Why, Nicodemus?

This is a reflection based on Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, but it also brings in ideas from his other two appearances in the gospel. The readings are: John 3:1-17; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-42.

“Why did you go, Nicodemus?

Why did you go to see this strange character, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you really think that he was a prophet? Search the scriptures you know so well, and you will see for yourself that no prophet comes from Galilee. He does look a bit like a prophet, it’s true. And sounds like one on occasions. He certainly acts like one sometimes, come to think of it. Whipping up that storm in the Temple, driving out the dove sellers and money changers: that was risky. Just the sort of thing that Isaiah or Amos might have done, I suppose. But we have no prophets now and if we did have any, they certainly wouldn’t come from Nazareth.

henry_ossawa_tanner_-_jesus_and_nicodemusPerhaps you went to see a miracle? He certainly has quite a few tricks up his sleeve, doesn’t he? Lepers claiming to be healed, the lame leaping for joy, sight restored – there’ll be no beggars left soon! And there was that strange talk about the wedding he went to in Cana: a good man to have at a party, by the sounds of it! Even that old fox Herod seems intrigued by him, so they say, although apparently he’s just petrified that it’s John come back to haunt him. Like Samuel rising from the witch’s fire!

Did you go on your own account, or because others sent you? You called him ‘rabbi’, I hear; a bad place to start, if I might say so. It gives the man too much credence – and then you said, “we know that you are a teacher”. Who’s this “we” then? Are there others on the Council who feel the same way? I find it hard to believe that a group of such distinguished men could be so gullible. These are hard enough times to be a good Jew, without our leaders losing their heads too. Romans or no Romans, blasphemy is always blasphemy!

Why do did you go by night, Nicodemus?

Night time is a time for sleeping; for lying safe in your bed beside your wife, knowing that all the household and animals are safely locked up. Why, even a group of dis-organised brides searching for lamp oil wouldn’t raise me from my slumbers! What on earth possessed you to go out into the dark streets and seek the company of cutthroats and drunkards? Maybe it was because you did not want to be seen by anyone consorting with this strange Nazarene. He’s certainly not popular with some of your fellow Pharisees, is he? He seems to possess a real knack for getting under their skin: even you lost your cool a bit with him yourself, didn’t you – when he started talking about being born again. His habit of answering a question with another question really is infuriating, isn’t it? No wonder your friends, the chief priests, get so riled: no one else would dare talk to them like that. Or are they your friends, I wonder?

Crijn_HendrickszPerhaps, though, I am thinking of this like some strange gentile might in the frozen north. All their streets – if such barbarian settlements have streets – may be deserted by sunset. We are a warm-blooded people, though. Only fools would sit and talk about important matters in the heat of the day, when sensible folks seek the shade and their beds. Night time is the time to come alive, to ponder the deep things of life in the cool of the evening: just as when God walked with Adam in the Garden, in fact. It is then, with a welcome breeze slowly swaying the branches of the trees – and no, I don’t know where it comes from or goes to, either – it is then that we can think clearly, and talk through the deep things of life.

For this is a very deep thing that you are discussing, is it not? Matters of faith and belief, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of life and death. For who is this “Son of Man” of which he speaks? Is he talking about the one that Daniel – a proper prophet, and most definitely not from Galilee – of the one that Daniel said would come at the end times? Or is he – horror of horrors – talking about himself, in that strange elliptical way he has of speaking? If he is, then this is blasphemy pure and simple: to suggest that he has come down from heaven, that he will be lifted up again and, worst of all, that belief in him will lead to eternal life! You should have run away then, Nicodemus; this stuff is too hot to handle! This is the sort of thing that will get him into trouble, and you too, if you’re not careful. Performing a few miracles is one thing but this is blasphemy, and you – a teacher of Israel – know that only too well, don’t you?

Why did you go back, Nicodemus?

That wasn’t very sensible, was it? Going to Pilate, with Joseph of Arimethea and asking to have the body. I mean, really, what were you thinking of? You saw how angry the High Priest was and the rest of your fellow Council members. What a fuss, and all just before Passover as well: Passover of all times, I ask you. With the city full to bursting and the Romans on edge. No wonder it all got out of hand. Did you really have to make a scene with that other old man and get the body? I mean he’s dead now: he won’t mind whether he’s dumped on the heap with all the other felons, will he?

This is not the end of the matter for you; you know that, don’t you. People saw you ask for the body, and Caiaphas and the rest have very long memories. You won’t be trusted again – though perhaps you haven’t been properly trusted since you went the first time. But this. This seemed utterly pointless. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Now, where did I hear that phrase? Never mind.

Entierro_de_Cristo_(Tiziano)What did you hope to achieve by doing this thing, by putting him into that tomb? Poor old Joseph had that specially cut for himself, and now he’s not even going to be the first tenant. Was it out of respect? Of admiration? Or was it out of hope? Did you still believe that he might have been a prophet, or perhaps even more than a prophet? Did you want him to be proved right?

That’s the frustrating thing about faith, isn’t it? Unless it’s tested by doubts and uncertainties then it’s not faith at all: it’s just knowledge. But to have faith – true faith – you must know doubt too. The deep, unsettling doubt that robs us of our sleep, and haunts us during the small hours of the night: perhaps that’s why you went to see him when you did? Did this strange man from Nazareth provoke in you feelings of wonder and awe that you thought had died long ago? Did what he say actually make perfect sense to you – once you had had time to digest it properly? Did you recognise the truth of what he was saying, and what he taught – did you see fulfilled in him the prophecies you know so well of the Messiah who is to come? Did he show you a better, more perfect way of being; did he reveal to you the deepest things of life – things you didn’t even know that you didn’t even know?

Wait, Nicodemus. Have faith, Nicodemus. Come back again in the three days, Nicodemus. Come and see that your faith is not in vain.”

Jesus Christ is raging

This is the sermon I delivered today, the Third Sunday in Lent, at Putney Methodist Church. The set text was John 2:13-25 (Jesus cleanses the Temple). 

 

el_greco_-_the_purification_of_the_temple_-_wga10541Sadly, we seem to be a very angry generation, even an angry world, at present. One cannot turn on the television, seemingly, without seeing images of people rioting or screaming at one another. The internet – a tool designed to connect people and allow the free exchange of ideas – is too often hijacked by angry streams of abuse, directed at anyone who thinks or looks differently to the abuser. Our roads, our politics, our news seems to be dominated by angry people.

In this context, it seems hard to praise Jesus’ outburst of anger in the Temple two thousand years ago. What makes his violent outburst different from the rage we see directed at Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers, feminists and anti-feminists, Corbynites and anti-Corbynites, and so on and so forth? Surely, the rest of scripture has it right, when it urges restraint from anger. From the days of Jacob and Esau’s fraternal frustrations (Gen. 27), to the wise word of St Paul who urges his readers never to “let the sun go down on” their anger (Eph. 4:26). And those of us in relationships, are often told to ‘bite our tongue’ or ‘keep a lid on it’ in order to preserve harmonious living conditions – and that applies to church life, just as much as domestic life!

Yet, if that is the end of the story, then we have forgotten something. We have forgotten that sometimes ‘righteous anger’ is just what the world needs. In the case of our reading today, this is not Jesus simply flying off the handle because he’s had a bad day, and his donkey got a parking ticket in the marketplace! Jesus has seen what has been happening in the Temple ever since his first visit there, so many years previously with his parents (Luke 2:41-51). He has seen how the Temple was re-built not so much to the glory of God, but for the glory of the Herodian kings, who wished to buy the popularity of their people and cement their hold on power. He has seen the traders move from outside the Temple to inside its courts, at the behest of – and for the financial gain of – those in authority. And he has seen poor and faithful pilgrims fro across the Jewish world being systematically fleeced by money changers and animal sellers, who are exploiting the Temple’s purity laws to make a very large profit. This is anger that has built up over the years and now boils over, in this symbolic act of defiance. It is, to employ an often misused phrase, truly ‘righteous anger’.

This righteous anger, of course, has excellent precedents. In this passage, Jesus alludes to the prophet Zechariah (as he does on several occasions), who foresees the day when the Messiah shall come and, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts” (Zech 14:21). And the prophets were no stranger to this kind of righteous anger – displaying the “zeal” for God that truly “consumed” them (Psalm 69:9). Delivering unpopular judgements on the rulers and evil practices of their own day; standing up to corrupt and failing monarchs, false religion, and the neglect of the poor, and often paying the ultimate price for their righteous fury.

mission-1986-1170x776Such righteous anger still has a place in our world today. One of the most challenging lines from a film that I have ever heard comes at the end of the 1986 film, The Mission. I am sure most of you know the film a little and are aware that at the end, the Jesuit missionary, played by Jeremy Irons, is ultimately unsuccessful in protecting his Christian mission of indigenous Indians from the rapacious grasp of the Portuguese slave-owners. Because of the machinations of international politics in Europe, the people are all either killed or sold into slavery. One of the slavers, Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, remarks to the Cardinal who has reluctantly found himself dragged into this sordid business:

We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

To which the weary Cardinal, struggling with his conscience, replies:

No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.

“The world is thus.” How often has that excuse justified inaction and acceptance of every horror and injustice under the sun, from slavery to the Nazis and on to the refugee camps of Syria. We shrug our shoulders and simply say that nothing can be done, so what’s the point in even trying. The money changers and dove sellers will simply gather up their coins and set up their benches again, so what’s the point of making an effort today?

As the Christian writer Timothy Radcliffe has observed, “There is a difference between hopeful anger which believes that things need not be as they are and will struggle to ensure that they are not, and just moaning.” “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” Jesus’s anger wasn’t just moaning, or having a rant on a Facebook page. It was anger that was designed to stir people out of their apathy and to point to the truth that the world can be different; indeed, that God wants his world to be different. And, thank God, people have shown just that over the years.

rosaparksMany of you will know the story of Rosa Parks better than I. She was the brave black woman who refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus, and so started the Montgomery Bus Boycott: a vital chapter in the Civil Rights Movement of the USA. I had often been told that Rosa Parks failed to give up her seat that day because she was simply tired from a long week’s work but, as so often, when you dig a little deeper, you find the truth is far more interesting.

The story actually started many years earlier, in 1943, when Rosa had boarded a bus and paid the fare. She had got on at the front of the bus, though, and the city’s rules ordered that black people had to get on by the rear door, and the driver, James Blake, told her to get off and board the bus again from the back door. This she reluctantly did but before she could re-enter, Parks had slammed the doors shut and driven off without her, leaving her in the rain.

More than ten years later, in December 1955, Rosa again paid her fare to the same driver, James Blake (whom initially she did not recognise), as she boarded another bus in central Montgomery, Alabama. She sat in an empty seat in the first row of the rear seats reserved for blacks in the “coloured” section of the bus, directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus travelled its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus began to fill up. At its third stop, several more white passengers got on and Blake moved the “coloured” section sign behind Parks and demanded that the four black people there give up their seats so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

rosaparks_busAccording to Parks, the driver, Blake, said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied but Parks refused. After an argument with the driver, the police were called and arrested her. Her defiance triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, which started on the Monday after this incident and lasted for a year, until the law was changed.

In her autobiography, My Story, Parks wrote:

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

Rosa Parks, as far as I know, was not an angry woman. Hers was not the kind of anger that makes people scream at each in the London traffic or write hate-filled, racist tweets to one another. It was the righteous anger of a good Christian woman – a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church – who refused to be part of the injustice of the world anymore.

It was the same righteous anger that inspired the fight against slavery, and apartheid, and the oppression of women and gay people. It is the anger that inspires the determination to save our environment and to protect God’s planet. It is the anger that denies the lies that “the world is thus” and we can do nothing to save it.

At the end of today’s passage, Jesus’ opponents ask him for a sign to justify his actions. He points ahead to his death and resurrection: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19). The world told Jesus that his rage was impotent and his fury pointless – “thus is the world” and there is nothing you can do to change it. Jesus proved them otherwise. Even death itself does not have to be “thus”.

In a moment we shall sing John Bell and Graham Maule’s excellent hymn, Jesus Christ is waiting. The second verse reads:

money-changers-templeJesus Christ is raging,
raging in the streets,
where injustice spirals
and real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too:
in the Kingdom’s causes
let me rage with you.

In the power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, we can be part of God’s wonderful plans for his world. Let us be angry in his name, and change our world forever! Amen.

 

Quote: Timothy Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian, 80.

Hymn: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 251. Words: From Enemy of Apathy © 1988, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. http://www.wgrg.co.uk