We know very little about Nicodemus. He shows up suddenly out of nowhere. John tells us he is a leader, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin. We can tell from the conversation that he is smart, savvy, and a thinking man. We know that he comes at night probably not because he’s busy all day or that Jesus is running a night school. This man has a lot to lose because his questions reveal that he has gone a step or two further than the other Pharisees. His questions are not legal. They are sincere inquires. He comes seeking understanding, and as John’s Gospel moves along, he will be back.
This is a story of confrontation. John uses it to launch one of his episodes between darkness and light. At another level it is about the confrontation of evil deeds and good deeds. At a personal level it is a confrontation between Jesus and Nicodemus, and so it become a story of fear.
From the very beginning it is clear that fear is in control and is being challenged. Nicodemus speaks in the plural, but oddly, he comes alone. He has slipped away from his buddies, the crowd, and other professionals among whom he has lived his life and with whom he has shaped his opinions and views. We do that all the time: hanging around people who share our opinions and views, and avoiding people who do not. He does not want them to know. He is caught between his old tried and true ways and a new opportunity that Jesus presents. He is afraid, and in him we see a dimension of fear and its power over him. He is more concerned about the opinion of others than the Judgment of God. He prefers the approval of his peers to the truth!
John’s Gospel is always full of symbols, and darkness and light are very important and often show up. Darkness in John is always about sin. Nicodemus comes in the darkness of night making us wonder what he has to hide. He is afraid of the light. He does not want to be exposed. Trapped, he is drawn to the light by coming to Jesus, but it threatens him and the hidden darkness of his life. He is called to change, and he is afraid.
Another level appears then, the fear of change or having to change. There is in this conversation an almost pathetic desire for approval in the way he speaks to Jesus. He offers a compliment wanting one in return. He does not get it. What he does get is a summons to abandon his fears and rely on God rather than the prestige of his position. He is invited to start over forgetting about the ideas he has used to build his career and his whole life. Then his biggest fear emerges, the fear of not be able to change. “How can a person once grown old be born again?” It is an anguished cry. You can hear it in his voice: “It’s too late for me. I’m too old, too set in my ways. How can I start over?” He is locked in his past and who he has been. He thinks that who he will be is determined by who he has been. Deeper than the fear of other’s opinions, deeper than the fear of revealing his actual flawed self, worse than the fear of having to change is the fear of being unable to change. But here comes the message of this Gospel, the truth which John proclaims as good news to all: You can change. It is the essence of the gospel: “Repent, Change; the reign of “God is at hand.” In other words, believe that you can change.
We can become the person God has created. We do not have to be the poor substitute we have created instead of what God has created. There is a power at work in us. We do not have to do it alone, because that’s part of the fear. We have the grace. We have the power. We have the gift to overcome these fears: the one thing that always overcomes all fear: the Spirit we call Love. A person filled with love, filled with the spirit is free, totally free and totally alive, sharing in God’s own freedom and God’s own life. This Spirit, Love, frees us from the fear of other’s opinions. It frees us from the fear of admitting our own sinfulness. It frees us from the fear of having to change and from the fear of being unable to change. It all happens by grace for those who will accept and trust that grace. Only those willing to come to Jesus even in the night will ever know the truth and stand in the light. Only those who seek the power of grace can know freedom that is given to the children of God. We are telling the story of Love here, the one power that casts out fear. We are living the story of Love here as a family of faith gifted and loved by God: loved enough to share our very existence. For this we can only give thanks, and bow down in wonder and awe at what has been given to us by the faith Paul speaks of this day because we are no longer slaves, but free children of God.