Nicodemus was embarrassed. Obviously.
I mean, he waited until it was dark to talk to Jesus, who Nico's fellow Pharisees thought was a dangerous heretic.
And Nico's first words to Jesus implied he was impressed by the Nazarene but unsure who he really was.
“Rabbi,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “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.”
Nicodemus sounds like someone who doesn’t know what he’s thinking until he says words and then examines them to see what he thinks about them.
Very likely, he’s hoping Jesus’ response will cut through his fog and tell him exactly who he is.
“You got it, Nic,” Jesus could have said. “I have come from God. In fact, I AM God. Get it? I AM.”
But that’s not the way the conversation goes. Brushing aside Nicodemus’ tentative words, Jesus abruptly declares that Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue and will never have a clue until he is born again. Or, in other translations, born from above.
Either way, Nicodemus’ doubts are not assuaged. He has come to Jesus an agnostic, and – unable to interpret Jesus’ puzzling aphorisms – departs an agnostic.
This inability to fully believe something must have been unsettling for a Pharisee, who made his living by following clear-cut rules and fully accepting the tiniest esoterica of the law.
We have tended to deride Nicodemus at this stage of his faith development because he cannot grasp what Jesus is telling him. We know, of course, what Jesus means by “born again,” and we chuckle behind Nicodemus’ back because he doesn’t know.
But if we think about it more charitably, perhaps Nicodemus can be forgiven his agnosticism.
“The trouble with the world,” said Bertrand Russell, one of the great agnostics of the 20th century, “is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Christians and other persons of faith have not always agreed with Dr. Russell, but we can certainly affirm the truth of that. Just about everyone we know – at family reunions, in class, at the office, in church – is either stupidly cocksure or intelligently full of doubt.
Yet for Christians, doubt is such an opprobrium. Doubt implies spiritual weakness. Doubt implies disrespect for God. Doubt is – well, it’s downright embarrassing.
Be that as it may, doubt is not only common among us – it is universal.
Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian scholar and pastor, puts it this way:
An agnostic is somebody who doesn't know for sure whether there really is a God. That is some people all of the time and all people some of the time.There are some agnostics who don't know simply because they've never taken pains to try to find out—like the bear who didn't know what was on the other side of the mountain.There are other agnostics who have taken many pains. They have climbed over the mountain, and what do you think they saw? Only the other side of the mountain. At least that was all they could be sure of. That faint glimmer on the far horizon could have been just Disneyland.Agnostics generally fall on both sides of the Bertrand Russell divide. Some are cocksure and never bother to think about God while others work hard to rationalize their doubts.
Having been in that latter category myself, off and on throughout my life, I tend to admire those who keep coming back to reexamine their doubts.
Like many Baptists, my faith was at its pinnacle when I went forward during an evangelical service to be born again. My doubts were few when I was re-baptized by immersion at the age of 20. I have felt God’s presence, powerfully and palpably, on many occasions, especially when I sat beside my dying mother’s bed to read the 23rd Psalm to her.
But these moments did not seal my faith and on other occasions I wonder if God is a figment of my imagination. An unexpected life crisis, the inexplicable death of a precious friend who had much to live for, or unspeakable tragedies such as the shooting deaths of 26 innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, make one wonder if there is a God in charge. Or is the universe random and ungoverned?
It is entirely capricious that mountain top moments of unequivocal faith are balanced throughout our lives in dark valleys of doubt.
One of my early mentors was a Roman Catholic priest from Detroit, an Air Force chaplain named Dick Kucharski. Most of the airmen called him Father Kuch, and he was a man of deep faith and a superb spiritual leader. Masses overflowed with single airmen who responded to his compassion and charisma.
But as his assistant, I saw Father Kuch in his moments of doubt. His lowest moments were carnal, as is the case with most of us. And when he watched a particularly beautiful woman pass by, you could feel his pain – and his doubts. “If there’s no heaven,” he whispered to me on one such occasion, “I am so screwed.”
Years later I heard Father Kuch resigned from the Air Force, left the priesthood, and got married in Detroit. I remember thinking at the time that this career change probably salved his doubts and saved his soul.
If I learned anything from Father Kuch, it was that the detritus of doubt clutters our path to salvation, and faith is a constant struggle.
I confess that is one reason I have never favored the evangelical approach that presents faith as a simple certainty, or warns that a failure to invite Jesus into one’s heart may result in eternal damnation.
That kind of cocksure sales approach is a manipulative ruse, and ignores Paul’s plea to the church at Philippi to continue working out their salvation “with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)
The main problem with being cocksure about something is that you never have to reexamine it. You never get the opportunity to reflect on whether you’re right or wrong.
We may feel justified in declaring “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Certainly it saves time spent in thought. But too often, the declaration prevents you from going back to God to make sure you’re right.
Doubt, on the other hand, requires you to continually reexamine your faith, clarifying it, improving it, certifying it.
Jesus talked to Nicodemus about the distinctions between the flesh and the spirit, and the Pharisee was befuddled by doubt. “How can these things be?” he asked.
Jesus responded, “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?” (John 3:10-12)
The point Jesus is leading up to, of course, is the one we quote at each other all the time:
“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.” (John 3:16)
In fact, it is precisely that statement that we tend not to think about. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
But for Nicodemus, the conversation with Jesus was the beginning of a profound mental struggle that called into question all of his Pharisaical assumptions and legalistic faith.
Unlike most other Pharisees, who were cocksure they were right and Jesus was wrong, Nicodemus continued to nurse his doubts.
In the end, he was rewarded with a revelation that was impossible for his cocksure brethren. That revelation was a sudden understanding that God had indeed sent his only son into the world, and faith in that son was the foundation of salvation.
Soon, Nicodemus was risking the ridicule of the chief priests and Pharisees by defending Jesus in their councils.
And when Jesus’ own disciples fled from him at the time of his crucifixion, Nicodemus was present to arrange for his burial. (John 19:39)
Doubt had brought Nicodemus a long way.
No doubt he, like all of us, continued to struggle with his doubts.
But it is always the struggle that tests our faith, affirms it, and strengthens it in the end.
In a world that is divided between the cocksure and the doubters, it seems obvious:
The place to enjoy the highest quality interaction with God is with the doubters.