There cannot be many products on the market today that have been instantly recognizable for twenty-seven years from a slogan made up of three one-syllable words that do not in anyway describe the product they represent.

But, not many people in the western consumerist world who have been even slightly conscious since 1988 could fail to recognize that the words “Just do it” announce a line of sporting-good products sold by Nike.

This is relevant this morning because our Gospel reading in worship today is John 3:1-21, the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the night.

The name Nicodemus is made up of two Greek words: νικη and δημος. The second of these two words transliterates as demos and means “the people.” The first word transliterates as nike and means victory. So, the name Nicodemus  means “victory of the people.”

NikeEvidently the producers of Nike products were hoping that, in some mysterious subliminal way, “the people” would come to associate the products Nike sells with the possibility of “victory,” which, when you are competing in a sporting event is an attractive possibility.

There are an endless number of ironies in the association of Nike sporting goods with the Pharisee Nicodemus. The “victory” which the American multinational Nike, Inc. is selling is the victory of physical achievement and personal triumph. The Nike promise is that if you “Just do it…” you will excel and will fulfill your greatest human aspirations.

I am a big fan of being physically active. I am sure that any number of health challenges might be diminished by getting up off the couch and committing to “Just do it.” And if purchasing a particular line of sporting goods equipment helps people “Just do it,” so much the better.

But, the whole point of the story of Nicodemus is that, if we simply focus our attention on getting physically fit and having healthy bodies, we will never realize the fullness of our humanity as beings created in the image of God. A life lived solely on the material plane with no reference to the vast transcendent dimension of mystery and beauty to which Jesus pointed, is something less than a fully human life.

Like so many of the people who came to Jesus in the New Testament, Nicodemus was trapped on the physical material plane, which is ironic as he was a religious leader in his day. Nicodemus could not understand that we human beings are born both materially and spiritually. Jesus said to Nicodemus,

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5,6)

To Jesus’ utter astonishment, Nicodemus fails to grasp the importance of what Jesus is saying. Jesus challenges Nicodemus asking,

Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)

There is no “victory” of “the people” that fails to take into consideration the true nature of what it means to be human. We are not merely biological physical entities. To live as mere physical beings is to descend to a level that is less than we were created to be and to descend into darkness:

this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light. (John 3:19)

The light of Jesus intends to open our eyes to the reality that we live in a universe much bigger than we can apprehend with our physical senses. Jesus wanted to guide Nicodemus to the true victory which is to realize the depth of the meaning of our lives as beings capable of living in deep communion with the mystery we call God.


random note from a long ago sermon on John 3:5:

When Jesus said in John’s Gospel to Nicodemus “‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” (John 3:5) he was not saying that there was something more you must do in order to be born of the Spirit. The verb in this verse that is translated into English as “to be born” is in fact an aorist tense in the Greek. There is no exact translation of the aorist into English but it normally carries a sense of the past. The verse could be better translated to say “no one can enter the kingdom of God without having been born of water and Spirit.” Jesus seems to have meant here that, just as we are born “of water,” so we are born of “Spirit.” He is stating a fact that is true of all human beings. We are not only physical; we are also spiritual beings. If we were not born of the Spirit, it would be impossible for us to “enter the kingdom of God” which is ultimately a spiritual not a physical reality.