When I was in college, I was thinking about becoming a pastor, but I wasn’t completely convinced it was a real call, so I had two pathways out. I chose a double major—one combining Political Science and History, so I could go on to law school; the other major was Psychology, so I could become a psychologist.
My senior year of college, I did an Urban Studies semester in Chicago. My family moved frequently growing up, but always to white middle class suburbs. I thought that if this call to ministry turned out to be real, I had better learn something about living in a city with more diversity and poverty. Maybe I would also gain some new knowledge about what I should do with my life.
I became a tutor in the Cook County Jail, living in a poor community. A homeless woman named, “Love” would sometimes sleep in our living room. For my independent study project, I thought I would try to live as a homeless person for a weekend. I’d heard this idea from another student at my school who had done it the year before.
It was early November, so it was chilly, but not yet frigid. I put on old clothes, left my cash in the apartment and headed downtown. I wasn’t too worried about finding a place to stay that night; I expected to stay at the Salvation Army center downtown. As dusk set in, I headed there. The problem was, that the shelter was already full, there was no room for me. This possibility had never crossed my mind. It was dark and cold—now what was I going to do?
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness because he is seeking understanding and the truth about God. He wants Jesus to give him the right answer, so that as a Jewish leader, he can fit Jesus’s life, healing, preaching, and ministry into his knowledge base and structure as a Jewish leader.
But Jesus isn’t much help. He doesn’t give Nicodemus the facts he seeks, but instead Jesus talks about being born from above, of being born anew, and being born of water and the Spirit.
“What are you talking about?” wonders Nicodemus. Jesus’s words make no sense to him, so he takes them literally. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born again?"
Of course, Jesus is not talking about an earthly birth, but rather a spiritual one. God calls us into a re-birth, a new birth, to be born again spiritually—into a relationship with the God who made us.
“Don’t you see, Nicodemus?” says Jesus. “God wants a relationship with you. That’s why God sent Me, the Son of Man, so that through a relationship with me, you would give yourself—not just your mind and your correct doctrines, not just your adherence to the law, and your good behaviors—but that you would give God your heart, your love, your devotion, your deep trust.”
Jesus uses birth imagery to evoke the experience of love and trust between a parent and child. God loves us the same way a father and mother love their child, and God deeply desires for that love and trust to be returned.
When our kids were little, Dan and I did what all parents do—we taught our three children how to read, and to count to 100. We taught them how to look both ways before they crossed the street, how to share toys, and how to dress themselves.
But if our whole interaction with them ended with giving them correct information and getting them to behave properly (most of the time!), it wouldn’t have been a very satisfying relationship. The moments that made all the dirty diapers and sleepless nights worth it were when our kids wrapped their arms around our neck and gave us sticky kisses; when they climbed into our laps and snuggled in for love and comfort, and when they jumped into our arms with total trust from the edge of the swimming pool.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got the information about Scripture and the law, and your behavior is stellar, but you haven’t yet jumped into God’s arms from the edge of the pool with love and complete trust.
“God keeps holding out these strong, loving, inviting arms with a desire to give you all that need, but you haven’t given God your heart.”
“Thinking with your mind is good, doing the right thing is important, but without feeling, without love—you are a noisy gong or clanging symbol. Without love for God, you have nothing.
“God wants all of you—thinking, doing and feeling—for an intimate, trusting relationship! Jump into the pool, Nicodemus— be born of water and Spirit as God’s very own child who loves you, embraces you, and who desires to give you everything you need for fullness of life. That’s why I came --so that you would know that God wants a loving relationship with you, all of you.”
For God so loved the world—a better translation is ‘cosmos’—for God so loved the cosmos, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
That’s why we follow Jesus—
• He took the first jump, the first leap into human skin, trusting that God would catch him.
• Jesus jumped into the fullness of human life, experiencing everything from love, family, and friendship to abandonment, grief and betrayal, trusting that God would catch him.
• Jesus willingly fell onto the cross, trusting that even in suffering and death, God would catch him.
• Jesus jumped from the grave showing us and the whole cosmos that no matter what happens in this life, God will catch us.
When the Salvation Army turned me away, they told me of another shelter at a church west of downtown, about a mile away. I had no money, no food, and it was 1984, so no cell phone. They said I could ask a police officer to drop me off at the shelter. But I was too stubborn and naïve to do something smart like that. I felt as if that would ruin the point of the whole learning experience.
I knew the grid system of how Chicago was laid out, so I decided to walk…in the dark…alone…in a part of town I did not know. I was more scared at that moment than I had ever been. It didn’t matter how much knowledge I had, it didn’t matter whether it was the right thing to do. At that moment I needed a God I could love and trust with my whole life and heart. I jumped into God’s arms like I never had before.
In my mind I sang, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice!” over and over, as I walked in the dark through an industrial area and made it through to the church shelter. I’ve never been so happy to see a group of homeless people! I was safe in God’s arms.
Our Gospel passage today doesn’t give us the end of its story. Did Nicodemus remain a religious leader who gave his mind and actions to God, but not his heart, not his love, not his trust? We don’t know exactly, but John’s Gospel does give us a hint in Chapter 19. As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus could see someone walking up the hill toward him—no longer coming under the cover of darkness—but in the light of mid-day. It was Nicodemus, weighed down with 100 pounds of aloes and myrrh to anoint Jesus’s body for burial, an act of love and devotion (for no law-abiding Pharisee would touch a dead body).
But, Nicodemus had jumped. He had leapt into God’s loving arms with his whole heart, offering himself, his love and his trust to the God he met in Jesus the Christ.
At the end of my Urban Studies semester, I knew I wasn’t going to become a lawyer or a psychologist. I finished college and went straight to seminary in Chicago, where I could serve as a GED teacher at the jail while I studied. Over the years, I have learned that jumping into God’s arms with total love and trust is something we choose over and over and over again, every day. That’s why Martin Luther encouraged us to remember our Baptism every day, so we can experience our rebirth through water and the Spirit.
Sometimes I wonder what Nicodemus would say if he were among us today. I’d like to think it would be this: “Jump in, St. Luke’s! The love is deep and the water is fine!”
Image: Kim Ruoff, Shutterstock; Royalty-free stock photo ID: 13174942.