Nicodemus 2nd Sunday in Lent 2023
I had never heard of the artist and I still can’t pronounce his full name.
Crinj Hendricksz VVolmarjin 1601- 1645 was a pupil of Caravaggio and this painting ‘Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus’ shows how well he learned the art of Chiaroscuro – the play between light and darkness.
In this well known Gospel story Nicodemus described as a Pharisee and a ruler of the people comes to Jesus ‘by night’. Here we have a play of words. He may have come in secret because he was afraid that his respectable standing in Judaism would be undermined if it was known that he was consorting with Jesus. Another interpretation of the words suggests that he was coming out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of Jesus’ teaching.
The artist takes up this interpretation. He paints a background in absolute darkness in a room where two men sit at a table lit by two candles but a greater light illuminates both faces. A bible lies on the table and each of their left hands points to a text. Jesus right had points upward while Nicodemus points to his own breast. We are into the ‘you must be born again dialogue. The upward finger suggests you must be born from above while Nicodemus indicates How can these things be – I want to believe but to be born again? I don’t understand.
Jesus is pretty rough with Nicodemus in the Gospel. You call yourself a teacher? You don’t even understand what goes on around you! But as with his disciples Jesus uses the Pharisee’s misunderstandings to introduce one of the most profound passages in all of the scriptures.
‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’. Nicodemus had come to Jesus as one Rabbi visiting another. He had introduced himself courteously with the sentence ‘no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Perhaps this is a polite way of saying ‘Prove yourself’ and here Jesus gives his answer. This is is not some rabbi quibbling over verses of scripture. This is the Son of Man setting out the programme that breathes through the whole of the Fourth Gospel. If I wanted to give the message of the Kingdom in one sentence it is here: ‘God loves the world’. William Temple said of John 3:16 that it is the heart of the Gospel and everything else is commentary. Here Jesus points upward God’s remedy for the brokenness of human kind is to provide the gift that we could never afford his own loving ness, his own loveliness of which the Divine Sonship is the vehicle.
Those who care about the planet and its future can rejoice that God loves the world and that even 2000 years ago set about saving the world. But saving the world is more than saving the planet. In creation the Father poured out his love into every atom into everything that is and he goes on doing that.
St John’s Gospel from beginning to end proclaims the God News of the Son’s agency in the work of creation and redemption and if the Son loves the world he loves you and me and he calls on us to share in his work of salvation.
And what of Nicodemus? Was he born again? Does he share in Christ’s continuing work of salvation? Who knows? He fades out of this story without another word. Did he like the other rich young ruler ‘go away sorrowful?
But it is not quite the end of the story. Alone among those we meet in the Gospels he is the one who protests against the Pharisees’ plot to destroy Jesus. When all the disciples had fled he was still by the cross (did he follow it all the way to Golgotha) he took the body down (did he lay it in Mary’s arms). He took it to Joseph’s grave and buried him) In all of this he risked his reputation and perhaps his own life. The major churches regard him as a saint and so it is likely that he saw the light and was born anew.
Brothers and sisters let us look to the light and be constantly be reborn into Christ the Lord who makes all things new.