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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The 4th Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
"Stepping Into The Light"
"And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." - - - OSCAR: "I see it this way: This guy was important, he was with the others of his own class, and he was defending injustice. And when Jesus speaks to him about that injustice that everybody can see, he makes out he doesn't understand. And he asks and asks, and he was clinging to his religion, a kind of false religion, and that's why he doesn't understand him." TERESITA, William's wife: "With simple people Jesus didn't have a problem. This man who's very educated is asking him a lot of questions because he doesn't understand him." OSCAR: "Hell, it's just like now: some bastard is exploiting people, and somebody comes up to tell him he shouldn't do that. He makes out he doesn't understand and so he asks thousands of questions. That's the way the bastard seems to me." - Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname I once knew this man who was an ordinary parish minister and this other man who was principal of a well-known theological seminary. This particular seminary was a well respected, well-endowed national institution where they train people to be pastors of one of the largest churches in the country. Many of its graduates had become important figures in the history of the nation. Many who had become ministers had been influential in shaping the country's political and social policies. The minister wrote to the principal one day, telling him in horrendous detail about a terrible injustice that was going on in the very churches for which the seminary was training ministers, an ecclesiastical scandal that the church was doing its best to cover up. The man asked the principal to look into the matter, as a matter of faith, as a matter of justice, as a matter of discipleship to Jesus Christ. He asked him to do it not just for the men and women who were being victimized in the church, but for the sake of all those new recruits, all those soon-to-be ministers who would one day take their places. Asked him to call a conference, a workshop, anything that might let people know what was going on and have a chance to ask questions. Bring the matter out into the open. Shed some light on it. Bring it out of the shadows. More importantly wrote the man, "do it for the church. Do it for the integrity of that institution you and I have served all of our lives in obedience to Christ. Do it for the thousands of people traumatized by this evil every single week in the church. Do it out of reverence for the Gospel we preach, which calls us first and foremost to serve the world, not ourselves". After all, he added for emphasis, the seminary was a Christian community preparing people to help the church make Christians. The man's letter was never answered nor even acknowledged. It was as if the matter had never been raised. Of course, the principal was a very busy man and this was one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. The principal was chair of several important committees for the college and university, a recipient of several honorary degrees and contributing editor to a number of erudite theological publications. Not only that, but as often is the case with religious institutions these days, the principal was extremely occupied in a fund-raising campaign for the college. You might well say that his post even demanded that he spend his time this way. He really didn't have either the time or the inclination, you see, to get involved in such mundane, let alone, shall we say, messy matters. + Faith is more than mere intellectual assent. That, one might say, is the point John is making in that well-known story of the man named Nicodemus. This week's text is not the whole story of that conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is the climax of what John wants to say and assumes we have been there listening to these two all along. Nicodemus, who is presented as a leading member of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, something like a professor of theology or religious judge, principal of a theological college, if you like, has come to Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss things. It is the first clue John gives us about Nicodemus. Of course, to assume that he is afraid of coming openly to see Jesus is just that, an assumption. We don't know for sure, from the text. Later (19.39), John is going to tell us that Nicodemus comes again to see Jesus. But by this time he has been executed and the danger of being associated with Jesus has, for the most part, passed. He comes with a friend of his, Joseph of Arimathea, "a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one," John tells us, "because of his fear of the Jews". They were there to look after Jesus' corpse, says John, this Joseph and Nicodemus, "who had at first come to Jesus by night". It is why I think it is fair to say that we are talking about a man who wants to keep himself in the shadows when it comes to Jesus, just out of harm's way and safe, not seen. This first time Nicodemus comes, he comes because he appears to be troubled by what Jesus has been saying and doing, because he wants to question him, get into a debate. It is what you should always ask yourself about people who ask you questions. Do they really want to know what you think or just argue? Also what you should always ask about religious people. Do they really believe what it is they are saying? Or do they merely want to talk about it? The learned professor wants to argue and a religious debate is exactly what follows in that well-known conversation about being "born from above" and the wind blowing where it will. Nicodemus wants some sign that Jesus really is from God and that the things he is saying and doing are true. Or, so he says. If you were a child of spirit, Jesus tells him, you would know who I am and understand the things I am saying. But all Nicodemus can do in response is to ask Jesus more intellectual questions. When Jesus responds to his questions and Nicodemus parries with more questions, Jesus appears to lose patience with him, as if he knows at that point he is dealing with someone who does not want to understand but merely to argue. Nothing Jesus seems to say is getting through to Nicodemus; and it is here that this week's text begins. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life. I'll give you a sign, says Jesus, the sign of "a man" being raised up the way Moses raised up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is talking about a well-known sign of death for the people of Israel, a sign of death that became a source of life. You're going to see such a sign, Jesus tells him, and then you're going to have to decide whether or not you want to debate what I am about or start living it. The people who live the life I am do so in the light, where everything they do and are can be seen. The people who don't are the people who stick to the shadows. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. Now, if I were trying to dramatize this conversation for you as a kind of pantomime, I'd get you to see Jesus standing up there on a stage with a single spotlight illuminating him. Then you would hear another voice speaking to Jesus from one side of the stage. There is no light over there and the one who speaks starts to approach where Jesus is. Jesus begins to beckon to the man in the shadows to come closer; and for a moment it looks like he might. He hovers at the edge of the light Jesus is standing in but never steps into it. The more the two talk, the more that second figure standing there with Jesus begins to fade back into shadows until finally he disappears back into the night from which he came. It is the way it is, says Jesus. Those who hate the light always have something to hide. Those who love the light are not afraid of being seen for who and what they are. + We know from many other references in his gospel that the author, John, was writing for a Jewish Christian sect that still maintained its primary identity within larger Judaism. At the time John wrote these words, these Jewish Christians were being persecuted and expelled from the only religious home they had ever known, the synagogue. It is a safe bet to say that his story is about the kind of discrimination and persecution that goes in religious communities. He's talking about the kind of evil that gets perpetrated by religious people against their own kind. Those kinds of dark deeds did not come to an end in first century Palestine. They have continued down through the tragic centuries to today. Some of us who profess faith in God continue to do evil things to our brothers and sisters. John doesn't identify what those evil deeds are. He doesn't need to. Anybody who has lived for very long in a religious community knows what kinds of cruel things religious people are capable of doing to each other. The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not a story about private religious experience. It's about the radical protest Christ was and is against the evil we do to one another in the name of religion. It's about the need to drag such evil out into the light, expose it for what it is. I t is not enough to be a Nicodemus - orthodox, well-connected and able to say all the right things. You have to be prepared to lay it on the line. You have to be prepared to step into the light. For the love of God who sent his Son. --------- Numbers 21.4-9 - The region around Edom near the Red Sea was famous for its lethal serpents. In this desolate area of the Arabah, the Israelites make the mistake of "murmuring" against both Moses and God for ending up in such a seemingly "god-forsaken" place. They are immediately plagued by venomous serpents and many lose their lives. The antidote used to save those who remain is the effigy of a serpent raised on a pole. All who look upon the serpent recover from the deadly bites. There is no easy interpretation of such a passage. It reeks of superstition and magic, the kind that was prevalent among many of the people of the ancient middle east. What we may have here is a crude attempt by the ancient writers to portray dramatically the life-death relationship that exists between Israel and God. 1. What disturbs you about the story? 2. What saving value do you see in it? 3. In what sense is our relationship with God a life or death issue? Ephesians 2.1-10 - Ephesians is a cosmic book, an attempt to speak about the life of every believer in the context of the Paschal ministry, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the context of God's saving acts from the beginning of time. Not surprisingly, these powerful, poetic texts were often used in baptismal liturgies during Lent when catechumenates prepared for baptism and their new life in Christ. 1. What is the author trying to say about our life before Christ? 2. What does he mean by "the ruler of the power of the air"? 3. In what way do believers get "raised up" with Jesus? John 3.14-21 - It is important to notice that the text assumes that both judgment and grace are one act of God. That act is sending Christ into the world. Christ did not come to judge; but his coming is a judgment in the sense that turning on a light exposes whatever is there: those who are not afraid of the light and those who are. A saving presence, like Christ, can also be a disturbing presence. Only those who prefer to live in an illusory world think that turning on a light will not create shadows. Anyone who has ever preached the Good News of Christ, to voice the love of God for all people and things, knows that such an effort is hardly ever greeted with unanimous praise and blessing. There are forces in the world that love deeds done in darkness, as there are those who love those things that are done in the light. All who are serious about following Christ must be prepared to step into the light. 1. What is it about Nicodemus that reminds you of some kinds of religious people? 2. What is dangerous about such a text for all those who consider themselves in the light? 3. Why has it been so difficult, historically, for Christian people to acknowledge the abuses and injustices that occur within Christian communities to their own people? 4. Where are such abuses happening within the church now? 5. What would it mean for you to step into the light? HYMN God of Freedom, God of Justice (Voices United 700)
copyright - Barry Robinson 2003 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2003 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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