“Out of the Shadows” Good Friday, April 19, 2019

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross (Pietà, by Michelangelo)

Scripture: After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:38-42

Reflection: The gospel of John is marked by two unique characteristics. The first is a focus on Jesus’ encounters with individuals. And secondly, the Gospel includes several long discourses where Jesus shows how he embodies the full meaning of Israel’s Scriptures and feasts and meets all of humanity’s deepest needs for God’s forgiveness, life, truth, and love.

One individual whom Jesus encounters in the Gospel of John is Nicodemus (John 3). The encounter with Nicodemus expresses the heart of John’s Gospel – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him (his person and mission) may not perish but may have new and eternal life” as a child of God (John 3:16). This new life is generated by the Spirit from above as a gift from God, it is beautiful and satisfying, but risky, even costly.

Nicodemus, a “Rabbi” or teacher of Israel, appears three times in the Gospel of John. We first meet Nicodemus when he comes under the cover of night to talk with Jesus one on one, in private (John 3). The use of the term “night” in the gospel of John symbolizes an imperfect or opaque faith that cannot clearly understand or see Jesus in the light of who he is; the Son of God and Savior of the world. Nicodemus, a Rabbi himself, addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” because he sees Jesus as an equal, not the Son of God. Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the necessity of a new birth that leads to a different and abundant life, but Nicodemus does not understand the meaning of a new birth because he cannot comprehend it in his natural mind without “that great inward change by the Holy Spirit” that brings about the new birth John Wesley speaks of (Notes 3:5).

Nicodemus departs from Jesus after the encounter without any mention of a commitment by the writer but reappears in two other places in John’s Gospel.

The second time Nicodemus is mentioned in the Gospel is in John 7:45-52. Briefly, the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah sent by God into the world to save it and give eternal life. Jesus also claims that he is the source of the Holy Spirit, the water of life, that satisfies humanity’s spiritual thirst. The temple police did not arrest Jesus because they had never heard anyone speak like him. The religious leaders are infuriated by the police’s insubordination and the crowd’s lack of legal sophistication and for their foolishness to believe in Jesus’ person and mission. Just then, as his colleagues are fevered with frustration and anger, Nicodemus reminds them that the law required a fair hearing to investigate allegations brought against a person; in this case, Jesus. Nicodemus is quickly chastised by his colleagues and mocked for his sympathies toward Jesus’ welfare and right to trial.

The third time we find Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is in John 19:39-42. No longer is he hiding notice from others as he seeks Jesus under the cover of the night shadows. He is no longer indirectly and secretly trying to defend Jesus’ rights or welfare. No, he is now fully out in the open, vulnerable, and public about his faith in Jesus Christ. He risks the loss of his social position as a privileged religious leader of Israel and his personal welfare when he joins with Joseph of Arimathea, also a former secret disciple of Jesus, to bury Jesus’ crucified body. Together they take Jesus’ body down from the cross, prepare it for burial by wrapping it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom, and they lay Jesus in a nearby tomb.

Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of aloe and myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. Clearly, the extravagant amount is a tangible symbol of Nicodemus’ new sight or vision of Jesus, not as another teacher, but as as Priest, Prophet, and King, God’s Son, his Lord and Savior.

Sometimes coming to the fulness of faith in Jesus Christ takes time; some call it a process. As Wesleyans, we call it, “moving on to perfection.” Each of us is unique. Some of us will move faster or slower than others with the help of the Holy Spirit from little or partial knowledge of Jesus Christ – “darkness” – to fully trusting in Christ as our Lord and Savior – “light” and salvation. Critical moments in our lives lead us to define who Christ is to us and what it means to be his disciple in the world. Over time, Jesus becomes more real, our faith in him solidifies, and the Holy Spirit leads us deeper into the light, way, truth, and abundant life Jesus offers us.

Nicodemus’ journey of faith informed by a searching conversation with Jesus, his observations of Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry, his dialogue with others about Jesus, his prayers, worship, searching of the scriptures, the passage of time, and critical moments in his life led him toward the fullness of faith and discipleship in Jesus Christ. His public acts of love and tribute to Jesus, put him at risk of losing everything that was near and dear to him. His hidden story in the Gospel of his journey toward a new birth and public witness encourages all disciples hiding in the shadows of fear to step forward with faith, courage, and extravagant generosity that honors and glorifies Christ as Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Lord, give the fullness of your peace now to your faithful people. May your peace rule in this life and possess us in eternal life. Grant that our dim sight may come to perceive the brightness of our crucified Lord’s truth, mercy, and life. Amen.

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