Lent 2

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Readings

Romans 4.1-5,13-17 / John 3.1-17

Text

When I was a priest in north Wales I often drove along the A55 coast road. Parallel to the road was the railway line and crossing over that was a footbridge on which someone had graffiti-ed – in very large, unmissable letters: John 3. 16. It was such a local landmark that everyone knew of it, but an equally large number of people didn’t get it. I was asked many times ‘what does John 3.16 mean?’ I sometimes politely suggested that they reached for a bible to look it up, but usually I simply replied; For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

No doubt the Christian graffiti artist thought it was an act of evangelism, leading to belief. But given that ta good number of people passing didn’t even understand the reference, or even know it was a verse from Scripture, I am not sure it did a great deal other than comfort those who already knew.

There is a world of difference between believing and understanding. Admittedly if you understand something then it is a great help towards believing: once you understand then perhaps it is a short step to belief. But it is also the case that sometimes you do not need to fully understand in order to believe. The story in John’s gospel today which records Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night gives us an example of someone who doesn’t understand and yet comes to believe.

Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel: in this passage where he comes to Jesus by night to find out more about Jesus’ teaching, secondly to defend Jesus’ right to be heard during his trial, and thirdly to prepare Jesus’ body for burial with spices. We do not hear of him in the other gospels and we do not know much more. We do not know for sure that he became a Christian – although he is venerated as a saint in some churches. The mystery surrounding him is something I find quite helpful – even though it might at first seem a little vague. When this night time visit to Jesus is read in our churches many of us – including preachers – will often concentrate on the complex yet important understanding of what it means to be born again. Jesus uses images which need a great deal of unpacking and exploration in order to understand something which at first sounds quite bizarre. 

But I do not want to think about being born again now. I want to briefly consider the way in which Nicodemus encounters Christ and then comes closer to him. 

Firstly this takes place at night. Why? Well it could well have been that he was scared of being found to have a conversation with Jesus. What would his Pharisee colleagues think? By coming to Jesus at night he is able to keep this exploration private at least for now, and so he can think more deeply about the encounter with Jesus without fear of losing either his status, or perhaps leaving his comfort zone of faith. It isn’t necessarily an act of secrecy, but rather an act of sensitive, planned and wise exploration of faith which is not pressurised or public. It is good that we remind ourselves that many people who are interested in, or inquisitive of, the message of Jesus do not yet feel comfortable in exploring it publically or openly. We must be aware of this and allow friends and colleagues to explore Jesus privately and quietly with us. The gentle start of the journey of faith needs much care and sensitivity.

Secondly, even someone skilled in the teachings of Judaism as a Pharisee, is still perplexed and unclear about what Jesus is saying. He asks many questions, Jesus replies and indeed then questions Nicodemus saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” It is a timely reminder to us that even with a vast knowledge of scripture and tradition something more is required for us to fully believe. Faith isn’t simply about notching up information or ticking boxes. It isn’t simply about turning up and going along with the tradition. It requires a rebirth of understanding. The phrase ‘leap of faith’ isn’t something which is just an exaggerated way of excusing rationality. It is an important step. There comes a point where we must go beyond knowledge and tradition and commit ourselves to believing. It is one thing to understand, but quite another to believe.

And finally, we do not know whether Nicodemus did believe enough to be baptised and become a follower of Jesus Christ as we might describe a traditional disciple of Christ. However we see how this encounter with Jesus by night did shape his actions and behaviour. He did stand up for Jesus at his trial and he made sure he did what he could at Jesus’ burial – working with Joseph of Arimathea and bringing spices for the burial. As Christians we too will do all we can to bring people to faith but we must allow lives to be changed by encounter with Jesus and not merely an encounter with ourselves. When people come to us by night – in other words privately and perhaps with some trepidation, we are called to point them towards Jesus and pray that their lives will be changed. Yes we may provide understanding, but their faith – that leap of faith which brings them to belief – is a journey and process which is ultimately in God’s hands. Like Nicodemus many people will, by our conversation, witness and example, want to draw nearer to the life of Jesus and know of God’s love for the world in giving his only Son, ‘that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.

Questions:

  • When have you heard friends, colleagues, or family ask about your faith, and how have you responded?
  • How can you gently encourage those on the edge of the Church, or on the margins of faith, to take the next step?
  • What are the key strengths of your faith in Christ which you cling on to when your faith feels weaker than usual?
  • Use the forthcoming ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ season to pray for three people you know to come to faith in Jesus Christ.


Page last updated: 4th May 2020 1:37 PM
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