Sermons

Pentecost Sunday 2012

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Acts 2:1-21
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Pentecost Sunday
May 27, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

I have been reminded recently on more than one occasion that God answers prayer. But I would be the first to tell you that life experience has, for the most part, taught me exactly the opposite. God does not answer prayer most of the time—or, at least God does not answer prayer in the way I want God to answer or on the timetable I had expected. In fact, life can be so brutal that I forget to pray at all for loss of faith. Or I choose not to pray for fear of being disappointed.

Sometimes I re-choose prayer by a sheer effort of my will. I discipline my practices in hopes that my faith will catch up. But other times I remember to pray because suddenly Grace plops down in my life like a bounding Tigger, as if to say, “I can’t believe you didn’t see me coming,” and I am surprised all over again that Grace is real.

On the Day of Pentecost, Grace plopped down with a flourish and shocked the socks off everyone—so much so that you couldn’t tell a Spirit-filled apostle from a drunken fool on the street, so the story goes. It was a confusing, throbbing, magnificent mess in which the Spirit of God was so conspicuous, so alive, so mobile, so awake and irresistible that the author of our text could only describe it by saying that the Spirit was like fire and like wind. All consuming, it sounded like the blowing of a violent wind that filled the whole house and it looked like tongues of fire that rested on each of them.

Read more →

Ephesians 1:15-23

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Ephesians 1:15-23
Steve Spivey
May 20, 2012

Children of God (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: Children of God
Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-5
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
May 13, 2012
Kyndall Renfro
 

I had no idea that future generations of believers would invent jokes about St. Peter standing at the pearly gates of heaven, asking why should God let you into heaven? For me, it was no joke. My name is Cornelius, and I literally sent my servants to Peter’s doorstep where they knocked on behalf. From miles away, my heart was thumping as if I was standing at the gates myself, one single question thudding in my heart: Will God accept me? It felt like Peter held my life, my fate, my destiny in his hands. I felt so indebted to him, in fact, that I bowed to him upon first meeting him, though I was a centurion and he a common man.

Read more →

For the Love of God (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: For the Love of God
John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 29, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

Pardon my language when I tell you that Anne Lamott says Easter “hope is about believing this one thing: that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”[1] The 23rd Psalm tells us (in PG language) that love is bigger than the valley of the shadow of death, and John tells us love is so big that it lays down its life for its friends. These are beautiful, Easter-sized sentiments, but they make love seem too big to get a handle on for a regular, non-heroic person like me. Laying down your life is rather lofty. I’m just trying to figure out how to love Nate when he forgets to wash his dishes. If only I could find the receipt, I’d like to return 1 John and exchange it for the beginner’s manual. This stuff is advanced. I wouldn’t even qualify as intermediate!

Like most people I find Love to be quite pleasant as an idea or as a dream but it is a near absurdity as a real-life situation. Read more →

The Journey of Repentance (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: The Journey of Repentance
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 22, 2012
Kyndall Renfro
 

At the beginning of Lent, I told you I was on a pilgrimage to rediscover the practice of confession because I was afraid it had gone missing. I confessed to you, there was a lack of confession in my life, and I am afraid there is a lack of confession in the church. That sermon was the beginning of a Lenten pilgrimage and now, here we are, on the other side of the Cross, celebrating the glories of Eastertide and an empty tomb, and our lectionary texts today are filled with talk of repentance.

While I was geared up and ready to talk about confessing and repenting during Lent, it seems a bit too sad for Eastertide, don’t you think? In the Acts chapter 3 passage, Peter’s sermon returns us to the pain and shame of the cross before we are ready. “It’s only been two weeks since Easter,” I want to protest, and Peter takes us right back to Good Friday, reminding us it was our voices shouting, “Crucify him.” Peters says this to the crowd, “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned him before Pilate. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. You killed the author of life.”

Whew. I don’t know about you, but this is not the memory I want to go to on the third Sunday of Eastertide. It’s a harsh opener: “You killed the author of life.” This is not, by the way, how they teach you to start a sermon in seminary, but it is surprisingly effective for Peter, who sees five thousand people come to Christ. Of course, the point of Peter’s sermon is not the judgment, but the repentance of the people. He concludes by saying, “God raised him from the dead . . . and now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance. So repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that time of refreshing may come from the Lord.” 1 John 3 echoes, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins,” as if to say, the resurrection would be in vain if it didn’t in turn raise people up out of their sins and into a new way of life. Peter isn’t interested in whether the people feel bad for what happened at the crucifixion. What Peter wants is to see Easter brought to completion in their very hearts. His sermon is less about the sadness of Good Friday, and more about the joy of repentance. This can be hard for us to get our minds around since we’ve often been taught to associate repentance with sorrow. Read more →

The Forging of Unity (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: The Forging of Unity
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:3, 6-7
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 15, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

Very few people these days have ever experienced church in the rosy, picturesque way it is described in Acts chapter 4: “They were of one heart and soul. God’s grace was powerfully at work among them. There was not a needy person among them.” Of course, the rest of Acts will paint a more realistic portrayal, complete with persecutions, church disputes, and everyday setbacks. But even still, shouldn’t the church of today live up to the ideal in Acts chapter 4 at least partway or some of the time?

Instead, it is more common for people go to church and experience burn-out or manipulation or bullying or judgment or bickering or just plain boredom, and as result it is becoming a trend in my generation to leave the church behind altogether. My peers aren’t necessarily losing faith or abandoning God, but they are exiting the church doors by the herds and most are not coming back. While spirituality remains in vogue, the church itself has been too big of a disappointment to stomach. These days God is easier to spot among the trees than he is to find beneath any steeples, and my generation isn’t afraid to say so out loud and head to the forest, without glancing back at the pews. Read more →

Resurrection Sunday

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Mark 16:1-8
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Resurrection Sunday
April 8, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

The messenger proclaims, “He has risen! He is not here!”

But in the Gospel of Mark the women run away and tell no one because they are afraid. I don’t know about you but I want these women to get excited, burst out in song, do a little jig, toss confetti, throw a party, something. For all I care they could even go home and gather eggs from the hens, but then dye them all the colors of Spring. They could even tell their children the eggs came from bunnies. I just want them to do something exciting, something out of the ordinary. You know? Celebrate!

But apparently, according to Mark, they don’t feel like celebrating. They feel like hiding. Like running away into some secluded spot where they can sort this thing out. What’s happened to their Savior, really? After the horrific events of the past few days their brains just cannot process one more shock. This is overload, overboard, and they don’t know what to do or what to say, and so they say nothing.

Now in Matthew, in Luke, and in John the women run to the disciples and share the news. In those three Gospels, the women are the very first human beings to proclaim the Good News. But for whatever reason, the book of Mark tells the story differently: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In this sense, Mark is the most unsatisfying of all four resurrection accounts. The tomb is empty . . . and it stays a secret. But before we get too disappointed by Mark’s ending, let’s rewind and start at the beginning. Read more →

Palm Sunday

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Mark 11:1-11
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Palm Sunday
April 1, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

The Triumphal Entry seems so out of character for Jesus that I find myself struggling to understand its place in the Gospel. We’ve traversed quite a bit of the book of Mark this year, and at every turn Jesus seems to be shushing people, warning them not to spread the news that he is Messiah. “See that you tell no one” is a Markan refrain, like a praise chorus that keeps on repeating itself, only it is a resounding “shhh” rather than an alleluia. Maybe the Hosanna of today’s text is a big relief after all that silence, and that is why we get excited about Palm Sunday. Finally, we get to make some noise. Finally, the secret’s out. Jesus is King, and we can shout it. Finally.

But after the street dust has settled and the palm leaves have been trampled and the boisterous singing has softened, we are left wondering what made Jesus change his tune? I mean, the people do not burst forth in jubilation like characters in a musical, catching Jesus by surprise. The crowd didn’t stage a flash mob in defiance of Jesus’ demand for silence; Jesus himself does all the staging. If you read the story, you get the sense that Jesus encouraged the praise by setting it all up just so. He arranges for the donkey, he plans it out meticulously, he rides in, he accepts the glory. But why? What happened to keeping it quiet, staying beneath the radar, and maintaining a low profile? Read more →

Fifth Sunday of Lent

*Unfortunately, due to a recording glitch, no audio of this week’s sermon is available. The manuscript is below. 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 12:23-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 25, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Unless you die, you will not live. If you love your life, you will lose it. But if you hate your life, you get to keep it, which begs the question, why do you want to keep something you hate?

If you ask me, Jesus is shooting himself in the foot here. No one is going to buy into this flip-flopped philosophy where you lose what you love and gain what you hate. But that’s just the thing about Jesus—he’s not a bit perturbed if no one buys, because he isn’t selling. The Gospel isn’t a product up for purchase, and that frees Jesus from having to sprinkle it with glitter so it catches your attention. He just says it like it is, so that nothing short of the Spirit of God can move you towards it.

Nobody in their right mind buys into an outlook like this one. In the first place, it doesn’t make sense. In the second place, it doesn’t sound like a bit of fun. And while Jesus’ disciples were surely squirming uncomfortably at the sound of Jesus’ words, I reckon that what he said is even stranger for us 21st century Americans.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed the patch of dying cactus by the entrance to our labyrinth—white and gray and withering—but after the recent rains, there are now all sorts of other plant life pushing up through the rot—death being transformed to life right at our feet. But for the most part, this type of natural renewal stays in the peripheral for us modern folk, such that it is not only a challenge to relate to Jesus’ sayings about death; it is near impossible to relate to a kernel of wheat at all. What do we know of planting and harvesting? Jesus’ analogy isn’t helpful for people who buy their bread and veggies at HEB.

In our automobiles and air-conditioned buildings, we stay pretty far removed from nature’s cycle of life. We have buildings to shield us from the seasons. We have grocery stores to cushion us from agriculture. There are conveniences galore to absorb the shock of real life and hard labor, so we don’t have to feel things so acutely as our ancestors. We have machines and medications to artificially prolong life. And even in the face of death, we have gobs of entertainment to distract us from grief and make us feel invincible all over again.

What if all this self-imposed distance from pain and death cuts us off from knowing resurrection? What if we’ve blocked our view of regeneration? My friend Brett visited a primitive village in Southeast Asia where the native people don’t have trashcans, which is to say, they don’t have trash. At all. No waste. We would call that uncivilized—no technology, no gadgets, no appliances, no stuff. But no garbage either. That means nothing gets dumped forever. Nothing is discarded. Even dead bodies, I suppose, return to the ground and nourish it. Every single thing contributing to the cycle of life, nourishing the world even as it dies. Nothing pollutes life; everything feeds life.

Such a way of life is so entirely foreign to ours.  Resurrection has become scarce in modernity. We’ve nearly obliterated it from our line of vision. Jesus’ words about life coming out of death make little sense to us in our pell-mell, fast-food, factory-run world where we no longer plant our own seed and patiently watch for the life that slowly emerges from death. Ours is a world where we throw out our trash rather than reuse it; where we hide things in the attic rather than give them a second life. I am not saying our modern conveniences are evil, but I am suggesting they have stunted our capacity for imagining and believing in the power of resurrection. Sometimes I wonder if we do so much shopping in this country because our imaginations have been dulled—we’ve lost the capacity to create something new out of something old. So we throw out the old and rake in the new, and the overflow in our garbage cans and storage units wail in protest that our actual lives are, in fact, empty.

Resistance to death is, in part, due to a fear of time itself. If you are anything like me, time is often a tyrant that rules me and squeezes me dry, demanding my servitude and punctuality, wearing me thin. Of course we’ve nearly solved the problem of time. We have artificial light to prevent the coming of night, and caffeine to prolong the onset of sleep. All we lack is a machine that could delay the arrival of Monday morning, and we’d be set.

But if the sun never seems to set because the lamp is on, then we won’t notice the sunrise either, and once again, we have obscured our vision. Nature has its ways of reminding us that night brings morning, that winter turns to spring, that death results in rebirth. But I bought a lamp, an alarm clock, an iphone, and a bag of coffee so I am well on my way to defying the constructs of Time. I can beat this thing, I just know it. Unless, of course, Time wasn’t meant to be a problem to conquer but a gift to unwrap, surrendering myself to a Rhythm wiser than I.

Macrina Wiederkehr explains, “The ancients had a different relationship with time than most of us have. Time was not an enemy with which to do battle. For the elders of our historic past, time was more of a loving companion . . .They didn’t spend their lives trying to look eternally youthful. There was no such thing as anti-aging cream . . . dying was a celebration of life.”[1]

There are benefits to modern advances, to be sure, but there is also a dark side. We’ve little vision left for resurrection, and Jesus’ challenge to fall into the ground and die like a seed is a tall order for withered imaginations like ours.

When Jesus says we must hate “life in this world,” I think he is referring to what Charles Foster calls “the complex raft of support mechanisms we wrongly call our lives and think we need.”[2] We have schedules and planners that define us; gadgets, toys, and possessions that own us. There are the coping strategies behind which we hide from the truth about ourselves. There are the vanities and the violences we can’t seem to live without. None of these things are the “life” we gain if we follow Jesus. It will feel like death, pulling ourselves away from our treasures and crutches, but the end result is resurrection.

Easier said than done. We can’t just quit our jobs and walk away from all that is urgent. But we can die, bit by bit, day by day and find more of life along the way. Don’t ask me to explain it. I hardly understand it, but I trust it to be true. The only hope we have is that it worked for Jesus.

There is an age-old wisdom in Jesus words, but more than that, this is his testimony. Jesus is one who died like a kernel of wheat, and out of whom shot forth many seeds of righteousness. The one who gave up his life in order to gain life for himself and for the world. The one who was rejected by many but glorified by the Father.

The mystics tell us that we must be prepared to die if we want to live well. Someone once said, “It’s too bad dying is the last thing we do, because it could teach us so much about life.”[3] The poets tell us there is an art to dying; “we are dying to live,” said one, “all things are passing, moment by moment, birth to death. Take off that cloak of fear, the divine strength you seek is here.”[4] The Rule of St. Benedict instructs monks to keep death daily before their eyes. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “And if tonight my soul may find her peace, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”

But what about us normal folks who still fear death and suffer grief and are not capable of producing poetry as a way to age gracefully? Is this talk of preparing to die something for the artists and the mystics, but not for us? If it all sounds too morbid, if it makes you queasy, you are not alone. Jesus himself admits to a troubled soul when facing his death, and he says, the logical thing would be to beg for deliverance, to ask God to save him from this hour. But he defies the logical response to death, and instead faces it with willingness, with clarity, with bravery. Death is an enemy, yet it is the gateway to life. If the mystics learned this about death from anybody, they learned it from Jesus.

It is not that death can be magically transformed into something cheery and rosy, warm and bright. Death is as scary and ugly and painful and disorienting as ever, but we recognize that avoidance does nothing to help us to gain life. All the constructs we erect to pad ourselves from harm only insulate us from life, and Jesus says we are stone cold dead inside our beautifully maintained shells. The only way to find life is to stare death right in the face, and tell it straight, “Death, you are ugly, but you cannot obliterate beauty. You are strong, but you have no power. You bring pain, but you can’t eliminate joy. You are only a shadow, and the Light is bigger than you are. You will come one day, and I will surrender peacefully, but even still, you will not have the final word. I accept you, and that only makes Life all the sweeter.”

As a Wise One once prayed, Lord, “Robe me with wisdom. Enable me to be at home with impermanence. Teach me the dance of surrender. O make of me a great letting go. May the sacred emptiness of my life help others to know fullness. May I never fear a death that brings me life. Let me rejoice in the harvest of each dying day.”[5]

 


[1] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (Sorin Books 2008), 121-122.

[2] Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, The Ancient Practices Series, ed. Phyllis Tickle (Nelson 2010), 70.

[3] Robert Herford, quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr, 132.

[4] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, 125.

[5] Wiederkehr, 178.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 3:1-21

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 18, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

This text isn’t an easy nut to crack. The longer Jesus talks, the more confused Nicodemus feels. The more confused Nicodemus feels, the longer Jesus talks.  Honestly, this wobbly dialogue is a familiar pattern in the Gospel of John.

Jesus is always talking to someone, and the someones are often confused by his talking—be it the woman at the well, the disciples, the Pharisees. Nicodemus, however, is the guinea pig of John’s Gospel—the first one to approach Jesus and to hear those fateful words, “Very truly, I tell you . . .” followed by some strange sayings. Whatever Nicodemus was expecting. . . what he got was probably a surprise. But let’s not get ahead of the story just yet . . .

First off, can you imagine, Nicodemus—Pharisee, strict follower of the Law, a guy who has probably never done a rebellious thing in his life—sneaking off in the middle of the night to visit Jesus? He knows there are some in his rank who are suspicious of Jesus and some who downright fear Jesus is a threat to Judaism. But Nicodemus has a theory that this wonder-worker is from God. In fact, he must meet this Jesus for himself. Face to face. Man to man. He must go, not as an authority to question Jesus but as a true seeker. Of course, the other religious leaders would hardly agree with Nicodemus’ approach, so he decides to go secretly, quietly, cloaked by the cover of night. He sneaks through the city in the dark, trying not to be seen. “Good grief, I’m not committing a crime,” he whispers to his pounding heart, trying to no avail to reason with his fears. He practices his opening lines to distract himself from his growing anxiety.

When he is finally in front of Jesus, he delivers his lines without a hitch, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” To say this feels good, feels right. Nicodemus has been thinking and praying in turmoil about Jesus’ identity for weeks now, but as the confession exits his troubled mind, past his lips, and out into the open, he knows he has arrived at his conclusion. He half-expects to see a look of pleasant surprise in Jesus’ eye, maybe even a glint of pride.

Instead, he glances into Jesus’ eyes and detects sadness, and the reply is solemn: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God, without being born again.”

Nicodemus hadn’t really given much thought to what Jesus would say back, but somehow this feels all wrong. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even fit.

And this is the start of a messy dialogue in which Nicodemus never really gets answers, and Jesus, frankly, never makes a whole lot of sense. It begins to feel like a classroom with a teacher who is too smart for his own good. The perplexed pupil struggles to understand. The clever teacher thinks of just the analogy, but the analogy is equally complex, well over the pupil’s head. The longer the teacher talks, the more lost the pupil feels.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Jesus wants to communicate that knowledge about Jesus isn’t enough. Knowledge alone will not cut it, and I imagine that is why Jesus’ answer is so mysterious. If Jesus had explained things all straightforward and simple like, Nicodemus might have been tempted to think Jesus was just offering a bit of information—one more line for Nicodemus to add to his confession of faith, and then he’d have it.

But instead of explaining things, Jesus requires something so extraordinary that is seems literally impossible, entirely incomprehensible: to be born of the water and the Spirit, to be born again, to be born from above. Why, it is almost as if Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into an entirely different life, where the language is strange to your ears and the wind in your face is the very Spirit of God and everything is as new as when you emerged from your mother’s womb and the sheer mystery of utter newness is frightening. Nicodemus had come for a bit of understanding from the up and rising new Teacher—he hadn’t planned to enter a whole new world fraught with startling discoveries and upside-down logic.

“How can this be????” he stutters. This is the second time he has asked, and you can hear the frustration and bewilderment mounting in his voice.

“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Jesus shakes Nicodemus’ self-confidence in his position to the core.

Of course, Nicodemus doesn’t know it, but he is about to hear first-hand what will become perhaps Jesus’ most famous words—the line about how God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life . . . but, Jesus adds, “those who do not believe stand condemned.” And here is the kicker, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people have loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

Perhaps “people who love darkness” is only a general term Jesus uses for those who resist him. It seems more likely that Jesus is also referring specifically to Nicodemus’ own preference for darkness. Jesus noticed to the way Nicodemus snuck in to see him under the cover of night. Not only does Jesus suspect that Nicodemus fails to get it, Jesus thinks his arrival by night is proof. Nicodemus is curious about the Light, but he still prefers the dark.

Notice that nowhere in the story does Nicodemus repent. Nowhere does it say Nicodemus became a disciple. Nowhere does it say that Nicodemus dropped his baggage, abandoned his status, left his fears behind him, and followed Jesus. We are left to assume that he skulked right back home, heavy beneath the weight of Jesus’ words, but probably grateful for the cover of darkness to hide his shame.

I can relate to Nicodemus’ love for the cover of darkness. I too, am equally intrigued by Jesus. I find him engaging, I want to know more, I think he is obviously from God, someone I ought to know. But I would sort of prefer to hide my confession from the crowds. It is not Jesus who embarrasses me. It is some of the people who claim to love him too. There are those who are terribly misguided about what Jesus is actually like and those who are just downright frauds, and I don’t really want to associated with a one of them. Don’t get me wrong. If it were only Jesus and Jesus’ true followers that I would be associated with, I could handle the scandal. I could befriend Mary, the pregnant virgin, John the Baptist, the locust-eating desert-dweller, Mary-Magdalene who’d been healed of seven demons, Zacchaeus, who robbed the people but then gave it all back fourfold. If I befriend them, and people think I’m crazy, so be it. I can swallow my pride, knowing in my heart I’ve befriended some true disciples.

But then there’s everybody else—the fakes, the real kooks, the con-artists, the religious bigots, the politicians, the hate-mongers, the money-snatchers, the misogynists, the militant fundamentalists. I don’t know which group gets under your skin—if it’s the overly-emotional sort or the intellectually snobbish type, if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats or those truly outlandish Christians who object to voting altogether. There is some “Christian” group with whom we would like to avoid association.

It is not that we cannot strive for a distinctive faith that stands out from the general crowd of Jesus-fans, but saying that no matter how much we want to be entirely separate from the masses of supposed devotees and establish ourselves as the irrefutably genuine ones, we can’t. This is the mess we find ourselves in, and it is just the kind of mess that Jesus graciously wades through day in and day out. He walks among this whole motley swarm of confused, half-hearted, messed-up, wanna-be disciples, and to every last one of us, Jesus keeps offering grace and extending the invitation, “Come, follow me, step into the light.”

Personally, this drives me nuts. I want Jesus to give up on the frauds, at the very least. Also, I wish he’d abandon the hateful types altogether and perhaps send a blinding revelation to the uninformed type, something they couldn’t possibly miss or misunderstand. When it comes to faith, I want in, I really do, but I want them out. I don’t want us to share the same title of Christ-follower when I feel their lifestyle, their philosophy, and frankly, their status before God is so different from mine. But Jesus says I must step out into the light and throw myself in with the worst of ‘em, and I don’t like that. I’d rather skulk back into the night and nurse my faith in private. Of course, when I am my most honest, I know that there is always a bit of fraud, a bit of hate, a bit of ignorance inside me too . . . (but surely not on that scale. Surely not.)

The Jewish situation, of course, was quite different from our current American one, but still, I find Nicodemus to be a kindred spirit to my elitism. Nicodemus just cannot bear that he must emerge fully into the light. Leave the cover of darkness and thus risk his status, his position, his power. He wasn’t willing to throw himself in with the whole lot of uneducated sinners and so he sneaks back off into the cover of the night, not willing, not believing—at least, not believing enough to enter a second birth from above. Nicodemus passes up the chance for new life and heads back home, where people still respect him. However, the story doesn’t end here.

This isn’t the last that we hear of Nicodemus. He shows up twice more in the Gospel of John.

In chapter 7, the Pharisees send the temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards return dazed and empty-handed, saying of Jesus, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”

“You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retort in righteous anger. “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

Nicodemus is in the room. He hears his peers claim with confidence that not a one of them have believed Jesus. He hears the way they mock the ignorant crowd and call them cursed. His colleagues have drawn a line in the sand, but Nicodemus isn’t sure he wants to be on their side anymore, even if the other side is an uneducated mob. He ventures a defense, albeit a weak one, of the man Jesus, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” Of course, the rest of the room doesn’t know it, but Nicodemus has been to his own private hearing, and though he walked away, he apparently didn’t walk away with a sense of Jesus’ guilt. In fact, his own guilt has been weighing on him since that night, and perhaps it was there among his peers that he starts to feel fed up with his darkness and his hiding.

But we don’t hear about Nicodemus again until the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has just breathed his last. He hangs lifeless from a cross. The religious leaders have won. The mobs have been silenced and scattered. Even the disciples are huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders.

And who do you suppose shows up to care for the beaten, bloody, lifeless body? Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. And Nicodemus, who also believed in secret and who we thought never really became a disciple at all. The two scaredy-cats, who loved the secrecy of darkness, are the ones who come forward at the hour of greatest danger to do something for Jesus. Jesus, who is not even alive to thank them, reward them, bless them, or affirm their courage. It is not the people who loudly confessed their discipleship that show up here. Not the people who waved the palm branches and cried Hosanna. Besides for the women, it is just these two men who show up—two men who had been hiding all this time.

That means there is profound hope for the cowardly, for the uncertain, and for the hesitant.

Perhaps it was not until Jesus was raised up on the cross that Nicodemus finally fully believed, finally saw the Kingdom of God. In other words, respectable Nicodemus was born again, from above. Precisely at the moment in the story where things were as bleak and as incomprehensible as possible, Nicodemus finds his courage and enters the light. Most everyone thought the light had just been snuffed out, but Nicodemus didn’t care what they thought or worry about what they would do, and the new sensation of not-caring filled him with light during the world’s darkest hour.

When Nicodemus first paid Jesus a visit, Jesus had made the world sound pretty black and white: there is light and there is dark, there is condemnation and there is salvation, there is belief and there is unbelief, there is evil and there is truth. But Nicodemus walked away a mixed jumble of all those things, like a big mass of gray, indecisive and unclear, disbelieving his own belief. I don’t know if Jesus knew, right at that moment, that it would be Nicodemus who buried him, but I think Jesus knew Nicodemus would be back, that the darkness couldn’t keep him indefinitely. I think Jesus was sad to see him to go, but he believed, the same way Jesus believes it for all of us, that Nicodemus’ story wasn’t over.

I am utterly persuaded that identifying with Jesus is something we live into, bit by small bit. Sometimes we hide away in fear. Sometimes we swallow our fear and come out into the light, only to dart right back into the shadows. Sometimes our love for Jesus wins the day; other days our inner sense of superiority wins instead. Sometimes the light of revelation finally dawns on our wearied souls, and sometimes we are more confused than we can bear. But someday, somewhere, everyone around us will think the light has been snuffed out for good, and somehow we will be the ones who see Light all ‘round and we will say to ourselves, “Why, the world looks brand-new, like I’ve just been born, and this wind feels like God’s spirit against my flesh, and I am filled with Light.”

May the hope of Christ keep its hold on you until Light has dawned in every dark corner of your troubled soul. Amen.