William Paul Young’s novel ‘The Shack’ came up in our bible study this week. The movie did, too, but I haven’t seen that yet, so I better stick to the book.
We were talking about the story of Nicodemus, the pharisee who comes to see Jesus at night and acknowledges that Jesus must be from God because of all the great things he’s been doing, miracles and healings and such. Jesus replies that no one comes to the kingdom of God without they are born “from above” (or, again). Nicodemus seems to think he means a human birth and doesn’t understand. Jesus explains his meaning as being born again in spirit and describes the spirit as being like the wind. Still Nicodemus doesn’t understand. Jesus continues to explain that God sent his Son to show us the way to live, to lead us back to God.
It doesn’t say so in the gospel, but I like to think that Jesus and Nicodemus talked all night and that Nicodemus did come to understand, even if he did remain a pharisee. He arrived in the dark but left in the light. I like that image.
But ‘The Shack’ came up when we were talking about Jesus’ explanation of the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). In his book, Young describes the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman who shimmers in the light, but “his eyes had to work to see her at all.” He describes her appearance, but his character Mack has to concede that he only “knew all this as more an impression of her than from actually seeing her, as she seemed to phase in and out of his vision.”
I wondered out loud whether Young made her a “person” so that Mack would meet the “three persons” of the Trinity: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Or, did he concede our inability to understand the Spirit as being something not like us. Just like Nicodemus.
See, I think Nicodemus’ problem is our problem, too. He's not a stupid man. He’s a pharisee (a keeper of the law) and a member of the Sanhedrin (the governing assembly of the Jews). He would have been well educated and, from later references in John, we’ll learn that he might have been influential and wealthy. In this story, I agree with someone else in that bible study who suggested that Nicodemus was an “everyman” character. In other words, Nicodemus is us.
And just like us, Nicodemus just can’t wrap his head around the idea that the Spirit isn’t something you can see. It’s not of the flesh or earthly. It’s something else. It’s action.
Just like the wind, you can’t see the wind itself except through how it acts on other things. Similarly, it’s like light: you don’t see the light itself but rather what it illuminates.
The Spirit is the action that inspires and empowers us.
So, rather than see Nicodemus as “that guy,” put yourself in his place for a minute. You’re smart, you know what you’ve been taught, you know “the rules.” In fact, keeping things exactly as they are is part of your job. And then there’s this guy. He does things no one should be able to do. He says things and does things that are so different. He talks about grace and love and what’s in your heart in a way no one else does. How do you usually feel when confronted with something so radically different that you can’t really see how to get there from where you are? It seems like a leap of faith is required.
Yes, it is, and that’s what Jesus asks of Nicodemus and us. Jesus wants us to take that leap knowing that we’ll be caught in the updraft of the Spirit.
I wonder if Nicodemus didn’t leave at dawn realizing that one can’t gradually transition to the world Jesus brings, the Kingdom of Heaven that he proclaims is now here. I wonder if he didn’t realize that a leap of faith is necessary and that’s just the beginning of a fundamental change that is required - what we’d now call a paradigm shift - a radical foundational change, one that puts love at the heart of everything.
It’s not an easy change. It’s messy and it’s challenging. After all, the Spirit blows where it will and letting the Spirit lead can be positively scary. That’s why Jesus reminds us - through Nicodemus - that God so loved the world that he gave Jesus to lead us back to God. And Jesus, by the way, can be a verb, too. Go with the Spirit. Go and Jesus.