Faith – being in relationship with God and one another

Stephen Adam, 8 March 2020

Genesis 12: 1–4a; John 3: 1–17

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the story of taking his inquisitive little granddaughter to see the sights of London. They are outside Parliament and the little girl asks, ‘What happens there?’ and he replies, ‘What happens there is politics’. And she’d say, ‘What’s politics about?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s about the creation and distribution of power’. They pass the Bank of England – ‘What happens there?’ – ‘It’s about the creation and distribution of wealth’. And then finally they reach St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘What happens there?’ and he replies, ‘What happens there is worship’. And then the little girl homes right in with the killer question: ‘Grandpa, what does worship create and distribute?’

That’s a really good question, I think. We could argue that the state is about power and that the market is about wealth. I’d like to suggest this morning that our worship is about faith and that at heart that’s about how we understand and how we nurture and deepen our relationship with God, and our relationships one with another – that’s how we build community. Our Christian faith is a relational faith or it is nothing.

Both our readings this morning invite us to explore our understanding of faith as being in relationship. Our reading from Genesis is one of the most important – indeed the pivotal passage – for Jewish understanding of their faith and identity. It all begins so simply. Abram, Israel’s archetypal ancestor, hears the call of God, ‘Go’, and so Abram goes. He acts in faith and obeys God, moving from Haran to a new land, Canaan.

He’s to be arbitrarily uprooted from his original country, from all that is familiar and safe, and is to embark on a perilous journey. He’s to become an exile, ‘a stranger and an alien’ (Genesis 23: 4). He could have refused – it is a free choice, and like Abram we can always turn aside from steps of faith – but nonetheless he obeys, and receives the promise of a blessing.

It’s an all-encompassing blessing to make Israel a great nation, a promise of well-being in all its dimensions, a covenant from God that in Abram ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. But there is, of course, a problem, for we’re told that Abram’s wife Sarai is aged and childless. Yet out of that barrenness and precarious situation God acts, and as we read through the rest of this foundational story set out in Genesis, we discover how God’s covenant love is fulfilled. The blessings that Abram receives are to become covenants – bonds of love and trust and faithfulness in the relationship between God and his people and all creation.

In our Christian tradition Abram’s obedience to God’s call is seen as an outstanding act of faith to be imitated. He is a forerunner of the faith of the other Israelite heroes, Moses and the patriarchs and prophets, and ultimately of Jesus, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12: 2).

And so to our gospel reading and the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, which speaks into our own faith journeys, and perhaps most powerfully through our Lenten journey towards Easter.

Every time I come to St John’s Gospel I’m conscious of a master craftsman at work who has a powerful poetic and dramatic sense. Every word, every nuance counts, there’s cunning use of wordplay, and the dialogue here is like a play that we’re invited to overhear and, indeed, to place ourselves in: ‘Where am I in this story?’

We’re told Nicodemus comes to see Jesus ‘by night’. Surely not an insignificant detail; is Nicodemus, this leader and teacher, a pillar of the establishment, furtive or embarrassed? Or is he hedging his bets, wanting to find out more about Jesus without committing himself? Perhaps that strikes a chord with our own experience, wanting to keep a bit quiet about our faith, keeping our heads below the parapet, embarrassed that others might think us a bit odd?

But at a deeper level St John sets up a tension between light and darkness. At a cosmic level that’s in the gospel prologue which we’re so familiar with at Christmas, when the Word became flesh, the true light coming into the world, and how this light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. And note too how many of the key incidents in St John’s Gospel take place in darkness – this encounter with Nicodemus, the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the garden, and Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus as he warms himself by the fire in the courtyard while Jesus is interrogated by the high priest.

And so Nicodemus visits Jesus by night. He’s heard of these signs Jesus has performed and he’s impressed. He tries a bit of flattery and respect – ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God’. You might think that Jesus would try to get this influential establishment figure on side. Not a bit of it! Instead, a baffling conversation takes place, leaving Nicodemus frustrated. It’s not at all the treatment he had expected. It’s as if Jesus is saying, ‘You’re supposed to be a teacher of Israel, but you don’t understand anything – it would be better if you were start again as a little child!’

Part of the problem is that Nicodemus arrives talking of signs. The gospels are full of people who want Jesus to do signs, who are only interested in miraculous healings and the like, rather than trying to work out what they point to. Jesus doesn’t reply directly to Nicodemus’ opening gambit. Instead, he goes off at a tangent, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’. There’s a word play here in the Greek text hidden from us, for the verb can mean either being born from above or being born again. What is this transformation that Jesus is talking about?

Nicodemus is trapped by his mocking literalism. He can only think of this in gynaecological terms, not in any sort of divine sense. Totally confused and out of his depth, he can only mumble, ‘How can these things be?’ Before we see ourselves as superior and perhaps smile at Nicodemus’ discomfort and his inability to see what Jesus is getting at, are we not also today often trapped by the same literalism in our own interpretation and reading of the Bible, lacking the imagination to explore metaphors of transformation?

Sometimes language can get in the way and be unhelpful. Some of us may be uncomfortable with talk of being born again, with the way the term is used in certain Evangelical traditions – ‘Are you a born again Christian?’ – implying that to be an authentic Christian some sort of sudden dramatic conversion is essential, whereas many of us may find our faith journey not so straightforward and more like a life-long apprenticeship with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

The language of being born again is nothing less than an invitation to adopt a whole new way of seeing and living. Jesus is saying that an entirely different frame of reference is required for those who wish to see God’s kingdom on earth. But Nicodemus – for the moment at least – has a one-dimensional, mundane mindset. He’s limited to a worldly, literal view of reality. I’m reminded of those words of George Herbert (whose feast day we celebrated just a week or so ago):

A man that looks on glass on it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass and then the heavens espy.

Jesus sets up a tension between flesh and spirit: flesh, representing a limited, restricted, earthbound view, with human life lived in terms of its own power; in contrast to the Spirit, life-giving, life-enhancing, transformational – God present and active at the deepest level of our lives, in a world in which the breath of God brings a new creation.

Jesus sets up a tension between flesh and spirit: flesh, representing a limited, restricted, earthbound view, with human life lived in terms of its own power; in contrast to the Spirit, life-giving, life-enhancing, transformational.

Jesus chides Nicodemus, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you don’t understand these things?’ Nicodemus fades from the scene at this point of the drama. The spotlight shifts to Jesus alone as he delivers what is effectively a soliloquy, reflecting on what will be the greatest sign of God’s love for his creation – the lifting up of Christ on the cross and his glorification.

‘How can these things be?’ It’s a question that echoes for us today. As Jonathan Sacks showed to his granddaughter as they toured London, we inescapably live in a world that values power and wealth; we have one foot in a culture where success is measured in material terms – by what you get or achieve.

Yet at some point in our lives we have to make the same leap of faith as Abram made as he responded to God’s invitation, and as Jesus asked of Nicodemus: to be born from above – to acknowledge the claims made upon us by our allegiance to Christ and to respond to God’s love made known and revealed through his Son.

As we journey through Lent to our great Easter celebration may we freshly discover and be drawn more deeply into that eternal life – life lived in all its fullness in the unending presence of God.