The fourth kind is suggested by the need and hope of benefits. Recognizing that without Him we can neither do nor possess anything good, we worship Him, asking Him to satisfy our needs and desires, that we may be preserved from evil and arrive at good. — John of Damascus
Through the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is on a journey, maybe he is on our journey. It is customary to trace his appearances in the Gospel of John, but let us recap: He shows up at night in chapter 3. It is customary to assume that he did so that his peer group, the temple authorities with whom he seems to have been keeping company, would not know he was talking to Jesus. It was an attempt to retain his honor.
That same cohort of his is ready to arrest Jesus in chapter 7. Nicodemus now speaks up, but ever so cautiously. He defends Jesus to a point, it is true, but that point really is more about the council doing the right thing according to the law of Moses rather than saying: “This man has done no wrong.” The response is swift: “Are you from Galilee also?” An insult and a warning to advocate no further or be ostracized.
Nicodemus shows up a final time in chapter 19. It is he who brings the spices needed to prepare Jesus body for burial. There is really no hiding at that point. He went to burry a crucified man whose death was sought after by his own people and the very association that he himself was part of. He buried a man in the week of passover, an act that would certainly have rendered him unclean according to Mosaic regulation since he touched a dead body. He would have been unclean for seven days and would have had to ceremonially bathe on day three and seven. (Nu 19:10-12) There was no hiding after this act.
There was also no water to bathe with. It had been turned into wine. (Jn 2:6) OK. That is a stretch but one that has been suggested a number of scholars. In Chapter 2 of John, two important episodes occur. First Jesus is invited to a wedding where the wine runs out. He points to the stone jars in which is kept the water for purification and turns that very water into wine. Next, Jesus clears the court of the gentiles. In doing that he upset the sacrificial system by driving out those who sold the sacrificial animal and those who facilitated the tithe. He then speaks the enigmatic line: “Tear down this temple . . .” probably referring to his body. Purification and sacrifice, two of the ways to remain clean before God have been, for now temporarily, been de- facilitated, if that is even a word. Maybe obsoleted?
Worship the way it had been done according to Leviticus and Numbers was about to meet its end — a further implication of the “tear down this temple . . .” speech — and be replaced by worship that was: “in Spirit and in Truth,” and it will not be done on Mt Gerazim nor on Mt Zion. (Jn 4:21-24) Instead springs of living water will be given. (Jn 4:10, 7:36-38) The world that defiles will be conquered. (Jn 16:33) When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. (12:32) Including, it would seem Nicodemus, since he shows up at that very time to do homage. Instead of gazing on the serpent to not die from the poison of the serpents, believing in the one that was lifted up will prevent dying the eternal death from the darkness, the poison, of this world thereby gaining eternal life. You will not have that life in you unless you eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. (Jn 6:53)
They are all here: The water that gives peace with God and deliverance from the unclean darkness of the world, the body of the lamb to be sacrificed to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:36), and the blood to be sprinkled for Passover and purification.
Nicodemus has a feast day that he shares with Joseph of Arimathea. It is accorded to them for their act of burying Jesus. It is noted that Joseph, like Nicodemus, was a “secret” disciple. (Jn 19:38) He was secret because he feared the leaders. In other words, he feared the world that in all its darkness and cruelty would punish faith in Jesus.
It is a quiet, unseen, difficult, and maybe even ambiguous conversion that takes place with Nicodemus. He comes as one with many thoughts and scruples, and many a string tied from the world directly to the heart of him. As we read John 3 we might well ask: What will become of him? What will become of us? We read John 3 and, hopefully, admit that,”No,” we do not understand what Jesus is taking about and, “No,” we do not see the world as “darkness.” We will do that like Nicodemus. We will do it secretly and out of sight and we will put on a good front by quoting John 3:16 as if it was the totality of the message of Christ and not merely an invitation to deal with the other realities: The darkness of our hearts and the darkness of life. The fog in our minds and in our souls. The evil that is our deeds. These will find their end only in the Spirit and in Truth, the flesh and the blood of Jesus and the living water, and belief in the one who is lifted up.
John’s telling of Nicodemus’ story invites us to ask: Do I want what Jesus offers? Am I ready to have all I think and rely on now in the depth of my intellect challenged and be a child learning again from scratch? Am I ready to let the world be defeated? Will I let the defeated world be and no longer value its judgements? These are questions for Lent.