Lent 2 (2008) Year A RCL Principal
One of the problems I have had with Christian life is not about being a Christian – it’s about how other people see Christians. Apparently we are all the same, often thought of as goody-goody’s, not really connected to the real world, we’re hypocrites, and we’re judgemental. And that’s just the comments I’ve received from my visits around the villages – my usual response is, ‘well, there’s always room for one more’
On the other hand, one of the great joys of being a Clergyperson who doesn’t really fit the stereotype is that I can shock people into thinking about whether there prejudice or stereotypes about the Church have any grounding in reality! They usually don’t – to be honest I don’t know any clergyperson that fits any of the stereotypical wet, slightly bumptious, clueless but amusing picture painted by the sitcoms.
And the fact that our ministers in the Church are all different is a reflection of the diversity that exists in our Churches. Not just the differences that exist between denominations and traditions, but the very real individuality of every one of us in the Church.
And this difference and diversity could not be more apparent than in our two readings for today. First of all, from the book of Genesis, we have Abram (not yet called Abraham, that comes later) being called by God. It’s pretty blunt – get up, leave your homeland and go where I am telling you. There will be great rewards for your faithfulness, but in order to gain these rewards you will need to leave everything behind and go to somewhere else which I will reveal as we go along. And the reading ends simply that ‘Abram went, as the Lord had told him.’
No questions, no complications, no hesitation. Complete acceptance of God’s command and simple faith and trust mean that Abram moves as God commands. Good for him!
A somewhat different story in our Gospel, however. I do love this story. In a slight departure from our Year of concentrating on the Gospel of Matthew we have a passage from St John’s Gospel. We hear the story of Nicodemus, a seeker, a Pharisee, someone who is desperate to talk to Jesus, to ask questions, to dig deeper. Nicodemus is someone with a responsible position in his faith community, a leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee. He is on the council that offers leadership to the Jewish faith. He is someone who is probably well respected, well educated and well to do.
And he comes to Jesus by night. That cryptic line could mean that he comes secretly, that he comes under the cover of darkness, afraid to be seen consorting with this radical teacher and challenger to conventional faith. It could also just mean that he is so busy that he had no time during the day to see Jesus so had to make an extra effort to see him at night. Whatever, we see that Nicodemus made that effort, he wanted to ask questions, to speak to Jesus.
And Jesus comes back with some quite deep, quite startling answers. He responds to the questions with a challenge, a challenge to follow, to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit and to accept the life given by God. It seems to me that Jesus respects Nicodemus enough to be blunt with him, he sees that this Pharisee for all his learning, his responsibility, his background, needs to make a choice, needs to decide for himself what the truth is and how he is going to follow.
In the end Jesus points to himself, using his favourite description of himself ‘the Son of Man’, and says that the ‘Son of Man’ must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Jesus makes that bold declaration, one that we all know ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’.
Nicodemus remains silent. We don’t have any indication of how he reacted to this. But if we jump on to the end of the Gospel we read his name again when he and another member of the council (Joseph of Arimethea) are willing to take the risk of asking Pilate for the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Nicodemus had remained on the council, he’d not taken the step of joining Jesus band of followers – but perhaps he’d continued seeking the truth, maybe he’d even visited Jesus again, asking questions, wondering which way to go. That’s all speculation, what we do know is that Nicodemus is named again and that he was probably named because he would have been familiar to those who read the Gospel first. Perhaps he joined the followers of Jesus at that time and was there to witness the appearance of Christ after his resurrection? We don’t know – but we do see him there, performing with Joseph of Arimethea, a service to Jesus. Perhaps despondent, perhaps wishing he had made a public commitment before this time – but willing to take the risk of being associated with Jesus after his execution.
Nicodemus is someone who could not do what Abram did, he seems unable to just pack up and go in response to Jesus challenge. But we are shown in the Gospel the grace of a God who gives us all another chance, and who brings Nicodemus to the point where he too is willing to take a risk of faith, and do something for Jesus.
And these two extremes are encouraging for all of us who seek today to be followers. There are people in our congregations who are absolutely sure of what Christian faith is about, and seem to suffer from very few doubts about how things should be done, and what God wants for our parishes. There are others who ask questions, for who faith involves wrestling in heart and mind with questions of meaning and truth. There are those who embrace their doubts and who are unafraid to say that they are not sure, that they are still seeking. There are many of us who are between the two, and whilst sure about some things regarding our faith, are open to speculation of others.
And there are some of us who can go from one end of the spectrum – from absolute certainty to questioning everything and back again – on an almost daily basis!
And all of us, wherever we are on the scale, are needed in the Church. We need the questioners, the doubters (and doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is). We need those full of ideas and certainties. We need those who want to rush forward and try something new, we need those who want to hold on to the old and who ask why we should discard things.
All of this is part of the richness of who we are, and reflects the richness of God’s calling which is for all people. And if there are still those who are under the misunderstanding that everyone who goes to Church is the same, it is our task to let them know that this is not the case, and to draw them in to be come a part of God’s varied fellowship of faith. It is we who are trying to follow who are the best adverts for the faith which means so much to us.
One day all of our questions will be answered, but until then we share our doubts and our certainties and if we work together then we will share our faith with one another and with a world which is no in need of the faith and hope and love that only our God can provide.