Nicodemus (1) – Darkness

NicodemusThe words of John 3:16 are one of the most well known verses and most quoted of Jesus’ sayings – and behind them lies another story.

Please read John 3:1-21

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. It’s possible that throughout his life, Nicodemus may have simply accepted all that was taught to him by the Jewish rabbis. Learning the Psalms and the Law. Listening to the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Acquainting himself with the acts of Abraham, David Elijah, Elisha and so many more. And leading others in doing the same.

But now, afraid to show his interest to his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus has encountered someone who challenges all that received and perceived wisdom. A man who performs miracles. A man who is different to any other teacher he has ever known. Nicodemus knows that Jesus comes from God: he’s seen the miracles (‘signs’ as John calls them) and we can assume he’s heard the teaching.

Sounds familiar? Years of going to church. Singing choruses and hymns. Hearing the same liturgy (or not). And maybe we also feel uncomfortable with some of it. We don’t like to hear some of it. We’re happy with the easy bits. We decide what’s interesting or important. We tack on the bits we like to make them fit the way our churches do things and other aspects of the system we already live with. We come and listen when it suits us, and go back to our ordinary lives when we need to.

‘There are many ways through the garden,’ someone once said to me. Our journey through the ‘Garden of Faith’ has the capacity to take us in different directions, going deeper and deeper in to the growth and the undergrowth that exists there. It is up to us to sniff the flowers. To climb the trees. And to dig up a few weeds.

If we have been used to one particular type of church or a specific approach towards the teaching from the Bible, for example, it can be confusing when God begins to take us to a new part of the Garden. We may be reluctant to get up from the particular bench (or pew) we’ve sat on for years or to turn away from the view we’ve always had. It can be unsettling and disorientating. We may feel lost. Cut adrift from God. We crave stability but the ground in the garden is shifting.

The ground under Nicodemus was shifting and he began to realise there was another way through the garden: that there was more to God than he had ever thought. God will always take us to an even better place. A place of growth and depth beyond our expectations.

Nicodemus came, in the darkness, seeking spiritual direction. In times of our own spiritual ‘darkness’, it can be helpful to seek assistance from someone else to take us through the garden. A guide. A companion. A wise teacher. While none of us will be able to have a spiritual guide quite the same as Nicodemus, seeking out such advice and support can be helpful.

One approach can be to have a spiritual director. It may well be helpful to seek such direction or accompaniment from someone who is not in the same church as you are. Maybe also from a different background or tradition or churchmanship: if we need space to ask questions or explore uncertainties it’s important to be able to do so with someone who is going to travel with you and not dismiss your explorations. Of particular importance is to see someone who has received formal and structured training as a spiritual director. If you are part of an established church (e.g. Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, URC etc) then contact a central body (e.g. Diocese) for information about what is available. Guided retreats and Quiet Days can also be helpful: taking time out of the demands of everyday life for prayer and reflection. (Maybe take a look at retreats.org.uk)

Which part of the garden do you want to explore?

Would it help to have someone to guide you?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Nicodemus (2) – Light

Nicodemus at the Garden TombFrom going to Jesus for spiritual direction to defending him in front of his fellow Pharisees (see John 7:43-52), Nicodemus had discerned that this man, this Jesus, is the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. Now, in part 2 of his story, we find him in another garden:

Please read John 19: 38-42

This is a garden that is all set for a burial. A royal burial. The burial of a King – the King of the Jews, as Pilate had decreed (John 19:19-22). Pilate’s is another story we can learn from as well.

Here we have Nicodemus together with Joseph, from Arimathea in Judea. Two rich and well-respected Jewish leaders. Joseph was also a member of the Sanhedrin – and one who had not voted for Jesus’ death (Luke 23:50). Both in their own ways, were ‘secret disciples’ of Jesus although there is some (albeit disputable) evidence that Joseph had been following Christ as he preached around Judea and Galilee.

In an echo of the anointment of Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume by Mary of Bethany just six days previously (John 12: 3) the gifts of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are enormous. This is no simple bunch of flowers to lay at the grave. Nicodemus brings an huge amount of spices (probably in excess of around 30kg [70lbs] in modern terms). Joseph makes his own tomb available (Matthew 27:57-60) and provides the linen in which to wrap Jesus’ body (Mark 15:46). Then with a stone that rolls they seal the tomb which holds the body of their beloved Messiah.

Joseph and Nicodemus had emerged from the shadows to undertake a task for God. The bruised reed that was Nicodemus, the learned, yet confused, man who visited Jesus, has become a strong cedar. In this generous act of devotion, which his beloved Jewish law dictated had to be completed before sunset on that first Good Friday, Nicodemus stepped from secrecy and darkness in to openness and light. Previously unable to publicly show his devotion to the Messiah, he does so now. Unashamed. Unafraid. Unlimited in his generosity. Nicodemus had been born again.

What do you learn from Nicodemus?

In what ways has Jesus led you from darkness in to light?

Thomas (1) – Doubting

Doubting ThomasBut what if Jesus hadn’t come back to life after all?

Please read John 20: 24-25

What do you have doubts about? The Virgin Birth? The Resurrection? The turning of water in to wine? Prayer being answered? The very existence of God in a world of war, hatred, corruption, injustice, accidents, illness, terrorism, abuse…?

Or doubts about God having sent is only son so that you – yes, you – might have eternal life? That you are loved? That you are loved by God?

Everyone has doubts – be that about matters of faith and belief, work and family, marriage and parenting, friendships and relationships, money and housing, health and illness, life and death… you name it, we have doubts about it.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest friends. A dedicated companion. Going everywhere and seeing everything. Thomas was one who sought to understand who Jesus was and what his purpose was. Asking questions when Lazarus was reported dead (John 11:16) and again in the minutes that followed Judas’ departure from the Last Supper (John 14:1-6). Three years spent in such company. And yet despite all that, we might say, he had doubts.

Not unlike others we have considered (such as Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot) , he too has been attributed a negative connotation: ‘Doubting Thomas’. Sometimes used derogatively towards those who don’t believe or agree with what others might be proposing, the phrase even has its own dictionary definitions: ‘an incredulous or habitually doubtful person’ (Merriam-Webster); ‘a person who insists on proof before he or she will believe anything; sceptic’ (Collins). And yet we can learn a lot from Thomas.

Left unaddressed or unresolved, doubts can become all-consuming. They have the power to erode away confidence in our ability to make decisions. To the extent that we never make any at all. We can also find ourselves holding on to doubts even with the greatest evidence to the contrary. Paradoxically, having doubts can be one thing we can be certain about.

Having doubts is part of the human condition and as well as matters to do with faith and belief, they are an important element in the making of wise decisions. Doubts are part of the checks and balances we need in life. We will have doubts about the new job we’ve started, or whether the person we wish to marry is the ‘right one’, or about God’s calling to a vocation, to name just a few. Having doubts can help us to discern both God’s will and our own, and they enable us to ask and to answer questions. If we are 100% certain about something really important then we may just be deceiving ourselves or perhaps choosing to ignore some inconvenient truths. As Thomas was to discover for himself, having doubts can be helpful.

Having doubts plays an important part in becoming the person we want to be and God wants us to be. Uncomfortable as they may be at times, be thankful for your doubts. Acknowledge them. And challenge them. Ask God to show you the part they play in discerning what he is saying.

Write a list of those things – anything you like: faith, life, work, whatever – which cause you to have doubts.

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Thomas (2) – Believing

From doubting to believingAfter the resurrection, Thomas wanted to be sure. He wanted to see the evidence.

Please read John 20:26-29

Poor Thomas. It must have been a difficult week. The other ten disciples and followers, including the Marys, would have been full of the fact that Jesus, their beloved Lord was not dead but was alive (and no doubt also a bit confused by it for themselves, one expects, although they may not have admitted that to Thomas).

In the high emotion of the situation, Thomas could have easily left the rest of the group. But he didn’t. He stayed with them. Listening to them, eating with them and praying with them.

Even so, Thomas must have spent that week wandering around, questioning the words of his closest friends, waiting for Jesus to appear around a corner. What a very long week it must have been. A week of uncertainty. A week of hope, fearing disappointment. A week of shame because he could not bring himself to believe like the others did. A week of waiting.

There are times when we want to be absolutely sure of something aren’t there? When we want evidence to clear up the confusion and the doubt. Some people have even likened Thomas to that of a scientist.

Thomas was fortunate: he had Jesus right there in front of him. How we would all long for such an experience! Yet note Jesus’ words in John 20:29. Thomas now believed because he had seen Jesus once again – and Jesus tells him how much greater is the blessing for those who believe without seeing him.

We, with all our doubts, come to Christ in the knowledge that we have not seen him. We come to Christ in faith, trusting that, in the balance of probability, he is alive and he is with us. He takes those doubts, that faith and that trust and he blesses us.

How else can we respond but by saying ‘My Lord and my God!’

Look back at your list of doubts. What evidence might there be to challenge them?

Now write a list of those things – anything you like: faith, life, work, whatever – which cause you to respond:

‘My Lord and my God!’

Woman from Samaria (2) – Pride

The woman at the wellThey stand at the well.

And they talk.

Please read John 4:7b-15

Continuing as it does to verse 28, this is the longest recorded conversation between a woman and Jesus in the whole of the Gospels. Initially, it has a feel of jolly repartee to it as if the woman is jesting, flirting even. After all, she has had five husbands! ‘Sir, you have no bucket… the well is deep… so where do you get this living water… are you greater than Jacob?’ (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) But the very fact she engages in conversation reflects her deep need for love, acceptance and respect.

Initially, Jesus responds in a calm, pragmatic way: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water (in the well) will be thirsty again.’ But see how effortlessly he turns from the practical to the spiritual – ‘but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.’ Jesus addresses her thirst. A thirst for acceptance. A thirst for love. She’s a mess. She’s had five husbands. She’s living with someone. She’s been excluded. Life is not good. Life is dry and she is thirsty.

Here, now, in the heat of the midday sun, stands a man, perhaps the first man, who accepts her for who she is and who loves her because she is to be loved. Through meeting Jesus, she finds her pride has been restored.

So what do we learn from her story in the day to day reality of our life and faith?

As with the woman from Samaria, the issues we face and the difficulties we have may not go away. The woman did not go to a wishing well to find a magic wand: and Jesus didn’t give her one in return for her efforts. And neither will he do so for us. But it is by going to the source of this living water, by reaching beneath the surface to the place of deep refreshment that will provide a different perspective.

We might think of ourselves as coming to the well in the heat of the different aspects of our lives. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for love. Bringing the parts of our lives which are dry.

Jesus offers each of us the gift of living water. He offers water to quench our thirst, to refresh the dry areas of our life. The water Jesus speaks of is everlasting. It’s constant and continually flowing. It will never dry up. And, like the woman at the well, we have a choice about whether to drink from it.

Or think of it another way: are you a fountain or a spring?

A fountain is dramatic. Everyone watches the water as it plays out in different shapes and forms. Yet fountains recycle the same water all the time. They don’t need much depth to operate. They can be switched on and off. Some people have fountain-like faith – church on Sundays, everyone sees them, they say the right words and sing the right hymns, they get up and sit down at the right times. They sit on committees. But the tap gets turned off when no one else is looking.

A spring is different. Often quieter. Sometimes unnoticed. Spring water is always fresh, always changing, a constant flow 24 hours every day. Springs rise up from the depths. They feed in to the well of those of who draw upon them. People who are like springs have a stability and security in their faith: drawing on deep refreshment. There is a depth often marked by wisdom and a love for others – and themselves.

This water dwells deep within us. The woman from Samaria and Nicodemus encountered these depths of the love of God by taking the time to be present in his presence, listening to him and talking to him. Alongside setting aside the time, setting aside the place is also important. For the woman it became the well. For Jesus it was the mountains and other places where he could be alone. Putting aside time and having a specific place within one’s home can help: a place set apart for prayer, Bible study, worship or whichever way enables the drawing up of water from the well. A place free from other distraction. A place set aside for you and God to meet.

Which aspects of your faith and your life are like fountains and which are like springs?

In what ways do you feel the water of eternal life gushing up inside of you?