NICODEMUS AND EVANGELICAL OUTREACH

Nicodemus is mentioned in John’s gospel record only; and quite briefly, at three places.
 
At John 3:1, he is described as being a Pharisee, and 'ruler of the Jews'.
 
As a Pharisee, he was a member of the group which undertook leadership in religious matters, and which had undertaken something of a revival shortly before Christ's earthly ministry.
 
As a ‘ruler of the Jews', Nicodemus belonged to the Ruling Council, which governed the life of the nation. It was something like being a cabinet- minister at Westminster.
 
Members of the Ruling Council were particularly concerned with matters of the law, and its application. As the Jewish religious laws touched all aspects of life, the Council had oversight of just about everything.
 
Looked at from these points of view, Nicodemus can be seen to be an important man - in this special way.
 
The Old Testament in general, and Christ's teaching in particular, lay great stress on the importance of the Laws that God gave through Moses, and the continuing Word of God spoken through the prophets...
 
...the one complementing the other, in a 'both-and-together' sense. And here is Nicodemus doing just that; representing both, and together.
 
As a man true to religion and spirituality , he embodied the ‘Thus says the Lord’ faith that the Jews placed in the prophetic Word of God; and, as a 'ruler of the Jews', he helped apply the commands of God.
 
If such an important man could become a herald of God's way of doing things, what wonderful potential for good! But, first get the man converted.
 
At the beginning of the text from John 3, we find Nicodemus unconverted and rather secretive. He went to visit Jesus at night. Presumably, he didn't want other members of the 'Ruling Council' to know about it, or else they might want to get rid of him, as well as Jesus.
 
I believe that the teaching that Jesus gave to Nicodemus that night, converted him; and that he began to see that God's way of doing things, in Christ, was 'Good News'.
 
At the second mention of Nicodemus, at John 7:50, we see that he has got a bit more courage. Strengthened by his new faith in Christ, he actually intervened in the situation where his fellow-members of the Ruling Council were plotting against Jesus.
 
By the third and last mention of him, Nicodemus is bolder altogether. He helped Joseph of Arimathea to anoint the body of Jesus with oils and spices –and prepare it for burial.
 
Step by step, Nicodemus moved from being an unconverted man to a converted-to-Christ man; from being secretive, to being more open and daring; from being uninvolved, to being very much involved.
 
This is something like the story of those Christians, and their churches, today; who gradually move from nowhere in particular, to deep involvement in the things of God, and the service of Christ.
 
At its best, the Church represents both the Law and the Prophets. It teaches that the commandments of God still stand, and that they can only be kept, and fulfilled, in and through Jesus Christ…
 
…and that God still speaks the prophetic word to his people, for their strengthening...and through his people to offer salvation grace to the world.
 
The Church has a story to tell; of God's actions in history; and of what the Lord is doing in the here-and-now of the present.
 
If, like Nicodemus, the Church could get converted to Christ; just think what great and wonderful good might come of it! But...first the Church must be converted. More of that in a while.
 
Conversion to Christ, necessitates conversion away from something or someone else. In Nicodemus' case, I believe that this was away from himself, and his own set ideas of the proper way forward in faith.
 
In the first of the three, brief texts, Nicodemus made a preliminary statement: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, for no-one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him’.
 
He must have wanted to say much more than that; something important; otherwise he would not have taken the risk of going to see Jesus in that way.
 
But, as he so often did, Jesus read the mind of the man, and saw beyond what Nicodemus wanted to say; and focussed on what he actually needed.
 
What he needed, was to be challenged as to his faith, and where it was set.
 
Certainly, Nicodemus had plenty of faith; but it was set in being a member of the Jewish nation; with a claim to blood-line descent from Abraham.
 
It was set in being a member of the Ruling Council, and in believing that he had a duty to preserve things as they had always been.
 
Nicodemus may have felt all this, and more, to be good, but it wasn't what God had in mind, as he began to do new things in Christ.
 
Now, I believe that the position of Nicodemus, just touched on, is very largely where the Church has stood for umpteen generations. Like Nicodemus and the Ruling Council that he belonged to...
 
...the Church has not only represented the two great strands of bible-teaching; the Law and the Prophets; it has also misrepresented them…
 
...through biased doctrinal and denominational understandings and associated misunderstandings: through believing that it has a duty to preserve things, as they have always been, and so on.
 
Like Nicodemus, the Church must change - and get converted.
 
When Nicodemus went to see Jesus by night, he felt that he had something to say, and he began with a preliminary statement, about Jesus being sent by God, and empowered by him.
 
Jesus didn't reply by saying: ‘Now that is a great and profound truth!’ Instead, the Lord said to him: ‘Nicodemus: up to now you've missed the whole point. Don't concern yourself with making good-sounding statements about your theology. Instead; you need to get converted’.
 
Like Nicodemus, the Church often feels that it has something to say. Over the years, the preliminary statements that the Church has made, have been about political freedom, racial harmony and the love of God…
 
...about poverty and homelessness; and the compassion of Christ; and so on. Many of the statements, touching on the needs of the poor, and the suffering of the distressed, are very close to the heart of Jesus...
 
...but, so very often, all that the Church does is to state its theology, and to pretty-well leave things at that.
 
As with Jesus, cutting in on what Nicodemus began to say; but was never allowed to finish; so; I believe, with the Church - with us.
 
Christ’s real concern, is not with what we want to say, but with what he knows that we need.
 
We need to know, and believe, that, largely, the Church has missed the point; and that it needs to be converted…
 
…away from its own understanding of itself, and its sense of importance, to the new things that God is doing in Christ.
 
We can argue that, surely, the Church was converted, long ago; but we must always remember that, just as repentance is confirmed, not by what we say, but by our amended way of life…
 
...and that conversion may be described in words; but it can only be truly expressed, through an amended way of life.
 
The words and actions of the Church, have changed so much, that they bear little relation to the original, God-given vision of what it's true function is; to be as Christ to the world all around.
 
For many generations, the Church's words have done little more, than to explain its own understanding of itself...
 
...and its actions have done little more, than to preserve its own chosen life-style, and to defend itself against change.
 
I believe that the Church in general; and individual, local churches in particular; need to get re-converted to doing things in Christ's way: to being engaged upon evangelism and outreach, with salvation in mind...
 
...to working alongside Christ himself, as he undertakes ministries in the world that he loves.
 
Nicodemus went to see Jesus by night, because he was afraid of people in general, and his peer-group in particular. What might they say and do?
 
The Church, too, is more than a little afraid. It is so afraid of its own peer-group people, that, even within individual churches, there is little witness, testimony and sharing with salvation in mind.
 
Therefore, in many churches, a large proportion of people, are not ‘Christians’, in the born-again sense, that Christ both taught, and insisted upon.
 
It was Christ himself who said that, if we are not 'born-again’, then we shall neither know what the Kingdom of God is all about; nor actually enter it.
 
Because the churches are afraid to witness to their own people; for fear of being misunderstood; it is no wonder that they are also afraid of people in the world all around... and that the 'Good News' remains un-offered.
 
Most Christians will go to Jesus secretly; in their prayer-times, where they feel safe…but comparatively few Christians are prepared to go to Jesus openly, in clear view of their peer-group, and the general public.
 
This is largely because, their fear of people's reactions, is greater than their desire to obey Christ's evangelical command: ‘Go! Tell!’
 
Like Nicodemus, the Church often feels that it has got something to say, but, as with Nicodemus, Christ may not wish to hear it, if it does not meet real needs, or obey actual commands.
 
The Bible sometimes uses the word 'herald' to describe the one who is sent, by a king, with a message.
 
The herald never has something to say of himself. All that he has, is what has been given him to say, by the one who sent him. And so with us!
 
Christ the King has great sympathy towards us all, for, as the psalmist puts it: ‘He knows our weaknesses, yet still accepts us in love’.
 
But...Christ's sympathy does not persuade him to alter his commands.
 
He commands us to be his heralds, but does not expect us to have a single word of our own to say. His is the 'Good News' of God's ‘Way of Salvation’.
 
When Nicodemus felt that he had something to say, and approached Christ along particular lines; Jesus wasn't having any of that.
 
He simply cut in, and said something completely different. ‘Nicodemus: you need to get converted!’
 
When our churches feel that they have something to say; about freedom, poverty and hunger, racial harmony, peace and all the rest...
 
...they must be prepared for Christ cutting in, and saying something almost shockingly different...which may well be…
 
Yes! We will do all of that together; one day…
but, first, you need to get converted to my way of doing things
then, instead of you working, almost in opposition to me…
we will be working together’.   Amen.  

READINGS John 3: 1-21 John 7: 37-52