Journeys by Night: Nicodemus and Judas

Sunday 20th March 2011
Year A, The Second Sunday of Lent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Romans 4:1-5; 4:13-17
John 3:1-17

There are surprisingly few references in the New Testament to time and weather but John's Gospel contains the ominous phrase at the departure from the upper room of the traitor Judas "and it was dark" (John 13:30) and in today's reading from John we hear of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night, coming out of the dark into the light, making the journey of Judas in reverse; and in view of the salience assigned in the Gospel of John to the contract between light and dark, this depiction of Nicodemus is significant.

After some of John's rather clumsy humour about being born again, we come to the crux when Jesus says that he came not to condemn the world but to save it, a strange concept for a learned and upright Jew like Nicodemus who would have identified himself squarely with obedience to the Law. Whereas what Jesus is pointing to is a contrast between condemnation and salvation.

Saint Paul covers much the same ground, in a typically somewhat more tortured way than Jesus, by contrasting Abraham's obedience to the Law with his much more important attribute of righteousness. Paul says that righteousness is above and beyond the Law but this hasn't stopped his admirers putting the two ideas back together such that we can develop a very legalistic idea of righteousness. What's worse, when I was doing research for this sermon I went onto a large number of Christian web sites which, almost without exception, equated righteousness with sexual morality, particularly with respect to homosexuality; so what started in Paul as an extremely generous idea has become narrow and moralistic, seeking to condemn and then judge others. You can see how easy it is to turn an idea on its head.

The key, of course, is in what Jesus says of himself and the Father near the end of the reading (in the Authorised Version): "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."

This must have been the really radical, shocking idea for Nicodemus who was so accustomed to what we might call the accountancy of morality. Nicodemus and his Temple caste believed that there was a strict proportionality between disobeying the law and the appropriate punishment; they believed that YHWH was their judge; and they definitely believed in the whole judicial process. And here we have Jesus, an acknowledged wise and holy man, overturning all this and placing his ethical code firmly on love and opting against condemnation. As for everlasting life, this was a relatively new concept to Jews at the time of Jesus, mostly adhered to by Pharisees and opposed by Sadducees but still a rather foggy idea.

But notice, Jesus connects belief in him and the Father with the attainment of everlasting life; he does not say that behaving in a way that avoids condemnation or, to put it the other way round, behaving according to a moral code, will attain everlasting life.

And here's the rub; Christian tradition has so often made that mistaken connection between observing an ethical code and attaining everlasting life that for most of us, in spite of what Jesus and Saint Paul say, it's second nature. In fact, if you ask most people in the street what Christianity is all about they would not reply in terms of the way the first Christians were described - "see how they love one another" - but we would be described as a religious movement that believes that we will attain everlasting life (whatever that means) by observing a code of morality and that that code is primarily concerned with sexual behaviour. That's what they think; and it's not a very great sales pitch for bringing people to Christ.

On that basis, what Jesus says presents us with a shocking and radical proposal. Imagine a world where we all:

That is the world Jesus is describing. That is the Christian world we should be trying to create; but instead we are in the vanguard of the condemners and the judgers and the punishers. I could respond by reminding us of Jesus' aphorism that he who is without sin should cast the first stone; but clearly that piece of sound advice just isn't enough to lever us out of our traditional zone of self satisfaction and moral superiority. What we need is to alter our basic faith balance, not abandoning the corporate worship of church in favour of private prayer, but realising that the foundation of Christianity is our personal relationship with god, not our community's collective view of morality. 'we, like Nicodemus, need to visit Christ by night, groping our way out of the gloom towards his welcoming light, careful not to make the same journey from that light into darkness because of a strong tendency to pass judgment; for, in the end, Judas's surpassing sin was that he thought he knew better than Jesus what was needed.  He seems to have lost patience with the shilly-shallying and all that wishy-washy talk about love. And so, the judgment of Jesus by human standards caused his death; and so long as we judge that the best way to follow Jesus is to judge our brothers and sisters, we will be continuing the error of Judas in judging Jesus, not by his own standards, but by ours.

The night was the making of Nicodemus and the unmaking of Judas. Where are we on the spectrum that connects them?