A Lenten personal reflection and word, based on John 3.1-17, for my Anglican Church Communion.
“Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews,” a Pharisee, a consummate religious and political insider, stealthily “comes to Jesus by night.”
Perhaps Nicodemus, having heard about Jesus – one who teaches with authority and performs miracles only possible, according to the prescriptions of the tradition, for one who comes from God – wants to see, to assess for himself the truth of what he has heard. Is Jesus the “real deal” or a charlatan or demagogue who, with word and magical sign, seeks to deceive? If Jesus is a fraud, then, concealed by nightfall, Nicodemus, as a leader, whose public actions and perceived associations have immense power to persuade, will not have led anyone astray.
But perhaps he goes to see Jesus for his own sake. For Nicodemus, at night, is awake with questions that disturb his sleep, which all of his knowledge of the law and the prophets cannot answer.
Perhaps. Perhaps. Point is that Nicodemus – committed to life’s quest for meaning, caught in the tension between upholding the defining and organizing principles of the community and reaching out to embrace new revelation – comes to Jesus.
They engage in conversation, which, like wind, blows Nicodemus’ mind. Jesus speaks of Spirit. In the Hebrew, ruach. In the Greek, pneuma. Wind. A perfect symbol for Spirit. The animating force-of-life, which, like wind, cannot be seen, but whose effects, like the bending of treetops when the wind blows, can be known. Spirit. Wind. The agent of one’s rebirth, so to become who one in spirit, essentially as spirit already is.
Nicodemus, in the darkness of his confusion’s night, cannot see. Thinking in terms of physicality, not spirituality, he cannot conceive how he can reenter his mother’s womb. Although bewildered, he discerns that Jesus is true. He may not understand, but he knows with an ancient wisdom deeper than words that what Jesus teaches – a radical, spiritual rebirth so to bear in flesh God’s nature – is the meaning of life that the law embodied and the prophets long declared.
Nicodemus is a faithful leader in the nighttime of the confusion of my Anglican Communion. A confusion that characterizes historical moments when tradition and modernity clash. Moments when the defining, organizing principles that long have made sense out of existence and new claims of what constitutes truth collide. Moments, which, in their complexity, defy the explanations that, when voiced in their simplicity, sound like truth or perhaps what one (any? all?) would like to believe is true.
If I listen long to the competing voices – of liberal, largely Western Christianity claiming that the burgeoning church of the so-called Global South is too narrow, too doctrinaire in its profession of a strict biblical authority, and exclusivistic in its creedal confession or of conservative, largely African and Latin American Christianity claiming that European and North American religiosity has been overwhelmed by a nihilistic secularism so to have lost its center and its missiological zeal to proclaim the gospel – either proclamation bears the sound of a ring of truth. No surprise. For each contains an element of truth.
However, what is lost in our disputes is our capacity to see ourselves and others…
A capacity rooted in our humble acknowledgement that no one – whether person or group, position or perspective – has all wisdom, that even contrary views harbor elements of grace, and that as soon as we arrive at clarity, even (perhaps especially) of God and nature, we are tempted to end our quest for truth, which is always larger than our definitions.
A capacity to see and, in seeing, to stay not in discussion, but dialogue. Diá, “through” + logos, “word”. The art of ongoing conversation, rather than that act whose aim is to achieve definitive conclusion. “Discussion” has the same suffix as “percussion” and “concussion”, for all involve beating or banging. We have enough discussion. We need dialogue. The kind that Nicodemus was willing to risk.
Even more, in our disputes, we Anglicans seem to have lost sight of three fundamental principles that have served well for generations…
One, we are the community of the via media, the middle way – during the 16th century Reformation, between Roman Catholicism and European Protestantism and, now, centuries later, between repressive doctrinarism and a relativistic libertinism.
Two, we are guided by the dictum: “In essentials, unity, in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity”.
Three, we, as a confederation of national churches bound by mutual ties, symbolized by common worship, and not a universal, authoritarian center, encourage the freedom to interpret theology and ethics in relation to local context.
Much of this is lost in the call for unity, which I hear as a cry for unanimity, uniformity in all things.
Still more, we seem to have lost our awareness that unity in its purest form is, at best, an ideal and a fiction. The genius of Anglicanism has been our ability to tolerate, if not always celebrate our differences of opinion, even our oppositions regarding belief and practice.
We are in a period of upheaval like that of the Reformation. Competing, conflicting forces are at war. No one can know the outcome, save that our church will be (already is!) different. Yet, above, beneath, around, and through the hot wind of our disputes, God’s Spirit still blows where it chooses. If only more of us were more like Nicodemus – willing to see, even at night.
A final, very personal word. My advocacy for toleration, even celebration of difference does not mean that, at the end of the proverbial day, I do not stand where I stand. For me to acknowledge difference means that I know where I stand: On the side of the universality of equality, especially for all of our sisters and brothers who – marginalized by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, or soul-stealing tyranny of any kind – in the words of Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Yes, I will dialogue, walk and talk, with anyone. Yet, in the quest for equality, I yield to no one.
© 2023 PRA
Nicodemus visiting Jesus (1899), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Compass Rose flag of the Anglican Communion. At the center, St. George’s Cross, a symbolic reminder of the church’s English roots. Encircling the cross, the Greek inscription “The Truth shall make you free” (John 8.32). From the band radiate the points of the compass, representing worldwide spread of the Anglican religion. Surmounting the shield, north, is a miter, the symbol of apostolic order essential to all churches and provinces constituting the Communion.
 The Anglican Communion is the 3rd largest Christian communion after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Founded in 1867 in London, the Communion has more than 85 million members within the Church of England and other national and regional churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
 Attributed to a various sources.
 Henry David Thoreau, from the essay, Economy, found in his book, Walden (1854).
2 thoughts on “Night-Vision”
WOW Paul this was a sermon, and a powerful one at that!! That last paragraph was fire! I haven’t always been a fan of the dark, but recently went on several night hikes and was astounded about how much I could actually see in the dark, especially when the stars are out! This post helped me to see more clearly, to see Lent more clearly.
Yes, my dear Loretta, I know that you “haven’t always been a fan of the dark.” I am grateful for your discovery of your power to see in the dark via the pathway of your night hikes. For, as I’m sure you know, I, generally, always have found comfort, a certain peace in the dark. (Perhaps, as I probe my self/soul a bit, I have not always liked what I behold in the light about the world around me, other people, and, surely, myself.) Thus, I think, that one of my ongoing life’s quests is to find comfort (in the stability of honesty and the honesty of stability) in either darkness or light.