The New Testament account of Nicodemus’ nocturnal visit to Jesus in the Gospel of John initially seems to bear little resemblance to the visit this week of another Nicodemus – a Sudanese man who came to speak about his life with potential mentors of a new refugee outreach group – Sumitra - forming at St Lukes.
The biblical Nicodemus was a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, ostensibly on a mission under cover of night. His official reason for the visit was to investigate and gather evidence against a troublemaker who was threatening law and order as well as destabilizing the entire religious establishment of the time. However, he was also apparently a careful man who understood that it is best not to rush to judgement or make decisions about anyone without first hearing them out. To this end, we learn that he later recommended that the entire Council first listen to Jesus before condemning him for heresy.
In the 3rd chapter of John, Jesus uses language with Nicodemus which immediately throws him into confusion and chaos regarding literal vs. figurative meaning of words and ideas which strike at the heart of his birth, origin, identity, and place in the world. What? How can one be “born again from above”?
Later in the 19th chapter of John, after Jesus’ crucifixion, we learn that Nicodemus wraps and prepares the body of Jesus with precious spices for burial. Apparently his earlier encounter led him to respect and honor Jesus to the point that he decided to become so intimately involved with his burial.
The biblical Nicodemus was a religious legalist whose encounter with Jesus led him to ponder questions which went far beyond how to properly follow Jewish customs and law. This Nicodemus then disappears from any further mentions in any of the Gospels. His story disappears after Jesus’ death.
Fast forward to an evening in North Park, San Diego last week, about 1950 years of so after the writing of the Gospel of St John which relates the mysterious story of Nicodemus the Pharisee meeting Jesus under the cover of darkness so long ago.
A young Sudanese man named Nicodemus stood up before us and spoke for about 20 minutes. Turns out he was one of the 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan: orphaned as a young child during the 2nd Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), conscripted into a rebel militia, forced to walk thousands of miles, lived homeless without even knowing when he was born in a resettlement camp in Kenya, before arriving in San Diego back in 2001.
This Nicodemus – the Nicodemus of Sudan and San Diego - told his personal story; a story that related acts of extraordinary kindness, generosity and hospitality on the part of several American individuals stretching back almost 16 years. He stood now proudly and confidently before us – a successful college graduate with an IT degree and now a Masters in Public Adminstration. He told us that the American educational system, along with the help and love of several volunteers, had taken the place of his parents.
Back now to that 3rd Chapter of the Gospel of John in which Jesus spoke of being “born again”. The biblical Nicodemus really struggled to understand what Jesus was talking about that night. Jesus’ words mysteriously scintillated and fluctuated between literal and symbolic meanings in an attempt to open a space between earth and heaven for Nicodemus. The Sudanese Nicodemus, I suspect, understood Jesus’ words without confusion or hesitation …. in a way that perhaps few in our audience of potential mentors/volunteers for Sumitra that night could grasp, what it means to be born again.