Insiders

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

You don’t have to raise your hand, but a little poll.  I’m wondering how many people here know what a narthex is.  Or a chasuble.  Or a diocese.  I’m wondering how many people in this room have been to a confirmation service.  I’m wondering if I said, the Lord be with you, how many people who know the correct response—or the ostensibly correct one.  What are the answers you know?

I am thinking today about insider language, and insider knowledge.  We all have it in one way or another, don’t we?  We definitely have it here at church, where we claim to be welcoming but still love our shibboleths, our signs of identity, those little anachronistic words or habits that separate those truly in the know from the newcomers.  Insiders can tell you what’s going to happen next in the service without looking at the bulletin.   Insiders know.

It’s not only in church, the insider impulse.  It happens in every corner of life.  Wherever there is knowledge, knowledge can become power, and we humans grab onto that power.  Just visit a middle school cafeteria and you will see the dynamic at work.  Certain people know how to dress, and certain people haven’t figured it out yet, and so insiders are born.  Visit any office hang around the water cooler and listen to who is taking about what to whom, and so insiders prosper and thrive.  Look at the machinery of politics and watch who knows what influence to exert and when and how.  So insiders thrive and occasionally fail and more often than not succeed.

I am thinking about insiders today because our gospel is thinking about insiders.  All during Lent, we get these character studies—stories of men and women who encounter Jesus and so are changed in the process.  Most of them are outsiders, people on the margins of society.  But we hear today about Nicodemus, about this man who is not at all on the fringe,  who instead starts out as an insider, with all the knowledge and power that term represents.   And we hear what happens when that knowledge and power encounters Jesus.

John describes Nicodemus as a Pharisee, as “a leader of the Jews.”  The Pharisees were not the only powerful party within the Judaism of Jesus’s time, but they were an influential reform movement, one that sought to re-energize Judaism by encouraging a return to Jewish identity.  The Pharisees seized all the parts of tradition that had gotten wishy-washy—the externalities, the way people dressed, the way they ate, the way they prayed—and sought to shore up what was really most Jewish.  And so as a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a Jew’s Jew.  He knew his stuff.

Even if John hadn’t given us that insider label for Nicodemus, we might have guessed it by the way he approaches Jesus.  First off, he comes by night.  We might read that now as a sign of shame—Nicodemus sneaking around because he was embarrassed to be visiting Jesus.  And perhaps that’s the case.  But the ancient tradition held that night was the only appropriate time for studying Torah.  A real Torah scholar got down to work after dark, because it was only by night, freed from the distraction of the labors of the day, that a person could really understand the mysteries of God.  And so coming to Jesus by night, Nicodemus is playing a kind of insider’s game.  Merely by the timing of his actions, he proves himself to be in the know.  This isn’t his first metaphysical rodeo.

And clearly, he’s pretty certain in himself—at least, he is to start.  Because note that he doesn’t actually ask Jesus anything.  It’s not like he’s coming full of questions.  In fact the first thing out of his mouth is a statement of his own certainty.  Nicodemus has shown up to deliver something that looks like an answer, or something more like a pronouncement: “Rabbi, 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.”  Basically, he’s saying to Jesus,, we’ve talked about it, and we’ve decided, you’re OK with us.  We think you might meet our standards.

This is an insider who has no interest, it seems, in becoming anything else.  He is doing the very rational thing that insiders always do, which is to affirm and extend their own power.

Except that he does this to Jesus.

And Jesus’s response is totally baffling to him.  Because instead of being grateful for the validation, or even recognizing Nicodemus’s authority at all.  He goes off talking about the kingdom of God and who can perceive it, which is sort of unnerving but not as completely baffling as the rest of the stuff he goes on to talk about, which is all about rebirth, and water and the Spirit.  Instead of playing into Nicodemus’s game, instead of trading the poker chips of power and influence, Jesus does something different.  He invites Nicodemus into this larger life, a life where God moves across boundaries, where salvation is not just for a few but is, in fact, for the whole wide world.

And we can see poor Nicodemus trying to follow along but he can’t quite keep and he’s finally reduced to asking, “How can these things be?”  It’s the rhetorical equivalent of, “huh?”  The language of authenticity and freedom that Jesus is speaking is alien to the system in which a Nicodemus thrives.  He just can’t get it.  And Jesus points out that disconnect to him: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  I hear the question underneath the question: Nicodemus, is this really who you want to be?

I have been using the term insider to describe what’s going on here, but another way of talking about it might be privilege.  Its one of those terms that has cropped up in popular culture in the last few years, spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think it’s a helpful way of talking about what insiders have.  They have privilege.  Maybe it is the privilege to walk down the street unmolested.  Maybe it is the privilege of assuming a job will be waiting.  Maybe it’s the privilege of asking bold questions of a teacher, or of making bold pronouncements as one in the know.  Insiders have that privilege. We have that privilege.  Because all of us sitting here are all insiders, in one way or another, in one area or another—by virtue of gender, race, religion, class.   The question is not whether, but which one, and how many.  Everyone here has something.  Everyone here is inside some bubble.

Jesus invites us to something different.  Jesus would pop the bubble.  Whether it is the confidence born of years on the inside or just the confidence that comes when we think we know the right stuff—Jesus asks us be confident in—literally, to have our faith in—something different.

Jesus offers real salvation.  Jesus offers real light.  Jesus offers real love.  Jesus offers real belonging.  But to really belong, we have to give up fake belonging first.  To be a part of this authentic, world-embracing love that Jesus offers, we have to stop putting little scratch marks around the part of the world that is sanctioned by our approval.  To be ready to receive Jesus’ power, we have to be willing to give up our own.  Are we?

This episode sort of trails off.  Maybe you think the story just got cut off by the lectionary, but, actually, it doesn’t really end.  It just sort of stops.  And then John moves on to the next day and we never find out what happens, never find out if Nicodemus came up with any answers, or even any better questions.

But: later in John’s gospel, we do get this one weird detail: after Jesus’ death. Nicodemus shows up again.  And he has a hundred pounds of spices to embalm the body.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that action, but to me it sounds like a man who stopped worrying so much about giving Jesus his seal of approval and instead just gave him his heart.

I do not know how you came to church this morning—whether you were feeling like you were on the inside, feeling that you were in the know.  Or maybe wondering if you were.  Maybe wanting to be.  But I hope you hear loud and clear the invitation of Jesus: to leave the hankering for inside behind.  Risk more than safety of knowledge and the security of privilege.  Risk love.  Jesus is waiting to show us more than we thought we could ever know.