Nicodemus and the Importance of Questions
When I went to an EFM group here with John Stephenson, and then on to a Bachelor of Theology, one of my most liberating discoveries was that I was free to question who God is, what Scripture means, who I am, and what makes life worthwhile.
There might not be simple answers, or the answers might change as I change, but the questions open doors to transformation for me.
Our Clinical Pastoral Education centre director, Les Underwood, always says to our groups that asking the right questions is more important than finding the right answers.
Richard Rohr, in a foreword to John Dear’s book The Questions of Jesus, writes: “I am told, for example, that Jesus only directly answers 3 of the 183 questions that he himself is asked in the four Gospels! (I will let you find them!) This is totally surprising to people who have grown up assuming that the very job description of religion is to give people answers and to resolve peoples’ dilemmas.
Apparently this is not Jesus’ understanding of the function of religion because he operates very differently.”
Rohr goes on to say: “Instead, Jesus asks questions, good questions, unnerving questions, re-aligning questions, transforming questions. He leads us into liminal, and therefore transformative space, much more than taking us into any moral high ground of immediate certitude or ego superiority. He subverts up front the cultural or theological assumptions that we are eventually going to have to face anyway. He leaves us betwixt and between, where God and grace can get at us, and where we are not at all in control.” Later Rohr says: “Easy answers instead of hard questions allow us to try to change others instead of allowing God to change us. At least, I know that is true in my life.”
The dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is a powerful example of the importance of questions to and from Jesus. I want to illustrate that by reading a portion of a letter I imagined Nicodemus writing to other faith leaders:
“I address this letter to several of those I consider most open-minded in matters of religion. Like me, you have probably been examining the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, trying to decide if he is misleading the people. As I listened to him, I began to ask myself whether he is challenging us, as the prophets did, to see that there is something missing or distorted in our present understanding and practice of who we are as people of God. Do we need to change our perspective? Until I had heard Jesus speak, I had been quite content to follow in what I believed to be the ways of the law and the teaching of the prophets. Jesus made me more aware of the great principles in our Scriptures that are the essence of the law and the prophetic writings. In Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, we are instructed to love God and to love our neighbour. That love is the basis of everything. The prophets have frequently reminded our people of that. In Jesus, perhaps that love of God and neighbour is fully expressed.”
The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt disturbed by awkward questions.
As a Pharisee, have I got my priorities wrong? If I practice the letter of the law but use that legalism as a substitute for love of God and neighbour, do I focus on a superficial conformity, and lose the Spirit that is meant to give it life?
New life in the Spirit is what Jesus spoke to me about in challenging terms when I went to see him the other night in secret, trying to get some answers.
He said, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things?” At the time, I felt quite angry that he could dare to challenge me so. I have spent my life studying the law, yet he said that he and his followers have a different kind of knowledge. He said to me: “We speak of what we know and testifies to what we have seen, and yet you do not receive our testimony.”
He claims to have knowledge from his experience that was more immediate and compelling than anything I had found in my studies. He looks at things through different eyes, and he believes he sees the kingdom of God from the inside. He says it’s like being reborn. I tried to resist that idea, making fun of the thought of going back in the mother’s womb and being born again. Yet I could see in him something I wanted to experience for myself. I ask myself: Can I experience this new life in the Spirit? Is there a spiritual reality that could make my life more meaningful and connected to God’s purposes?
If I come to accept Jesus’ teaching fully, it would change everything. One minute I believe that this change is life giving and I want to embrace it. The next minute, it all becomes overwhelming because it affects my understanding of God so deeply and it asks me to make a commitment that could be dangerous. I see in Jesus’ face the knowledge that being true to his convictions might cost him his life and that his followers might be equally at risk. I’m not sure I would be ready to be counted as his follower when other religious leaders decide they want to be rid of the challenge he represents. Sometimes I wish I had never heard of Jesus. However, I can’t help but ask myself: Do I merely want my religious practices to be comfortable and familiar, or do I really want to discover new life and enter the kingdom of God?
I wonder about what new life in the Spirit might mean to me, I hope that as I write I will gain the courage and confidence to support Jesus publicly.
I am coming to believe that Jesus does not undermine old truths, but reinterprets them in ways that can change lives. His teaching is consistent with the tradition, particularly that of the prophets, but he makes tradition meaningful and alive in ways that bring us fresh possibilities.
Micah says that being right with God is to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. When I talk with Jesus, I feel as if I see the power of loving kindness and justice. When I allow myself to walk humbly with Jesus, I realize that he is the living answer to my questions about what it means to be born from above, born of the spirit and able to see the kingdom of God. He said that “what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”. Flesh and Spirit are not in opposition, as some of the Greek philosophers believe. Our Jewish understanding is that flesh and spirit are a united whole, but flesh without Spirit is dead. That’s why we think of the Spirit as breath or wind. You can’t see it, but a body without breath is dead, and our world without wind to bring the rain would be a desert.
We believe that our God is Lord of the seen and the unseen, yet too often we focus only on what is seen, which we can predict and control. The unseen is mystery and risk. Like the wind, it comes and goes unpredictably. To be born of the Spirit is to be responsive to what is unseen, to be moved by this energy from God which cannot be limited or controlled.
That is what I sense in Jesus, this strong link to the energy of God which creates and shapes the world in ways we cannot control. Yet our religion often seems to want to control people and to limit our relationship to God to the example of the past, the traditions of worship and Scripture interpretation. Yet God is not contained and defined by our boxes. The big question for me is this: Am I ready to follow Jesus beyond my comfort zone? I wonder what questions arise for you as you examine the teaching of Jesus and this letter.