I want to acknowledge, first, that we have had some emotionally heavy Sundays over the last few weeks, as we imagine our hopes for the future, especially our hopes related to racial justice and undoing white supremacy. We’ve packed in the possibilities, since the beginning of our series with John Powell and I in conversation, to a panel presentation from Boni, Pilisa, and Starleisha, to Trevor’s exploration of Jonah, to AJ’s rousing message last week redefining what it means to be prophetic in a system of injustice. And all of this, in pursuit of imagining what our collective call is, as Shalom Community Church.
Imagination is a muscle, dreaming of the future—what Boni Croyle calls “freedom dreaming” is a muscle and on some of these past weeks, we have worked ourselves sore.
It is okay to be sore. We have been doing the cardio spin class equivalent of white privilege study, and especially for the folks who are in the White Fragility or the Dear White Christians or the Race Matters conversations, or those who are engaging these conversations in your workplace or families during the week.
So it is okay to be sore. And to rest, to give your muscles time to recover. And then to return to your work out the next day or the next week, to call each other and hold each other accountable for the ways we are working out and strengthening our muscles so we are able to carry more and more of our dreams for the future.
This morning, I want to sit with some of what we’ve heard over the past few weeks, and to sit with it through the lens of one story, the story of my buddy Nicodemus who appears several times in the gospel of John. My hope is that today will be the slow yoga equivalent of workout day. Like those few, precious days of college soccer where we would show up to practice and the coaches would say, “today we’re having a light day.”
I like Nicodemus story, which we heard in three segments this morning, because it creates a nice counterpoint to the disciples in how radicalization happens. The disciples’ call stories are these discrete, lightning bolt moments of transformation, that push them to suddenly and fully throw their lot in with Jesus, the risky, unconventional, itinerant messiah who contains salvation and discomfort. We see this in Simon Peter and Andrew, and James in John, in the book of Mark. Jesus calls to them and “immediately the left their nets and followed him.”
But Nicodemus. Nicodemus is another story. He does not hear the radical call as a lightning bolt, and he is not prepared to give up everything and become uncomfortably saved, traversing the countryside in hopeful ragtag impoverished community.
Where Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen, pushed on all sides by the economic system of the Roman Empire, in a downwardly mobile and increasingly strained working-class profession, eager for the possibility of total transformation and dignity that Jesus offers, Nicodemus is part of the urban middle-class, an educated Jew in Jerusalem who is not a Roman citizen, but gets along well enough within the rules and expectations of Roman culture, and enjoys his cosmopolitan life with all the privileges and difficulties it involves.
And yet. Something in what he hears of Jesus intrigues him. Something about this man who created the most joyful wedding party Cana had ever seen, and then went up to Jerusalem and drove the money-changers out of the temple, it resonates with his spirituality.
So Nicodemus, he goes to see Jesus by night—when it’s less crowded, and most of the Pharisees are safely ensconced putting their children to bed, and Nicodemus goes down to where Jesus is still holding theological space for the tired and the curious, and Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God”—Nicodemus aligns himself with the movement—and then he asks a question. He positions himself as a learner, one who signed up for this class but after reading the syllabus still isn’t really sure what it’s about. Jesus begins to explain, how to be born again of water and Spirit, and Nicodemus interrupts him, asks, “How can this be?” Nicodemus is confused; he is honest and he is trying to learn through his confusion.
Jesus replies, “we’re talking about what we know; we’re testifying about what we’ve seen—yet you don’t accept our testimony.”
This happens so much when white people begin to learn about racism. You’re sitting in a workshop, or reading a book, and from the first line of the instructor, it sounds like “unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” And we sit through the whole workshop trying to absorb the information but we’re really still hung up on the concept of being born again. Nicodemus sits and listens, even though he still hasn’t fully processed step one, and Jesus goes on and on (this is the passage where “God so loved the world…”). Nicodemus listens, he’s honest about when he doesn’t get it, but he sticks around in his confusion. This is an important lesson and an inspiration for white people becoming allies. There is value in sticking around even when you don’t get it. Even when it doesn’t jive with your understanding or your truth. You stay present.
Nicodemus is still present, several months later, when Jesus gets a little carried away teaching in the temple and the Pharisees, his fellow members of the Sanhedrin, call for Jesus to be arrested.
In that closed-door conversation, the Pharisees gathered in one of the inner conference rooms of the temple, Nicodemus defends Jesus before his peers, “Since when does our Law condemn anyone without first hearing the accused and knowing all the facts?”
And his peers ridicule him: “Don’t tell us you’re a Galilean, too! Look it up. You’ll see that no prophet comes from Galilee.”
History does not record Nicodemus’ response. Does he repeat his claim? Does he filibuster the conversation until the Pharisees are worn down? Or does he withdraw from conversation, and let them wind their way through their own long-winded plan? All the Bible says is, “Then each of them went home.”
Nicodemus becomes an ally when no one is watching. None of the disciples, none of Jesus’ defenders hear him. But he speaks his truth to an unfriendly crowd anyway. Deep within the system that perpetuates injustice, Nicodemus throws some small pebble into the machinery of structural oppression. And then Nicodemus goes home to the house that his purity and his loyalty to the system has bought, he goes home to his wife and his children whom he has told for years have what they have because they have worked harder, they have been more faithful than mere fishermen, more righteous than the crippled, more hard-working than the widows and so God has blessed them richly and they have earned their place in society.
Nicodemus, in his debate with the Pharisees, asserts in the timidest way that perhaps they ought to center voices on the margins. And then what?
We don’t hear from Nicodemus again until after Jesus’ death. Where is he in the next time the idea of arresting Jesus comes up? Where is he when Judas arrives? When the temple authorities insist on the death penalty?
Nicodemus is an ally in one crucial moment but he also reveals the truth that allyship is not enough.
What does it mean to be an ally? In World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. not because they had the same vision, but because to reach their different and competing visions they both had a vested interest in stopping Hitler. To be an ally is to be part of a broad coalition with different priorities, coming together on one issue. Nicodemus is an ally, but he is still fully committed to the system which perpetuates injustice.
Nicodemus is your woke friend who listens to every single J. Cole album but also thinks Post Malone is expanding the art form. That was a very niche reference. Nicodemus is your woke friend who’s been going to Black Lives Matters protests since 2015 and who is afraid to be in Detroit after dark. And Nicodemus is more subtle and insidious in his beliefs than even that. Nicodemus is all of us, the paradoxes we embody as we attend scholarship fundraisers for underprivileged students while our children attend private schools; buy houses in predominantly white neighborhoods and lament that the town “does not have more diversity”; it’s the way I speak of Black churches I had relationships with 10 years ago without acknowledging the way I have wedded myself to white churches for a living. We all contain these paradoxes, in some form or another.
Roxanne Gay writes, a Black writer, describes her own realization that “ally” is the wrong word in a conversation with Ta-Neisi Coates, who said “I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” Gay reflected, “I mulled his words over for weeks because they were so pointed and powerful. Those words began to inform the ways in which I try to support other marginalized people—making their fights my own because that’s the only way forward.”
The last time we see Nicodemus is Chapter 19, with his friend Joseph of Arimathea, another businessman with Jesus-movement sympathies. They ensure the body of Jesus is not desecrated. They work within the system to ensure the important ritual burial practices are completed, that Jesus’ body is wrapped in many pounds of myrrh and aloes and clean cloth, and a burial place is secured, so the body is not left for wild animals or raging counterprotestors.
Nicodemus shows up. He shows up in a way that unmistakably allies himself with the disciples—he does something he does not have to do, could get in trouble for doing, that puts him in solidarity with the devastated disciples and ensures indignity will not be laid over heartbreaking sorrow. He is an ally. He does show up. But he shows up after the tragedy, lamenting the state-sponsored violence against a man who threatened the social order. He shows up as someone who was in the same conversations among the Sanhedrin about whether or not they should seek the death penalty for Jesus. He shows up to protest the system he still strengthens every day.
And what comes next, for Nicodemus? We never find out. His actions are not recorded after the resurrection. But we can imagine two futures for Nicodemus.
Perhaps Nicodemus goes home, and hears some days later that the body is disappeared and the disciples are spreading rumors that Jesus lives. And he thinks to himself, “it’s so sad, what grief does to people.” He shuts his door to the disciples, says, “we did what we could,” and watches with fascination as he ages how the movement continues without him. He states his sympathy, as a member of the Sanhedrin, and asks why they have to be so rowdy in their demonstrations of faith? Perhaps, as his grandchildren flirt with the Jesus movement and begin to criticize the faith and culture of the family, he says to them, “You know I was there to help bury them.” He maintains his allyship, tells the story over and over again—“without me, they couldn’t have buried him. without me, they would’ve murdered him 9 months sooner.” Nicodemus watches the movement unfold, bigger than he ever thought, and is only ever able to engage it with himself at the center.
Or. perhaps Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea return home separately, and Nicodemus pens a letter to Simon Peter, informing him of an upper room, a property of his that is not currently rented, has his servant unlock the place and then conveniently forgets he owns the property. Perhaps, as the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection escalate, as the Sanhedrin doubles down on the effort to squash this anti-government movement, Nicodemus resigns his role “to pursue other interests.” Without explicitly naming his support to the Sanhedrin, he helps several disciples find a way out of Jerusalem, tips them off to the movements of the bounty hunter Paul of Tarsus, perhaps meets Paul once or twice and asks a few open-ended questions about what persecution is meant to accomplish. Perhaps Nicodemus withdraws from the system of privilege he has benefited from for so long, and he begins to live in that liminal space of a not-yet-fully-formed religious movement. He leans into his relationships with James and John, someday laughs about that night when he first visited Jesus, cringes at how ignorant he was then, the times he defended the social order and urged to movement to “just work a little slower.” Perhaps, Nicodemus moves from ally to accomplice to co-conspirator. Perhaps he is transformed.
The white church in the United States is at this crux. We’ve shown up too late, to agree that the tragedy was, indeed, a tragedy, and we are so sorry it happened, we had no idea it was this bad. We have shown up with our aloes and our myrrh to bury the bodies and we are baffled at why Black and Brown activists criticize us for bringing our best embalming tools.
The white church faces the same choice Nicodemus did in the hours after the burial, that precious tender time between the death of Jesus and the resurrection. We are faced with the choice between continued allyship—aligning with racial justice when it is convenient, when it fits our story of our enlightened, educated selves—or the choice to become an accomplice: to resign from the boards and the systems where we hold privilege, where we once spoke up for our Black co-worker when they were not in the room, to seek out new networks of racial justice, to re-think our models of property ownership, to begin a personal practice of reparations and to create a reparations model for our church, to disentangle ourselves from systems in a way that will be painful and alienating and confusing.
We’re wrestling with some hard truths. I have been sitting with the possibility that a church is only as diverse as the social circle of its members. That it is unfair to wish for a racial diversity in the church if you are not actively expanding your circles, your neighborhood, your workplace.
I think often of what Boni said to me a couple of times, echoing words I heard several years ago from a pastor whose church had recently become more racially diverse: “you don’t become a multiracial church by saying you want to be a multiracial church—you become an anti-racist church, and find that your church is more attractive to people of color when you are actively anti-racist.”
For too many years, we’ve continued to tell the story of diverse churches with white churches and white leaders at the center. We have been allies and not accomplices, we have shied away from invitations to co-conspirator-ship.
We’ve heard the calls. We’ve analyzed the situations. We’ve been invited to “come and follow me.” And we stand frozen, in our institutions and our lives. It is our choice.