Harrowing Of Hell
May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday: Belief

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

We’re having a terrible problem in my house right now and it all boils down to belief. I may be the only one who sees it that way, but it’s true. I’m certain I’m right.

The problem you see comes down to tired parents and a 4 and a half year old girl with nightmares. I’m sure some of you have suggestions and I will happily take them, but be forewarned we have probably already tried it, whatever “it” is: a dream catcher, magic spray, having her sleep in a monster costume herself to scare away the bad dreams, letting her sleep on the couch, come in to our room at night, even a cot in our bedroom out of exhaustion and desperation, we’ve tried it all.

Joel draws on limitless stores of patience and extensive logic which she seems to love, in an effort to help her devise strategies for using her over-active imagination to change those bad dreams into good dreams. And yet, months later, we still have a child who is scared of her bed, terrified of her bedroom because as she says, “it has bad dreams.”

This is where belief comes in, she doesn’t believe us when we say her room doesn’t have bad dreams, and tell her they are actually in her imagination. She believes the bad dreams live in her room and is currently refusing to sleep there. We are at a stalemate. Even if I can get her to say: “I believe you. I believe the bad dreams don’t actually live in my bedroom,” it would only be an intellectual assent of my proposition. It wouldn’t be true belief; UNLESS she changes the way she lives her life.

But, there is another level of belief that is much more visceral. There is belief IN someone, which is way past intellectual assent. To believe in someone puts you in relationship with that person in such a way that you are trusting them with your life. I imagine that’s how a scary bedroom feels at night to a terrified 4 year old and she isn’t ready to believe in me at all. Maybe when she’s 5…

I think that’s what’s going on between Jesus and Nicodemus in this fascinating dialogue from John’s gospel. There is clearly a misunderstanding around “belief.”

But to back up a moment, let me tell you about more about Nicodemus. He appears only three times in the entire Bible and they are all in the gospel of John with this scene being his debut. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. That means he is a ruling member of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem tasked with enforcing Jewish law.

He comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness seeking wisdom because he has to do it in secret or he’s avoiding the crowds, scholars are in disagreement regarding his motives for this nocturnal visit. Regardless of his motives, he doesn’t want to be seen, and he is taking a big risk simply by coming. In the immediately preceding verses, Jesus overturned tables in the Temple and cast out the moneychangers. Jesus is not in good favor with the Pharisees right now and that makes the timing of Nicodemus’ visit all the more interesting.

Jesus’ behavior in the Temple that day irritated most of the Pharisees, but not Nicodemus. For Nicodemus it was captivating somehow and made him want to find out more. So, he comes to Jesus in secret and they begin talking. Their conversation is lengthy for scripture, which gives us the opportunity to learn about both of these men. It’s also very playful, bordering on sarcastic. They are messing with each other, speaking nearly in riddles.

Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answers: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is flesh is flesh. What is Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
Nicodemus: “How can these things be?”

I’m not sure they are participating in the same conversation at all. The last thing Nicodemus says is “How can these things be?” You can just hear the exasperation in Jesus’ voice as he responds: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” It’s like the ridiculous conversations I have with my daughter at 10pm when she won’t go to bed because of the bad dreams and we are talking in circles and getting nowhere.

How do you not understand the words coming out of my mouth? Jesus is asking. Jesus is on a roll and keeps right on going with a lecture. “We speak of what we know and have seen; yet you don’t even believe that. If I have told you about things right here on earth and you don’t believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

He adds for emphasis, “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” but why he even bothers to say that I don’t know because clearly the dialogue has ended and we hear nothing more from Nicodemus who has vanished.

This is just the beginning of Nicodemus’ story. In Chapter 7, Nicodemus appears briefly when he comes to the defense of Jesus in the presence of the police and other Pharisees. The notation in my study Bible for chapter 7, verse 50 says, “He appears sympathetic and interested in Jesus’ teaching.” Nicodemus, like Jesus and the rest of us, is clearly on his own spiritual journey and through these small glimpses, we can see it develop and grow. He has moved from the know-it-all teacher of Israel who comes under the cover of night asking many questions to a public authority figure willing to intercede on behalf of Jesus out of sympathy and concern.

The last time, he appears is in the final scenes of the gospel after Jesus has died. Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea, and together they take Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrap his body in linens with a hundred pounds of spices, according to Jewish burial customs, and laid him to rest in the tomb. What a powerful statement of love and adoration.

Maybe Nicodemus popping in and out each time a little changed, a little further along his own spiritual journey, is a scriptural example of our own journey: from curiosity and skeptical questions under the cover of night, not really wanting others to even know the depths of interest, to true interest and publicly expressed passion, to finally, a very public, move from belief to belief in Jesus.

Nicodemus finally, by the end of the gospel, at the burial of Jesus reached that visceral level of belief that was way past intellectual assent. By this point, Nicodemus believed IN Jesus and that put him in relationship with Jesus even though Jesus had died. Where are you in your journey of belief? Can you identify with Nicodemus somewhere along his trajectory of skepticism, to belief, to belief in Christ?

The beautiful thing about being on your spiritual journey in community is that we aren’t at the same place at the same time. I was speaking the other day with someone who is feeling like their faith is fairly empty at the moment, and I encouraged that person to be here anyway. The conclusion we came to together is that not everyone is out of faith at the same time and that is part of being the body of Christ, being sealed together by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves through the community and as this person said to me, “I guess seeing the Spirit made manifest in another person can bolster your own faith” even when it is feeling dried up and empty. You just never know.

Perhaps the challenge for us in community it to believe in one another, not to simply believe each other. That is a way in which we can hold onto faith when we feel we have none or when we feel we have lost sight of our faith. And so I ask you, in what do you truly believe, and how are you willing to show that you love for that belief? And are you willing to take risks to be in relationship for that belief?