The process of messy faith

“Water & Spirit” by Rev. Shawna Bowman

What to make of Nicodemus

I’ve been trying to write about Nicodemus since John 3:1-17 was the lectionary text a few Sundays ago. So much of his conversation with Jesus in this passage hits on the themes of deepening faith, imagination, and witnessing signs that we have been thinking about this Lent.

But I couldn’t figure out what to say about Nicodemus.

This passage, although so nostalgically familiar (Sunday School anyone?), is pretty opaque for me. I read it and re-read it, and I don’t know what to walk away with. What are we supposed to learn from Jesus’ cryptic, metaphorical answers? Are we supposed to admire Nicodemus for his courage to ask the tough questions? Or are we supposed to be disappointed with his lack of understanding?

Today I want to take another look at this passage, but I want to be open to the mystery of this text, open to its confusion, open to the questions it leaves me with. I hope you’ll bear with me and offer your own insights on this story.

Having trustworthy faith

The John 3 story about Nicodemus takes place at Passover, which is pretty appropriate considering that this is Holy Week. We just celebrated Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he had traveled to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. This week, many Jews and Christians celebrated again the seder of Passover, tying themselves to this ancient tradition that echoes back through our religious history. John 3 opens with a Passover feast during the early days of Jesus’ ministry. This sets the stage:

When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:23-24)

There’s that familiar theme of witnessing signs. People are coming to believe in Jesus because he has been performing wonders. But then, in verse 24, we hear an interesting insight into how Jesus feels about all this: he doesn’t trust anyone. What surprising emotion from the gospel writer! Jesus knows that all these signs are unnecessary, and he seems to understand that faith based only on signs leaves something to be desired. It’s heartbreaking to read that Jesus felt alone, even in the midst of a festival celebration with his close friends, even at the height of his successful ministry, even following mass conversions of followers.

These two verses set the stage for the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In the middle of the night, Nicodemus approaches Jesus to ask him about these signs. Their conversation goes something like this:

Nicodemus: I know you’re a teacher of God because I’ve seen you do signs.
Jesus: No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again from above.
Nic: What does that mean?
The J:  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Nic: What does that mean?
The J: You’re not getting it! If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?
Nic: ???

And so on. You get the picture.

I have to say, I am glad Nicodemus had the courage to ask for some clarification: what is Jesus talking about? Nicodemus has clearly been wrestling with what he’s witnessed of Jesus ministry, and he is so desperate for answers that he approaches Jesus in the middle of the night.

He even opens with a vote of confidence in Jesus, making sure to mention those signs! But Jesus is unimpressed. He reminds Nicodemus that it takes a proper spiritual perspective to even see the meaning of signs. It reminds me of the difference between the Pharisees’ request for signs and the disciples’ witness of the transfiguration we saw in Matthew 16-17. Perhaps Nicodemus was among that crowd of Pharisees and was reminded of this earlier conversation with Jesus.

But here Nicodemus doesn’t really seem to understand the distinction Jesus is making. No wonder he felt mistrustful; no one seems to be getting the true meaning of his ministry. Jesus is looking for the kind of genuine faith to which he can entrust himself. That kind of faith needs no testimony but rests in the mysteries of the Spirit.

A messy process

Jesus tries two different metaphors to explain himself to Nicodemus: being born again and being like the wind. He tells Nicodemus that believers need to be born again, or born from above (the Greek word “anothen” carries both meanings). When Nicodemus fails to understand the technicalities of such a process, Jesus tells him that those who have achieved this spiritual re-birth are like the blowing breath of wind.

There is so much to say about both these images, but for today I said I would rest in the mystery of this text. So before we get to the rest of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, with all its big theology and commonly-quoted verses, let’s pause here, in the midst of all the questions. I believe Jesus used messy, ambiguous metaphors on purpose. Maybe the process of deepening true faith in Jesus, not just in the miracles he performed, can be explained no other way. Maybe we miss something when we think that we can systematize or ritualize authentic faith. What if the process of finding faith is like painful, wet, slippery birth? And what if the result of true re-birth is a faith that looks and sounds like inconsistent, noisy wind?

In the re-births of your life, what water/spirit parts of yourself have emerged, and what flesh parts of yourself have died? What do you learn from Jesus’ use of these fluid, open images of wind, water, and birth? Like Nicodemus, what do you still yearn to understand?

This week I’m linking up wtih Emily to celebrate redemption, art, and imperfect prose.

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13 Comments

Filed under Lectionary Reflections, Lent 2011: Deepening Faith, My Faith Journey, Theology and Faith

13 responses to “The process of messy faith

  1. Wow. First of all, let me say that I really like this post (including the awesome art). Faith like noisy, inconsistent wind…there is freedom in that image. And there is power in wind, unpredictable power, just as there is in faith. I’ve always been impressed that Jesus showed up to this meeting. What love to even come to meet someone who would only talk to him in secret in the dead of night. But something must have changed for Nicodemus in all of that confusion. It make me think of this post by my cousin. http://fightclublife.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/two-regular-guys/ After Jesus died, at the least smart moment Nicodemus reveals himself as a follower. Yeah, messy and real. Thanks for making me think and soak in the mystery at the same time.

    • Mmm, yes. Thanks for the reminder that Nicodemus still has a role to play in Jesus’ life even after this meeting. And when Nicodemus comes later to prepare Jesus’ body, he brings with him such a great amount of myrrh and spices — 100 lbs! It’s as though Nicodemus doesn’t quite have the courage to come out in the daytime, but in the end, he offers what he does have to give.
      Thanks for reading thoughtfully and taking the time to comment!

  2. ha i got plenty of questions when i get there…not that they will matter when i do get there…control has always been my struggle…

    • And sometimes the place of questioning can be the most faithful of all, right? Especially when it provides an opportunity for growth and transformation.

  3. I’ll be honest here – God bless the men who write theology on the internets – they are honorable and bright. But there is a reason I blog in this community made up mostly of women. It’s insight like this that only women seem to get, “It’s heartbreaking to read that Jesus felt alone, even in the midst of a festival celebration with his close friends”. All the big headed theology in the world can’t match that. I know. I used to be all big headed theology. Until I read people like Emily and Ann Voskamp and. Women – especially moms write “God” like no man I know – or read – can. And I’m with you “I believe Jesus used messy, ambiguous metaphors on purpose.” He knew what he was doing.

    I’ve already written too much to answer your questions – I’ll leave room for the other comments. I hearted this!!!

    God bless and keep you and all of yours.

    • Thanks so much for your encouragement, Craig! I agree that sometimes “heart” theology can just put “head” theology to shame. Thanks for your integrity and openness in appreciating the special wisdom of women! And please keep reading — I’m truly grateful for the support!

  4. “Jesus is looking for the kind of genuine faith to which he can entrust himself. That kind of faith needs no testimony but rests in the mysteries of the Spirit.”

    I’ve been working through having that kind of faith as my sunday school class studies the sovereignty of God in suffering. We don’t have the whole picture! We don’t and never will completely understand and that’s okay because God is about developing faith in us. Great post.

    • Definitely! Those moments/questions of suffering are one of the most important places where the rubber of theology meets the road of life, right? And where faith is truly strengthened. Thanks for your comment, Ruthiey!

  5. Tom

    >Jesus is looking for the kind of genuine faith to which he can entrust himself. That kind of faith needs no testimony but rests in the mysteries of the Spirit.

    I really resonated with this. That searching, that hesitation. “Can I entrust myself to this person?” …Yeah…

    >In the re-births of your life, what water/spirit parts of yourself have emerged, and what flesh parts of yourself have died? What do you learn from Jesus’ use of these fluid, open images of wind, water, and birth? Like Nicodemus, what do you still yearn to understand?

    I’m reminded of this quote from Bruce Lee:

    “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

    “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

    When I find myself hardening into resistance, a difficult experience most often occurs like friction, like impact, like tearing. When I find myself softening into grace, a difficult experience most often occurs to me like wind, like water, like birth.

    • Haha, thanks for sharing. That quote sounds strikingly fantasy-esque. Sure you haven’t been reading the Sword of Truth series when I wasn’t looking?
      But I do appreciate your distinction between experiencing difficulty as wind/water/birth and experiencing difficulty as friction/impact/tearing. That’s powerful imagery!

  6. What if the process of finding faith is like painful, wet, slippery birth? And what if the result of true re-birth is a faith that looks and sounds like inconsistent, noisy wind?

    wow bristol… i’m so, so glad to have ‘met’ you through imperfect prose. this piece blew me away. i read carefully and i felt myself hungering for the mystery of this faith that you describe. for this messy rebirth. you have given me so much to think about tonight. ((thank you))

    • Thanks, Emily! I am also so thrilled to “meet” you! I appreciate your words of encouragement and your invitation to share thoughts and words within this beautiful blog community.

  7. It makes me feel better to read that Jesus used such ambiguous metaphors for faith because I struggle to describe it with any clarity. I am encouraged and challenged by this deep sharing.

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