By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
September 27, 2020
Video of whole service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/767646890685858
Scripture: John 3:1-8, John 7:45-52, John 19:39-42
I find the Nicodemus cycle of stories in John so fascinating. It is not common that there is this kind of minor character who we can follow: who sort of regularly pops up at different points in the gospel narrative. Nicodemus is quite unique. He’s so unique, that even though I know we’ve talked about him before, I want to revisit his story again. I will warn you that this is probably a different interpretation than what you’ve heard me share before. I want us to shift our perspective, to frame this story a bit differently just for a moment. Here’s a sort of dark retelling of this story.
When we first meet Nicodemus, he comes to Jesus by night. He’s a Pharisee, so of course he has to hide under darkness to go talk to Jesus. It seems a little cowardly. He’s also apparently not very smart. Did you hear what he said when Jesus told him he must be born again or born from above in order to see the kingdom of God?
He says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Like, has this guy never heard of something called a metaphor before? Really! Of course, Jesus tries to explain that he is talking about a spiritual new life, but we never do hear from the gospel writer if Nicodemus gets it or not.
The second time we see Nicodemus, there he is, hanging out with his friends the Pharisees again. They are all plotting to try to arrest Jesus. They are mad because their temple police refused to do just that. Now, Nicodemus does speak up in defense of Jesus, using the law that he knows so well. But the other Pharisees shut him up right away by accusing him of being a dirty Galilean like the rest of Jesus’ followers.
The final time we see Nicodemus is right after Jesus is crucified. Again, he’s being sneaky and only doing things for Jesus as night. When he shows up, he brings this ridiculous amount of spices – as if he thought Jesus was going to be dead for a really long time. He totally still doesn’t get Jesus. He’s the same not-very-bright guy we met in the first scene. But he does help Joseph of Arimathea (again, a secret disciple, coward) bury Jesus, so at least there’s that.
At the end of the story, we don’t know what happened to Nicodemus next. Judging from his previous responses to Jesus, he probably left and never came back to see the resurrection.
End of Story.
That’s not a very inspiring story, is it? If I had to give it a headline, it would be this: “Nicodemus, Coward and Idiot, Never Seems to Understand Jesus.”
In all honesty, I think this is a defensible version of Nicodemus’s story if you want to tell it that way. The biblical narrative leaves us all sorts of room for interpretation. We don’t get to hear what the characters are thinking or feeling. We are not told about their motivations. We are left to fill in a lot of blanks for ourselves. While I rarely choose to read the biblical narrative in such a negative way, it is possible to do so. A pastor could totally read this scripture and yell at her congregation, “Don’t be faithless like Nicodemus!” Maybe some other pastor – not this one.
The reason I tell you the Nicodemus story in this negative way is because I know that sometimes we tell ourselves our own stories in negative ways. I think especially during these coronatimes, it’s understandable. It’s easy to get stuck in the negative. But we do have a choice.
We can live from a story of loss and limitation or a story of hope and possibility.
That’s not at all to say the coronavirus isn’t hard. It is. Things are tough right now. I don’t usually use the word “suck” in worship very often, but the coronavirus calls for it. Things suck. And a good friend told me that his therapist encouraged him this week to “Embrace the suck!” So, let’s take a moment to embrace the suck. I’d like to tell our church’s pandemic story from the same negative perspective I brought to Nicodemus.
In Spring 2020, the coronavirus made it so that we could no longer worship together in person. We had to cancel everything in the building. No Spring Craft Fair, No Pancake Breakfasts, No Easter Egg hunt. The Visitation Team couldn’t visit anybody. No Easter Service in the sanctuary…nothing. We were hoping we could all come back for Pentecost. But. Nope. Coronavirus still made it unsafe. We were stuck for months watching worship streamed from Pastor Chris’ iPhone. How depressing.
In the summer, things got slightly better. Finally in July, we were able to meet for worship. But it had to be outside, on Thursday not Sunday, not in the sanctuary with the pretty stained glass windows and our usual pews. We had a summer intern Peter, but we barely got to know him because of the coronavirus restrictions. It would have been so much better if we could just get together and share food like usual. But we couldn’t. We weren’t able to have the Block Party. We couldn’t march in Pride Parade. The summer just wasn’t the same.
Now, even Worship in the Garden is over. I mean, we got this new A/V system for online worship, but it is so much work to try to get it to function right. And this limited return to in-person worship in October? Well, we can’t sing indoors, and we can’t hang out and talk in the narthex. That’s going to suck. I mean, even if we ever get to do it because the coronavirus doesn’t seem to be getting much better.
Who knows if church will ever get back to normal again?
Okay, I know that’s depressing – please don’t click away now. That all sucks. It really does. Those things are all annoying and difficult. But here’s another version of that story. It starts exactly the same way.
In Spring 2020, the coronavirus made it so that we could no longer worship together in person. We had to cancel everything in the building, but we started doing everything online. We all learned to use Zoom for our meetings; we gathered on Wednesdays on Facebook Live. It was great to see how everyone jumped in and got involved in online worship. We were able to share prayer requests directly with one another, and we were able to worship online with family members and friends who lived all over the country and even as far as Germany one time! It was amazing how lively and engaging worship could be just streaming from Pastor Chris’ iPhone!
Under the fantastic leadership of Sharon Cummings, the Visitation Team made sure all our homebound members received phone calls every month, and another team of callers made sure that everyone on our membership list was healthy and connected in the early days of the pandemic!
In the summer, things got even better! In July, we were able to meet out in the garden for worship. We had amazing great weather every week except for one. Being out in nature under the big tree and in the presence of God and one another was awesome.
We had a summer intern named Peter! He helped us with the garden and with outreach to the immigrant and refugee communities in Omaha. We distributed over $4,000 worth of grocery cards to New American families, and some of those families joined us for the Backpack Blessing in the garden as well. Peter’s ministry here gave us a vision for ongoing ministry with New Americans in Omaha – and just this past Saturday, we hosted a huge event to support refugee families out on our lawn and in the parking lot.
It was a summer unlike any other – and it was amazing!
Now, Worship in the Garden is over – except we are going to have a bonus Worship in the Garden on October 11th. Our friends from Urban Abbey don’t have a big lawn like we do, and we have an opportunity to show them Christian hospitality and meet them and worship outdoors alongside them.
And we got this new A/V system for online worship! The team has been working so hard and so well together to make sure it functions just right. It has capabilities we haven’t even seen yet. These capabilities are going to make it so that when we return to limited in-person worship in October, we will worship in ways that connect our online folks to our in-person folks. It’s going to be awesome.
And if we have to pivot again and not meet in person, well, we know how to do that. We go fully online again, we Worship by Phone, again. We have created systems that make sure that even if we can’t gather in person, we are never disconnected from God or one another.
We did that.
We did all of that.
In six months.
During a global freaking pandemic.
We have been creative and strong and resilient.
We have faced down the suck. We have clung to the light of God, and we have worked our collective butts off. We have overcome all sorts of adversity, and we will do it again and again. Because God is with us.
In the midst of hopelessness and despair, we saw possibility and resurrection, and so we experienced possibility and resurrection. Our church is more vibrant than ever because we have seen resurrection, and now we expect resurrection.
So back to Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He had lots of questions, and no, he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying at first. He struggled, and he faltered. But he kept trying. He worked hard. He kept thinking about Jesus and believing in what he had seen. He even confronted his friends who were against Jesus.
And at the very end, in the darkest and hardest moment after Jesus had died, he had the courage to show up. He showed up bearing remarkable gifts – carrying all he could carry in order to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus. It was an offering fit for a king. It was an offering that proved that Nicodemus knew Jesus was the Beloved One of God.
The biblical narrative doesn’t tell us what happens to Nicodemus next. But here’s what I believe. I believe he saw the resurrection because he expected resurrection.
Just like we do. Just like we will.
God has been faithful to transform all of our coronavirus struggles into glory…and always will be.
Thanks be to God.