Today we hear that Jesus is approached by night by a would-be disciple. A strange conversation ensues.
Usually when we hear Jesus talking, it is loud and clear in ways that are easy to understand. Often Jesus’ teaching was in parable form, sophisticated stories that challenged us on all sorts of levels. They offered new realities that Jesus invites us to grow into.
This is a different conversation, typical of John’s gospel where things are going on at different levels. Jesus’ words sound like a series of riddles designed to confuse. The key of course, is the timing of the conversation. It takes place at night, so we know that Nicodemus’ faith is fragile, that he is moving toward Jesus from a place of opposition. He is coming gradually into the presence of the One who is Light and Life.
Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin. In other words he is a member of the Jewish council in Jerusalem. Ironically, the name “Nicodemus” means something like “power to the people”. His problem is that he has a limited understanding of who Jesus is, and when he begins talking with Jesus and finding himself getting out of his depth, he resorts to a kind of faith which is about definition and formula. He wants to stay in a world where he feels in control and that he understands, rather than allowing Jesus to take him on a journey to show him a new reality. Jesus’ patience and perseverance in this conversation is admirable.
Nicodemus’ response is a temptation for any of us who would be followers of Christ. Faced with new experiences and new challenges, it is easy to cling to what we know and stay in a world we understand. One of the enjoyable aspects of the Lent Study Group DVD that we are watching at present, A History of Christianity, is the shear variety of Christian identities that have developed down through the ages. We have discussing what the shared core of Christian faith might be, whether it’s the creeds, scripture, Eucharist, confession, vocation to live under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, or whatever. The question I have been sitting with over recent days is whether the shared core is actually to be in mission, since every single one of the various ways of being Christian have all been incredibly effective in adapting to local context and communicating the Good News in their time and place, and in their unique way.
The music of our Sunday liturgy is a celebration of the variety of Christian identities we find today, drawing music from Catholic as well as Protestant traditions, from Europe as well as Africa. At the moment we have been learning music from the Orthodox Church. Recently we have sung a beautiful Kyrie Eleison from Russia. During communion today we will attempt another equally beautiful piece of Russian Orthodox music. Orthodox music is interesting in that it is designed to be sung in harmony but without an organ to accompany it. The result is beautiful harmonies that are easy to sing, and that lift the soul heavenward.
On the subject of rejoicing in the various Christian identities surrounding us, I would also like to encourage parishioners to think about confession. This is a practice that the Anglican Church did not stop at the Reformation, so it has a long tradition in our church stretching back over 1500 years. It is available for those who wish to avail themselves of it. These days we call it Reconciliation of a Penitent. You can read all about it on page 750 of the NZPB. It is a way of talking to God about things that you find troubling in your life, and it provides a way for you to hear the good news that God’s forgiveness is for you. Some people find this a helpful preparation for Easter. Parishioners are welcome to make an appointment to see your vicar if you would like to avail yourself of this sacrament of the church.
Jesus takes Nicodemus out of his comfort zone in the conversation they have today. Nicodemus tries to keep Jesus under control by keeping the conversation tied down to known certainties that he understands (which is what he is doing when he understands birth as having one meaning – our physical birth). In response, Jesus keeps explaining gently about what it means to be in the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus is struggling to see that entry into the Kingdom of God is something God does. God calls us; God gathers us; God enables us to be born into the kingdom. This is a gift from above, a gift from God. It happens because of God’s divine initiative and will, rather than being something we initiate and control, because it a work of the Spirit that blows where it wills. Entry into the Kingdom is like a birth into a new situation. Indeed, this birth is accomplished in a ritual with water, what we call baptism, in which the Spirit is poured out. In John’s gospel, entry into the Kingdom means being part of a community of believers who profess faith in Christ and who want to live out their understanding of Jesus.
Nicodemus struggles with this. It may be that he is part of the religious bureaucracy used to regulating and controlling who can be in the Kingdom. But here Jesus blows open the boundaries of the kingdom. God will open this community right up to include all who believe and trust in Jesus. The writer to the Ephesians will develop this theme and say that we need ‘the other’, we need people who are different from us, to open our eyes to aspects of God that we would otherwise not be able to see.
A central piece of the Gospel reading today points to the cross, which is important to note as we approach Holy Week and the culmination of the church’s year at the Great Vigil of Easter. Here, Jesus explains his suffering as a process. He refers to the incident in the Exodus stories where the people are bitten by snakes. Moses finds a way to remove the pests and bring healing. One commentator suggests that these were fire snakes, and that the way to get rid of them was to wind them slowly around a stick from the tail up so that they would release their jaws and let their victim go such that the head is not broken off and left in the wound. The religious aspect of this is the memory of the snake being raised up on a pole and the people receiving the healing of God. Jesus is saying that he is a copy of this. He too, will be raised up on a cross. He is a definitive sign of God’s healing, and one who brings that love into the world. His is agenda, therefore, is to love rather than condemn; to announce that God’s purposes are always for our good. He wants us to slowly and carefully copy his way of loving and living, so that more and more we are united to him and become like him in the ways we think and speak and act. Lent is a kind of practice time for doing this so that we can live into Christ’s way of loving and living all the year round.
The task before us, then, is simple. Like Nicodemus, we come to Jesus. Come out of darkness into the light of God. Come to experience God’s forgiveness and healing. Come that God may raise you heavenward into life in Christ. Come to Jesus who longs to overcome the darkness of our lives and to feed us with the gifts of faith and hope and love. Come to Christ; place your trust in him, and experience the love and peace which passes all understanding.