You and I share about 90% of our DNA with fungi. That means that, genetically, we are 90% identical to mushrooms. Genetically, we’re 99% identical to chimpanzees. But no one, not even the most cynical and unkind, could walk in here and mistake us for a mushroom farm, or the ape enclosure at the zoo. Tiny genetic differences make a very big difference indeed. Little things cause big changes.
One of the things that marks us out from all other creatures is story. So far as we know, we are the only creatures who tell stories. Others communicate how to hunt or where to gather food, but no others tell stories. It has been said that culture is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Story is how we understand who we are and what we are about.
Anyone walking in here should recognise that we are a story telling community, and that our stories are powerful, powerful enough to define who we are, powerful enough to shape how we live. We have many stories: family stories, fictional stories, religious stories, exciting stories, fantasy stories, true stories. Stories pick out what is important in a situation. They help us to understand and make sense. They help us to teach and learn and develop. Stories affect us. Stories make us.
I think that often the stories which affect us most are the stories about relationships. We are relational creatures. Very few thrive alone. We form pairs, and families, friendship circles and communities. No one can pretend that these are ever straightforward. But all sorts of stories help us navigate them, help us understand how we fit with others, help keep us together.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll have the opportunity in church to explore several of the great stories about Jesus which John the Evangelist tells. They’re all stories about relationships, principally about how certain people related to Jesus and he to them, but they each describe or allude to a web of other relationships too. We’ll read about Martha and Mary and Lazarus. But before we get there, there’s a story of a blind man who receives his sight. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well.
And there’s Nicodemus, and the story of the beginning of his relationship with Jesus. Most of the people we will encounter are ordinary folk. The blind man and the Samaritan woman, neither of whom are named, lived with significant disadvantage. In these stories, only Nicodemus is a person of power, a person of importance within his community. This maybe accounts for him coming by night, in secret, unobserved, but it does not explain what he asks and what he learns.
The first thing we learn about Nicodemus from Nicodemus is that he is open-minded. Unlike many in authority, he doesn’t see difference as a threat. He’s more threatened by the conservatism of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin, his fellow Pharisees. He’s open-minded enough to see something significant in what Jesus is doing, to approach him to try to find out more.
It is the beginning of a relationship. But it is not an easy relationship. In fact, as it will be for the Samaritan woman, and for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, it will be a challenging relationship. Jesus expects Nicodemus to think, and, through thinking, to change
So he says this apparently bizarre thing. He says, No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.
The Greek word which John uses can be translated in two ways. It can either be ‘born again’ or it can be ‘born from above’. To me ‘born from above’ makes more sense. It also moves us away from the unhelpful baggage associated with ‘born again’, which has come to be a way of dividing Christians into true believers or nut cases, depending on which side you’re standing on.
Nicodemus is one of those who has come to see that Jesus is of God by what he has been doing. But that doesn’t go far enough. Jesus tells him that he can only fully understand the Kingdom of God, which Jesus embodies, if the Spirit of God gives that understanding, if, through God above, new understanding is brought to birth. Without that, the real meaning of Jesus cannot be seen. He would just be some kind of wonder worker. Only when one is ‘born from above’ can one see that he is the Son of God.
This difficult conversation is the start of a relationship. It starts small, but it is going to grow into something really significant for Nicodemus. He appears twice more in the Gospel of John. In Chapter seven, Nicodemus is heard arguing with his fellow Pharisees that Jesus should be given a fair hearing. And then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus was one of the two, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who brought spices to the tomb and buried Jesus. These little moments hint at a bigger story, a story leading from enquiry to faith, from conversation to participation, from observation to service. They hint at a growing, deepening relationship, one that took a long time to grow. They hint at a life changed.
And that’s what relationship with Jesus is about. It is about lives being changed. It can happen to the respectable like Martha and Mary and Lazarus. It can happen to establishment figures like Nicodemus. It can happen to the disreputable like the five-times-married Samaritan woman. It can happen to the outcast, like the blind beggar. It can happen to us.
Of all these stories, that of Nicodemus is probably closest to our experience. It tells us about the importance of observation. He saw something in what Jesus did which made him want to know more. Our service of Christ, we noted last week, should never be motivated by a desire to be noticed, but we must be open to the possibility that our actions, probably even more than our words, will cause people to wonder why we care, why we give, why we stand up for justice, why we choose selflessness, why we love our enemies, why we turn the other cheek.
The beginning of Nicodemus’ story ends by Jesus telling him that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. Jesus did not condemn Nicodemus for his slowness to understand. He offers no condemnation to the Samaritan woman, nor to the blind beggar. He does not condemn Martha or Mary for their lack of faith, even though Martha berates him. In Jesus there is no condemnation.
Lastly, Nicodemus’ story has much to teach us about patience. He only came out as a follower of Jesus right at the end of the Gospel. Not for him a sudden conversion. But it was at night, years earlier, that a seed was sown. A seed which took a long time to grow.
Many of us, as we look around, probably feel that the church we know and love is in its winter. It has blossomed and flourished, but now it is withering and perishing. But there are many things we do not know. We do not know what seeds of faith have been planted. Nor do we know where they might grow. All we can do is trust in God, that, in time, new faith will grow, new lives will be touched, new forms of service will emerge, new relationships with Christ will develop. It may even be our own relationship which will be renewed.
Nicodemus is just one of many whose story tells us that God can touch any life and reveal his kingdom anew to anyone.
Thanks be to God.