Ambiguous Discipleship – John 3.1-21
Nicodemus could rightly be called the patron saint of ambiguous discipleship. He is a mysterious figure, only appearing in the gospel of John. He is a murky figure, only appearing in three brief scenes. He is a muddled figure, only appearing in ways that make it impossible for the reader to come to a definitive conclusion about him.
Nicodemus is a character filled up to overflowing with uncertainty. No one seems to know what to “make” of him because he resists all efforts at simple classification. He is not all good or all bad. He is not always in the light but he is not always in the darkness either. As one New Testament scholar put it, “Nicodemus is a puzzling, enigmatic figure…[whose] primary characteristic is ambiguity.”
Nicodemus would have fit well in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor whose narratives never contain obvious protagonists and antagonists. Instead, every character moves between these two roles and often shifts or changes unexpectedly. Just when her readers begin to sympathize with a character, O’Connor has them say or do something horrifying. And just when her readers begin to despise a character, she has them say or do something redeeming. O’Connor’s characters are intentionally ambiguous, just like Nicodemus, which is to say, they are incredibly, disturbingly human. They are yin-yang characters, you might say.
Even if you are not familiar with Taoist thought, you likely know about the yin-yang symbol. It is a circle divided into two parts. One black, one white. One dark, one light. The apparent simplicity of the image is quickly muddled, though, when one notices that within the dark portion there is a small white circle, and within the light portion there is a small black circle.
Before I continue, you need to be aware that I’m going to interpret the yin-yang symbol differently than it is in Taoist thought, which understands the symbol as representing the complex, interdependent and eternal opposites. Neither side is good or bad in moral terms, in Taoist thought. Rather, it is the interplay of both elements by which all things exist. In contrast to Taoism’s interpretation of the yin-yang symbol, I will be using it to help us reflect upon the duality of light and darkness, good and bad that exists within the character of Nicodemus and within ourselves.
Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel, the first of which is found in our text this morning. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, but he comes by night—in and from the darkness. He confesses that Jesus is a rabbi (a teacher) sent from God, but cannot comprehend Jesus’ responses—though, to be fair, Jesus’ words are ambiguous and filled with wordplay and layered meaning typical of this gospel.
You must be born from above to see the kingdom of God, Jesus says.
How can an adult be re-born? Nicodemus replies.
You must be born of the water which is spirit and whose influence is mysterious, Jesus says, providing no more clarity than before.
How can these things be? Nicodemus responds.
With this expression of confusion, Nicodemus fades back into the darkness as the dialogue becomes a monologue in which Jesus reveals that eternal life is found when one comes into the light of Jesus’ teachings and example in order to have their lives examined and cleaned up where they have become murky and muddled.
Nicodemus emerges from the darkness again in John 7 during a conversation between religious leaders concerned about Jesus’ growing popularity. When someone suggests arresting Jesus for deceiving and misleading the crowds, Nicodemus speaks up on his behalf, saying that the law requires them to give the accused a fair hearing before an arrest can be made. He enters the light, once more, but you’ll notice that Nicodemus does not take sides in the discussion about whether Jesus is a good or a deceptive person. He insists on following proper protocol and nothing more. The ambiguity remains.
Finally, in John 19 Nicodemus makes his final appearance. Jesus has just died and Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus comes into the light again, but he comes with a man that the gospel says is a secret disciple of Jesus due to fear of the religious leaders. This leaves them both shadowy, ambiguity-laden characters—partly in the light, partly in the darkness.
Nicodemus is a yin-yang disciple—never fully protagonist or antagonist, never fully in the light or in the darkness. In other words, Nicodemus is a very human character. Muddled, murky and ambiguous. Still developing, still evolving, still becoming.
This liminal, transitional state of growing through a struggle between light and darkness that we see in Nicodemus is an experience common to us all.
The apostle Paul gave voice to the tension between light and dark, good and bad within us all in Romans 7. I do not always understand my own behavior, for I do not always do what I want and sometimes I do the very thing I seek to avoid…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
Paul says much the same in I Corinthians 10 when he warns: watch out if you think you are standing firm lest you fall.
We, too, can likely recall moments when we were doing well and then, seemingly out of nowhere, we faltered. We can also recall moments when we were doing poorly and then, unexpectedly, we triumphed. In other words, we can relate to people like Nicodemus or any number of characters from O’Connor’s short stories because they are human, painfully human sometimes—a mixture, an interplay, an amalgamation of good and bad, triumph and failure, light and darkness.
The ambiguity that results from the struggle between light and dark, good and bad is very clearly depicted throughout the Star Wars trilogy. One scene in the final movie, The Return of the Jedi, portrays the tension especially well.
Darth Vader, veiled in black from head to toe and hidden behind a dark mask, is the epitome of “the dark side.” He is not ambiguous at all until, suddenly and unexpectedly, he turns from the darkness that enslaved him for so long and saves the life of Luke Skywalker. In that moment, everyone, including Darth Vader, realizes that there is goodness and light dwelling in him still. And this goodness, this small circle of light in the darkness, is able to redeem him as he sacrifices his life to save Luke’s.
As Darth Vader lay dying, Luke removes his mask to reveal a face that is unsightly and misshapen, but still identifiably human. The light shines even in the deepest darkness. This moment provides profound insight into the human condition through the juxtaposition of these two characters.
Darth Vader, who is immersed in darkness, discovers that there is light within him when he saves Luke, his son, from death. He is able to find redemption, because there is bright spot of hope and healing present in even the darkest places of our lives.
By contrast, Luke Skywalker, who is immersed in light, discovers that there is darkness within him when he learns that Darth Vader is not only human, but is his father who was once a young Jedi just like him. Luke is able to find warning, because there is a dark spot even in the brightest places in our lives.
This well-known scene can help us better understand the Lenten season of introspection and repentance, because Lent is the time in which we acknowledge the good as well as the bad in our lives. We do so neither to beat ourselves up over our shortcomings nor to brag about how wonderful we are. We do so in order to encourage the former and discourage the latter, to give thanks when we choose wisely and to repent when we choose poorly. But this can only happen when we’re honest about the duality that exists within each of us.
Lent is the season to confess, in humility, that none of us is as put together as we might think or appear—we all have our darkness, our failings.
But Lent is also the season to confess, in hopefulness, that none of us is as disordered as we might think—we all have our brightness, our triumphs.
On the good days we remain humble, because at other times we have chosen the darkness rather than the light.
On the bad days we remain hopeful, because the light of life and love and laughter shines on and will never be snuffed out.
So, may we, in this Lenten season, take time to recognize the ambiguous discipleship that we share with Nicodemus.
May we realize that we all have our highs and our lows, our good and our bad, our light and our darkness, our “Luke Skywalker” and our “Darth Vader” (if you will allow the analogy).
On the good, bright and beautiful days, may we remain humble, recalling the dark spot that reminds us to stay vigilant in our pursuit of the light, the good.
On the bad, dim and dreary days, may we remain hopeful, recalling the bright spot that reminds us that no matter how great the darkness in us or others may seem, the glad news of Easter is that the light continues to shine and the darkness will never fully or finally overcome the light.
The light of love and laughter wins in the end. “Thanks be to God!” AMEN.
 Jouette M. Bassler, “Mixed Signals: Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel,” The Journal of Biblical Literature: 108/4 (1989), 635, 645.