Cancelled for Christ?
A political leader faces a choice between Christ and party.
A political leader fears cancellation by his party for following Christ. I wonder what Kate Forbes makes of Nicodemus?
In case you haven’t been following Scottish politics, in the last month, one woman has just forfeited the highest office in the land and a second until recently seemed very likely to follow suit, and all this somewhat ironically on the basis of equality legislation. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was pushing a bill whereby people could legally change their gender at will from the age of 16, when a convicted male rapist declared himself a woman and applied to be moved to an all-female prison. This struck many as a somewhat opportunistic and spurious claim, but if one follows the logic of the proposed system, and gender is entirely a matter of self-identification, then by definition no such claim can be spurious, and to suggest that it might be is an act of bigotry verging on a punishable hate crime. Sturgeon fell into the predictable trap of failing, when demanded, to offer any definition of what a woman is. Reduced to uncharacteristic aporia, her indecision cost her the premiership, and may well cost Scotland the hope of national independence. It also, in case we forget (collateral damage?), risked the safety of women prisoners.
Forbes was immediately mooted as a potential successor. Like Nicodemus, she is a highly educated political leader, in her case a Cambridge graduate (an undergraduate at my college while I was reading for my PhD there, it turns out) and well-regarded Member of the Scottish Parliament. She is also, however, a Christian, and of that brand which unfashionably maintains that there are two sexes, and that marriage should be between them. Nor are her views on abortion what are now considered politically mainstream. Cue immediate calls for her resignation. Whether one thinks she is right or not, it is surely troubling that failure to subscribe publicly to recent and not entirely uncontroversial social developments should now effectively bar one from senior political office. Liberal Christians should be as wary of this slippery slope towards ideological uniformity as conservative ones. Tim Farron faced the same issue as leader of the Liberal Democrats six years ago, and chose to resign. Forbes has not, and having weathered the storm so far, still just about tops the polls for the leadership of the party and, by extension, the country. Her rival is a Muslim, whose beliefs are for some reason not interrogated with such vigour by the liberal press, but who in any case has publicly disavowed Islamic teaching on these matters of controversy. Perhaps Forbes’ survival in the leadership race is a weathervane for a change in status of social conservatism in British politics. Perhaps: but even so, her decision of conscience has been costly to her, and may be more costly yet.
Nicodemus was in a comparable position. He was a leader of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, and features in the Bible in St John’s Gospel, appearing first in Chapter 3. He approaches Jesus under cover of night, in secrecy. Now, John is the great theologian of light – just look at the first chapter of his gospel – so one might expect this visit at night to have a deeper meaning than just a minor historical detail. His overall narrative is one of transition from darkness to light, and the close of this first episode with Nicodemus strongly suggests that it fits:
“light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light… But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest” (Jn 3:19-20).
The degree to which Nicodemus’ life ended in the light is somewhat ambiguous, at least in Scripture, though his “deeds” recorded therein are suggestive. He reappears at Jesus’s trial and later, in John 19:38, brings myrrh to anoint His dead body. To complete Nicodemus’ narrative arc, one has to turn to extra-biblical tradition, though it is reasonable to assume that by the time John’s gospel was written, his story was well enough known that it did not need to be repeated there. According to that tradition, Nicodemus was indeed later baptised by St Peter and St John, and so emerged fully into the light of Christ.
If so, it cannot have been easy. As a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was both a teacher of the Jewish Law and a political leader. There was none of the modern religious-political distinction. I suppose one might compare him to a modern Islamic jurist or a 16th century English magistrate in that regard. So, one of the less symbolic and more pragmatic reasons why he might have visited Jesus at night was to escape the notice of his peers. He had a lot to lose by association with that rabbi’s motley band: his status, his career, his leadership role, and possibly even his life. He most likely had a wife and children to consider.
Perhaps this is why, in John 3, the first time he meets Christ, he plays the fool. He starts off by praising Jesus – “We know that you art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” – but then takes Jesus’ answers to his questions in an almost obtusely literal manner. “Amen, amen,” says the Lord (a Johannine formulation which means that Jesus is about to say something important, translated in the KJV as Verily, verily), “I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” As many a schoolboy swiftly learns, a bit of deliberate idiocy or deflective humour can get one out of awkward questions from the master, especially if those questions demand the embarrassment of betraying a personal commitment or emotional response. Hence the smart-arse reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb?” And like said schoolboy, after trying the teacher’s patience with another question, Nicodemus earns his deserved rebuke. “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
Of what things, then, does Jesus speak to Nicodemus? We need to turn back to those double “Amens” again and see to what exactly they were pointing. Even if we were being inattentive on the first hearing, we may have picked up that Jesus said something about being “born again” and the “Kingdom of God,” and followed up with another “Amen, amen” phrase about being born of water and the Spirit. We would quite reasonably deduce that Our Lord is making a connection between baptism and heaven. And that is so. But we are missing a key word. Look again: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The predominant metaphors in this passage are light and seeing.
There are two things to note here. First, the motif of seeing should take us back to the Sermon on the Mount and the sixth Beatitude, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in A Tale of Three Mountains:
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
The Beatific Vision of God is the goal of the Christian life. To see God is heaven. This is fulfilled only after we have died. Not but what, it begins here and now. Hence my second point: the “Kingdom” of God is not a place. When we hear the word, we may think of the United Kingdom, or some other, and naturally ascribe to it some kind of geopolitical import. The Greek word used in the New Testament for Kingdom does not necessarily carry that import. It is basileia, an abstract noun perhaps better translated as “kingship,” “reign,” or more clumsily, the “state of being ruled” (in this case, by God). When Jesus says that the Kingdom is already within or among you, He is saying that insofar as you are already subjects of the heavenly monarch, His Kingdom has already, albeit embryonically, penetrated into this world. Purity of heart, which after all is what we aim for in our Lenten discipline, allows us to see not just beyond this world, but in and through it, the radiance of God’s rule already illuminating and ordering creation. Baptism cleanses the eyes of the heart that we may see the reign of divine love in this world and so take part in it. That is, the sacrament of Baptism opens us to seeing the sacramental significance of the entire cosmos. The Spirit which baptism imparts enables us to recognise that all things and all people have a divinely ordained purpose – there is nothing in existence which is devoid of grace – to discern what that purpose is, and to nurture it to fruition.
We can assume that Jesus and Nicodemus’ full conversation went on rather longer into the night than the brief exchange that has reached us via St John. There are doubtless lacunae. Even so, it can be hard for us to understand quite why Jesus concludes his speech as he does. He talks about a snake on a stick, which hardly seems a rhetorical killer blow:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-5)
This often perplexes people in the pews and the pulpit alike. Nicodemus would have understood the reference to what we now call Numbers 21:8-9. The modern preacher can explain how when the Israelites were suffering from a plague of poisonous snakes, God told Moses to make a “fiery serpent” of brass and put it on a pole, “that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” But this raises awkward question, such as: weren’t the Israelites warned specifically against graven images and magic? And why on earth is Jesus comparing Himself, crucified, to what sounds like a piece of Chinese street food? Snakes, after all, are not the best reputed of beasts in Scripture.
Well, those of an historical-critical bent, who like to dissect Scripture like a cadaver — a method which, I think not coincidentally, developed in tandem with the new Victorian science of anatomy: picture Dr Gull pointing out the lesions on an excised spleen to an auditorium of top-hatted gentlemen – can draw allusions to similar near-eastern pagan religious practices, and explain away the story as post-factum justification for a practice of dubious provenance. And all that is interesting, as trivia goes.
But for those of us committed to understanding Scripture as a living text inspired by the Spirit of God, there must be a spiritual truth hidden there as well. And surely the connection to be made here is, again, that of seeing: the poisoned Israelite was cured not by touching the brass serpent, but by “beholding” it.
Can we see the Kingdom of God in a snake on a stick? Surely. For we might recall that a “fiery serpent” is most likely what a seraph is, those lightning snakes of the sky I wrote about in my last post, The Serpent of the Sky and the Sons of Dust. They are precisely vehicles of God’s glory, which is to say, His transfiguring light. Hence, in Christian tradition, the snake in the Garden of Eden is the Devil, a fallen Seraph, God’s light perverted to dark ends. We may also recall the homeopathic quality of snakes, the poison of which has been used by ancient and even not so ancient peoples as medicine. Just before Kichijiro, a type of Judas in Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence, betrays a Christian priest to the Japanese authorities, he spears a snake with a stick and puts it in his satchel, explaining that the peasants “eat them for medicine.” I understand that they feature, despite my earlier quip about cuisine, in Chinese medicine to this day. Our Lord Himself also speaks of the snake as a sign of wisdom (Mt 10:16).
With our spiritual eyes opened to a wider, more sacramental vision, we may see God’s healing, restorative glory shining through a snake lifted up on a stick. And so, all the more, may we see that glory shine through a man lifted up on a cross. We might meditate on a crucifix, or walk the Way of the Cross, and draw the parallels: if gazing on the serpent could heal the ancient Israelites from poison of the body, how much more can gazing on Christ crucified heal the soul of sin and death. And if the flesh of the serpent has some medicinal value, how much more the flesh of the God-man given in Holy Communion, that medicine of eternal life. For as the Evangelist concludes the first meeting with Nicodemus:
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Coming back to the SNP debacle, the right and left of both secular and, I think increasingly, Church politics are rather too quick to see the Devil in their opponents. Like St Patrick (may his feast day come quickly; I have a thirst), everyone wants to drive out the snakes. Yet even the snake has sacramental significance. Can we who are nourished by the greatest Sacrament not learn to see God even in those we think our enemies, and to love them as the Lord has commanded? If not, then we see no better than the blind old world, and might as well just throw our lot in with the dark.
But that is not what Nicodemus did.