Nicodemus and me

May 24th, 2012

“Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God,” says the night visitor to Jesus in John, Chapter 3. This ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus, clearly feels drawn to the man of Galilee and has gone out of his comfort zone to learn more. Yet when Jesus begins to teach him, the Pharisee pushes back, objecting as if to say, “Yes, but,” or “Not really?” He’s not ready to go all the way, to take the step from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. The interview ends and we lose sight of Nicodemus for a long time.

I thought of their encounter when a friend of mine, Dave, told me about the efforts he and some other Christian Scientists are making to follow both the Jesus of the Bible and the Mary Baker Eddy of Science and Health. I struggled for twelve years, 1980-1992, to live and think that way. Finally I realized I had to choose, and my unreserved choice with a flood of joy and relief was Jesus Christ.

I can see now that during all that time I was in the position of Nicodemus, trying to temporize and theorize with Jesus. Or the position of the Judaizers in Acts 15, the Laodiceans in Revelation 3. Straddling, mixing, bargaining, wanting Christ but on my terms. What I learned was, it doesn’t work. It gains you nothing and costs you the pearl of great price. It puts off the new birth, to only your own detriment. It’s folly.

I want to tell Dave and his fellow seekers: Don’t do it. Don’t try it. Don’t come all the way to his door and then only put one foot inside. Don’t you see, brothers and sisters?

You can’t temporize with Jesus.
You can’t theorize with Jesus.
You can’t negotiate with Jesus.
You can’t bargain with Jesus.
You can’t debate with Jesus.
You can’t compromise with Jesus.
You can’t improve on Jesus.
You can’t combine Jesus with anything.
You can’t yoke Jesus with anyone.
You can’t dabble in Jesus.
You can’t reinterpret Jesus.
You can’t domesticate Jesus.
You can’t update Jesus.
You can’t edit Jesus.
You can’t nibble on Jesus.
You can’t advance beyond Jesus.
You can’t cherry-pick Jesus.
You can’t use Jesus.
You can’t take half of Jesus.
You can’t tell Jesus you love him “but.”
You can’t have “Jesus and.”

All you can do with Jesus is either surrender to him, or not. All you can do is accept who he is, and be who he invites you to be, and do what he tells you: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” Because to try and do anything less with him is to do nothing at all.

It is at a burial, in fact – Jesus’ own burial – that we finally meet Nicodemus again in John 19. He is done keeping his distance; no more theorizing and temporizing. He shows up with Joseph of Arimathea at the twilight of Good Friday to do what little they can, tenderly, reverently, courageously, humbly, for the bloody and broken body of our Lord.

Enough of “knowing thou art a teacher come from God.” This Nicodemus is a doer, no longer just a knower. His fully surrendered presence in this second night visit anticipates the words of surrender from another Pharisee turned Christian, St. Paul, “determined NOT to know anything save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).

During my Nicodemus years I remember straining to convince myself that when Mrs. Eddy quoted that great passage about Christ crucified, approvingly in her chapter on atonement in the textbook (SH p. 39), she meant it, and when she quoted it in her chapter on physiology (SH p. 200) for the purpose of contradicting and improving on Paul’s words, she didn’t mean it. What a struggle it was. The intellectual gyration of holding two opposites in mind became spiritually exhausting, and I at last decided my only course was to surrender to Jesus whether or not Mrs. Eddy was ever going to.

I realized that even as much as she praised “the women at the cross” (SH 49), the mixed message of her writings left heavy doubt that she would have been there with them on that dark afternoon. And how could I continue trying to follow this leader, if her path led elsewhere than to Calvary? It was with a sense of sadness and loss, but also a sense of relief at parting company with something unfruitful, that these conclusions settled in on me.

Dave, my friend who speaks for what he calls “the Christian Christian Scientists,” points out that it is difficult to know what a writer thought or felt behind her actual statements on the page, and that in fairness to Mrs. Eddy one might regard her as having been “a work in progress” with deeper theological depths than may appear in the writings up to her death in 1910. But even supposing we grant that, I repeat my question above: What kind of leader does this make her? What kind of revelator? Why remain entangled with her problematic legacy of “Jesus and”? For what possible gain or reward or nourishment or loyalty?

Dave says it grieves him to keep hearing from Scientists that Mrs. Eddy’s atonement chapter in Science and Health is the hardest one for them to relate to. But wouldn’t it naturally be so, given the countless points of cognitive dissonance between that chapter and the rest of the book? Just take the example I gave, where she exegetes I Cor. 2:2 in glaringly opposite terms on p. 39 and p. 200. This is the most confused kind of Nicodemus-style straddling. No wonder her followers sometimes lose track of who or what they are following. She lost track herself!

How grateful I am that after more than a decade in the spiritual nighttime, the theological in-between, I stopped being the Nicodemus of John 3 and became the Nicodemus of John 19. Which one are you?

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