Nicodemus is an interesting character. He was an influential Jew, a member of the supreme council called the Sanhedrin and a teacher of the Law. In the mind of the writer of the Gospel of St John he represents a body of people who failed to understand Jesus message. (If you read chapter 3 of St John you can almost hear the puzzlement in his voice.) But there is more to Nicodemus than this incident in which he came to Jesus "by night" (probably so as not to be observed seeking out the unconventional rabbi Jesus).
He reappears in chapter 7, defending Jesus in an argument. It seems he is aligning himself with Jesus by this stage. Then, after the crucifixion, he seeks the body of Jesus so as to give it a proper burial. He was prepared to spend a large sum of money on 100 lb. of spices to bury with the body. Like many of us today, his commitment to Jesus was a process: enquiry, argumentation, discovery, attraction and eventually discipleship.
It is in chapter 3 that the famous verse appears: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." In secular Australia "eternal life" isnt a common topic of conversation, but "quality of life" is. What do people mean by this catch-phrase? Probably a variety of things, often material possessions. I dont agree with preachers who say that material things are unimportant. Body, mind and spirit are inter-connected. All are central in the makeup of human personality.
For many communities in remote Australia there is little quality of life because the "basics" arent there: good nutrition, housing and safety, access to a sound education, access to employment. The contrast between these situations and most of our cities and suburbs is too great. Both the last Federal Government and the present one have brought these issues to the fore. Perhaps, after the apology in Federal Parliament this past week, real progress can be made.
But quality of life goes beyond the "basics". It includes direction and purpose in life, an awareness of meaning, the achievement of some at least of ones goals. A particular Christian emphasis is that a life of quality is not centred in self but is "other-centred".
When Jesus used the phrase "eternal life", what did he mean? It is more than "life that goes on and on" and more than "life after death". It means a quality of life that is not affected by corruption or decay. It is life that arises from the Eternal One. One of the best definitions, I think, is "the Life of the Age to Come". This definition has movement and direction; it suggests a journey toward that goal which God has set before us as promise and gift.
Because eternal life is a gift we cant earn it. We are accepted by God not because of our inherent qualities but because God has decided we are of value. The great theologian of two generations ago, Paul Tillich, preached an influential sermon "You are accepted". The phrase remembered, from that sermon, by many thousands of people was "You are accepted although unacceptable". If God accepts us, we can accept ourselves. There are many people, Christians included, who cant accept themselves because of what they have done or not done. But God accepts us as we are, now.
Others cant accept particular people because of prejudice. Just this week I have heard people, in my local community, dismissing the parliamentary apology to indigenous people, and adding snide remarks about aborigines. Prejudice against groups and races endures. We have much work to do if it is to be eradicated.
A potent sign of Gods acceptance of us is the eucharist or holy communion. It is a symbol of the plenty of Gods grace. The supply never runs out. In hundreds of countries and many thousands of congregations today this meal is celebrated. And we can do it again and again because Gods gift is renewed day by day and week by week. Whatever crises we face in life, God is there to meet us. The Good News of Christ reorganizes our minds and resets our hearts - again and again. The eucharist is an enacted sign of that Good News. We receive it in faith and with hope.