Nicodemus the Car Thief
You see a car advertised.
It appears to be the very one you want. The right size, the right model. Mileage looks good. The right price. You fire off an email or leave a voicemail – AND you get a message back within the hour. Yes, you can see the car but no, you can’t drop by to see it. I will come to you. Tonight.
What gives? Why the wait? Why night-time? You're right to be suspicious. A darkened street corner in some public space, really? You rightly wonder that maybe this person is trying to sell you something which doesn’t belong to him.
You know what belongs to you – your moveable and immoveable goods. You’d call these your property. You might have a list of these things stapled to your insurance policy.
Secondly there are those things which you don’t own but which are nonetheless “your baby” – processes at work which you got rolling, an article you’ve written, an idea, a recipe, a piece of music, even, which you created that you consider yours.
Lastly there are those things which you’ve been given to care for and to manage – the family fortune, the company secrets, the charter of the Association you belong to. Whether any of these things belongs to you or not, you still have some sense of ownership over them.
In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee pays a late-night visit to Jesus. He’d know better than to say that he was an owner of Israel’s religious tradition. But there’s no question that he comes to Jesus this night as a gatekeeper of Israel’s religion - one of its chief stewards – one of its guarantors - one of its border guards, if you like. Israel’s religion is his baby. As a religious expert and arbiter Nicodemus could be said to “get” the whole concept of God and to be one of the “go to” people for questions of law-keeping and belonging.
Tonight Nicodemus believes he’s in a position to sell something. He comes to Jesus expressing a genuine interest. The night-time meeting, on the other hand, suggests a guarded caution about what Jesus is doing. We think you’re one of us, he tells Jesus. God must clearly be on your side given what’s happening around you in your ministry.
One of us – one of us.
Nicodemus presumes to stand in Jesus’ presence as somebody who believes he can include or exclude this itinerant rabbi from the mainstream. He’s offering Jesus a franchise. And this is where Jesus stops him in his tracks.
You see this is the deal with God – God gives to whom he wants. He chooses unlikely partners, he gives to people who don’t deserve it, he decides to start somewhere and points his finger at Abraham wandering with his family at some crossroads on a middle eastern trade route and he says – this one - I think I’ll start here with this one – with this random - and Abraham gets what he needs because he says “Okay – start with me then”
It’s on your curriculum, all of this, Nicodemus – I’m not telling you something you don’t know. God gives freely and wants the world to have what he wants to give and here you are telling me that you can cut me in on your deal? That you can let me have a bit of what you have?
Ask yourself what anybody’s “property” consists of, at the end of the day. Your name may be on the title deed but you’re only one of a series of people who has lived at 246 Elm Road across the span of a century. You’re here and then you’re not. And notwithstanding intellectual property laws, can anybody really be the proprietor of an idea? Our conceptions of ownership don’t survive a steady gaze. Not when we are just dust in the wind.
God crosses the centuries. Nicodemus must know that. The spirit of God moves here and there. God speaks to whom he wishes. Our drawing of circles around ourselves and our communities, our dividing up of religious resources and our “proprietary” attitude towards the story of God prevents us from being willing participants in the process ourselves and holds others back from being included. No, Nicodemus, you don't get God - you may not draw a circle around him. He's not your possession or something which you claim in the name of your tribe or the nation or your collection of right thinking friends. We are not proprietors of God's Spirit although, on a good day, we might end up being followers of that same Spirit.
We don’t “get God”. If anything, God gets us.