How to talk to Nicodemus

March 12, 2012

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Century.

Jesus
and Nicodemus might as well be speaking different languages. Jesus speaks of
birth from above; Nicodemus is befuddled. Jesus speaks of the spirit as wind
blowing where it will; Nicodemus wonders how this can be. They are like a
creationist and a paleontologist comparing notes on fossils--they simply can't
fathom each other. Their organizing assumptions are too different.

Here's
when we sense that Nicodemus begins to understand what Jesus is saying: when
Jesus reinterprets the story of Israel in the wilderness, drawing from the
language that has oriented Nicodemus's life and thought. It doesn't seem
likely, after all, that the series of puzzling metaphors Jesus begins with
would push Nicodemus to understanding. But something clearly does: the next
time we meet Nicodemus, he has taken a soft position of defense for Jesus
against the larger Pharisee crowd. Eventually he is one of the people who comes
into the light in order to prepare Jesus for burial.

Jesus'
linguistic accommodation is not as extreme as Paul's famous one:

To the Jews I became as a
Jew, in order to win Jews... to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the
weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save
some.

Yet
it is a movement in that direction, a willingness to use the language of his
conversation partner to translate the gospel into something that partner will
understand.

How
will we translate the language of light and darkness to a culture still
clashing along racial lines? And are there episodes in our cultural history--or
the history of the churches we serve, or the personal history of our
parishioners--that can function like the serpent in the wilderness? Can we
recall moments of salvation from God that were wholly unexpected, reversals
that were celebrated for generations?

In
my first church, it was a story of the church's impending foreclosure during
the Great Depression--and the miraculous, unexpected clemency of the bank. It
was a turnaround that saved not only a building and a community but thousands
of hurting people who have walked into it ever since. It's become part of the
language of grace there, and it resonates with the people.

What's
the metaphor, what's the language, that can help the next Nicodemus?