I have been wondering where faith starts, as we journey through Lent, and as we reflect on our lives in God and in this community and family of God. Jesus tells us we are born from above, born of water and Spirit, blown like the wind, not knowing where it has come from or where it is going. So, I feel a bit like Nicodemus and thoroughly empathise with him and his confused response when Jesus asks the question:
Are you a teacher yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:10)
I think faith starts in the dark without light and does not depend on certainty and understanding, just like the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus.
We are confused when we discover we cannot start our journey of faith with an intellectual, educated, confirmation of heavenly things, put into their right order; when we find out proof of God’s presence cannot be provided beyond doubt. We learn we cannot trust our education, our reason and our rational thoughts on God, which is very challenging. We discover we cannot assume we will be personally satisfied God’s existence has been proved beyond doubt. Finally, recognising this, how on earth do I then proceed to a measured belief managed to the extent I choose. It definitely feels like God-given madness. It is a wind blowing me where it will and without any control – except probably God’s, and I have to trust! This too is hard.
All this is our journey. Certainty of God’s existence is not established by us. God’s presence is not restricted or limited to a definition by us. The mystery of God surpasses all human understanding. Easy to say, not so easy to comprehend. Our struggle means we must let go of any control and simply know God is, without compulsively needing to tidy God up into a neat little package to be marketed and sold to all interested consumers with a use by date or a returns policy. This is not where our Church is either.
We know also, disbelief comes at a cost. It leaves those who do not trust Jesus’ testimony or who deny God’s existence, living solely in this uncertain and challenging world, without means of comfort or reason. In the humanly defined and limited world, new life, born of water and the Spirit, blown like the wind, is by definition, impossible, unimaginable and foolish beyond reason. Proverbs quotes Wisdom who says:
For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord: but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.’ Proverbs 8:35-36
St John of the Cross talks about God abiding in us as we abide in God. God waits with each of us personally, without impatience; with love and without judgement, for each of us to wonder about God, God’s presence and God’s love in our lives. God waits in hope for us to take the very first, tiny steps in wondering, exploring and imagining. As we explore God, so does God explore with us, waiting, loving and rejoicing in each step we take. If we choose not to do so, if we turn away from this possibility, God does not reject or dismiss or manipulate or coerce us into God’s way. God lovingly waits until we are ready. God hopes one day each of us will be ready.
For many, the word ‘belief’ has come to mean accepting certain statements about God as ‘true’. When we think about the words Jesus spoke, we reflect on what it was like to be bewildered like Nicodemus, asking questions in the dark about Jesus’ relationship with God, and the God Jesus was describing.
For God so loved the world he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17
It needs courage and persistence to think this through, to imagine differently and learn how to walk in trust, learning as we go. Lent rightly demands a lot from us. Eternal life is not a chronological event nor is it restricted to life after death. The eternal life describes the time on either side of death when lives are lived on the cruciform path of Jesus.
Some who love the darkness, live imaging eternal life is to be found in accumulating possessions, prestige or power. For some, the darkness is a land of addiction to short term fixes which can never cover over the deep, long-term pain. Even the Church finds itself wandering in this dark place when it tries to domesticate Jesus, telling him what he can and can’t say, and who he can and cannot save. In places, in times and with people, evil and wickedness can become so normal we don’t see it or recognise it for what it is. Yet believing in Jesus and trusting Jesus means being with him, living in harmony with him and with God’s love for the whole world and all God’s people.
So however our doubt and faith have shaped us in Jesus’ Way, the love of God revealed in Jesus invites a decision from each of us, to believe or not to believe, to live in response to God’s saving love for everyone, or not. We need to understand saying ‘no’ to God’s love in Jesus is to choose a life in the familiar darkness of the world we have been taught to call reality. It is to be condemned to the living hell of the real world. It is a world to which Christians have been called to witness and to stand in solidarity with the world each and every day; and, to share God’s love with everyone in the darkest places at all times and with all people.
We hear with joy, in John 3:16 the declaration God has decided to love the whole world. God does not love just those who gather on Sunday, not just those religiously inclined, those who follow the letter of the law and the prophets, not just those who have heard the name of Jesus, not just Nicodemus and you and I, but the whole world; so God comes in Christ to show us the way of life in the middle of death. I hope we can journey together in Christ’s glorious company.
The Lord be always with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 2 Chapters 14-28. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.