Truth by Night
The gospel excerpt today leaves out the verses giving its setting. Yet that setting reminds us that that for each of us truth only begins to take shape when we go out of our way to seek the truth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – and we are given to understand that this would have been in secret since Jesus would hardly have been accepted by the orthodox group that Nicodemus represents. Nicodemus comes seeking the truth about Jesus.
The Greek word for truth means “making obvious the unknown”. But there is something else which is often overlooked. Truth in practice is uncovered a little (often a very little) at a time.
This I believe is true in both science and religion. Think about it. In science the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated many years ago that matter might be made of small discrete particles called atoms. There has been a long and uncertain path of discovery ever since with many blind alleyways, twists, and turns before the scientists could actually photograph shadows of these atoms and gradually work out the complex ways in which they are assembled. And what wonders of energy and creation have been uncovered in the process, a process which was marked by famous experiments such as those of Lord Rutherford and still continues with the Large Hadron Collider and a host of experimental breakthroughs.
Think what we may have missed if the scientists had said:
“ Democritus has told us all we need to know about atoms”.
In religion we see a similar tortuous and gradual uncovering of truth…whether it be the truth about God, or specifically to Christians: the truth about Jesus and the truth about what it means to believe and follow Jesus. Think what we would have missed if we ever said:
“I know a verse in the Bible that already tells me all that I need to know about Jesus”.
The notion of God may have started in human understanding as a virtual tribal token, one of many Gods, and yet through the centuries our perception has gradually changed and grown from what was first thought to be a local, unpredictable and at times vindictive Spirit to the beginnings of understanding of something more mysterious with shadowy glimpses to what might lie beyond and as part of a vast creation. In the course of our quest for truth about such matters, we have also encountered a love principle which promises meaning to human existence. This morning’s reading contains that wonderful poetic verse (John 3:16) that introduces us to one dimension of the Love principle which the King James version renders as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This is of course a huge step forward from the Old Testament God portrayed in places like Genesis and the Psalms – yet history teaches us that even this famous verse has not proved to be the final arrival point – at least not one which always enables us to live at peace with our neighbours and be at one with creation. In fact, let’s be frank, this particular verse, John 3: 16 taken in its most superficial meaning has probably been more responsible for violence and unkindness perpetrated in the name of Jesus than any other verse of the Bible.
Whosoever believes in him shall not perish. A casual encounter with this part of the verse allows us to think….. Aha …..therefore anyone will perish if they don’t believe, therefore with that much at stake let us force them to belief…. and of course by belief, we mean our sort of belief!
History teaches for example that this verse has provided an excuse for saying since the Muslims and Jews won’t believe in Jesus and are dangerous to salvation because they are not teaching the Christian truth – very well then, let us make life difficult for them until they are forced to believe. !? This provided the excuse for the Crusades where the Muslim unbelievers were put to the sword by the thousand. This is also partly why for centuries there were pogroms against the Jews right through Europe – massacres, house burnings, removing their legal rights … and indeed it is even thought the lack of sympathy for the Jews was why it took so long to mobilize action against the Nazi concentration death camps.
A few years ago on our trip to Europe, Shirley and I visited one massacre site where, towards the end of the second world war, several hundred from the local Jewish ghetto had been tied together in pairs and pushed into the river to drown. We were shown the spot on the bank of the Danube in the so called Christian city of Budapest, and the Jewish guide asked: “Where were all the good people?” Given the high attendance rate in the Churches in Budapest, it was a fair question.
Then there were those a few hundred years ago who said the Catholics won’t believe in Jesus the same way as we as Protestants do. Destroy their Churches as protestants did in England, murder the Catholics as was done by Huguenot soldiers in France until the Huguenots in their turn were massacred on the orders of the King of France in 1572 (with, I might add, the king leaning out the window of the Louvre and firing casual pot shots at any Huguenot in the streets below with his arquebus).
As we move closer to the present the pattern seems little different. Fight the Catholics on the streets as the Protestants did in Northern Ireland, chant rude songs about children who went to Catholic schools in Christchurch as I was taught to do as a child…( although perhaps I might just confess as an aside we rather enjoyed the cone fight we had all those years ago in the pine forest when the Catholic Sunday school turned up to the same beach reserve as our Durham Street Methodist Sunday school for their annual picnic).
More seriously, this assumption that only verbal agreement with one’s own version of faith gives eternal life becomes a serious distortion in the hands of the missionaries who historically have often assumed that any culture, other than their own, needs to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Nor should we assume that such thinking is a thing of the past. In the last few years I have heard evangelical missionaries talk about the evil of Hinduism, and of Islam and even of Buddhism. I have also taught in New Britain where some of the missionaries insisted on introducing a Western culture as well as a Victorian religion.
I have also witnessed the callous indifference to the physical plight of people by some of these same missionaries who acted as if, since only eternal salvation matters for the heathen, we can therefore ignore less important things like hunger, disease and injustice.
Yet even although the verse says: whosoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life, it is only at the most superficial level that this belief could be thought of as a creedal statement. Announcing that one is saved is hardly the same as living as a believer. Jesus elsewhere makes it very clear what it means to believe in him. “ In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours you do it unto me”. Surely this means that to believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways.
Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Very well then, presumably believing in him means caring about those in society who are different to us. Jesus also taught that those not recognized as having the right religious credentials can be the ones living in accordance with his teachings. If this can be applied to Samaritans – then surely it equally applies to Hindus or Muslims. This time of Lent, traditionally a time of self examination is a good time to ask ourselves honestly if we can see evidence that we are taking his words seriously by the way we are living.
A superficial reading of John 3: 16 also causes us to overlook how the verse starts. For God so loved the world – not if we read it more carefully, the Western protestant world – nor even only the human part of the world.
Believing in Jesus, who for us personifies this love for the world, may then mean we have to genuinely start caring about those of other races and other creeds. If the world is more than just the human race – then perhaps belief also means we should be insisting on caring for creation with its precarious ecosystems and millions of interacting life forms.
It is clear that Jesus only gets part of his message across to Nicodemus. A few verses earlier Jesus talks about being born again and Nicodemus makes it clear he has not understood. As Jesus says in reply : if I have spoken to you about earthly things and you do not believe me, how will you believe me if I speak to you about heavenly things. He has a point. If we cannot get the basics of Jesus’ teaching, with his down to earth message about how we should be interacting with one another and further if we don’t have the vital experience of living this life in practice, there is little point to rushing to pretend esoteric intellectual certainties about theological implications of salvation. Berating unbelievers with dimly understood theological words instead of offering genuine friendship and compassion is hardly demonstrating belief in his way.
So Nicodemus didn’t quite get it. However make no mistake about it, Nicodemus may not have understood all in Jesus’ message, but he is at least partly on the way. As John tells it Nicodemus stays in the background but as a secret disciple serious enough about being a follower to be one who brings a scented resin to tend to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.
Perhaps there is something of Nicodemus in all of us. Just as Nicodemus came in the shadow of darkness, not all parts of our thinking and deeds are always brought into the light. Light is not always welcome, particularly in areas where the conscience is not entirely clear. Light can be disturbing and some only notice the shadows it brings. Perhaps this is why some good people seem to produce a reaction of anger in others as their light shows other people as they really are. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others which cause us to rush to premature judgement and miss the potential in ourselves and others.
William Barclay in his Daily Bible on today’s gospel, uses the story of a man visiting and art gallery to look at the Old Masters hanging there. After a guided tour with an attendant of some of these works of genius the man announced to his guide. “Well I don’t think much of your old paintings”
The attendant’s quiet reply… “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”
Verses such as John 3:16 are indeed masterpieces – but our assessment of their meaning and potential may uncover new layers of truth if we will but look. AMEN
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