Back preaching in my curacy parish this week, and it’s Lent, a time to take stock of how we live by holding the mirror of Jesus’ teaching to our lives, and seeing whether we meet his expectations. The Gospel this week is the story of Nicodemus’ deliberate encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-17 but I’ve drawn from both the other lectionary readings too: Genesis 12:1-4a, and Romans 4:1-5 with 13-17.
I wonder how many of us, when we were younger, were taken on ‘duty’ visits to see relatives? You know the type of visit, the one where the parent say, “we know we struggle to find anything in common with Great Aunty Flo who will expect you to sit nicely at table, and Uncle Sam will spend the whole time talking about how to grow giant onions, but it’s Christmas and they do like to see the children.” Perhaps, we’ve even done that to our own children!
This sort of thing has a lot to do with family, and rules, spoken and unspoken; those invisible laws about how we should behave with and relate to our ‘elders’. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with love, or grace, or spontaneous gifts, Christmas, birthdays… or whatever.
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was quite good on rules; how people’s relationship with God worked should, in his eyes, have been based on abiding by them. He wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see that God was at work somehow in the miracles that Jesus was doing, but when Jesus started to relate his abilities to people – not just him – “being born from above” Nicodemus is utterly flummoxed. He doesn’t seem to know a rule that allows people to be born twice, and when Jesus explains the difference between physical and spiritual birth to him, he’s still mystified. The Pharisees had got so wrapped up in their rule book that they’d forgotten where the Jewish people actually came from, and how!
God called Abram (Genesis 12:1-4). There were no ‘people of God’ before Abram, and importantly, there were no Ten Commandments until well after him. There’s a lot else that happens in the story of the people of Israel between Abram and Moses; for starters they multiply from a family to a much bigger family – a nation of people. The Law, as those commandments and the man-made sub-clauses created around them, was not the defining symbol of the people of Israel. Nor was circumcision, which was something that Abram was instructed to do (Genesis 17) as a sign of this covenant relationship whereby he believed himself and his family to be called by God (Romans 4:3), something we call faith. That little iceberg word ‘faith’ is the crux of the issue; the nation of Israel were a people of faith whom God called, and not defined by circumcision, or the Ten Commandments and the Law. Their covenant was born of the Spirit of God (John 3:8), the same breath or wind that had moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2).
As a Pharisee and student of Jewish scripture in which the law was contained, Nicodemus should have known and remembered this, and it is this that Jesus rather sternly reminds him of. The Pharisees’ focus on the Law had straight-jacketed them, and the people of Israel, into forgetting that they were a people of faith, and that faith is a living, breathing thing, a relationship built on love, and grace, and spontaneous gifts as the wind of the Spirit blows. Judaism had become a religion of rules, where what family you were born into defined who you would be, and what you would be able to do in life.
Whilst Jesus had been born of the royal line and lineage of David, who and what he was called to be and do was defined by his relationship with God his Father, his calling as God made man, the Messiah, God with us. God’s relationship with us the people of the world, was never designed to be limited to the people of Israel in the long-term, as Abram’s original calling and his covenant with God testified: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3), and “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).
Ordinary birth into the extended family of the people of Israel, or even a specific family within that, wasn’t enough to convey membership of the new covenant and Kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. It is God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus, and people’s belief, their faith, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…”, conveyed through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, that initiates our inclusion in the Kingdom of God.
So what of the Ten Commandments which we in Lent are prone to recite, and the other rules in which Nicodemus was well schooled? The function of the Law at it’s original and best, could perhaps be described as a mirror, which the people of Israel could hold up in front of themselves, and in which they should see every spot and pimple in their own lives. The Ten Commandments didn’t define the people of Israel, but highlighted where they fell short of the ideal of a faith-filled relationship with God. They were a means to the end game of a covenant relationship, not the end in and of itself. The Commandments, distilled into the two that Jesus taught – love God, and love thy neighbour as thyself – are a mirror by which we explore the extent to which we are managing to live out our faith in God, our relationship with Jesus; the extent to which our baptism in water and the Holy Spirit are bearing fruit.
But the additional rules that had accreted around them weren’t even achieving that! When the people, the family of God, start making the rules their god instead, the family becomes closed to its expansion to and inclusion of others in the world, the very purpose for which God breathed and called them into existence. It’s as true now, as it was then.
Jesus is helping Nicodemus to understand that what Jesus is doing actually comes through his relationship with God, helping Nicodemus return to a properly Abrahamic belief in God. We don’t see it in our Gospel today, but these words must have struck home, because later Nicodemus will speak up for Jesus’ right to a fair hearing under the Law (John 7:51) using it as a tool, not an end or judgement in itself. Later still when we come to Good Friday, we will see Nicodemus respond to the Jesus whom his compatriots have crucified, by accompanying Joseph of Aramathea in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42). The Law now forgotten, the relationship with Jesus is all important, exemplified in loving care and compassion even at the time of his death.
But Jesus is speaking to our time too. Where in the world, and in what context in this country, are we seeing rules becoming the thing to be lived by, rather than the love, care and compassion that those of us who are baptised Christians are called to live by? We can’t just stand idly by when this happens, we are called to speak out just as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Are we living by a set of rules, or ruled by the Spirit of God? In recent weeks our own family, the dear old Church of England, has given us some glaring examples of what happens when relationships are confined or defined by a set of human rules through which the Holy Spirit has not necessarily been allowed to blow. Have we remembered that as co-inheritors of the promises made to Abram for the whole world, we are called to live as a faith-filled mirror of God’s inclusive love for all?
Perhaps Jesus is saying to us today that if we’re not careful Great Aunt Flo and Uncle Sam will recognise that our duty visit is only paying lip-service to a loving relationship, and they may well make the fact that we’ve been rumbled abundantly clear, to the discomfort of all concerned! Relationships that work only by a set of rules are prone to cracks, and pain, and family breakdown; and there needs to be honesty, repentance and then forgiveness when that is the case, so that duty is set aside, and relationships of love are rekindled as a testament to our love for God in Jesus, and our baptism by water and the Spirit.