By Rev. Stephen Baldwin
Last month, our 15 year old dog, Ella, died. She spent her whole life right here in Ronceverte. She lived a full life, and the way she lived was a thing of beauty. She was so comfortable in her own skin.
She didn’t give a second thought to what anyone else thought. She wore her under-bite well. She literally ran the streets; every morning and every afternoon for most of her 15 years. And if anyone came into her space, she would show them who was boss.
She could care less when she got white around her snout or that she always ran a little crooked, with her back legs slightly to the right of her front legs.
Instead, when she jumped, she gave a quick glance at her legs as if to say, “Wow! I can do that? Wow!” She didn’t hide her belly; she stuck it out so us humans will rub it…because it feels so good.
We don’t usually wear our skin so well. We focus on our flaws. We run away from mirrors and cameras.
Rachel Held Evans was a Christian author who died in 2019 at the young age of 38. She once wrote, “Bodies take a beating. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.”
Our skin and our bodies are miracles, but aren’t always easy to live with. Especially as we age. Amen? We know what it’s like to be uncomfortable in our own skin.
So does Nicodemus. People have debated for centuries whether he comes to Jesus as a believer or to deceive him. Either is possible. But what’s undeniable is how uncomfortable he is in his own skin…and he seems to want to do something about it.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In Hebrew, that means “separated ones.” They were the leaders of the faith, who were said to be separated by their superior faith. And you can tell when reading this story, that Nicodemus is uncomfortable with that label.
He comes by night, and we all do things by night we can’t bear to do in the day. Light has a way of allowing us to see things we don’t always want to see, so we confine them to the darkness. His conversation with Jesus is as awkward as his self-image. Nicodemus asks questions, and Jesus responds in generalities, but they don’t understand each other. They probably don’t quite trust each other.
Nicodemus tries to tell Jesus that he believes in him. Jesus says, “You don’t really believe in me. You must be born again to believe.”
“But I’m an old man. How can I be born again,” Nicodemus asks?
“Your spirit must be reborn, so that your flesh will do my will.”
It’s no coincidence that Jesus talked with him about flesh or skin. Nicodemus was uncomfortable in his, just as many of us are. The Christian tradition for many years has an uneasy relationship to the body. This is probably because the Greeks who were some of the first to study Jesus divided body and soul in ways he did not. Then came the Protestant Reformation and Freud, who taught us to fear what God gave us. And now the internet and magazines and social media bombard us pictures of how women and men “ought to” look. It’s no wonder we’re so uncomfortable in our own skin.
Women have it harder than men. Their skin is expected to be flawless. The pressure women face to wear their skin must surely feel intolerable at times.
That’s why I was always so envious of my dog. She was just thankful for what she had. She had a tail, so she wagged it. She had legs, so she ran. She had a voice, so she barked.
When we’re uncomfortable in our own skin, we don’t use it. I think that’s what Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus. He could see, in his nighttime visit, that Nicodemus was uncomfortable with the person he’d become, and that meant he could never be the person God created him to be.
If you are uncomfortable with the person you’ve become, know that you can still be the person God created you to be! For “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Most people memorized the first half of that verse when they were young. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s a lovely verse. But I like the next verse even better. It tells us how God loved the world. Not by condemning it. Not by pointing out its flaws. Not by criticizing its shortcomings. Not by photoshopping away the bad parts. God loved the world by sending Jesus to save it. God created our skin, and God loves our skin. Every color. Every size. Every one.
You may wonder how the story ends? Did Nicodemus change? Yes, he did. Nicodemus may have been unsure of Jesus at first, visiting him in the cover of night. But by the end of Jesus’ life, it was Nicodemus who helped bury him. It was Nicodemus who used his skin to put Jesus’ skin to rest. It was Nicodemus who put his body at risk to care for Jesus’ body.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again, and he listened. He found comfort in his own skin, rather than trying to be something and someone he was not, and it changed him through and through. If you are uncomfortable with the person you’ve become, know that you can still be the person God created you to be! Being yourself is the easiest and best thing you can be. It is who you were created to be. For “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.