John 3:1-21 Nicodemus


Being Born Again: Can anything “save” the Governor General?
Nicodemus, Peter Hollingworth and the problem of secret discipleship

Resistance is Fertile: Seeds for Lent 2002
Week 2, Credo Cafe, led by David Fagg and Marcus Curnow
Biblical Text: John 3: 1-21
World Texts: Spooner Cartoon from “The Age” 21/2/2002; Unplugged scene from “The Matrix”
Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Second Sunday in Lent


Our reflection starts with personal story……


Remember a time in your life where someone has asked if you have been “born again.” In the same vein, what’s your experience of John 3:16 and how its been used? Were these positive or negative experiences in your life?
We discuss the emphasis on ‘personal’ salvation; unique, individual, subjective spiritual experience.
The contradictions of US. TV evangelists and politicians gets a mention; how one must have this ‘private’ experience to be elected to ‘public’ office of US President.
As an employee at Urban Seed with Rev. Tim Costello as our Director, I’m regularly asked by concerned Christians of his brother (Federal Treasurer of Conservative Party) , “Is Peter Costello ‘born again?’” We consider how such a term has been used judgmentally to exclude; a way of defining ‘true’ Christians.
We consider people who “so love the world” that they will go to crazy lengths to get the sign saying ‘John 3:16’ on camera at major international sporting events. We consider what is effective communication in our culture and compare this example with the ‘means’ of the incarnation….. “gave his only son.”
We compare the light and dark duality of John’s gospel with the ego-maniacal, entertainment, good guy versus bad guy world of professional wrestling where John 3:16 has been co-opted by ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Ironically people wear his T-shirts ‘Austin 3:16’ with no understanding of its context.

Our personal texts lead us into the biblical text.


There was a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the people. He came to Jesus by night….


John goes out of his way to paint Nicodemus in a negative ‘light’…..(or dark as the case is here.) Light and dark ness are juxtaposed throughout John’s story. Can one be a secret disciple? Is private religious experience enough?

No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.


Beyond simply a personal experience of faith, John’s insistence on being ‘born again’ points to baptism as a communal, public event which asks Nicodemus to ‘change sides.’
We watch and discuss the ‘unplugged’ scene from the movie ‘The Matrix’ and its connections to Christian baptism.
“Welcome to the real world” says Morpheous to Neo. We consider what the cost of leaving one community to join another might mean, then and now, for Nicodemus and ourselves.

Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.

Central to this passage is a critique of leadership.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. So must the Son of man be lifted up, that who ever believes in him may have eternal life……..People loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

The imagery of the biblical text leads us to a text from a current newspaper.

Spooner’s cartoon paints the Governor General, in the robes of an Anglican bishop “lifted up” upon a cross. The cross is large and shines white and bright in the foreground surrounded by stormy darkness and shadows.
On first glance one may think that it refers to his crucifixion in the media. The former Anglican archbishop has been castigated in the national press since revelations were made public of his alleged inaction and indifference to the problem of sexual abuse of children in Anglican schools during his term of office. Like John’s narrative the question of leadership is central. Is the holder of the highest office in our land worthy of the position?
On closer inspection, far from being nailed to the cross, Spooner paints Hollingworth “lifted up” in a large armchair, reading the newspaper. He plays on the women disciples who mourn at the foot of the cross, replacing them with weeping children who seem to be passing by. The archbishop’s “couched crucifixion” now seems to indicate privileged detachment, a concern for ones media representation rather than the ‘true’ suffering of those below.
Peter Hollingworth is in many ways an iconic/ironic “Australian Story.” (His attempt at addressing the issue on the ABC’s TV show of the same name significantly deepened the controversy.) At one time the churches and Australia’s leading advocate on issues of poverty; his appointment to Australia’s highest office by conservative Prime Minister John Howard was met with indifference in a culture prone to cutting down its ‘tall poppies.’ The egalitarian Aussie myth is sympathetic to a ‘champion of the battlers’ but is skeptical of the church; power and privilege; or those motivated by self-advancement. After Hollingworth abstained from the final vote at the Constitutional Convention after an initial republican stance, Rev. Tim Costello was reported to comment, “This man wants to be Governor General.” In his seeming desire to defend the institutional church, his colleagues and his own position, Hollingworth has appeared torn, a vacillating, unconvincing figure. His story has become media parable; a morality play which ‘lightning rods’ many layers of cultural tension.
To what extent does this narrative shed light on Nicodemus and vica versa? The authenticity of Nicodemus’ discipleship is seemingly contested in the gospels and their historical interpretation. Can one have it both ways? We discuss the extent to which Nicodemus’ struggle narrates that of Hollingworth and our own journey of discipleship. We who would honestly seek the cause of Jesus and yet who also long to retain our status, accolades or trappings of success. We seek the autheniticity of the cross but also the comfort of the couch.

“He gave his only son”


The discussion of the current child sexual abuse scandal leads us down another path. Does the churches theology of atonement (of a wrathful God needing to sacrifice his own Son), represent the ultimate ‘child abuse’ on a cosmic scale? We discuss whether such theology is implied in our experience of interpretation of this passage. Has such interpretation contributed to the churches seeming indifference or inability to effectively confront the evil of child abuse within its own body?

“For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that the deeds have been done in God.”

The churches’ reading of the story of Nicodemus has fallen in the time of Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. It corresponds at a time when the question of leadership is prominent in the national conversation. During the recent election campaign the rubric of “ticker” (the heart/ conviction to lead by making difficult decisions) was prominent.
Ironically at this moment, leaders holding the three top positions in Australian national life; the Governor General, Peter Hollingworth; the Prime Minister, John Howard and the Head of the Defence forces, Admiral Barry are accused of having misled the Australian people.
Whilst it seems “nothing will save the Governor General” over his handling of the abuse of children in church care, false accusations of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard to gain entry to our country are perpetuated successfully for political gain. John’s story of Nicodemus suggests that true leadership, true “ticker,” is demonstrated not by skillfully ‘spinning’ ones way around lies, but by a willingness to confess failure, to change sides, to be ‘born again’.

Open secret about dangers of secrecy
Ellen Goodman, Washington Post, Monday, March 11, 2002
…These tales as different as priests and bureaucrats, as different as sexual abuse and government administration, have raised questions about power and secrecy. They’ve raised questions about leaders who justify secrecy to themselves on the grounds that they are protecting the people they serve — when they may be serving themselves..…
Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University and author of “Executive Privilege,” says about both church and state leaders: “History has shown, time and again, that people in public life claiming to protect the public good by secrets are protecting themselves.” Their agenda, their power.
I am not offering up a wholesale screed against secrecy. The word itself is morally neutral. In our own lives, secrecy is linked to privacy. Inside government, leaders need a measure of secrecy for, paradoxically, candor, honesty.
But secrecy wielded by authority is a powerful weapon against dissent. A secret is by definition unaccountable. In our society the bias is, as it should be, toward openness. Secrecy is, as it should be, required to defend itself. What we, the reasonable public, know this time is that the secrecy allowing sexual abuse and shadow governments leaves us less trustful, less faithful. This is the open secret.

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