too bad…” –I would get a head shaken in total disbelief and a “What on earth were you thinking.” Eric was one of the first people in my life who could get real with me and challenge me. And while it took me a while to adjust to having a friend who could call me on my stuff, over the years I’ve grown more because of this friendship than any other.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we are introduced to another two men who had formed an intimate association of their own: Nicodemus, a prominent leader of the Pharisees; and Jesus.
And how do I know their association with each other was relatively intimate?
Two reasons. First, the time of day (or perhaps I should I say “night”) that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. Let’s just say it was outside Jesus’ office hours. And second, the title by which Nicodemus acknowledged Jesus. It wasn’t exactly the sort of address most self-respecting Pharisees of the day would have used to greet Jesus. I probably couldn’t use their preferred title for Jesus in mixed company.
So how did this association affect the manner in which the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus unfolded?
Well, as one of the members of the Tuesday evening Sacred Grounds conversation group pointed out, Jesus was a little testier with Nicodemus than he was with others. When most folks started out their encounter with Jesus by peppering him with questions, for instance, Jesus typically showed a great deal of patience - and slowly worked with the person to gently open his or her eyes.
Not so with Nicodemus. After Nicodemus’ just third question, Jesus couldn’t contain himself. He got peeved, and challenged Nicodemus by noting, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?”
And Jesus couldn’t stop there. Like a true friend, Jesus went for the jugular and called Nicodemus out by noting what was really going on through those questions. “… Instead of facing the evidence and accepting it,” Jesus noted, “you procrastinate with questions.”
And that takes us to the main point I want to leave you with this morning in regards to the passage. You see on most Communion Sundays, many of us want to hurry up and get through the Scriptural reading and sermon so that we can mosey on up to the Communion Table and have an encounter with the warm and fuzzy Jesus that we so desperately need –the one that offers unconditional love and unmerited grace. More often than not, what it really means is that we expect to meet that cosmic Yes Man who will accept - and leave us! - exactly as we are.
And yet, as this morning’s story reminds us, we better be careful about the Jesus we meet at the table. For in the midst of the unconditional love and the unmerited grace we find offered at the table, there’s something else waiting for us: the presence of the One through whom we can have the whole and lasting life – the One who came to put the world right. But in order to do that – in order to give us wholeness, in order to set things right - the living spirit of Christ will do to us what he did to Nicodemus. He’ll call us on our stuff.
Friends, on a Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ standing invitation to open ourselves to being born from above, let us take a few moments to ponder those aspects of our lives that continue to tie us to those things down below – in hopes that we might have the courage once and for all let go of them and soar to those places that Jesus would lead…