One of the interesting things about the Gospels is the number of occasions on which we see Jesus in conversation with particular characters and one of the more memorable of them is his meeting with that man Nicodemus the Pharisee. (John 3.1-17)
Many of us I suspect, recall this incident simply because of Jesus`s words to this supposed expert in the faith, “Do not be astonished that I say to you, you must be born from above” (or `born again`, as the Greek suggests) but in this encounter I think it`s the very sharpness and directness of Jesus`s manner which stays with me. It`s the way Jesus is so unapologetic. He demolishes Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” he says. Everything and I mean everything Nicodemus thought he knew was brought into question by this young Rabbi from Nazereth. Curiously, St. Paul (also a Pharisee) underwent the same experience in meeting Christ. He told the Philippians: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”. (Philippians 3.8)
Now for me this illustrates a couple of things. Firstly, I want to suggest that we need to remember that the Gospels are written in this way (as a series of encounters between Christ and people he met along the way) so as to help us make a connection; so as to give us an insight into what it`s like to be in his presence. In other words we are invited into the story, so we imagine ourselves for a moment, to be Nicodemus, in the presence of Christ. And so secondly, when for instance, you hear those challenging words of Jesus directed to yourself, “Do not be astonished that I say to you, you must be born from above”, the point is that just for a moment we don`t let ourselves off the hook. We are, as I say, meant to take these words personally. We mustn`t rationalise or excuse it all by pretending this is a bit of Scripture that only the `happy-clappy` lot pay any attention to. No this is Jesus ……and there in his presence we have to dare ourselves to hear him say, “You may have got this wrong”. “You have a lot of stuff to un-learn. In this matter of faith it might be that you need to go back to the beginning”.
Now, if we`re going to make any sense of all of this I think we need to remember, as ever that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. We easily miss it but there it is in the text, “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3.3) …..without the work of God from within. In other words; Jesus is speaking about the in-breaking of God`s new age; the re-creation of all things which he is inaugurating. Now the problem was that Nicodemus couldn`t see it. He had his parameters for God all sorted out but Jesus is saying “No, you`ve got it all wrong… you`re SO wrong you may as well start all over again”.
So Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to see himself and the world from a totally different perspective: and the task is as massive as if Nicodemus still believes that the Sun rotates around the earth. And what I`m getting at is that this meeting with Nicodemus is there as a constant reminder of how easy it is to forget quite how radical a change in our world-view Christ is calling us to.
So, let me give you an example of what I mean. Back in the 1960`s and 1970`s if ever a young man (and they were only men in those days); if ever a young man offered himself for training to be a priest the standard response from the Church of England was, “Go away for a few years and get some experience of the `real world`”. That particular response is now regretted in many circles not least because most of those young men never came back. But think again about that phrase, `the real world`. It`s used rather a lot isn`t it? On the face of it, it speaks of something earthed, something authentic and experiential. It`s the day-to-day stuff… the world of hard knocks and so on.
So far so good but the problem is that we`ve accepted this term so uncritically and what`s happened is that we`ve allowed this supposed `real` world to stand over and against the world of shall we say `faith`. So, automatically, whatever we say about faith nowadays is easily categorised as `theoretical; fanciful, im-practical, otherworldly` and so on. We speak of our faith…and they say: “Yes, but in the `real world`” …..and almost immediately that`s the end of the conversation isn`t it?
In other words those two words `real world` apparently consign us to irrelevance. And that`s the point isn`t it? Because of this subtle way of thinking and these assumptions we`ve come to take for granted…. We find ourselves on the back foot; we have to justify our existence; we constantly hear it said that we need to make the faith `relevant`; relevant to this supposed `real world`? Never mind that this world as defined from a largely western, materialist and capitalist perspective. Again constantly on the defensive, we exhaust ourselves in an endless struggle to somehow bridge the apparent credibility gap. Relevance is seen to be the key and haven`t we made ourselves look desperate and stupid in the process?
In desperation we look at the world`s needs and think we`ll make ourselves relevant by meeting them and so the Gospel becomes something to do with therapy: and you hear people talk of going to Church, “When I feel the need”. And stupid because we bend over backwards to make ourselves look hip, cool and trendy and we always look the opposite. And all because we have allowed the culture around us to define what`s meant by the `real world`.
I recall someone pointing out that every so often we find a way of excusing some misdemeanour or other by saying, “Well, it`s just human nature isn`t it?”. But they said, “Actually it`s not human nature to behave like that. That`s our `fallen` nature isn’t it? Behaving like that is not what we were made for. That`s humanity at its worst”.
Now do you see what that person did? They turned that familiar phrase `human nature` around and asked, “How does our God look upon this?” and I think we need to do the same with that phrase `the real world`. You see, the `real world` is not a description of that place of hardship with which we do battle each day; in which we have to put up with endless struggle and compromise; a place of cynicism and despair; the `university of hard-knocks` and such like. No, the `real world` under the gaze of God is, yes, a fallen a place of sin, suffering and evil but it`s one that is infused with God`s Spirit, loved and redeemed; and due for a complete re-fit on the return of Christ. And the point is that you and I are witnesses to this truth; we are witnesses to THIS definition of the `real world`.
As Christian people we do no not accept the world`s view of the world. And we do not accept the world`s view of our faith either especially when it treats us as irrelevant unless we dance to its tune. No, it is not for us to seek to be relevant to the world`s view of itself but to announce and make evident the opening up of a totally new world; where all the rules have changed. That`s what Jesus is doing in announcing the Kingdom. This is not accommodation but transformation. This is what Nicodemus couldn`t grasp… and it`s what we too easily forget.
So, what I`m saying is that if you find it hard to connect with what Jesus is saying in this Gospel then in one sense you are hearing him correctly. If we don`t react is Nicodemus did; with incredulity then we haven`t heard the full force of what Jesus is saying. But as I say, that doesn`t let us off the hook. You see Jesus hasn`t come to put sticking plasters on the wounds of the world; to make us feel better, keep us happy or better entertained. He hasn`t come to announce `relevance` or ways of coping with life`s ups and downs but to bring forgiveness, transformation and a cross-shaped way of living. I need to change, you need to change, we all need to become the human beings we were created to be and the only way is by the working of God`s Spirit within. The kind of transformative work of which Jesus spoke and which Nicodemus couldn`t comprehend.
Jesus says, “Do not be astonished that I say to you, you must be born from above”. He invites us individually and collectively to go back to the beginning. To see how far we have capitulated; how far we have lost our nerve; and for how long we have unreflectively played the world`s game. Our task is not to make the Christian faith relevant to contemporary men and women but to invite them to see their lives against the backdrop of what God means by the `real world`; and to invite them to join with us in ushering in a world more `real` than any of us can at this moment conceive.