The Need to Talk

Sunday 17th February 2008
Year A, The Second Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 3:1-17

Sermon not given (See Sermon 89 On Christian Liberty)

Can you remember the last time you had an intimate conversation, just you and somebody else, listening attentively rather than talking competitively? That probably isn't too difficult to remember as we often have intimate conversations about our problems, much less about our opportunities or our successes. So we can probably remember quite recent conversations about an illness, a grand child in danger of going off the rails, a marital glitch.

Now, can you remember the last time you had a conversation about a big idea, like social justice or the meaning of life; or even the meaning of salvation? We have these much less often than conversations about the people and situations in our daily lives; but, of course, we cannot always avoid coming into conflict with people who think differently from us and then we sometimes discuss the big issues in a rather confrontational way, finding ourselves being pushed into either/or black/white situations or pushing ourselves into dogmatic statements for effect.

Following on from the problem of getting ourselves into corners, can you remember the last time you asked somebody to help you understand something difficult, not so much an individual dilemma like the ones I have just mentioned but, for the sake of argument, something like: how does a computer work? Or what are the underlying causes of the tensions in the Anglican Communion?

Let us now put all of these ideas together into a single question: can you remember the last time you held an intimate conversation - just you and somebody else - about a big idea where you asked questions, listened and came away wiser?

Today's Gospel describes such a conversation which takes place between Jesus and Nicodemus, a religious leader; and it is remarkable in the four Gospels because it is the only intimate conversation reported between Jesus and somebody who is not a follower or acting in a public capacity; Jesus talks to his Disciples in groups and occasionally individually; and he holds dramatic conversations with public figures, such as Pilate, but this intimate conversation about the meaning of salvation is, as I say, unique.

Nicodemus has come on a mission to understand. He opens with a recognition of the special nature of Jesus; he has seen signs performed which he takes to be of divine origin - a very difficult thing for a Jew to say - but for the rest of the time he asks about meaning, about the meaning of the mission of Jesus and how it relates to the meaning of life.

Now I doubt that Nicodemus was much wiser at the end than at the beginning. What Jesus has to say is enigmatic, difficult to grasp, really rather outside the conventional Jewish frame of reference; but we can see how it works its way out in the life of Nicodemus; we see him cautiously supporting Jesus in the face of hostility from his colleagues (John 7.5) and assisting at the burial of Jesus (John 19:39). We cannot always know when we begin to ponder a difficult subject how it will work its way through our lives.

At this point I don't want to descend into the cliché which has haunted me since childhood, that television has killed the art of conversation. I say this because I am fortunate to have lived for extended periods in communities in Africa and Asia where there was, then, no television; and I have to tell you that I didn't hear much art of conversation; just the same litany of tiny events picked over from beginning to end; and then back to the beginning. We must not sentimentalise the days before television; and we might even make an argument that in some subjects, from dinosaurs to breast cancer, we know a great deal more as non specialists because of television. But there is a grain of truth, as there usually is, in the cliché. We don't take conversation seriously enough. If we think back to the questions at the beginning and look at them in a different way, we will find that we spend most of our time on trivia, personal concerns and the occasional flash of theoretical confrontation; but we do not spend all that much time in the give and take of conversation, thinking of it as a team pursuit rather than a confrontation. Perhaps what disturbs me most is not people asking me whether I saw a television programme but the inability to get further than the plot; people want to tell me what characters did or said but not what it meant.

I am not saying that we should be spending all our lives like scholars or philosophers but we cannot condemn our society for being trivial, commercial, superficial, when that is how we behave; we are society and it is us; there isn't a sense in which we can separate our personal behaviour from collective behaviour. It is wrong to spend all our conversational energy talking about the falling price of houses and then saying that the world is greedy; it is wrong to give way to easy slogans about foreigners and then condemn society because we send sick people, like Ama Sumani, back to their country to die. There is no point spending time talking about a plot in a soap opera and then saying that our media is full of trivia. There would be no trivial media if we didn't consume them.

Behind this, of course, there is an even more serious point. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus was not about Jewish ethics, Temple politics or the Roman occupation but about eternal life. In the absence of the physical presence of Jesus which Nicodemus, how are we to conduct ourselves? There are two points which are apparently contradictory but which, I think, fit together: first, we need to hold serious conversations about God where we can ask questions without feeling ridiculous. Secondly, we need to spend more time holding conversations with God. The apparent contradiction arises because the first kind of conversation involves doctrine which people often elevate above conversation with God whereas doctrine is simply our way of asking structured questions as a precursor to approaching God's mystery through dialogue and contemplating it in silence.

There is nothing more important than establishing and strengthening our direct, personal relationship with God; that is why we are Christians; our Creed is the beginning of spiritual life not the end of it. Further, our dealings with each other are a reflection of our dealings with God. We would do well to take note of the approach adopted by Nicodemus. Our questioning, our listening and our dialogue with each other should resemble our intimate relationship with God where there is no room for indifference or smugness.