How much do you know about your faith? How well do you know your faith? How many of you can tell me what “transubstantiation” is? What about “concupiscence”? Anyone know when the First Council of Ephesus was held? If so, do you know what that council decided and what it defined about our faith? How many books are there in the Bible? What was Jesus’ paternal grandfather’s name?
I don’t ask these questions to make you feel bad if you don’t know them. Most people don’t know them; most good Catholics don’t know them. So, relax! I’m supposed to know them – or, at least, at some point I was supposed to know them! Theology teachers are supposed to know these things. They are part of the rich minutia of our faith – but they are not central to that faith. They are relegated mainly to the “trivial” aspect of Catholicism – like “Bible Jeopardy” or “Stump the Priest.”
Nicodemus, with whom Jesus is speaking today, was one of those teachers. He was a scholar of the Law and of Scripture. He was “the teacher of Israel” as a leading member of the Sanhedrin. And Jesus, whom Nicodemus encounters under cover of night, stumps him – confuses him, really. In our day and age, the term “born again” is rather commonplace, and people of faith have a pretty good sense as to what it means. But for Nicodemus it was new; it was challenging; it was scary.
It was scary because he was not used to relating to God in such an intimate way - as a child, born from its mother’s womb. For Nicodemus, as a scholar of the Law, God was a Lawgiver, a majestic Ruler, transcendent, beyond all knowing and all experience. His only way of relating to God was as an obedient servant - as one who learned the Law and Scriptures perfectly and kept them as fastidiously as humanly possible. And, as a teacher of Israel, his job was to instruct others to do so as well - and to judge them when they did not.
However, even Nicodemus recognized something special in Jesus. Therefore, he would come to Christ “at night” because he was cautious and afraid. For St. John, who wrote this Gospel, that also indicates that something was lacking - or “darkened” in his own faith. There, in those nighttime lessons, Jesus led Nicodemus out of his darkened understanding of God the Father into a deeper realization of the Father’ incredible love for him and for the world.
In teaching Nicodemus this lesson, Jesus reveals to him the massive depths of God’s love for us all. “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” But in sharing this beautiful message, Jesus is Inviting Nicodemus - and anyone else who would want it - into a relationship with Him. In fact, this relationship is the true mark of one’s discipleship - not what you know, not how many Sacraments you have received, not whether or not you can quote Scripture chapter and verse. Instead, one’s personal relationship with Jesus is the mark of the disciple.
How does that strike you? Is that scary? Believe it or not, for many people it is scary. For years, we have been told that being a “good Catholic” or a “good Christian” is a matter of practice. Do we “pray, pay, and obey?” That is the mark of a good disciple. And while those things are important, they are not central. They were not for Nicodemus, and they are not for us. St. Paul tells us today, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”
“God so loved the world.” It is clear that only God makes this offer possible for us; only God allows us to enter into a personal relationship with Him. It is all about that relationship - not about “religion.” The first thing that matters for us as disciples is our encounter with Jesus. Once we encounter Him, we are invited into a life-long relationship that we must always foster and nourish through frequent conversation and repeated encounters with Him. This is what the Sacraments are all about; this is what the Church Is about.
Lent is always a perfect time to re-encounter Jesus in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our Sunday readings all give us examples of encounters with the Lord that transform those who meet Christ. Today, Nicodemus takes the first tentative steps toward a new life - an encounter with Jesus that invites him to think about his faith in a new way. We are with him - meeting Jesus with our own doubts, fears, and insecurities. However, Jesus wants us to bring all that to Him, and He transforms us too, so we can see our lives as lived In His radiant light.