From fearful faith to fearless faith

| Father Michael Joncas | March 6, 2018 | 0 Comments
Fearless faith

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The few verses appointed in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Jn 3:14-21) offer an embarrassment of riches in terms of the themes the Gospel writer touches upon: being “lifted up”; the connection of belief in the Son of God and eternal life; the mission of the Son (“so that the world might be saved through him”); and the contrasts between believing or being condemned, loving light or darkness, doing evil or doing the truth, all of which provide rich fare for meditation and preaching.

Here I’d like to concentrate on the figure of Nicodemus, understood as a model of someone who comes to fearless faith in Christ Jesus, much like the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel readings for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent in Year A.

As is typical in the Gospel of John, historical figures and events can carry layers of symbolic meaning. Thus, the three appearances of Nicodemus in this Gospel (Jn 3:1-21, 7:46-52, Jn 19:39-40) narrate not only discreet snapshots of the actions of a first-century Jew, but also those of a whole class of Jewish leaders who gradually move from fearful faith in a wonder-worker to fearless faith in the Crucified One.

We first meet Nicodemus when he approaches Jesus under the cover of darkness, apparently afraid that he would lose respect as a member of the Sanhedrin — the official Jewish court consisting of priests, scribes and elders — if he is identified as consulting with Jesus. Nonetheless Nicodemus, evidencing the beginnings of faith since he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” and “teacher from God,” is instructed by Jesus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born “again” or “from above” (the Greek term is ambiguous). Nicodemus takes it to mean “again” and questions whether it is possible to enter the mother’s womb that gave him birth a second time, in effect conceiving of Jesus as a wonder-worker actualizing such a “re-birth.” But Jesus, taking the word in its alternative meaning, speaks of being born by “water and the Spirit.” Nicodemus’ further question “How can this be?” leads to the discourse we hear in the Gospel reading for March 11.

The second time we meet Nicodemus is in his role as a member of the Sanhedrin, now split in its assessment of Jesus in the light of his teaching in Jerusalem at Sukkoth, the feast of tabernacles. When the chief priests and Pharisees send the temple guard to arrest Jesus and they return to the Sanhedrin apparently struck by his teaching, the Jewish leaders are infuriated. But Nicodemus, risking their wrath and derision, reminds the Sanhedrin of the legal rules by which they operate: An accused has the right to defend himself (Jn 7:50-51). In John Pilch’s wonderful phrase, the nighttime visitor has become a daytime defender.

The final time we encounter Nicodemus is in John 19 where he collaborates with Joseph of Arimathea (identified as a secret disciple for fear of the Jewish leaders) to prepare and bury Jesus’ body after his death. According to John 19:39-40, Nicodemus brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing 100 Roman pounds (equal to 75 pounds of ours), an enormous amount fit for the burial of a king. Nicodemus has moved from inquirer to defender to believer in the Crucified One as sovereign; by helping with Jesus’ burial, he takes on the responsibilities of Jesus’ kin, publicly casting his lot with Christ.

May Nicodemus’ growth in faith serve as a model for our elect and the faithful this Lent!

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.


Sunday, March 11
Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Category: Sunday Scriptures