Thursday, May 23, 2024

neurodivergent Nicodemus


The Gospel text set for this Sunday (John 3.1-17) recounts a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus combines the word for ‘victory’ and the word for ‘the common people’ and can mean victory of the people, or victory over the people, or victor among the people. Perhaps Nicodemus had overcome the expectations of his society to get where he was, to achieve what he had achieved in life. In recent years we have seen growing awareness of neurodivergence, though there is a long way to go. Some people argue that autism and other examples of neurodivergence are new conditions or simply excuses for unacceptable behaviour. But neurodiversity has always existed, even if we have known it by different names, calling those who diverge from the average savant geniuses or village idiots. Nicodemus displays several characteristics that would resonate with neurodivergence (see Ann Memmott).

Firstly, he comes to Jesus at nighttime. Before the advent of electric light, people slept twice, a short sleep to rest from the activities of the day, followed by a rising to meet with friends, meditate on life, or—as in monasteries—to pray, before returning to bed. So, a nighttime conversation is not unusual, but it is more conducive to someone who withdraws from the sensory overstimulation of the daytime—its crowds and noise and smells. It is often suggested that he came at night because he was afraid of what other people might think of him, and of being rejected: I’m unsure—Jesus had supporters as well as detractors among the Pharisees—but in any case, such social anxiety is common among neurodivergent people. When you have had to work hard to belong, you do not lightly risk losing that.

Secondly, we are told that Nicodemus is preeminent in his authority, and an instructor acknowledged as possessing mastery in the field of interpretation and application of the Law. In other words, he had a special interest, which he pursued to the highest level.

Thirdly, Nicodemus thinks in very literal terms, struggling to understand Jesus’ use of metaphor and analogy.

Fourthly, we will meet Nicodemus again, when he accompanies Jospeh of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus comes bearing a ridiculous, over-the-top amount of myrrh and aloes—a hundred pounds (John 19.39); a hundred times as much as what Mary anointed Jesus with (John 12.3)—desperately wanting to get it right but getting it brilliantly wrong.

None of these things are exclusive to neurodivergent people but taken together they build a strong case. We can’t say categorically that Nicodemus was neurodivergent, but we can say that he demonstrates neurodivergent characteristics. It is important to me to see Nicodemus as possibly being neurodivergent because I am neurodivergent. It is important that we should be able to see ourselves reflected back in the scriptures: to be able to say, ah, here is Jesus reaching out to someone like me; and if someone like me, then perhaps me also.

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Church affirms the Oneness and Threeness of God. The trap is to think that this is something we can break down into its parts, to understand how they fit together. As if God was a radio transistor, and we were tinkering with a screwdriver. But that would be to miss the point. Our Gospel passage illustrates this brilliantly. It starts with a Pharisee: that is, a separatist, from the action of dividing and separating, of remaining pure by being separated from sin. (There are many separatists, of one tribe or another, within the Church of England today, which I find tragically sad.) It ends with Jesus stating that God did not send the Son into the world as judge—as one who separates—but as the one who will rescue us from separation into wholeness.

Twice, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. ‘Son’ means ‘having the same nature as,’ and ‘Man’ means ‘humankind.’ Not (here) son of Mary (family) or Son of David (ethnicity) (though he is both these things) but one with every human.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

God is not to be understood, but, rather, to be encountered, and known.

Trinity is the best language we have for that, but it is, nonetheless, inadequate.

But in this Gospel passage Nicodemus encounters Jesus, in whom the God who sends us and who is with us (‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’) is revealed.

The nature of God, revealed to us, is that God prefers ‘kosmos’—an ordered system of life in all its wonderful diversity—over destruction, over reduction and conformity. That God both generates and sustains such life.

This Jesus is the one who unites heaven and earth—two distinct realms, indivisible—as divine nature come, in love, to us; and human nature, raised, in love, to God.

The nature of God, revealed to us, resists separation. It does not divide between flesh and sprit—between the life given us by our parents, with its unique combination of genes and culture, the colour of our eyes and skin, the fault in our heart—and the life given us by God, that can’t be analysed, only lived. Jesus says, these two go together; both are necessary. One does not rule out the other: and so, the family of God is as diverse as human beings are.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

And Nicodemus is drawn to this beautiful light of life that shines in the darkness and is not overwhelmed. Does he understand everything that Jesus says? No (and thank you, Nicodemus, for your honesty, for giving us permission to be honest, too). But he came to Jesus, as Jesus came from God; and is sent by Jesus into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world by God. Sent, not to be understood, but to be a sign of the Spirit. A sign that doesn’t make sense (One hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, Nicodemus? Really!? What were you thinking?) but—like the wind—might just sweep up others (Joseph of Arimathea?) into the life of God that cannot be destroyed, that cannot perish.

I see in the Gospel—the good news—that someone like me is caught up by the life of God. And if someone like me, then, why not me too?


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