When I was just a kid, I had what can best be described as an adolescent crush on a teacher. Looking back on it now, I’d have to say that I fell head over heels in love with my teacher. It was the kind of love that only a 13 year-old girl could have; so intense and all consuming. I came to believe that this teacher was the wisest, kindest, most interesting person in all the world. This teacher knew more than anyone else, especially my parents. This teacher was cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with my life than anyone I had ever met. I was convinced that if I could only be just like this teacher would mean that I too would be cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with life. So, like most adolescent girls who are suffering from a crush I became obsessed with this teacher. I was young and I was in love, and like most thirteen year-old’s the I was convinced that the world revolved around me, so I set about pursuing my passion. This teacher taught English, so naturally, I decided that when I grew up I too would teach English. This teacher loved poetry, so I too became passionate about poetry.
One day this teacher announced that we could gain extra-credit if we wanted to enter a local poetry writing contest; and even though I was pretty sure that year I’d be getting a mark that would be somewhat better than an A, I began to write poetry. I was very serious about my poetry writing. I carried a pad of paper with me everywhere I went, and I began to ruminate about my life. I don’t remember any of those early attempts to wax poetical, but I do remember that each and every one of those poems was about me; me and my life, me and my unrequited love, me and my passion, me and the horrible way that no one paid much attention to me. Me, Me, Me, Me, it was all about me.
As the time drew near for us to submit our poetry to the competition, my teacher announced that there would be a special class after school, so that those of us who were planning to enter the competition could get some feedback on our efforts. So, by the end of the week, I would have to choose one of my great works for feedback. I spent hours pouring over one poem in particular. Tinkering with the words, trying to get things just right. I was so very proud of the final draft. I’d carefully copied it out on to a crisp piece of foolscap. Arranged the letters in the middle of the page so that they looked just so. I could hardly wait for school to be over so that I could rush to see what comments my beloved teacher had placed in the margin. There were barely a handful of us who stayed after school.
Looking back on that scene, we were a nerdy little crew. I was positively breathless as my teacher handed my offering back to me. To this day, I can’t remember a single line of my great work, but I can tell you word for ward what was scribbled in red in the margin of the ever so white foolscap. “A little self-involved, try looking outward.” I was devastated. How could anyone be so cruel? I’d poured my heart out only to have it stomped on by the indifference of truth.
The story of Nicodemus evokes in me the painful memory of that little girl, who star-struck by a gifted teacher, fell hopelessly in love and couldn’t see past her own obsessions to recognize the content of her teacher’s wisdom. Nicodemus was a Pharisee an observant religious man, a member of the powerful Sanhedrin. Something about Jesus was so intriguing to Nicodemus, that he was willing to take the risk of coming to see this rabble-rouser who was causing such a fuss among the people. But as enamored as Nicodemus may have may have been he took the precaution of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness; for he came to Jesus at night.
The Gospel writer tells us that Nicodemus addressed Jesus with respect: “Rabbi” he said, “Teacher.” Then Nicodemus discloses his own heart, when he says, “We know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders that you do, unless by the power of God.” Nicodemus heaps upon Jesus the kind of praise that many the Pharisee would have coveted for himself. Could Nicodemus have come under cover of darkness because he too wanted to be just like Jesus; a wonderful teacher capable of great things? Jesus, just like many the wise teacher before him and since him, delivers the blow that teachers all too often must deliver to their ardent admirers, Jesus pushes Nicodemus beyond his child-like ardor, to a vision of a life that is totally transformed. “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” Or perhaps, “A little self-absorbed, try looking outward.”
Where Nicodemus for his own reasons wants to know how Jesus does it, so that he too can have a little of what Jesus has, so that he too can be a little more like Jesus. After all the power to perform signs and wonders, wouldn’t go amiss for a fellow who is on his way up through the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus can’t see past his own concerns, can’t see the kin-dom of God that this teacher Jesus is trying to push his students to see. “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kin-dom of God.” You’ve got to see beyond yourself, to the kin-dom, the vision of God for the people of God. It’s not about your religious trappings, or rituals Nicodemus, membership in the Sanhedrin might be just lovely for you, but you need to see beyond all that you’ve poured your heart and soul into for years. You’ve got to be born from above. You’ve got to encounter God. It’s as if you have to be born all over again, start from the very beginning.
Can’t you hear it Nicodemus, it’s the whoosh of the Spirit, blowing where it will? You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. Forget about your life here, follow the Spirit. You’re too wrapped up in your head Nicodemus. You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand what it’s all about? It’s not about the law, it’s not about the Sanhedrin, I know that you’ve devoted your whole life to these things, but its not about all that, it’s about the Spirit of God. You’re obsessed with getting it right and it’s not about that. It’s about the Spirit of God blowing where it will, creating a whole new thing a whole new community, a whole new kin-dom of God. Jesus insists: “The truth of the matter is, we’re talking about what we know: we’re testifying about what we’ve seen—yet you don’t accept our testimony. If you don’t believe when I tell you about earthly things, how will you believe when I tell you about heavenly things?”
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, Pharisee’s believed in the afterlife and they taught that the way to get there was by following the law. Righteousness was their focus. But Jesus point’s Nicodemus beyond his carefully held views, beyond his obsession with religion and the Law, beyond even his passion for the afterlife. Listen to what I’m teaching Nicodemus, Jesus insists that, “whoever believes that God so loved the world as to send me, that one will not die but have eternal life.” Yes, I come from God, but not to condemn or to judge but to tell you that you will not die but have eternal life.” So, go be about the things God loves, be about the kin-dom of God. Be about the people of God. Be about the living.
Nicodemus wasn’t the first and he certainly wasn’t the last student of religion to be confronted by a beloved teacher urging them to see beyond their own self-absorbed preoccupations to a more abundant life. This challenge has been going on between lovers of wisdom since the beginning of time. In the Adult Class we’ve been looking at the life and writings of John of the Cross, who for all intents and purposes was very much like Nicodemus, seeking the religious life only to discover that it’s not about religion. It’s about life. Indeed, St John’s contemplative life was rudely interrupted by encounters with the Spirit of God and it was as if he was born again. In contemplation, John seeks an encounter with God so that he, John can become a more perfect priest. As he tries to describe and encounter with the object of his passion, whom St John does not refer to as God or the Spirit, but as the Beloved, St. John writes:
“… When there is union of love, the image of the Beloved is so sketched in the will and drawn so vividly, that it is true to say that the Beloved lives in the lover and the lover in the Beloved. Love produces such likeness in this transformation of lovers that one can say each is the other and both are one. The reason is, that in the union and transformation of love, each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and exchanges self for the other. Thus each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love.”
Moved by such an encounter with his heart’s desire, St John is born again, transformed from a contemplative into one who is capable of seeing beyond himself, to the people, and so begins Johns career as a reformer of the church. St John leaves behind the safety and the sanctity of the religious life in pursuit of the kin-dom of God. St John becomes a lover of what God loves, and is born into the life of a reformer.
It’s powerful stuff this passion for God as a lover. It transforms people into lovers of all that God loves. It turns lives upside down. So be careful what you pray for…you might just encounter the Divine. You might just hear the woosh of the Spirit and if you do you might be turned upside down, as if you’d been born again, and you’ll move beyond your own concerns, and become obsessed with the kin-dom of God.
Free from concerns about the after-life, free to live the abundant life that is yours here and now and obsessed with the idea of encountering your God in and among the people and places God loves, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the sound of the Spirit blowing where it will. We hear the sound it makes, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. But if we allow ourselves to be open to that Spirit, we will encounter the Divine, the Beloved, our God and we will be pointed beyond our obsession with ourselves to the world that God loves and it will be as if we are born again. No longer willing to settle for the religious life, but longing for the Beloved, willing to follow our God, wherever God goes, willing to live fully of this abundant and eternal life that we are blessed with. Free to love all that our Beloved loves. May we all be blessed with such passion! Passion for our Beloved. Passion that forces us to see beyond ourselves. Passion for all that our Beloved loves. Passion for life!