Text John 3:1-17
Nicodemus fascinates me. I’m not sure what to make of him. Does he ever really understand? Does he ever really get it? Now, John’s gospel is full of symbolism and metaphor. It is a gospel for a poet, not a scientist. WH Auden said that to be a Christian, one must be a poet. That is, to embrace Christianity is to embrace mystery, to adopt ambiguity. To even begin to understand John’s gospel if that is possible, one must understand the symbols that John uses. John begins his gospel with the words that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John continues by telling us that Jesus is the light of the world. At then end of the passage we have just read, John explains that while the light has come into the world “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.” (John 3:19b-21)
So, the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness is important. He comes hidden. Next Sunday, we will read about a very different encounter with Jesus. Jesus talks to a woman at noon, when the sun is at its height. Nicodemus begins by saying “we know”. “We know.” He is an important person, a leader among the Pharisees. Here he identifies himself as part of that group. He doesn’t say “I know”, but “we know”. And then, Jesus upsets everything Nicodemus knows, everything Nicodemus is. Jesus tells Nicodemus that Nicodemus must be born from above, born of the Spirit.
When I was putting together this series, I was trying to pair U2 songs with the lectionary passages. Last Sunday was easy: sin and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. This Sunday was more difficult. I kept being drawn to their song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but I couldn’t figure out what the song had to do with Nicodemus. And so, I tried other songs, other lectionary texts. I kept coming back to Nicodemus and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” And so, I decided there must be something that my unconscious or perhaps the Spirit is seeing that I am not.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” is an interesting song. It is about a place, heaven, where streets are nameless. I saw a quote from Bono explaining that the song had been birthed when he heard someone describe the streets in Belfast. You could tell what religion someone was and how much money they made by the street they lived on. If you think about it, it is true of almost anywhere I’m familiar with. When I lived in Cleveland, if someone told me he or she lived on Tremont, I knew immediately that probably their family was Russian, that they went to Saint Theodosius Church and that their father had worked in the steel mills. If they said they lived on East 94th, I knew that they were probably African American, went to Antioch Baptist Church and their father had worked in the steel mills. If they said they lived on Union, then their family was Polish, they went to St. Stanislaus and their father worked in the steel mills. If they lived on Murray Hill, their family was Italian, they went to Annunciation Church and their father worked in the steel mills. The suburbs were the same way: certain ethnic and religious groups gravitated to certain suburbs. The Orthodox Jews lived in one neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. Reformed and Conservative Jews lived in different neighborhoods there or in Shaker Heights. I’m sure it’s true in Memphis. I just haven’t lived here long enough to know exactly who lives where. Though, I was looking for some stuff for my trip to Africa last December. I couldn’t find a place to park at the Outdoors store on Poplar and so I drove out to Cordova. As I was paying for my purchases, the clerk asked for my zip code. I told him and he said, “oh, Midtown.” I replied yes. He reached for a bag to put my purchase in and I said, “I don’t need a bag.” He said, “Well, that’s typical for Midtown. People out here are different.”
That’s how “Where the Streets Have No Name” relates to Nicodemus. Part of being born from above, being born from the Spirit is a giving up of our differences, our status. Paul tells us that “in Christ, there is not Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.” I’ve told you this before, about baptism in the early church: new converts completely undressed and were baptized naked. They emerged from the baptisry and put on new, white garments, that symbolized their new life in Christ. We are new people, we are brothers and sisters, no one of us is better than another.
I want to make one thing clear. The text is clear that being born anew, of the Spirit, is not something that we do. As we had nothing to do with our physical birth, so we have nothing to do with our spiritual births. The verbs are passive: being born is something that is done to us. The Spirit blows where it will.
We can reject this new birth. We can turn away from it. It isn’t clear to me whether Nicodemus ever got it. Most commentators seem to think that he did. Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel. Once he defends Jesus against the Pharisees and then he, with Joseph of Arimethea, take Jesus body and buries it in the tomb. Commentators see in these actions, that Nicodemus has become a follower of Jesus. But, the text is not clear. What could be more symbolic than burying Jesus—laying him back in a dark place? After all, a tomb is about the darkest place one could imagine. And, remember it is that darkness that Jesus overcomes. It is the grave that Jesus has victory over. So, I’m not sure. Was Nicodemus able to accept the Spirit’s action of new birth, of giving up?
What about us? What would it mean if we lived on Streets with No Name? What if there were no Black or White, Conservative or Liberal, Rich or Poor, Male or Female among Christians in Memphis? Could we let go of the things that give us status, that make us different from “those people” whoever they are?