Jesus and Nicodemus
1. Jesus encountered Nicodemus during the latter’s visit in Jerusalem. Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews” (Jn3/1) and a “teacher of Israel” (Jn3/10). Nicodemus, then, represented the Jewish people of that time who were attached to the Law of Moses. There is a passage in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that is not easy to digest. Let us cite it: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3/18). Let us place this verse in the public life of Jesus where he faced conflicts.
2. The words of Jesus were addressed to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came in the night, quite in a clandestine manner. As we know, in John night symbolized non-faith or doubt about the identity of Jesus. Nicodemus came in the night and will slowly be led to the light.
3. As a Pharisee Nicodemus had an idea of the justice of God. In that viewpoint God considered a person just and holy if the person conformed with the Law. Anyone accepting the teaching about the Law had a good chance of being considered just and accepted by God. What about those who did not have any idea of the Law? We read about them in John: “…this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed”(Jn 7/49).
4. Pharisees had a harsh opinion about sinners and people ignorant of the Law. They applied the strict principle already mentioned in Deuteronomy: “You must not distort justice: you shall not show partiality… Justice, justice alone shall you pursue (Dt 16/19-20).
5. Now, Jesus did not hesitate to mix with sinners. It was an occasion for sinners to know about the love of God. Jesus made himself available for the renewal and growth in faith of sinners. Those who saw the friendship of Jesus must have seen in the Passion and death of Jesus something incredibly beautiful. Jesus loved them seriously. It may have been hard to understand God but Jesus somehow helped them understand. The love of God—expressed in the message of the Kingdom—was not a fancy idea. It was serious and faithful.
6. Just imagine. Jesus loved the “little ones” and told them about the love of God. The hour came when Jesus was threatened because of his message. Yet Jesus did not run away. Jesus was condemned for having loved the little ones, the sinners, the prostitutes, tax collectors, the marginalized. Jesus was killed and accused of blasphemy. The Law said that the guilty should never be justified. “I will not acquit the guilty” (Ex 23/7).
7. The attitude of Jesus towards the sinners, however, revealed the true justice of God. The justice of God went as far as the gift of faith. Whoever believed in Jesus escaped judgement! Whoever believed in the love and concern for others, as basic in the message of Jesus, will escape judgement.
8. In a more modern language, whoever respects the dignity of people who are image of God will escape judgement. To put it in terms of Paul we read: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus” (Ep 2/4-6).
9. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, himself said this: “Christ, then, reveals God who is Father, who is ‘love,’ as St. John will express it in his first letter; Christ reveals God as ‘rich in mercy, as we read in St. Paul. This truth is not just the subject of a teaching; it is a reality made present to us by Christ. Making the Father present as love and mercy is, in Christ's own consciousness, the fundamental touchstone of His mission as the Messiah….”
10. The love of God, continues the Pope, “… is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and ‘restored to value’….”
11. The result of the revelation about the love of God is conversion. The Pope continues, “Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission…. Conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be; the love to which the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ is faithful to the uttermost consequences in the history of His covenant with man; even to the cross and to the death and resurrection of the Son. Conversion to God is always the fruit of the ‘rediscovery of this Father, who is rich in mercy’.”
12. How is this reflection related to our discussion in mission theology? We said that the task of the Church is to “convert” people and to consequently “implant the Church”. The document of Ad gentes makes this very explicit. But there are reactions to this.
13. One is to completely agree uncritically and without reservation. Unfortunately, the Ad gentes has its weakness. Indeed it is not easy to conceive of mission as “implanting the Church” and inviting people to a “conversion”. In fact such language can discourage dialogue, notably dialogue with people of other faiths. Somehow, if we are to agree with the document we need to approach it with a critical attitude.
14. The other response is to completely disagree. In fact, historically, mission was faced with a crisis because many Christians felt that mission was unnecessary. Many were not happy with the task of “conversion” and “implantation”. They would say that dialogue will fail when these are introduced. But there is a danger in complete disagreement in the name of dialogue and respect. Yes, dialogue is important but it need not involve giving up our faith. If we do not want to disrespect people of other faiths we do not, however, have to abandon our faith. On one hand there is the “method” of doing dialogue but on the other hand there is still the content of our faith. If we say that we do not want to impose conversion do we also say that we give up the “unique” mediation of Christ? If we respect the beliefs of others in their own mediators of salvation do we have to give up our faith in Jesus as unique mediator?
15. Ad gentes itself agrees that conversion should not be imposed on others. Others have the right to their own faiths. But does this mean that we will abandon our faith?
16. We might need to review our understanding of “conversion” and even “implantation”. These words are bound to be misunderstood. But if we are willing to stay Christians and if we are willing to hold on to the content of our faith as non-negotiable, we need to reflect on the nuances of the terms.
17. As Christians we are so in love with Christ. Following the insight of the 4th gospel we say, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory” (Jn1/14). We saw his glory. His glory was in his revelation of the love and justice of God. We are convinced about this. We are convinced about the message of Jesus about his Father. No we are not imposing our faith on others but because we have been so touched by Jesus we move according to our conviction and faith. We read, above, that conversion is in discovering the mercy of the Father; it is discovering that love which is patient and kind. We are touched by this love, so why will we refuse to share it with others? Why will we refuse to invite others to a conversion?
18. Ok, others have their own faiths. But will this mean that we shall no longer be convince of Jesus and the mercy of God? Do we drop this faith of ours? Do we abandon the movement of the Spirit in us prompting us to share our faith?
19. We do not agree, however, that conversion is a response to the threat of God wanting to destroy those who do not join the Church. It is not about “club membership”. It is about the conviction that the message of Jesus is true and his Father is really a loving Father. The Church is a community of people who are convinced of Jesus and his Father. It is a community of people who have seen the glory of Jesus. Conversion is to make people see what is so true in our faith and community—the Church. Baptism is not just about “club membership”. It is about making people participate in the mission of telling the world about the love of God. We are convinced, we are touched, hence we tell the world about what has touched us deeply. Do you want to participate in what we do—this is baptism. This is “implantation”. We want to live as a community of persons who have been touched by Jesus and his Father.
20. What about the word “condemned”? Let us look at it in the context of Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus was presenting his Father. Nicodemus was part of a cultural mindset that saw God as the harsh God of severe judgement. Jesus wanted to share with Nicodemus his own insights. To refuse love and mercy and concern for others is to get stuck with a harsh life of severity in treatment of people. Is that not a condemnation itself? Condemnation is not about God brandishing a weapon and destroying people. It is about insisting to stay stuck in the mud.
On Condemnation, Baptism, Serpents and other Matters in Mk16
The Longer ending of Mark 16:
The Appearance to Mary Magdalene.
9 When he had risen, early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons.10 She went and told his companions who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.
The Appearance to Two Disciples.
12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them walking along on their way to the country.
13 They returned and told the others; but they did not believe them either.
The Commissioning of the Eleven.
14 [But] later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised.
15 He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.
17 These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.
18 They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
The Ascension of Jesus.
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.
20 But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.
Let us comment on this:
1. The Note of the New American Bible on 16:9–20:
“This passage, termed the Longer Ending to the Marcan gospel by comparison with a much briefer conclusion found in some less important manuscripts, has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent. Early citations of it by the Fathers indicate that it was composed by the second century, although vocabulary and style indicate that it was written by someone other than Mark. It is a general resume of the material concerning the appearances of the risen Jesus, reflecting, in particular, traditions found in Lk 24 and Jn 20”.
2. Take note that this section of Mark, although canonical, was composed by the 2nd century. (Hence it did not come from the pen of Mark.) That means after a span of over a century of early Church history. The content of the verses reflect the many experiences (of maybe 2 centuries) of the early Church since her foundation. A lot of experiences have transpired already.
3. This section also is marked by the Easter tradition found in Luke and John. So it is about Easter and commissioning. It is the tradition that sees the victory of the resurrection over death and sin. Note the word “victory”. Remember what we said before, redemption is “victory”.
4. Baptism? Jesus said: “Whoever believes and is baptized…” (Mk16/16).
5. Remember the attitude of James and John who wanted to sit beside Jesus in glory? They craved for the best places. Is that how to be in the Kingdom?
6. The glory that Jesus promised was different…it was strange. In in Mark’s account, those who were at the right and left of Jesus were bandits or “revolutionaries”: “With him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left (Mk 15/27)”.
7. Jesus gave a portrait of the powerful people in the world and he commanded his disciples not to be like those powerful ones (10/43). Jesus then proposed the role of servant and slave (10/43-44). Can that be done? Why not? It may take time. We see why Jesus asked the disciples if they were ready to take up the cross and be plunged in the same baptism (10/39). Can they follow the same path of Jesus and participate in his mission? It was not about “be member of a club”. It was about the willingness to share in the mission of Jesus.
8. At the end Jesus reproduces with his friends the dynamism of being sent by God. The Risen Jesus opens the field to the initiatives of the Apostles and those who will continue the mission. They are sent to all creation with the task of proclaiming the Good News.
9. To be associated with Jesus is very constructive. Not to enter into this link with Jesus is to be cut from the promised life with God. The gospel account specifies this. It affirms that there are signs that accompany those who ally with Jesus.
10. They are to “drive out demons”, “speak new languages”, “pick up serpents [with their hands]”, “drink any deadly thing”, “lay hands on the sick who will recover”.
11. That was the language of that time. It carried with it convictions. Demons were known to cause illness. The disciple can attack the source of illness. The disciple can open up to all and be able to communicate and dialogue. The disciple is not anymore at the mercy of the one who mocked God’s plan, the serpent, source of deceitful sin. Just think of situations in life where we thought we were powerless. How easy we might be led to be “intoxicated” by fatality and despair. How wonderful it is to lay hands on those who are in conditions of loneliness, illness, misery.
12. Faith transforms the disciple to become messengers of hope. The disciple celebrates the joy of seeing efforts become “tenfold” fruitful. Then the disciple is assured that the Lord is glorified, “sitting at the right hand of God”. This indicates that it is really worth linking up with Jesus. Not to link with him is…well, the miss a lot. This is what “condemned” means.
13. Note how it can therefore be “inclusive”. Do you see how?
Sorry about tenses….This is written late in the night