Wearing faith on one’s sleeve can be a great liability. How do we follow Jesus and maintain relationships with people who have good reason to question our motives?
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Do you have relatives you actively avoid? Perhaps you have a person who is technically family, but in your mind there is no way he or she is part of your family tree.
I have dealt with such kin.
Because I am fortunate enough to have two living grandmothers around ninety-years-old, I will change the name of my uncle to Ralph to protect the innocent. And Grandma, if you’re listening on line or hearing about this from an upset cousin, I love you dearly. I trust that God forgave Uncle Ralph, may he rest in peace.
One of the first times I brought Colleen home to meet my family, I introduced her to Ralph. “Uncle Ralph,” he added, “Uncle Ralph.” My omission of his title was clearly more obvious than I thought, so he made a point to emphasize his status. In addition to the fact that Uncle Ralph did not filter his words, I had another grievance. He was dishonest. A couple of years earlier, he had offered to help my brother change the spark plugs in his car. My brother bought the new plugs, and Ralph agreed to install them as a favor. This seemed nice enough, until my dad later discovered that Uncle Ralph had removed the old spark plugs, replaced them with different used plugs, and kept the new ones. This was only one example of Ralph’s bizarre decisions. Thus, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to unleash Uncle Ralph on the woman with whom I was falling in love!
Most of us have at least one person in our lives we struggle to claim—the one who doesn’t seem to be able to avoid making inappropriate comments, or understand the difference between a very public Facebook wall post and a private message.
No matter how we frame the situation, however, family is family.
Such challenges apply to our sisters and brothers in faith as well.
Living into this sense of family can be incredibly challenging. Though there are many positives coming from the likes of Pope Francis, Glenda Hope and other individuals, I frequently cringe when I hear about the exploits of our Christian relatives.
All too often, however, we hear stories of scandal, hypocrisy, and people proof texting portions of the Bible to discriminate against others. Sometimes we just encounter odd people such as the “Jesus Saves” or “John 3:16” guy who always seems to show up at ballgames or “The End is Near” street preachers around the city.
Whether you are new and exploring your spirituality, or a lifetime veteran of the faith, well intentioned relatives in the faith push most of us into stealth Christian mode at work, school, and in the community.
Following Jesus is risky.
In today’s Scripture lesson, we encounter Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a powerful figure as a member of the Sanhedrin, the equivalent of the Jewish Supreme Court in Roman times. Along with his peers, Nicodemus might have first viewed Jesus as one of many nuisances claiming to have some unique connection to God. As time went on, however, Jesus proved to be more than a nuisance. His following grew with each miracle and his pointed words for religious leaders started to make him a threat to the power structure. The Roman Empire tolerated Judaism because it could help reduce the likelihood of a revolt. Many Jewish leaders functioned as puppets of the truly powerful Romans. I want to stress that my intent is not to judge Jewish people then or now. Numerous Christian leaders throughout history have been used to endorse leaders of empires and preserve their institutions.
Nicodemus had heard of the ministry of Jesus and found himself moved to learn more, confessing that he believed Jesus had come from God. As he is prone to do, Jesus makes Nicodemus’ head spin by introducing the concept of rebirth from the Spirit.
George Stroup, one of my academic advisors at Columbia Theological Seminary, reminds us that a key theme of the Gospel of John is darkness and light. In the case of Nicodemus, the process of coming into the light is long and probably involved many sleepless nights. He knew how followers of Jesus were perceived. Many were lower class outcasts without real world power.
Stroup explains that Nicodemus is often associated with followers of Christ who try to keep the respect of this world, while secretly yearning for more. In Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, Stroup writes that Nicolaitans are “Christians who were willing to remain unnoticed, if not tolerated, in a non-Christian world.” John Calvin, one of the great reformers and key to Presbyterians coming to be, “Referred to those who sympathized with the movement for the reform of the church, but were reluctant to be publicly identified with it as “Nicodemites.”
When Nicodemus finally does emerge, he makes a major difference.
In John 7 when his religious peers are searching for a way to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus speaks out to defend Jesus: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” He is mocked for doing so: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?”
Nicodemus apparently reached a point where he didn’t care quite so much what his peers thought. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, the one who first only came to Jesus under the cover of night, was there to give Jesus a proper burial. He was there at the end, likely throwing away the worldly power, prestige, and privilege he had built up. Despite the very strange behavior of those who would be his brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, Nicodemus emerged from the shadows.
Since the time of Nicodemus, our Christian relatives have given us plenty of reasons to cringe. Like most churches, Calvary has lived through moments of challenge. I learned about one simultaneously embarrassing and inspiring situation that was new even to our historian Joe Beyer. Mike Owens of Valparaiso University contacted Joe while researching a biography project centered on a controversial figure in our past.
Sara B. Cooper arrived at Calvary in approximately 1881 (at the time the church was meeting where the St. Francis Hotel now stands across from Union Square). Sara took over an adult Sunday School program with seven people and grew it to 700. One church Elder took exception to her teachings, which did not reflect a literal acceptance of the Bible as fact. Though she had the support of Calvary’s Pastor Hemphill, the Session, and apparently the majority of the congregation, the objecting Elder and a small number of his friends filed charges against Mrs. Cooper. The charges were reviewed by Presbytery, the governing body of all local congregations. The oral proceedings went well, but Mrs. Cooper wrote afterword to clarify that she did not accept all Biblical accounts as history. Regarding Jonah, for instance, she said, “we see the inevitable relation between disobedience and penalty.” With written sentiment of Cooper’s “heresy” now in hand, the Presbytery leaders felt they had no choice but to convict her.
The vast majority of the church leadership at the time supported her and asked her to stay even after the trial, but Sara chose to leave, writing, “There is no time for useless strife.” She affirmed that there were many “true-hearted” in the Presbytery, “But there are others who live in the dead letter, and demand that others abide on the same level, or receive judicial censure and be branded as heretics before the world.”
Sara continued to teach her class at the Congregational Church and went on to have a great impact in San Francisco, founding the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association and becoming active in the suffrage movement with the likes of Susan B. Anthony.
Sara B. Cooper refused to live dead in the letter.
She emerged from darkness to reflect light.
Nicodemus refused to live dead in the letter.
He emerged from darkness to reflect light.
Jesus refused to live dead in the letter or stay in the tomb.
He emerged from darkness to reflect light.
How will we live?
 George Stroup, in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Year A, vol. 2, Lent through Eastertide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 68-72.
 This quote is from “The Reasons Why,” Sara B. Cooper’s explanation as to why she left the Presbyterian Church. To receive a copy, please e-mail or see Joe Beyer, firstname.lastname@example.org