More than a few of us may get a little uncomfortable with the phrase “born again.” It’s much like the term “evangelical,” which means “gospel-bearing.” Unfortunately, these phrases have been co-opted to represent a certain kind of believer. In culture and media, it now stands for a right-wing fundamentalist. This simplistic belief in the Bible has been used to argue all manner of condemnations, a label mainline denominations have taken pains to clarify. We might argue that, however we interpret the scripture, as those who follow Jesus we must all be evangelical; that is, trying to lead lives guided by the gospel. And even if I can see the context of the times and issues of translation in the gospel, but mainly the Old Testament, I certainly believe in the fundamentals – those key beliefs and values like other-centredness that are held up by Jesus. And, just like every person who has been baptized, I have been “born again,” not in the self-serving interpretation that says we have been elevated above everyone else and not in a way that says I cannot ever ask another question about my faith – but born again to a better path, born again to serve the people around me. So I am a born-again, evangelical, fundamentalist – and I am a Nicodemus.
Margaret Hess, an American minister, called Nicodemus the “patron saint of the curious,” which I think says it perfectly. In our gospel, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, sneaks out at night to find Jesus. Word has spread, and Nicodemus is really curious: he wants to know more. Before he can be convinced, he needs to know more. But he goes when his friends and peers are not looking to avoid censure from society. He has come seeking. He begins by shamelessly stroking Jesus, like the good politician. “Of course,” Nicodemus says, “I know you come from God…but I just have a few small questions.” You get the feeling in our gospel story that they must have chatted for a while, because Jesus’s answer seems a bit out of place, but after, perhaps, some small talk, they get down to a serious theological discussion. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Reign of God without being born from above,” Jesus says. But Nicodemus presses him: “What do you mean? How can an old person be born again? People can’t be born twice.” And Jesus explains what he means by being born of the spirit, to come to believe in God. Nicodemus still questions. And Jesus gets a little frustrated. “You doubt me when I talk about things on earth. Why would you believe when I speak of the ways of heaven?” And then we have one of the most famous lines in scripture – that Jesus came into the world to save it, not to condemn it. To save us, not to condemn us.
Recently, I saw a headline: “Is it reasonable to believe in God?” I get asked this question often, since many of the people I run across would say faith in God is decidedly unreasonable. But I think this question gets it wrong: because it suggests that both reason and belief are fixed concepts, discovered and then never changing. And Nicodemus is an example of how limited this thinking is. He comes to Jesus with reasoned questions and uncertain belief, and he leaves without our knowing what he decided. Both reason and belief are essential parts of our Lenten journey, but our job is not to settle things once and for all. Our job as thoughtful Christians is to make progress along the path of reason and belief.
Perhaps one way to answer the question, “Is it reasonable to believe in God?” is to say, “I believe in a reasonable God,” one who accepts curiosity and questions, forgives human failings, avoids condemnation, and saves me time and time again when I cannot do it on my own. This is the God we can follow with integrity, one who can take doubtful questions from Nicodemus in the dark of night because he is too afraid to ask them out loud during the day.
I have a friend who doesn’t believe in God. She would fall into the category of the “nones” that our Bishop wrote about in the latest Canada Lutheran. But she and I often talk about theology and religion. Sometimes, I will admit, it is hard not to get defensive, for two reasons. First, I get tired of the same old conversation with people who claim, “I have my own religion.” And second, the question “Is it ‘reasonable’ to believe in God” suggests, by its framing, that only a foolish person would do so. Usually, I grow in my own faith in unusual ways upon reflecting about our conversation. But more than once, when she is having a difficult time, she will say to me, “I wish I believed that God would just take care of things.” As if faith were so easy. As if being “born from above” was a matter of a little dunking in water. Because I don’t believe in a God who “just takes care of things.” The God I preach about each week makes me work for my belief, expects me to challenge my faith, to put in sweat for the gospel. Not, mind you, so that I can have the bragging rights of being “born again,” but because I have committed to a life that says God will help me through the mess of life. That commitment means that sometimes I will be Peter, the right-hand man; and sometimes I will be Mary, the eternally faithful; and sometimes I will be John the Baptist, the Bold; and sometimes – many times – I will be Nicodemus, with my questions in the dark.
What happened to Nicodemus that night? We can’t be sure. Let’s say he went home before the sun rose to ponder this conversation with Jesus, to see where his belief now lay. Was it, based on those answers, reasonable to believe? Did God, who welcomed curiosity, who came to guide and not condemn, merit that belief?
We know what answer Nicodemus reached. We see him again, still in secret, at the open tomb with Joseph of Arimathea. He has brought myrrh and aloes to give Jesus a proper burial, to honour him in the proper way. His quiet curiosity has led him to reasoned belief.
There should be for us, no conclusion in that reasoning, no end to our curiosity. The 40 days of Lent are not a deadline. Lent is the time, in the stillness before spring, to be like Nicodemus and spend some time reflecting on the nature of faith and belief. Amen