Lent 2: Year A.  

Nicodemus and Jesus                               

The words are familiar enough: ‘In the beginning was…’ well what? What was it that was ‘in the beginning’? John the Evangelist tells us that it was the ‘logos’ – which our English translations generally render as ‘the word’. However there are those who would say that this is not an entirely satisfactory way of translating a word which originally denoted the whole act of speech, not merely an item of it (the Greek word for that is ‘rhema’). In ancient usage ‘logos’ could refer to the principle of intelligence, which, so some philosophers taught, pervades  the universe as a kind of cosmic rationality and which, like Wisdom, coming out of the mouth of the Most High, reaches from one end to the other and orders all things mightily and sweetly. ‘Logos’ could also denote a narrative, an account, a story; it could refer to the inner mental processes of thinking and reflecting, or to the external exchange of communication, conversation and discourse. In fact the 16th century Dutch humanist  Erasmus, drawing on a tradition which goes back to the early days of Christianity, in his translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin, rendered ‘logos’ as ‘sermo’ – the Latin word for discourse, talk, conversation. It is a fascinating and intriguing notion that ‘in the beginning was the conversation, the conversation was with GOD and the conversation was GOD’. That is how it all began – with mutuality and exchange and consultation within the GODhead. Nothing happened without it.

According to Christian belief, the conversation became audible and we were invited to join in. Because it is in a language which we can understand and to which we can respond, our participation in the divine conversation has the effect of raising our human nature on to another level, making us a new people, a new creation.

If Jesus can be said to be GOD’s way of being human, he can also be said to be the conversation which GOD wishes to have with us. Jesus is for us the King’s Speech and if we will allow him, he will make it his business to heal us of our halting and faltering human discourse and enable us to speak clearly.

Alice, you may remember, thought that a book without pictures or conversations as altogether unsatisfactory. Perhaps the fourth evangelist was of the same opinion, for of all four Gospels his is the one which in so many ways is richest in circumstantial and pictorial detail and which also reports some of the conversations which Jesus had with those whom he encountered in the days of his flesh. Among them the Woman of Samaria, various groups of Jews, the disciples in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, Simon Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and others as well. Other conversations are hinted at; we hear, as it were, the murmur of voices behind closed doors (think for instance of Andrew and the other disciple, who following Jesus, spent the rest of the day with him, presumably talking with him). In today’s Gospel reading we eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, ‘a man of the Pharisees… a leader of the Jews…a teacher of Israel ’, a man of consequence and standing, who ‘came to Jesus by night’.

Conversation – encounter, exchange, discussion. At one time it was not unusual to speak of our ‘Mother Tongue’. It is a significant metaphor. Language is maternal, it is the womb in which we are formed and nurtured. In the beginning it was by being addressed by others, in words, in speech, in song, in silence, that gradually we were able to develop a sense of self, a sense of identity. Because of that, we are able to do the same for others.

If ours is the vocabulary, the grammar and the syntax of the King’s Speech, our dealings with others will be like his fertile and life-giving. ‘My word shall not return to me empty,’ says GOD ‘but shall accomplish that which I purpose and prosper in the thing for which I sent it’. (Isaiah 55:10). The word of GOD creates and calls into being things that are not, it renews and restores all things.

That is how it is to be with our speech, our words. What we say  to one another and how we say it is of immense significance for the making of ourselves and of one another and of our world. It is the choice which we make a hundred times a day as we talk to one another, talk about one another, as we gossip, joke, exchange news, share our hopes, our doubts, our uncertainties, our fears, express our opinions and pass on information.

Our conversational range is immense. The re is the vacuous boasting, the puffed-up  words with which we seek to call attention to ourselves and promote ourselves. The re are the words which have the effect of lowering  morale and discouraging others, words which bore and crush, the clever remark, the smart  put-down, the playing for laughs at someone else’s expense. Sometimes there is a violence implicit in what we say – the sly comment, the false sadness which we express at other people’s failures or disgrace; the dishonest honesty of the frankness which is meant to hurt. Our repertoire is astonishing in its variety.

It belongs to our Christian discipleship to speak words which are good, blessing-filled and life-enhancing. We need to be aware of what  we say and of how we say it, if we are to nurture and cherish the dignity of others.

The Wisdom tradition tells us that the wise person refrains from much talking. He who speaks does not know. He who knows does not speak. That bouquet of brambles which we call the Book of Proverbs points out that ‘he who belittles his neighbour lacks sense but a man of understanding remains silent’. (Prov.11.12).

In reporting the conversation  which we hear in today’s Gospel, the Evangelist tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus ‘by night’. It is often the case that GOD’s creative and fertile address to us enters our lives when we are in the dark. It is in the ‘unknowing’ that the new life germinates within us, waiting for the moment when we shall be ready to receive it. Jesus said to the disciples that he had many things to say to them but that at that point they were not ready for them. ‘For everything there is a season, (says the Preacher in Jerusalem ) and a time for every matter under heaven…a time to keep silence and a time to speak’ (Eccles.3.1).

Implicit in what Jesus says to Nicodemus is the truth that it is in the darkness and silence of our ‘unknowing’, if we have ears to hear, we can learn to relinquish the control and power with which we seek to manage our lives and wait quietly upon GOD. This is how we are to be born again, by becoming small and dependent. This is how we are to live in the Spirit, who moves in us and among us as and how he wills. For the Spirit is always present to our lives and he will renew us and teach us how to take our place, how to listen and how and when to speak, in the conversation which is from the beginning and into which GOD, who is always a new language, invites us and bids us welcome.

Eric Simmons CR