Sunday 30 May 2021

Nicodemus talks with Jesus


Nicodemus talks with Jesus, Alexander Bida, 1874

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Trinity Sunday, 30th May 2021

We have just heard Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus from John’s Gospel (3:1-17).

It is a difficult passage to understand – at least I find it so. But it is crucial for the development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology. So on this Trinity Sunday please bear with me as I reflect on the meaning of their conversation.

Although he is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus.

Pharisees have had a bad press they don’t deserve. In general they were good people, rather too pious for some people’s taste perhaps, but they did their best to keep every detail of the Jewish law. As well as being a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, which would later try and condemn Jesus on a trumped up charge.

‘(Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night’, we are told. Perhaps he didn’t wish to be seen visiting a controversial figure like Jesus. But after dark, away from the distracting crowds was also a good time for serious conversation. ‘Rabbi’, he says to Jesus, ‘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’. And then they talk.

Poor Nicodemus – he must surely have felt that Jesus spoke to him only in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘having eternal life’: what in God’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try to tease it out.

We start with the kingdom of God – what did Jesus understand by it?

The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We cannot do so unless something changes in us. In a sense we need to be ‘born again’ to be immune to human wilfulness.

Jesus talks about being ‘born from above’ – but the words could just as well be translated as being ‘born again’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands them. He understands the necessity of it, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our sinful natures – that is what baptism symbolises. But we cannot by ourselves surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we entrust ourselves to God completely, without reservation, as to a loving Father.

In Greek the same word is used for both wind and spirit – ‘pneuma’. Jesus says, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view – this is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just does not get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and enjoys their conversation.

Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep, heavenly truths, about theological truths.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.

‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘a representative man’. Jesus is saying that for a representative man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And he clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the representative man.

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Moses lifting up the serpent refers to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp, which healed those with snakebite when they looked at it.

Jesus is saying that he, the representative man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross and to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as in the ancient Hebrew scriptures the image of the serpent healed those who gazed on it.

But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We should distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I think. Everlasting life might just as well be hell as heaven, experiencing the same things over and over again. Duration isn’t the point - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

‘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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’

Jesus is revealing to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the representative of all human beings, is also the only Son of God. The extent of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son. And God sent his Son to save the world, not to condemn it – to offer us the chance to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with his, rather than to be punished for not doing his will.

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.

You might expect him to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t. John goes on to tell us (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40).

Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches. Let us hope that this was the case.

And let us give thanks for the insights Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships within the God of the Trinity, between the Father, his Son, and his Spirit, and the relationship between God and human beings like us. They are the scriptural basis for our Trinitarian faith.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

O blessed Trinity,
in whom we know the Maker of all things, seen and unseen,
the Saviour of all, both near and far:
by your Spirit enable us so to worship your divine majesty,
that with all the company of heaven
we may magnify your glorious name, saying,
Holy, holy, holy. Glory to you, O Lord most high. Amen

Sunday 23 May 2021

The Church is a living, developing organism

 Address given on Pentecost Sunday 23rd May 2021 at St Mary's, Nenagh & Killodiernan church

We’re moving into Summer, Spring is almost behind us, and we have returned to our churches!

We all love the sense of unfolding new life and development at this time of year. And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born. It is right for us to rejoice in it!

Jesus told his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit from the Father.

For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’ in today’s Gospel (John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15). On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’

Jesus goes on to say, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’. These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that they do not know the whole truth. They must trust the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father to guide them. The same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. It is too easy to say ‘we must hold to the faith once for all delivered to the Saints’, because all truth is provisional. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.

7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had so recently promised them. The Hebrew scriptures use wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it was natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed by it, changed utterly.

They began to speak in tongues, we are told. This is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke telling us that the Gospel message is universal, for people of all races and tongues? Or was it the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward, the simple fisherman from Galilee. Just seven weeks before he had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel; and Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in the man! Thus Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we can understand what happened through, say, the science of psychology. But I prefer to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.

It was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, folk sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. And for much of the last year, the pandemic has prevented us from gathering physically in our churches, and still prevents us from singing, though very many have continued to join together as a worshipping online.

The truth is that nobody can be a Christian alone, because as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation. We are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, the body of Christ, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was planting seeds in the minds of the children of Israel and their ancient prophets, as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But as Christians, let us rejoice in Christ’s Church as a living, developing organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, constantly growing in new ways, and guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends from the Father.

So to conclude:

As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, and as we rejoice to be able to gather together in our churches once again, let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, changing and developing organism.

And let us pray that in this small part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Diocese of Limerick & Killaloe in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to change and develop according to God’s will:

Almighty God, 
you sent your Holy Spirit,
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love, joy, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen