Thursday, August 19, 2010

John 3 (part 4): Nicodemus, the Good Disciple.

 It is easy to think that Nicodemus is not a disciple in this passage because of the seeming secrecy of the meeting, the level of curiosity in his questions, his apparent ignorance, and the seeming harsh criticism he receives from Jesus. While we know that Nicodemus eventually supported Jesus, I think there is good reason to believe that Nicodemus was a disciple of Jesus even in John 3.

First, the private night meeting might simply be a factor of Nicodemus' work schedule at the temple or his inability to roam publicly. Second, when was Jesus ever gentle with the 12 apostles? Was he not just as harsh to them when he called them blind and dumb? Third, didn't the 12 apostles ask stupid questions too? And if we had never read John 3 ourselves, would the concept of salvation as being "born again" ever entered our thinking or vocabulary? No, it wouldn't have. Jesus was purposefully abstract and would bend peoples minds more than movies like the Matrix ever could. Finally, Jesus' true critics never seemed to be honored by being named in the Gospels. There are plenty of accounts of encounters with unnamed antagonistic Pharisees. Why name this one? John could have easily said 'a pharisee' came to him at night, but John takes the energy to name this Pharisee. Was it just because this Pharisee was famous and had power? The only answer that smells right to me is that Nicodemus was a disciple. John props up Nicodemus the way we do when we highlight famous sports figures and musicians that believe. We hope the influence their name carries will persuade their constituencies to believe also.

I think we look at Nicodemus with this tone primarily because most of us are not familiar with what 1st century discipleship really looked like. The stupidity of the disciples and the harshness of Jesus are simply the verbal conventions of the time. When reporters interview the President of the United States, there is a dance of sorts happening. The way they address the President, the issues they bring up, the way the President answers are all very choreographed encounters. An outsider who tries to read emotion into what is said will in all likelihood be wrong because the outsider doesn't know what the expectations of courtesy are. I think 1st century discipleship entailed 1) radical almost impossible statements, 2) expected and justifiable questions, and 3) forceful correction. In this rigorous dance of etiquette the questions do not betray doubt anymore than their answers betray failure or disgust. In fact, not engaging in this routine of "stupid" questioning might represent a worse failure. It could simply be the way college classes were done back then. Perhaps it's not coincidence that in English a 'lecture' can be either a reprimand or a method of teaching.

Jesus' discipleship was basically the same as ancient discipleship except in two or three key elements. Tune in tomorrow to find out what those differences were and how they challenge modern Christian institutions' admission requirements.

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