Not long ago, I was speaking to a friend who said to me, “I love going to church. It’s good for me to hear about how to live morally. I’m glad my children can learn these teachings about loving your neighbor and stuff. But that’s about as far as I can go.”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Jesus. I think he was one of the greatest teachers ever to live. I try to learn from his teachings. But it’s hard to believe he was the Son of God. I admire people who can believe that. It’s just hard for me. I have questions about it.”
In previous years of my ministry, I may have backed away or changed the subject and said something like, “Yes, it’s a big claim. I’m glad your kids are enjoying church.”
But the truth is many people struggle with this question. As Christians, it can be hard to address peoples’ doubts about our most cherished belief because we’ve staked our life on it. We can become defensive or seek to avoid the hard questions altogether.
I used to have a little joke I’d tell in gatherings.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t believe in organized religion.’ And I always tell them, ‘then you’ll love our church. We’re not organized at all.’”
Not only was it a cheap laugh, it was a way to deflect the reality that many people feel like the church isn’t big enough for their questions.
What I love about Jesus is that he could handle the hard questions. Such was the case when Jesus met with a man named Nicodemus in chapter 3:1-17 of John’s gospel. Nicodemus was a religious man, a Pharisee in fact. He understood the ins and outs of the Jewish law. He had the answers, until Jesus’ claim came along. He came to Jesus at night to learn more from him about his claim to be the savior of the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he’s not going to be able to understand unless he’s been born again.
Nicodemus can’t quite get there. Taking Jesus’ statement about rebirth literally, he questions how a person can be born again. Nicodemus’ question sets the stage for Jesus to deliver John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” You would think you’d then read about Nicodemus falling to his knees and shouting out for the world to hear, “I believe.” But we don’t. Nicodemus slips back into the recesses of the night. Even though he was talking to the light of the world, Nicodemus remained in the dark when it came to spiritual rebirth.
We hear from Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel. The next time we hear from him, the Pharisees are strategizing about a way to kill Jesus because of his claim that he’s the Son of God (it trips a lot of people up). As one well versed in the law, Nicodemus advocates for Jesus by reminding the other Pharisees that the law permits everyone to have a fair trial. He hasn’t been able to get Jesus off his mind. Then Nicodemus goes silent again, fading into the background.
The final time we hear of Nicodemus is after the crucifixion. No longer hiding, Nicodemus is lugging around a hundred pounds worth of spices to anoint Jesus’ body. John’s a good writer because he tells us that Nicodemus acts in the day, out in the open. No longer in the dark, he has seen the light. Something has come over Nicodemus. He’s moved from questioner to advocate to believer. As he made his way to the tomb, he would discover for himself that Jesus is alive.
God knows we need Nicodemus. There are lot of people today like Nicodemus who are set in their ways about what they believe. And yet, for some reason, Jesus keeps tugging at their hearts to keep asking these questions. One of the many miracles about John 3 is the way Jesus invites this dialogue. He doesn’t shut down Nicodemus or scold him. He invites his questions. I’m thankful Nicodemus doesn’t come to faith in that moment because he might have shut out a lot of future believers.
To all of you like Nicodemus out there, keep asking your questions. We religious leaders need not get defensive over Jesus. Jesus loves a good dialogue and he certainly loves the people who engage him. The more we are sensitive and willing to receive people’s questions, the more we build a bridge for God to work in their hearts. Jesus is alive which is why we can handle the questions. To believe is a miracle. It’s a work of God. It takes being born again, born from above. As we see with Nicodemus, being born again doesn’t happen overnight for everyone. For some, it takes time. In God’s good time, the light does come and questioners find themselves unexpectedly visiting the tomb to find it empty and their hearts full.