Nicodemus – knowledge not enough


From the West Window, Peterborough Parish Church

I have had a number of conversations this week about what it means to be genuine and the importance of being genuine. One of them was talking with Chad, the Archdeaconry Youth Advisor. He was talking at a meeting of Deanery clergy about how young people can spot a fake at a 100 paces. They know when someone is being ‘real’ and they know when there is a genuine faith and integrity behind what is being said. Youth work is not about being a party entertainer, though their energy and exuberance keeps you on your toes, and I had to have my wits about me leading a service for 200 children on Thursday. For all the buzz of large scale events it is deep and close conversations, where there is a genuine interest in them as people, that seem to matter more and probably do more than large scale events to shape them as people. But it is the large-scale events that catch the attention and give the adrenaline rush. Beware the lure of kingdoms and the cult of celebrity – last week’s Gospel and Jesus’ temptations.

Another set of conversations was around the concept of mutual flourishing which came out of the General Synod decision to ordain women as bishops in 2014. This was one of the five pillars to hold the differing views, and it said there would be an honoured place for those who dissented, that there would be provision to enable mutual flourishing. A wheel came off this during the week when Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, turned down his nomination to be the next Bishop of Sheffield after a backlash from the diocese and elsewhere over his stance on women priests and bishops. He is from the traditionalist wing and belongs to a society that promotes the dissenting view from the high Anglo-Catholic end. Passions are running high on this and it is looking like there is a limit to how much flourishing of that view is wanted. Those who want to provide an honoured place for those who differ significantly from them are nervous when it is the role of the diocesan bishop that is being proposed and I can understand that. What is looking like an uneasy truce has been unpicked.

When we want someone to flourish there is always a balance to be struck between what we think flourishing looks like and what they see it as. But we know it when we see it, we can see them light up and shine as they do. Something deep inside them is ignited.   And this has a depth to it that goes far beyond superficial enjoyment or easy comfort. Things seem to click into place and we watch them grow. And in Christian terms, we flourish when we grow more in Christlikeness. This does not just anoint what is already – our views, our prejudices, our hopes and dreams even. All of these can be wrong and unhealthy – square pegs and round holes. It might be that flourishing means that we need to be broken, for our pride and self-seeking to be punctured so that we can orientate ourselves anew in a different direction. It might be that someone else’s view of what flourishing looks like needs to be jettisoned so that we can be free to be. It’s a life-time’s work, and as we grow in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and can be shaped more in that mould, so this becomes life-giving for us and we are blessed in it.   Genuineness here becomes living in a way that is real and not one that imposes false images.

So with that in mind we heard in the Gospel reading of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-17). There are all sorts of allusions here. He is a Pharisee, full of knowledge of religious learning and practice, and yet seems to be in spiritual darkness. He is not flourishing as he is and sees in Jesus something genuine and real, and he knows it is a gift and blessing worth pursuing. He goes to Jesus literally at night, perhaps when it is quieter and others are not getting in the way. He can talk to Jesus privately, one to one, and in the intimacy of the conversation, open up to explore what he has to say. He can have the space that he needs for his questions to be heard and to reflect on the answers without others and pressures, expectations and pre-set answers getting in the way. He comes at night so that no one else sees and so his vulnerability in taking Jesus seriously is not threatened. Quiet conversations round the kitchen table, in churches when everyone else has gone, in side streets and walks by the river, can be some of the most profound. I seem to be having lots of conversations at the moment round kitchen tables and through Facebook messaging – the internet’s kitchen table.

Nicodemus has to learn what everyone has to learn. Knowledge alone is not enough. In fact it operates at a level that has a glass ceiling to it, or is it more encased in a glass box through which we can’t pass. What is needed is the spirit of faith and hope and love to fill us, make its home in us, and in so doing animate us with the spirit of Christlikeness. When we want to know what that looks like we need to take Jesus’ teaching seriously – all of it, grow in it and let it enter deeply into the core of who we are. That changes us, it doesn’t leave us as we are, and in it we flourish. It is the bringer of life.

That Nicodemus is a Pharisee is a wake up call for those of us well schooled in Christian learning, who have been seasoned through many years of devotion and practice. If a Pharisee has to learn that the spirit of faith is something much deeper than he has previously lived, then we are not in the clear. And my friends angry at a bishop’s appointment and despairing at his withdrawal also need to know that flourishing comes through humble and penitent hearts, through repentance and openness in love. Yes, there are injustices which need to be challenged. Yes, there are false truces which don’t really address the central issues. And yes, there are ways of holding deeply divided views but still recognize that we belong together and so have to work this out with all of us staying in the same room. I’m not sure many people really understand that when they comment on the current divisions in the church. We are used to imposing monochrome views and modes of being on the world and so can’t cope when a different way comes along. We don’t have the monopoly on being right.

Nicodemus has to learn that there is a profound spirit of Christlikeness that goes beyond just knowing certain key concepts. Knowing alone is a form of Gnosticism, an ancient heresy. In today’s language we have to live it, let it live in us, not just know it. Nicodemus has to learn what it means for this spirit to infuse his being, shape his attitudes and approach to others, bring a deep hope that makes life itself an act of praise and thanksgiving.

Nicodemus is the representative of all who have accepted the Christian Way at an intellectual or even cultural level but have yet to invite it deeply into their hearts, their inner being. It is the state of having a spiritual glass ceiling or box that only lets it go so deep. Being born of water and the Spirit is as difficult to pin down as the wind, but we know when it blows, just like young people know a genuine and real person when they see one. In this we flourish in ways we may not have previously known were possible.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 2, Sunday 12th March 2017



About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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