Shall we fall in love with Jesus this Lenten season?
Throughout history, people have gone the extra mile to seek higher teaching, ultimate truth, or enlightenment.
Here in the gospel of John, we meet another seeker, Nicodemus, a learned man, the Pharisees, and a respectable member of his community.
Nicodemus came to Jesus, a young wandering preacher who also performed miracles. We wonder what Nicodemus seeks from Jesus. And this question is also essential for us to ask ourselves. When do we come to see Jesus? What do we seek from Jesus?
The setting of Nicodemus’ visit was at night, reflecting the gospel writer John’s usual symbolism of light and darkness, earthly and spiritual things throughout his gospel. Nicodemus came in the night, symbolising the darkness that hides the truth to see Jesus, the light which reveals everything so clearly.
Although he addressed Jesus as a teacher acknowledging him as someone who has come from God, Nicodemus considers Jesus no more than a distinguished rabbi who has done miracles like many rabbis attributed in Jewish writings.
So Jesus transposes the topic to a different ground, the kingdom of God, and asserts that a condition of entry to the kingdom of God is the experience of being born from above: ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. ( John 3:3 )”
It was an insult for Nicodemus, a scholar of the scripture and a man of status in his community, to be born again to see the kingdom of God! Does it mean that what he is and does is insufficient to see God's kingdom? He is disqualified.
The following conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus was like a tug of war in different codes: Jesus talks about spirit matter while Nicodemus talks about the worldly matter. So Jesus summarised: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
And Jesus went on to reveal the truth about the mystery of God’s love in his whole being; as the son of God who will be lifted on the cross like Moses lifted the snake in the desert to bring healing to Israel, God will bring salvation in Jesus, the Son of God.
In the fifth century Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “credo ut intelligam”, I believe to understand.
Worldly knowledge and status can be obtained through our efforts. But we can only experience the love of God through believing in Jesus, Emmanuel, and the mystery of God’s love for the world.
In the ancient world, Abraham left his people and his father’s house and went to the land God showed him(Genesis 12: 1) because he believed in God and was credited with righteousness ( Romans 4: 3).
During this Lenten season, we meet Jesus, not as a distinguished rabbi who performs miracles but as the one lifted on a cross so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Are we ready to fall in love with Jesus, the mystery of God’s love?
In 2010 a Christian woman in a village near Lahore in Pakistan was accused of blasphemy, sentenced to death, and put in jail for eight years until her sentence was quashed by the Supreme court in 2018. Her crime was that she drank water from the same vessel she was bringing to her Muslim co-workers. Asia was a person of impurity in the eyes of her Muslim co-workers, and unacceptable that she shared a drink from the same vessel.
The Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel was in a similar situation to Asia Bibi, but her story has a different ending. “Give me a drink”, Jesus, a Jewish man, asks the Samaritan woman who came to fetch water from Jacob’s well at midday.
There are many reasons why this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman can be as explosive a situation as Asia Bibi’s. The antipathies between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus were irreconcilable. Furthermore, there was strong prejudice towards women like the Samaritan woman in her community.
And here, Jesus, unafraid of breaking the customs of his time, initiates a conversation by asking for a drink. After a long road trip, Jesus was tired and thirsty and needed a drink but his inner thirst to reach out to the Samaritan woman is more the point of this conversation. We see this in his response to his disciples in verse 34: “My food is to do the will of God who sent me and to complete his work”.
The Samaritan woman wasn’t apprehensive about the situation and took charge of the dialogue with Jesus. She reasoned, inquired and discerned as she talked with Jesus. Once again, this conversation had double meanings, like in the previous story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus.
But the openness of the Samaritan woman received Jesus, who revealed himself as the gift of God who could give living water and hear the revolutionary understanding of worshipping God in spirit and truth. This happens in a genuine dialogue between two parties when each listens to the other’s point of view, allowing them to influence life and be transformed.
When she took the word of Jesus into her heart, as the Saviour of the world, she was no longer bound to society’s customs, rules or prejudice. She left her water jar and returned to the city to invite others to Jesus. And the Samaritans came to Jesus and believed in him because of her testimony. This is the harvest for the work of Jesus, the very mission that Jesus was sent outside of Judea.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well invites us to respond to a more profound truth, the divine communion with God, even if it takes a courageous step of breaking the customs of our time. And engage in a deep conversation with Jesus, which will lead you to a more profound understanding of who Jesus is and who wants to draw you to the well of God’s living water to replenish your soul.
One in five Australians has some form of disability, and an estimated 1.3 billion people or 1 in 6 people worldwide, experience significant disability. Some disabilities people are born with, and some happen after birth through injury, infection or other factors that we don’t necessarily know. But one thing that we all know is that disabilities limit people from fully participating in community life, whether in education, employment, choosing a partner, or even having a family. Furthermore, people with disabilities experience discrimination more frequently than others.
The story of the man born blind from the gospel of John allows us to talk about the issue of disabilities, which is often absent in faith conversations. And in everyday life as well, people are often unsure how to engage in this conversation.
The gospel story from John chapter 9 begins with the disciples’ question about the blind man, ‘Teacher, who sinned caused him to be born blink? Was it his own or his parents’ sin? ( Vs 2)
Jesus did not accept the assumption or speculation about the possible causes that people came up with about the disability, for he saw there was more to the person than his blindness.
Jesus saw that God was present and that God’s grace was with everyone in every situation. So he said, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him”( Vs 3).
The healing method of Jesus seems rather unconventional in our time. Jesus spread the mud on the blind man’s eyes and sent him to wash in the waters of Siloam. But this was not too foreign a concept to the people of the ancient world. Naaman was sent to wash in the river Jordan, and he was healed in the prophet Samuel’s time. The man born blind can now see the light and more than a physical sense, his vision is opened to the light of the world spiritually.
But the story develops further with antagonistic reactions by the others involved, his neighbours, his parents, the religious leaders and even the people of his community. They began interrogating him, for they could not comprehend what had happened to the man they knew as the one born blind, but who was now able to see. But all interrogators failed to see the truth about Jesus as the blind man had experienced him, as the one who opened his eyes, as a prophet, and as the Son of Man.
The irony is that the people who were able to see failed to see the truth, whilst the man born blind is now seeing the truth.
During this Lent, as we reflect on our relationship with God, focusing on Jesus, who is the light of the world, let the experience and insights of people with disability expand our awareness of God’s grace in everyone and every situation. After all, the true inner conversion of the heart that is needed to follow Christ fully is not independent of any abilities or disabilities of ours.
The story of Lazarus is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, a dead man walking out of the tomb! This most dramatic miracle of the seven miraculous signs recorded in John’s gospel shows not only the people that Jesus is the Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, but also culminates in the plot by the chief priests and the Pharisees to kill Jesus.
The story goes that a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha, was ill. Clearly, Lazarus was not an important person, though he was a special one to his sisters, Mary and Martha and also to Jesus, who loved him. Because of that, Lazarus can represent us, ordinary people who may not necessarily be famous and important but are beloved by family members and friends.
Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus to come to them as their brother, Lazarus, was ill, as most of us would do if a family member were seriously sick or if death was imminent. Surprisingly Jesus delayed his visit to Lazarus for another two days. In his conversation with his disciples, he says that the reason for his delay was intended to make his disciples believe.
When Jesus came to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.
Martha met up with Jesus. She expressed her grief and rebuked him for not being there at a critical time: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”( Vs21). But she also displayed her trust and reliance on Jesus and God’s power in saying, “But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” ( Vs 22 )
Jesus reassured Martha by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” ( vs25-26)
These words of Jesus echo the prophecy of Ezekiel to the dry bones in a valley and remind us of the power of God to bring life from death through Jesus himself, the word of God.
When Mary met Jesus, her response was the same as her sister’s, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” ( Vs32)
But the weeping of Mary and other Jews made Jesus weep as well. And this caused some to criticise Jesus for not keeping Lazarus alive. But we need to note the deep empathy Jesus showed to those who were weeping as well as expressing his own grief. This is the most reassuring thing about Jesus for those who follow him. Jesus understands our grief, and he shares our pain and sorrow.
John’s gospel has many wordplays, which are the metaphorical means to highlight the spiritual realm. When Jesus said, “Take away the stone” (vs 39), Martha’s response was bound to the physical world. She said, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days”(vs 39). Although Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she didn’t have the understanding of the spiritual realm that she, too, had to take away the metaphysical stone that stops a new life that comes from Jesus.
In the letter to Romans, the apostle Paul emphasises the importance of the spiritual aspect of life by saying, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Vs 6).
One million cells in our body die every second; however, we are too reluctant to let go of death and seek the gift of life after death.
Thus, Jesus is inviting us, like Martha and Mary, to break free from the bonds of spiritual death and live in the light and eternal life.
Jesus invites us, like Lazarus, bound by death, to come out from the tomb to receive the life given by Jesus, the gift of abundant life.
According to modern science, we now know that one million cells in our body die every second. Can we see the new life in the dying process and uphold the gift of life that comes from God?
Jesus offered new life to Martha, Mary and Lazarus and invited us to break from the bonds of spiritual death and to live the light and the life that Jesus gives.
As we contemplate Jesus' final journey toward his death on the cross, let us contemplate on life that is the life of resurrection and eternal.
Rev. Myung Hwa Park is a former Moderator of NSW and ACT Synod