|Bronze Serpent, Mount Nebo, Jordan|
It’s happened to me a couple of times in my life. One of the clearest memories I have is this one: sitting in a Chinese restaurant in New York City with three other seminarians, all of us freshly-hatched first years, though wildly different in background and experience. I was a 39-year-old mother of two with fifteen years of experience as a Christian Educator. M.was a 25-year-old just back from two years spent living and working in South America. C. was 21, three months post graduation from Texas Women’s University. And K. was a 38-year-old corporate bank executive from Long Island. We were very different people.
And yet: over Kung Pao chicken and vegetable dumplings, something amazing happened. Something holy happened. There was a deep core in each of us that recognized something kindred in the others, something that would help each of us to grow, and to know more truly who we were.
This has happened to me a couple of times in my life. Can you remember a time when it happened in yours? Sometimes this kind of revelation is part of falling in love, but not always. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes it as the meeting of “solitudes [who] protect, and border and salute each other.”[i] I think an encounter of this kind is happening in this morning’s reading from the gospel of John.
For many weeks now we've been in the gospel of Mark, but today we’re with the Jesus of John’s gospel, and we can tell right away that things are different. For one thing, Jesus is suddenly very talkative. Have you noticed how, in Mark's gospel, Jesus is mostly the strong, silent type? And the healing, compassionate type, of course. But Mark's Jesus is more a doer than a talker. Oh he's not an absolutely silent Jesus. But compared to the Jesus of John, it's almost as if he's auditioning for a part in "The Artist." Just to give you an idea of their relative talkativeness: in the past three weeks, in our readings from Mark, Jesus has spoken an average of ninety-three words per scripture passage. In today's passage from John Jesus speaks a whopping three hundred and seventy-three words—more than four times as many. And today, we really notice it: Jesus practically talks Nicodemus' ear off. And it all starts when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.
Which brings me to another unique feature of John's gospel. John is very, very interested in light and darkness, day and night, sunshine and shadow. It's a central theme, it comes up again and again. The gospel begins with a powerful contrast between darkness and light: Jesus is described as “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it” [John 1:5] John is very clear on this point: Jesus is identified with light, and those who oppose him are in darkness. Which makes the fact that Nicodemus comes under cover of night a great big neon sign for us, a sign warning us, "Watch out."
Of course, there are other motives than sinister ones for paying a call under cover of darkness. For one thing, Jesus has just recently made himself a persona non grata with the religious authorities by causing quite a commotion in the Temple, throwing out those selling animals for sacrifice as well as the moneychangers. Jesus has also made a seemingly outrageous statement about the Temple being destroyed, which has really set people on edge. So Nicodemus, himself a Pharisee, one of those religious authorities, is perhaps understandably hesitant—anxious, even—about being seen with this very controversial figure, Jesus.
So, it may even be to Nicodemus' credit that he comes at all, by day or by night, to see this Jesus. His opening words to Jesus are cautious, tentative: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” What do you hear in those words of Nicodemus? Nicodemus, slipping in to see Jesus at night. Parker Palmer says, when we are not being authentically who we are, when our soul is not permitted to freely speak its truth, “The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness,” and “The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.”[ii] Nicodemus is a man groping in the darkness. He speaks the words of a soul desperately yearning towards the light.
Whatever has happened to Nicodemus… whatever his predispositions and prejudices regarding Jesus… whatever responsibilities associated with his role as a religious leader lie heavily on his shoulders… whatever danger he may be in by virtue of this undercover visit to this renegade Jesus… there is nevertheless a deep core in him that recognizes something in Jesus. And that something is calling to something in him. Call it, soul calling to soul? Call it, the recognition of a soul friend?
From ancient times the Celtic people nurtured the practice of growing spiritually through deep relationships, what they called soul friends. Brigid of Kildare, after observing the troubling behavior of a young monk, told him, “Go forth and [do] nothing until you have found a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head; is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor washing. That is the person without a soul friend.”[iii] A soul friend is one with whom we are able to speak truthfully, from the deepest core of our inner being; and who is able, likewise, to respond from the deepest core of their inner being. To be a soul friend “is to provide a place of sanctuary to another where, through our acceptance, love, and hospitality, he or she can grow in wisdom, and both of us in depth.”[iv] It is that meeting of solitudes who protect, border and salute each other.
One of the risks of soul friendship, of course, is that the truth our soul friend will see will call upon them to speak words that challenge us, such as the words Brigid spoke to the young monk. Or, the words Jesus speaks to Nicodemus.
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” [John 3:10, 14-15]. Here Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of an old, old story that both of them know very well, because it is a story from one of the most important experiences of their common ancestors: the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It’s a story about the people’s discontent and dissatisfaction despite God’s provision of food and water for them in the desert. It is the story of God’s frustration with the people—I guess you could call releasing poisonous snakes an expression of frustration. But it is also, paradoxically, a story of God’s immediate provision of a cure for the snakebite, a kind of totem for them to gaze upon. It is a story, bizarrely, of God’s love.
John Cassian was one of the desert fathers who practiced a life of solitude and prayer in wild places in the fourth century. He also spoke of soul friends. He wrote of how essential it is to reveal the inner workings of the soul to another, telling how this practice “pulls into the light from your most shadowed heart” the “most loathsome serpent” hiding within. In confiding in that trusted person, that soul friend, Cassian wrote, a cure could be found for those “snake bites” we inflict on ourselves when we are not authentically who God is calling us to be.
Here’s the irony: we are in our deepest being already who and what God is calling us to be. The cranky people of Israel were already God’s chosen beloveds. Nicodemus is already yearning towards Jesus’ light. “For God so loved the world,” says our talkative Jesus, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in that light may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not come in Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it by God’s loving intervention [John 3:16-17]. Jesus tells Nicodemus the hard truth he is already longing for: he can choose to come out of the shadows he is hiding in. He can let that light that is in him already, the light that drew him out into the dark night, draw him still closer to the light of the world, shining in the darkness right there in front of him.
This passage ends without another word from Nicodemus. It leaves us wondering: Does he ever come out into the light? We encounter him just two more times in John’s gospel. On the first of these occasions, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, again the provocateur, telling the people, “Anyone who is thirsty, let them come to me,” claiming his identity as the Living Water. And half the people who hear him think this is great, and the other half want him thrown in the slammer. Into this very public controversy, in the full light of day, walks Nicodemus. And now he claims both the responsibility of his role as religious leader AND the truth of the light from Jesus he has begun to let into and out of his heart. He asks a simple, honest, open question: Don’t we usually listen to what people have to say, before condemning them? And in asking that simple, honest, open question, the crowd disperses, and Jesus is able, for the time being, to continue his ministry. Nicodemus has stepped into the light—or, perhaps, he has blown the cobwebs off the wick of his own newly kindled inner lamp.
It can happen to each of us: we can find a soul friend, one who provides us a place of sanctuary, a place of hospitality and love in which each of us can grow in wisdom, and in depth. A soul friend invites us out of the shadows into the light, even at the same time she or he sees and kindles and encourages our own small flame to burn brighter. God provides these friends to us, serum for the snakebite of day to day living in what can be a wilderness, a wild, wild, west of a world. God provides, this God who loves us so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] From Letters to a Young Poet, as quoted in Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 62.
[ii] Palmer, 16.
[iii] As quoted in Edward Sellner, The Celtic Soul Friend: A Trust Guide for Today (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2002), 22.
[iv] Sellner, 14.