Tag Archives: Lent 2a

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. What causes division in the twenty-first century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

Good – but not enough!

Nicodemus deserves credit (John 3:1-17).  He comes to Jesus – yes, at night, which might look embarrassed, but also allows him to ask questions freely.  He already has a life of disciplined goodness.  We suspect Pharisees, and some were guilty of pride and religious red tape, but for others the life meant knowing and living the Old Testament Law in detail.  Perhaps most important, he wants to know more.  That is good.

So, why does Jesus ask him such difficult questions?  We might have thought this polite man an ideal disciple – or church member.  But it seems that he won’t do.  Why?  Jesus refers (v13,14) to his ministry and his coming death.  What Nicodemus knows is not enough – for him, or for other good people.  Christian faith depends on what God does and gives – Jesus and his sacrificial death.  There are real benefits in living a good life, following the commandments, but that is incomplete.

Nicodemus goes away puzzled, but doesn’t give up.  He reappears in the pages of the gospel story at John 7:50, and again at John 19:39.  Sometimes the most important changes come “between events”, as the Holy Spirit works.

Our passage hasn’t finished.  v16 is one of the best known in the gospel, but we should read on.  John 3:16-21 goes on to speak of judgement.  This picture does not see God handing out suffering and pain (a deity we would find it hard to worship!)  It seems that Nicodemus was ready to come into the light.  We have to ask if we are also ready to be examined, and perhaps embarrassed, in order to receive the gift.