Sermon - 16th March 2014
Secrets and Darkness
Scripture - John 3:1-21
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video]
I recently subscribed to the online streaming service Netflix. For those who don't know it's a way of seeing films and TV series through the internet and, with a little gizmo, these can be seen on your TV. I really rather like it and, of course, it's a new toy so I've been enjoying getting to know how to use it.
As a result I've finally got around to seeing the American TV series Breaking Bad. Does anyone know it? It's quite dark – a chemistry teacher finds he has lung cancer and, in order to provide for his family and pay for his treatment he starts to make the drug crystal meth. He teams up with a former student and they lurch from disaster to disaster in the first series. By the fourth series – which I'm about half way through – the teacher, Mr White, is cooking crystal meth for a drugs cartel and his life is, to say the least, precarious. What strikes me about the programme – aside from the very deep moral quandary that the main character has got himself into – is that his life, and that of his side kick, Jesse, is dominated by secrets.
He can't tell his wife (at first) about this new aspect to his life. He becomes a multi-millionaire but can't spend the money too conspicuously. He has to find ways to launder the money – more secrets. Eventually his wife is let in on the secret but their brother-in-law is an agent with the Drugs Enforcement Agency so more secrets are kept. They keep the information secret from their teenage son.
A lot of energy is kept keeping secrets and things become very tense in the series – which is, of course, part of what makes it a good drama (that and the sense that what he is doing is wrong and you want him to stop and face justice yet, at the same time, you end up feeling some sympathy for him.
Most of us keep secrets. Sometimes these are good: we plan a surprise party for a loved one; we keep secret what we may buy our partner for Christmas, birthday or anniversaries. But some secrets are bad: the things we can't tell another that eat us up; the secret lives that sometimes we live; the fear that the secrets will come out. Anyone in public life has to be careful as secrets can easily be exposed by the press and the internet. More than ever our politicians and leaders need to live lives which are open and blameless as, sooner or later, secret misconduct will be exposed. Indeed Jesus once said all that is kept secret will one day be laid bare.
Nicodemus has secrets but we can only guess at what they all were. He went to see Jesus at night. He was a Pharisee yet addressed Jesus as “Rabbi” and said that he believed Jesus was a teacher sent by God. So there is a secret there – did the other Pharisees know he was engaging with, and believing in Jesus? Or was it another trap for Jesus? In which case he was keeping this a secret from Jesus.
We don't know much about Nicodemus – he appears three times in St John's Gospel. The first in chapter 3 – the passage we've heard today. The second time is in chapter 7, at v50, where he speaks up for Jesus – or at least reminding the other Pharisees that the Law afforded due process to those who were accused of misconduct. He also appears near the end of the Gospel, in chapter 19, where he accompanies Joseph of Aramathea to take Jesus's body and anoint it for burial. John describes Joseph of Aramathea as “secret disciple” but Nicodemus isn't described in the same way. We just don't know if Nicodemus had taken the step from being a sympathetic observer and helper of Jesus to being a committed disciple.
Many Christians now are uncomfortable with the idea of a secret disciple - which surprises me given the history of the Church even in our own time. As I grew up, the Church faced dreadful persecution in China and what was Czechoslovakia and, today, faces persecution in many countries around the world. In some notionally Islamic countries, it is illegal even to gather to worship if you are Christian. In others the Church is tolerated so long as it doesn't seek to convert anyone. In these places being a secret disciple is a matter of life and death.
A friend of mine is from Iran. His cousin, Saleem, joined him here over a year ago. After a particularly hard break up with his girlfriend Saleem became very depressed and his depression and despair was apparent to those around him. A man he worked with kept telling him not to despair as God loved him. Saleem found this fascinating as this wasn't the way in which he had heard people talk about God before.
Eventually he started to talk to his colleague about God. His colleague gave him some literature and, over the weeks and months that followed Saleem learnt more about his friend's understanding of God. Eventually he was invited to a prayer meeting his friend held. Saleem enjoyed the prayer meeting and, for the first time felt a connection to God that he'd not felt in Islam. He converted but wasn't able to be baptised as it was considered dangerous to do this in Iran. Converts usually travel to Turkey to seek baptism there.
Saleem became more and more involved in this underground church. He helped put evangelical leaflets on newsstands around the city and started to gently witness to his faith in Christ. One evening he was planning to attend a meeting but had to work late. When he arrived at his friend's house he saw the police had raided it and were taking the people away. He drove on, removed his SIM card from his phone and approached his uncle for help.
His uncle, who had helped my friend escape from Iran, helped Saleem and now he's here. He has been baptised and attends an evangelical church in North Manchester but is in fear of being returned to Iran. He can't be a secret disciple anymore as the police know of his involvement in this little house church.
Whilst Christians are tolerated in Iran – the churches which are tolerated tend to be Orthodox ones which worship in languages not normally spoken anywhere else – converts to Christianity face the death sentence. Yet even when he was trying to be a secret disciple he found he needed to act upon his faith. He had to share it, he had to reach out to those around him whom he believed needed Jesus Christ.
In the UK we aren't persecuted for our beliefs – indeed we're just not bothered about anyone's beliefs! Within a few miles we have loads of churches, a Hindu Temple, a Mosque and a Buddhist Centre yet most people don't engage with any of these faiths. Few are prepared to say that they are atheist but people prefer to see themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” People don't mind a religious commitment – it's, well, sort of quaint. However, people can get quite uncomfortable if one's faith commitment changes your lifestyle. There is a feeling that one's faith shouldn't do that.
A generation ago people knew Catholics as those folk who ate fish on Fridays (hardly the most defining feature of Catholicism). Now we know that Jehovah's Witnesses don't do blood transfusions, that Jews don't eat pork and that Muslims fast for Ramadan. Our society is faintly disturbed by these overt displays of religion as it would prefer to compartmentalise faith so that it's something private, something discreet, something that doesn't offend. This is the background, I think, to the discussions about whether people of faith can wear articles which proclaim faith whilst at work.
Nicodemus does the same. He compartmentalises different aspects of his life – he was a Pharisee, a respected member of that grouping, but was also attracted to Jesus' message' but he had to keep his interest in Jesus a secret – which is why we see him at night. Nicodemus is successful but spiritually curious. He plays a leadership role in his community but can't be seen to be interested in Jesus. He is interested but not ready to let his faith or interest in Jesus change his life. His imagination is caught by Jesus, but he wants to compartmentalize whatever faith he has. Nicodemus is not yet ready to declare his faith in the light of day, not prepared to let it change his life. People now are similar – Jesus is very attractive, Jesus catches people's imagination, but the Church puts them off.
Nicodemus is also complex – maybe his sticking up for Jesus in front of the other Pharisees and his help in taking Jesus' body down from the cross and anointing his body were signs of a deeper commitment – but we just don't know. Like us he's complex.
Nicodemus' story makes us reflect a bit on our own discipleship. Are we secret Christians? Who knows we are Christians and how do they know? Do we show them as well as tell them? Faith is a verb – we need to be doing it. It's not enough just to say that we're Christian – we have to live lives of discipleship where we seek to love radically, give sacrificially and serve wholeheartedly. We have to let our faith affect our lives as radically as Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews and Muslims do.
This is quite counter-cultural, partly because of natural British reserve and partly because of the culture we live in where faith is seen as something private. Yet the the Gospel demands that we share our faith. I wonder if Nicodemus ever got to the point where he could tell others about what he believed, if he ever moved on from being only willing to encounter Jesus in secrecy.
Last week I was at the URC Synod and we were challenged by the founder of Back to Church Sunday to think about our congregations. He asked us if we were welcoming or invitational in our approach to church.
Of course, everyone wants the church to be welcoming: we try to chat to newcomers, to make them feel welcome, to be friendly, to make sure we have nice refreshments, to make worship uplifting and relevant – all of which is good. But being invitational is different, being invitational requires us to take risks. Being invitational requires us to risk embarrassment and rejection and failure – after all we may ask someone to come to church and they say no. We may ask and they think we're nutters. We may ask and they ridicule us. Yet, the story we tell, the story by which we live our lives involves risk, rejection and ridicule – things we think about more and more as we journey nearer Holy Week.
So as we reflect on Nicodemus and his secret we may want to think about whether we are secret Christians and, how willing we are to risk rejection and ridicule for the sake of the Kingdom.