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The End of the Story

I have always felt a close kinship with Nicodemus. He is one of several figures in the Gospels who approach Jesus in good faith only to get much more than they bargained for:  like the rich man who had followed the Law diligently from his youth, the man whom Jesus loved, and yet felt forced to flee his presence in guilt and sorrow because the demand Jesus made—to sell all he had and follow him—was more than he could bear. Or the Syro-Phoenician woman who sought a cure for her daughter, only to be rebuked like a dog for presuming to cross the boundary dividing insider from outsider, circumcised from uncircumcised, Jew from Gentile, men from women. To her credit she had the temerity to stand up to Jesus. Not many of us would, I suspect. Certainly not Nicodemus.

By the time Jesus has finished with him early in John’s gospel, Nicodemus all but disappears from view. He asks God what we all ask God at some point in our lives: How can these things be? And Jesus’ response is so total, so overwhelming, that Nicodemus doesn’t stand a chance. Nicodemus is always in the dark: masking his quest in the darkness around him, struggling hard against the darkness within him. And Jesus has no patience with him:

“How can a man be born again from his mother’s womb? How can these things be?”

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

It’s a nightmare of a rebuke, this rebuke of Jesus, in the darkness that Nicodemus thought was safe—a rebuke that sails into him from nowhere, like the winter wind wreaking havoc through the barren trees.

If we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, this rebuke may be our nightmare too. It’s just not safe, this religious business. I am not talking about what the cultured despisers call “organized religion”—with its membership lists, its church councils, its pledging rolls, its liturgical niceties, its bishops defending against lawsuits, its competing seminaries. No, that part of religion, ironically, feels safe and familiar. For better or worse, we do institutions pretty well.

The part that’s not safe is the encounter with God—not just questioning Jesus (he seems to enjoy that), but simply being with Jesus. Especially when we think we know what we are doing. Like Nicodemus, we do not always understand. We do not always trust. Many of us, if we approach God at all, would rather not allow ourselves to be seen by the light of day.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

We never find out what becomes of Nicodemus. We see him only once again in John’s gospel, toward the end of the story, again in darkness, as he drags a load of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb, Jesus being safer dead than alive. What a load to bear in the darkness. He will use those spices to anoint the corpse, laying it in the safety of the graveyard. Nicodemus will leave Jesus’ body where it is safe to leave it, and for that act of bravery and compassion God’s blessings on him.

We’ll never know, at least in this life, what became of Nicodemus after that. But knowing his after-story is not the point. The story in John’s gospel is not really about Nicodemus, struggling with Jesus in the dark. The story is about us. It is an Easter story. And although we all can predict the end of our stories—the human mortality rate still stands at 100%—we cannot predict, or control, how God will lead us to our end. We cannot predict where our own place at Calvary might be. But we can know what I hope Nicodemus finally knew, when he heard that the tomb was empty—that in Christ all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

The Spirit of God blows where it chooses. Knowing that is perhaps what Christian life is all about, allowing ourselves, opening ourselves, to feel and hear the wind when and where it blows, embracing it, breathing it in, with arms wide open and in the full light of day. To acknowledge God the Spirit breathing in and through our ordinary lives, and to allow ourselves to be born anew, born from above, even if it means dying to what we are and rising again to a life of hope and compassion and reconciling love that we have only begun to imagine and embody.

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.