When I was growing up Sunday afternoon television was dominated by sport: first the Big Match, then Rugby Special, then Ski Sunday. The pattern of our viewing testifies to the nature and character of our household and its preferences. Actually, it describes my dad’s preferences, and to be honest mine, for my mother really wasn’t that bothered about sport.
Last week Phillip Tovey suggested, rightly I think, that the final temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness is to do with the nature or character of the Kingdom. Over the next three weeks the lectionary graces to us a little three-part mini-series all of its own with each episode inviting us to think about the nature of the Kingdom of God through the lens of encounter. This week the encounter is between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Next week we move onto the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan women at the well, before on Mothering Sunday the encounter (from the cross) between Jesus and his mother Mary.
By the end of the three-part mini-series we should have gained a far richer understanding of the nature and character of the Kingdom. By the end of the series we should have come to a set of Kingdom-Conclusions, and in doing so we ought as well to have come to a new and deeper understanding of the desired nature of the church, for the church as the Body of Christ, should be the physical and empirical manifestation of Christ. The job of the church is after all to ‘magnify his Holy Name.’
So, let me start by suggesting that by the end of our mini-series we will hopefully come to the conclusion that the Kingdom is grounded, universal, hospitable, relational and familial. Today in episode one we witness the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a devout and God-fearing Jew. He is a member of the religious, social and civic elite. He is a member of what the Book of Genesis describes as ‘a great nation.’ Nicodemus is a man who on the face of it has everything sorted. And yet Nicodemus dares, albeit under the cover of night, to question his own religious and cultural identity. Nicodemus, even at this early stage in our drama, seems to be suggesting that religion, or at least the mere observance of religious laws, rituals and protocols, can, rather than being life giving, be life limiting.
Jesus, for his part, affirms Nicodemus’, erudite Nicodemus’ suspicions, by insisting that what is needed is Spirit; that we must all be ‘born of the Spirit.’ Even at this early stage in his ministry Jesus is pointing beyond his death, resurrection and ascension and towards Pentecost. But in this first episode Jesus goes further and hints at revelations yet to come. Nicodemus, as we know is grounded in his distinct Pharisaic heritage and Jesus has no problem with this, but he also trails the idea that Jesus came not just for the Jews – or ‘to be the glory of His people Israel,’ but for all people and all nations, for the encounter ends with Jesus insisting that ‘God so loved the world (not just the Jewish world, but the world) that he gave His only Son that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.’ Indeed, Jesus insists, in the concluding words to this encounter, that ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.'
Jesus in this encounter never denies either his own or Nicodemus' heritage as descendants of Abraham, and neither should we deny our own heritage, but he does insist that to be relationally defined solely on the basis of where and into what sort of class we were born is to miss the whole point of the Kingdom, or indeed the Church. Yes, we are to be grounded and properly parochial but we are also to be universal, hospitable, relational and familial. Radically so, for the notion that a Pharisee, a Samaritan women and a single Mum (Mary) might all be included on equal terms, as members of the Kingdom of God, is truly remarkable.
The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is truly remarkable and asks us to consider the extent to which we think we have got things sorted. It asks us to consider whether we are truly open to the work of the Holy Spirit and whether we believe that salvation is for people just like us, or as Jesus insists, for the sake of the entire world.
The story of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus provides us with the invitation to develop our understanding of the character and nature of the Kingdom of God, inviting us to move beyond, way beyond, the narrow confines of protocol and narrowly defined parochialism. If we were to describe this movement in a single word, we might call it conversion or transformation of the soul. Nicodemus is an icon for such conversion. In the story we have heard today we hear of him coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. The next we hear of Nicodemus is when he argues for Jesus in the Sanhedrin. The third and final time we encounter Nicodemus is when he assists Joseph of Aramathia with the burial of Jesus.
Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus and his subsequent conversion invites us to reflect on the extent to which we prefer the safety of protocol to the life-giving energy of the Spirit; a preference for a bounded, tribal identity, to the universality of the gospel. Like Nicodemus we must learn to develop a genuine ‘world-view,’ one which insists that Jesus came for all people and in all places as we shall see in episode two next week, Amen.