We live these days in a highly risk-averse culture. In my last chaplaincy before I retired, we were supposed to have a written risk-assessment in place for every single activity that took place within the orbit of church life. I am afraid that this was not altogether the case.
Of course, we try to minimise risks and prevent harm coming to anyone, young or old, who takes part in anything to do with the church – be it worship, Sunday school, or jumble sale. That is absolutely right and fitting, and our Safeguarding procedures are carefully designed to help us achieve this.
But at the end of the day, as long as we live there will be risks to be taken. When I trained and worked as a pharmacist, it was important for example to assess what we described as the risk/benefit ratio for any drug, to ensure that the benefits accrued by a patient would outweigh any potentially harmful side effects. And nowadays, clinicians are much better at explaining to patients both the potential benefits and potential harm that may arise from any kind of medical intervention. However, this does not and cannot eliminate risk.
In fact, taking risks goes along with living in faith. We see this today in the figure of Abram in the first reading from Genesis. At a time of life when most of us are thinking about settling down to a pleasant retirement, Abram is told to leave his kindred and his ancestral home and go off on a journey without any indication of where this might end, except that it is a place which God will show him. I’m not sure many of us would be happy to take that kind of risk!
But there is a mighty promise attached to this call of Abram. He is blessed and will be a blessing – quite some blessing, it turns out, for in him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
This theme is of course taken up by S. Paul in today’s second reading from the letter to the Church at Rome. The One who calls, he reminds us, is also the One who equips us for the demands of that call when it is answered in faith. What doesn’t happen is that we are rewarded by God for putting in more and more effort to make ourselves righteous. Whilst there is nothing wrong in itself in the Law, what it cannot do is to restore the kind of relationship with God that only grace by the power of the Holy Spirit given through Christ can achieve.
And just as we live in a risk averse culture, we also live in a culture whose motto is God helps those who help themselves – a culture where we think that we are rewarded for our increasingly frantic efforts. Both of these cultural stereotypes are inimical to faith.
Which brings us to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading. I wonder just how he felt after such an encounter? There are so many aspects of this section of John’s Gospel and so many possible interpretations. One much loved in certain circles is decidedly unfavourable towards Nicodemus. John Calvin even went so far as to label those of his day who tried to accommodate what he saw as ‘true’ i.e., Reformed, beliefs with a continuing status and position in the world as Nicodemites. Other interpreters have little time for him either, seeing him as a worse than half-hearted disciple.
Actually, I have quite a lot of time for Nicodemus. Slipping back into the night after this bruising encounter with Jesus, he must have felt rather foolish. He had, after all, risked a lot in coming to see this teacher who has come from God and he had singularly failed to get the answers he, or rather the party that he represented, would have liked. The sense of foolishness at our failure is the thing that makes us humans so risk-averse. We hate failing because it makes us feel foolish and stupid.
But clearly, from what emerges later in S. John’s Gospel, all is not lost. Nicodemus has indeed seen something in the signs that Jesus has performed. Throughout this passage there is plenty of double entendre. Nicodemus is described as a ruler a member of the Sanhedrin the most powerful Jewish body at the time, and he comes to the true King, he comes from out of the darkness (the night) and into the presence of the true Light. He is told that to be part of the true Kingdom, one must be born from above. But the Greek word has two meanings – from above or again. And I guess that something of this ambiguity must have surrounded the Aramaic that the two spoke. Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks somehow that Jesus is suggesting a second physical birth. Understandably he questions – how can these things be? And that is the last we hear from Nicodemus – at least for a while. He turns up later in John’s Gospel – once again taking the risk of speaking as a Pharisee with the Pharisees in defence of Jesus (John 750) where he again is made to feel pretty foolish by his fellow Pharisees. Finally he reappears after Jesus’ death with Joseph of Arimathea, and brings with him an extraordinarily large amount of spices with which to anoint Jesus. One commentator suggests that the weight was intended to prevent any possible escape from the tomb! But let’s perhaps be kind towards him and see this as a generous act, albeit one that still betrays Nicodemus’ rather this-worldly approach to the person of Jesus.
There is another double entendre that is important for us before we leave Nicodemus behind. And that is the contrast between the wind and the Spirit. Both translate the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. And indeed, for people of Jesus’ day, prior to the development of meteorological science there was something profoundly mysterious and quasi-divine about the wind. In the most primitive thought, the wind was God’s breath, and in some of the late Jewish Apocalyptic current just prior to the time of Jesus, the Seer granted a tour of heaven was shown the dwelling place of the winds.
All of this leads us to think about another level of meaning in today’s Gospel reading. The level of mystery – not in the sense of Nicodemus’ perplexity at Jesus’ words, the sense of something to be ‘worked out’ and explained. But at the level of something to be contemplated and indeed drawn into.
For at a deeper level, this discussion, or rather, debate, between Nicodemus and Jesus in the hands of the Evangelist John discloses something far more than immediately meets the eye or the ear.
We see here reflections of a very early debate within the first years of the Church. A debate about who Jesus is. In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus speaking of who he is. And we have an extended section in which John places on the lips of Jesus this very matter. Not only that, but then there is some evidence of a piece of editing by one particular party in the early Church, based in Alexandria, who edited out the words found in the very earliest versions of John 313 which read No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, and then originally, who is in heaven. These last words, a difficult phrase, seem to have been removed, not least because the Alexandrines who did it found that they didn’t quite fit in with how they wanted to describe the person of Christ.
This huge debate which occupied Christian people right up until the time of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and beyond began even before the Gospels were written and the very earliest records show how difficult it was for those who followed in the way of Christ to express the mystery of his person. A mystery which was tied into what Christ achieved for human kind – his work of redemption. From the first moments following Jesus’ Passion, Death and Rising, people tried to express what it is that is different about the person of Jesus. What is it that makes him a person who is able to make atonement for humanity and bring a new dimension of life to us. The One who ultimately is able to make a difference, for if we are honest with ourselves we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. As the ancient collect reminds us, we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. So much for the nonsense of ‘God helps those who help themselves’!
There were to be many alternatives trying to express this, and one by one they were regarded as impossible. What finally Christians came to at Chalcedon was – I quote – that in the One Person of Christ, there were united the divine nature, consubstantial with the Father, and the human nature, consubstantial with ‘us’ through his mother, the Virgin Mother of God, without confusion, change, division, or separation.
Much argument and debate had gone into this formula, but it certainly did not close the debate which has continued, though the Chalcedonian definition continues to represent something of a watershed.
Christ is the Saving Mystery – the One who is able to reconcile us with God and with one another, and to share his own living out fully the life of God’s Son with us progressively through life. Christ is the Saving Mystery. And as we take the risk through faith in contemplating this Mystery, we are drawn into his life. Baptism is the moment when in principle we are acclaimed as adopted sons and daughters of God, in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, who brings us into a God-saturated life through his engrafting of us into the human, ascended Christ who is forever in the presence of the Father. Through life, we are to grow more and more into this new life as we are fed by the risen and ascended Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist.
Through the Lenten sermons, which will pick up some of the themes of the Church of England’s Lent course, we shall explore a little more just who Christ truly is. Last week we thought of him as the New Adam, reversing the disobedience of the first Adam. This week, the Saving Mystery who draws us into the mystery of God. For the next three Sundays as we look at the traditional Gospel readings for Lent from S. John’s Gospel, we’ll explore Christ as the Living Water, the One who enlightens, and the New Life.