Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

***

          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith. 

8 thoughts on “Shadowy Faith

  1. First — thank you for this provocative piece. I bet you’d find grace somewhere in this political season.

    I never realized before that the word, “quest” was in the word, “question.” When I was in high school, I got the Danforth Foundation Leadership Award and according to Mr. Benton, the Sociology teacher who presented it, I got it because I always asked, “why?” I sometimes wonder if I have chosen an easier “quest” by asking “why” and staying on the fringes of Christianity. I can have my faith without the accompanying quotidian responsibilities. Sure, I’m generous to strangers now and then, but the rub comes with those closest to me. Also, I don’t reliably like myself very much which is thumbing my nose at Jesus who claims to love me. Always. Period.

    In his poem, “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” Jack Gilbert posits that courage isn’t found in the “marvelous act” but rather in the “even loyalty.” “Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty/That is of many days. Steady and clear./It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”

    I see a lot of myself in Nicodemus. I wonder if he lived with as many regrets as I do. I guess a shadowy faith is better than no faith at all, but there’s something kinda lazy and cowardly about it, don’t you think?

  2. THE ABNORMAL IS NOT COURAGE
    Jack Gilbert

    The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
    Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
    A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
    And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
    The bravery. Say it’s not courage. Call it a passion.
    Would say courage isn’t that. Not at its best.
    It was impossib1e, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
    Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
    Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
    The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
    It is too near the whore’s heart: the bounty of impulse,
    And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
    Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
    Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
    Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
    Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
    The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
    The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
    Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
    Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
    That is of many days. Steady and clear.
    It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

  3. Lazy? Cowardly? Maybe simply honest. And aren’t many of us with an openly acknowledged and active faith also lazy and cowardly much of the time? And yes, I do believe Jesus loves us even when we are lazy, cowardly. Your perceptions and quest-ions are always prodding for me, and shake me out of my own faith-laziness, so thank you for them.
    As to finding grace somewhere in this political season…well, I’m still looking, but…

  4. Thank you for the Jack Gilbert poem. As someone who’s not able to “do” much of anything these days that “looks” courageous, it’s helpful for me to simply acknowledge the courage of “many days. Steady and clear.”

  5. You’re welcome, dear Carol.

    Also, you are one of my most courageous friends. You listen to me AND you write poetry. That’s courage. Steady and clear.

    Deal with it, my friend.

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