Conversion doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Consider Nicodemus. John 12 sets the stage for his story:
Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God. (John 12:42-43 NIV)
Nicodemus is one of those “leaders.” He approaches Jesus at night (John 3:2), likely to confront Jesus for his conduct in the temple (2:13-25). The conversation doesn’t go as Nicodemus planned (what conversation at night ever goes as planned?). Jesus utterly disorients Nicodemus, and causes him to question what he and his associates have always believed.
He dares to voice one of those questions to his fellow leaders. They are undone by his disloyalty. They lump him in with the uneducated “mob,” reveal their prejudice against Galileans, and ultimately shame him for his outlandish question (7:45-52).
He disappears. We assume he was a set-piece in a larger drama. But he then reappears (19:38-42), and along with Joseph of Arimathea, prepares Jesus’ body for burial in royal fashion and at great cost to himself. Financially, but socially as well.
Later, according to church tradition, Nicodemus is martyred. Here’s a simple outline of Nicodemus’ conversion:
- Defending his group
- Questioning his group
- Defying his group
- Destroyed by his group
Here is why his story is worth thinking about right now.
Firstly it reminds us that indeed, conversion doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By that I mean that every person considering life in Christ does so with a host of competing group loyalties and social expectations bearing down on them.
I traveled to China recently. There, we met with underground Christians in a cramped room in one of the countless high-rise apartment buildings that span the skyline. I asked how many were first-generation Christians. Nearly every hand in the room went up. One by one they described the toll their decision to follow Jesus had on their families, relationships, and jobs. Conversion had cost them substantially. Much like Nicodemus.
Anyone who hopes to make disciples (and we all should) must consider the social pressures interfering with that project.
Which brings us to the second point. Conversion doesn’t happen in a vacuum, or in a moment. It happens over time, like it did for Nicodemus.
That is, we are all in the process of conversion. Or as Paul says, “we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18).
The problem: the same group loyalties and social expectations often continue to bear down on us, shaming us if we question them or worse, defy them. Some of these loyalties are chosen (political parties, clubs, schools, etc.), but others are identity markers that we are born with or inherit.
White people are supposed to think ______________. Black people are supposed to think ________________. Educated people have to believe _________________. Middle class people would never __________________. Americans are always ____________________.
Nicodemus, at great cost, differentiates himself from the assumptions, biases, and expectations of a group that is interfering with his life in Christ.
Are we courageous enough to do the same? Faithful enough?
Well, we can’t answer those questions until we answer a few others. Give these a try:
- What are my primary identity markers and group loyalties in life?
- What commitments are expected of those who share my identity markers and loyalties?
- Are those commitments consistent with the Jesus way?
Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.