by Sr. Carol Perry
We recognize some forms of grace even as we are unable to define them. The wind through the branches of a willow tree, the fluid movements of a ballerina—these are visible. But, in the realm of the spirit, grace remains one of the more difficult concepts on our spiritual journey. Its action is so rarely a blazing moment on the road to Damascus, as it was for Paul.
In our world where things are better if they are faster, it is good to recall the patience of God in offering grace. We find a wonderful example of this in the Gospel of John.
There we first meet Nicodemus in a scene familiar to most of us. He is one of the members of Jerusalem's ruling religious body, the Great Sanhedrin, and he comes to Jesus at night, stepping symbolically out of the darkness in chapter 3 of John. He comes with his questions both about who Jesus is and what that might mean for him. But what we tend to forget is that at the end of that exchange of ideas Nicodemus goes back into the night. There is no instant response to the appeal of the Teacher to be born anew. Nicodemus resists, and, humanly speaking, we can understand why.
He represents authority in first century Judaism. He and his fellow Pharisees interpret the Law for the rest of their countrymen. So how can this rabbi from Galilee who has studied under none of their authorities possibly speak truth? But Nicodemus does not reject Jesus. He ponders and we discover that he cannot forget that encounter at night. This is the persistence of God's grace.
When next we meet him, in chapter 7 of John, it is festival time in Jerusalem, the joyous feast of Booths. Nicodemus, in the Temple, is seated with the group of rulers who are awaiting the return of the Temple police who have been sent to the courtyard to arrest Jesus. When those guards return empty-handed, the authorities are not pleased. In fact, they are more than that, they are dismayed to hear the police say: "Never has anyone spoken like this."
In the ensuing condemnation, Nicodemus dares to speak up. Grace is working in him as he challenges the interpreters of the Law with their own respect for that Law. He says: "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?" He is still clinging to the one thing that is certain in his life, the Law.
But his small voice for justice is swept away by the scorn of those who share power with him. These Pharisees draw on their ultimate prejudice against Jesus when they say: "Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee." And so Nicodemus seems to once again drop back into the darkness.
But God's grace goes on working. We will never know how this man wrestles with it, how many times he faces the fact that admitting Jesus into his life will cause him to lose everything that he holds dear: position, power, human respect. But not admitting Jesus will place him beyond peace and joy. So the human and the divine struggle, and we see the ultimate resolution only in chapter 19 of John.
Death has already claimed Jesus, and as night falls quickly on Calvary's hilltop, two new disciples step forward. One is Joseph of Arimathea, boldly asking Pilate for the body of Jesus and offering his own tomb for the burial. And joining him in the task of ministering to the one who died as a common criminal is our Nicodemus. The triumph of grace is so visible. It is he who brings the spices to anoint the body, coming to do what was traditionally a woman's task. But that does not matter now. He comes to claim the dead body of the teacher he was unable to publicly acknowledge in life. He comes to perform an action that belongs to the family of the deceased.
And so in every way, Nicodemus has rejected his past life and has chosen a new one. Grace has claimed him. Career, human respect, power, none of these matters any longer. With how much love does he bury the Teacher whose words haunted him until he could accept them. As the sun sets on that fateful Good Friday, something wonderful is born in the soul of Nicodemus.
In his story we indeed see amazing grace working its transforming action. This love and patience on God's part are constantly active in our world. Grace is sometimes almost visible when those we meet offer that helpful assistance, that encouraging word, that shared insight which changes the shape of our day. At other times, grace is the inner urge which we cannot resist and which moves us to the good.
But above all, grace is God patiently working in our lives, prodding, suggesting, waiting with the enduring reassurance: "And behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age." May that reminder give strength and purpose to our days.
by Edward F. Markquart
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by Dr. William R. Long
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by Prof. Dr. David Zersen
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Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 3rd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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