Jim Jarrard is currently chair of Pullen’s coordinating council. He is a former Baptist minister, and recently retired from the NC Department of Health and Human Services where he served as deputy director of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.
Text: John 3:18-21
When you wander the streets of the Government complex in downtown Raleigh, especially during the season when the legislature is in session, you notice the cars parked along the curbs and in the covered reserved spaces in the municipal lots. It’s pretty easy to pick out the legislators, because they have “Vote for Me” bumper stickers and license plates that say “House” or “Senate” along with a low number befitting their rank. Members of the Council of State, and of course the governor and lieutenant governor and attorney general and others have very low plate numbers. As a rule of thumb, the lower the number on your license plate, the farther up the government food chain you probably are.
I simply mention this to observe that Nicodemus would have had a very low license plate number. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. A “leader of the Jews,” he was in one of the two major parties in the political and religious landscape, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the primary legislative and judicial body in the city. He comes to Jesus by night, in the dark. For John, the themes of darkness and light pervade the Gospel. The Gospel begins with a revisitation of the beginning of Genesis, “In the beginning” was the Word, the LOGOS, the creative and intentional act of God. The Word becomes flesh, lives here on earth, and brings life itself, that life is the light of all people.
Jesus had been going from town to town, doing remarkable things like healing people and changing water to wine, and these things were impressive enough for the likes of Nicodemus to pay a certain deference to Jesus. “We know you’re somebody,” Nicodemus says, “because of the wonderful things you do,” kind of like the Wizard of Oz. Nicodemus recognizes that you can’t ignore somebody like that, but that’s not the same as understanding them. Now all Pharisees may not have been as literalistic and clueless as Jesus takes Nicodemus to be here. They were more in touch with the common person than the Sadducees, who considered themselves more elite, centering their faith in the Temple as opposed to the Pharisees who centered their focus on the Law and the laws. Jesus has lots of confrontations with them in the gospels, but Nicodemus is mentioned only in John.
Now Nicodemus wants to talk to Jesus, but doesn’t want anybody to see him talking to Jesus, so he comes to see him at night. He may be a secret follower of Jesus, or just someone curious about what Jesus is doing. In the Dark. And his lack of comprehension of what Jesus is trying to tell him shows us that he’s not just there in the nighttime, but he’s pretty close to clueless when he tries to understand what Jesus is saying. “Born again, you say, Jesus?” “Again?” “Like the first time?” “Mother’s womb and everything?” Still in the dark.
Dr. King remembers Nicodemus in his annual report to the SCLC in 1967, when he says:
And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. One day, one night, a juror [i.e., member of the Sanhedrin] came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: … instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
In other words, ‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”
Jesus sighs and goes on telling him other things he doesn’t get. He finally explains that God loves the world so much that God goes all in. Yet, he says, there’s still a problem. People are conditioned to be selfish, protective, small of mind and heart, taking the path of least resistance, choosing what Jesus says is darkness. That great structural change doesn’t come easily. We are tempted to continue to live in a world where we have leverage financially, culturally, politically, socially, religiously, and we still choose to go home, to work, to school, to friends, as if that great gift God provides has not been given.
We understand that. It is an easy choice to make, this darkness. It may come naturally, or it may come through a lifetime of conditioning and coping, but there is some comfort in darkness. “Hello Darkness, my old friend,” say Simon and Garfunkel. “I’ve come to talk with you again.” This darkness, say the troubadours, is akin to the Silence. It’s familiar. It’s anonymous. A lot of people like darkness, and that doesn’t make them bad people. Now darkness isn’t in and of itself evil or good. It’s just darkness. But in John’s gospel there is an operational definition. Darkness is that in the sense that it is the arena where humanity may take up all the tools of self-destruction and wields them to the most painful of purposes. Light, on the other hand, is about truth. It is about transparency. It’s about doing the authentic thing when being inauthentic comes easier. It is often the harder choice to make, choosing light. Choosing light renders us vulnerable, whereas there is a protection afforded to us in the darkness.
Many folks I’ve met here at Pullen have been an inspiration to me as persons who have worked hard at a life of self-examination and choosing to live life with a sense of authenticity about who you are and who you wish to continue to become. You have each and several, sought support to that end, and have found it in this community and in the other communities which you have sought out, or who have sought you out, and invited you to share your journey with them. For me, that is a journey toward, and in, the light. It is challenging, and sometimes requires rethinking of things you’ve held dear for maybe your whole lives. But I thank you for living those lives so that the likes of me might be lifted toward my own authentic life.
Some of you will remember a model for therapy and personal growth called Transactional Analysis. I was involved in that modality for a while, taking classes and passing tests and using it where appropriate in my interactions with persons with whom I worked. It is a model based in Freud, so it’s probably a bit outdated, but the popular book by Eric Berne, I’m OK you’re OK, was a kind of simplified guide to its basic precepts. One example from the book I have carried with me as a kind of paradigmatic story about living an authentic, examined life. The discussion was concerning what Berne called “Parent Information,” or that set of moral, psychological, practical absolutes which get transferred between generations without examination or question. It seems there was a person who was preparing a holiday dinner in the company of her extended family and some friends. Part of the dinner preparation was to prepare a pot roast. To this end, she took a large knife and neatly cut an inch or so off the end of the pot roast before cooking, then placed it in the oven. A daughter who had been watching, asked her mother why she sliced that piece off the end of the roast, assuming it had something to do with promoting the flow of juices or something. Her mother said she wasn’t sure why, but simply said that she had seen her own mother routinely slice that end off, and so continued to do that herself, figured there was good reasons for it, and kept doing it. Her mother was there, so they asked, “Why did you do that.” Her response, of course, was that she wasn’t sure why she had done it, but her mother had always done it and she was a great cook, so she just copied the action. Grandmother wasn’t there right then, so they decided to call her up and ask why the family practice was to slice that end off the pot roast. Her response, “Well, I don’t know why you do it, but my pan was too small for the whole pot roast!”
To do things just because we’ve always done them that way is living in the dark. To “thingify” people because we don’t know them or because they are different from us, or because we’re afraid of them, is to live in the dark. To deny the blessings of a loving God to people because somehow we are afraid that if we give too much of that blessing to others it will somehow lessen the blessedness left for us, is living in the dark. Denying children a decent education, or poor people health care, or people coming here out of their own desire for a better life and forced to live in the shadows in order to live and work in a free land, or all people the right to vote, is to accede to the darkness rather than the light. And Jesus says the light is the place you need to be.
We live in a world, do we not, of constant choices between dark and light, between being authentic and being inauthentic, between living a life of personal commitment or personal evasion of commitment. What about this Nicodemus fellow? Well, we find him only in the Gospel of John, and in this gospel twice more. First, here, as he lurks in the dark, and with his either willful or clueless misunderstanding of the direction Jesus sought to give. The second time, we see him in the Sanhedrin assembly, where Pharisees are eager to condemn Jesus for his perceived illegal activities, to which Nicodemus, replies, “Our law does not judge people without giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” Do you hear with me a little movement toward the light, toward the real, toward the authentic? Then finally we see him along with another secret disciple, Joseph, preparing his body for burial and placing it in the grave. It’s still dark, but there is a light emerging.
Gandhi advocated a way of seeing and living that sought out living in the light as well. Satiyagraha was the Sanskrit compound term for “truth” and “polite resistance.” It was described to me once as a philosophy which sought to absorb hatred and evil rather than allowing the consequences of that darkness to bring harm to others. It is, in our context this morning, a sense of choosing the light.
And Dr. King, again, back in 1954:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.
May we choose the light.