In the past week, several folks on both sides of the pond having been talking about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah. The interview was truly an exposé and gave surprising (perhaps even shocking) details about their experience in dealing with the palace as an institution and members of the “Firm” as they called it. They traced their journey as they extricated themselves from the press and the actual business of being royals, so to speak. It was telling—the way in which Meghan and Harry talked about the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that fueled their decision as well as the factors that prompted moving first to Canada and then to the United States.
Though no lover of royals or lives of the “rich and famous,” I found myself fascinated by the interview, primarily because I could identify with Meghan’s struggle with her mental health, as well as some of the accompanying feelings: that of a certain necessary (and brave) exposure and, simultaneously, the freedom from exposure.
Likewise, it was revealing to hear Prince Harry admit, from a place of privilege, how he still viewed the other royals empathetically– as they are “entrapped” by the press, their participation in the “Firm,” and how they are depicted by a rapacious press. It was intriguing to listen as Meghan and Harry tried to describe what compelled them to pull away from their involvement with the Firm and the royal vortex to pursue a different way of life, one more in alignment with their values and their desire for mental well-being and safety.
Naturally, I thought of today’s passage, which describes another person who chose to be both vulnerable—this time with Jesus and not Oprah– and exposed in his pursuit and understanding of a different way of life based on the values revealed in Jesus.
But before we get to THAT: have you ever felt the freedom of being exposed for who you truly are or have you experienced the freedom in being vulnerable and unmasked, as it were? Have you ever, despite the messiness inherent in such things, ‘fessed up to a choice that you have made or a risk that you have taken and thereby freed yourself from someone else’s expectations and desires for you?
What does it mean for you to have been “exposed” in certain good ways – such as being exposed to a particular culture, education, or another’s perspective? What has it meant for you to have been exposed to a particular way of life, different from what you had hitherto known?
And have you ever suffered from a negative exposure? What have been the ramifications or consequences of being “exposed,” of having some fault-line of yours exposed, sometimes before you are ready, willing, and able?
Likely, it matters as to who is doing the exposing. For Meghan and Harry, it was their choice to share their side of the story from this side of the pond, after some emotional distance and time. For others, “exposure” like what we see in cases of harassment or abuse, may be seen as a kind of justice, such as honest whistleblowers who “expose” the unethical behavior of institutions, high profile leaders, or those who are the recipients of public trust.
The context for our passage today is a longer discussion between two people: Jesus and Nicodemus. If you want to understand that most famous of scriptures—John 3:16—then you might want to check out the story and context that precedes it. A man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. He is a leader, a Pharisee, a wise person, and a scholar with a reputation. In some ways, he has no business hanging around the Rabbi Jesus. That would be a liability for him. But he is attracted to and curious about this new Rabbi, and, being puzzled by Jesus, he wants to understand why Jesus speaks as he does. He acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God, for as he says, no one would be able to do the things that Jesus does apart from God’s presence with him.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night because, likely, he is embarrassed to do so by day. Or perhaps he is not yet ready to be exposed as a potential disciple. Or likely, he has too much to risk, too much to lose at this moment in time, and does not yet understand why he is so compelled by Jesus’ teaching. That is, perhaps he doesn’t really understand his own behavior in relationship to Jesus.
So, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and one might say that he feels safer that way, hidden from his friends, hidden from the other Pharisees, and hidden from even himself. He asks Jesus for clarification on a few the itinerant Rabbi’s teachings and we might imagine the “back and forth” that ensued, as we have a glimpse of it:
Jesus says, “You must be born from above.”
Nicodemus asks, “But how can anyone be born after growing old?”
Jesus says, “No one can enter the kin-dom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Nicodemus asks, “But how can these things be?”
And then Jesus asks him, “Are you a teacher, Nicodemus, and yet do not understand?”
It is hard to admit when we don’t know something…particularly if it is part of our expertise or our professional “business” to know a lot about something. And yet, there is a certain freedom that comes in admitting our lack of knowledge—though it can be fraught with embarrassment. Meghan admitted that she did not know that she was expected to curtsy the Queen and did not fully understand or grasp, at first, the relentless nature of the press. Harry did not really understand racism until his biracial wife opened his eyes in a very personal way to the insidious effects of systemic racism and intrenched fears around race. In any case, when the whole world is watching or even just our peers or colleagues, it can be very difficult to admit when we haven’t made up our mind about something or someone, or we just simply do not have the expected knowledge.
By coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus reveals at least two things about himself: he is keen to give Jesus a hearing and he is willing to be exposed to and changed by another perspective. As a result, Nicodemus will actually argue for Jesus in front of his peers when he reminds his fellow leaders and the authorities of the law by saying, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” Still later, it will be Nicodemus who, with Joseph of Arimathea, will go to bury Jesus and will offer the equivalent of nearly 75 pounds of burial spices…an outrageous amount for the purpose, showing Jesus profound honor.
Importantly, here in John’s gospel, Jesus tells a vulnerable Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into our world with the purpose to condemn it, but to save the world. Eternal life is something akin to freedom; we often perish because we are not willing to come by day or by night to see a different truth that might restore us to ourselves. We often perish in our judgments of each other; like the Sussex’s we wither under unfair judgments and expectations and the evil that we keep hidden from exposure. Likewise, we can perish when we hide important pieces of ourselves from God and from our own self-awareness.
Despite the many ways that this phrase, “For God so loved the world,” has been misused by zealots intent on converting the unwashed masses to a judgmental, false Jesus, the phrase speaks of freedom. It speaks of the freedom that comes when what is hidden comes to light, the freedom and relief that comes when we understand that God’s business is love and not condemnation, and the freedom that comes when we are willing to learn, or at least acknowledge, what we do not understand, whether we be prince, an institution, or a scholar with initials behind our name.
Friends, how do we react when we are exposed in some way? Can we see that honest exposure can be a good thing when what is hidden can perpetuate self-harm? In his nightly conferences with Jesus, Nicodemus is exposed to a new way of thinking about his faith and his reactions to this prophet.
With Nicodemus as a guide, how, then, might we read ourselves, in the privacy of our souls, when the loves or the truths of our lives are laid bare before a loved one, friend, or public scrutiny? More importantly, how might we understand ourselves when our vulnerability and our questions are exposed before God?
Can we see this as a kind of freedom, to be authentic, even in voicing/acknowledging our vulnerabilities, which God knows anyway but which we have, from time to time, hidden from ourselves?