There is a game a preacher can play with the readings set for any Sunday – that is to see how they can be related to each other. Sometimes it is an easy task. Other times it requires more ingenuity. Today’s readings seem to revolve around Paul’s insistence in Romans that we are justified by faith not by works. What that seems to mean is that we are accepted by God simply because God chooses to accept us, and love us and care for us. It is not because we are specially good.
We certainly see that in the Genesis reading when God calls Abraham to leave his country and his father’s house and be a blessing to the whole world. Nowhere does it say that Abraham was particularly good or righteous. The one good thing about him was that he did what he was told. The Call of Abraham, or of any of us, always raises the question, “Why did God call this person? why did God call me?” Perhaps God does call everyone to some particular way of life but most people do not listen or obey. Most of us, I suppose, would be reluctant to claim that we are particularly good, kind, or compassionate. But at least we have tried to follow the call of God. So too with Abraham. God just chose him for reasons known only to God and the fact that Abraham obeyed made possible the whole marvellous salvation story we know.
Linking the Nicodemus story to this is more challenging. Is it the fact that Nicodemus, though a clever, righteous and devout Pharisee couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to, whereas much less clever people like his disciples, did? Is it the well known text that God so loved the world he sent his Son so that anyone who believes in him should have eternal life? That’s much closer to justification by faith. But how does that work itself out? Well, I would like to tell you a story, a true story which I heard from a friend of mine who is a monk in Zimbabwe.
Recently, Fr Robert was waiting for a flight in Dubai airport when a man came up to him and said, “May I talk to you?” “Yes, of course,” said Robert. The man said “I am a businessman. I am a very successful businessman. I have three houses in different countries, but it has come at a cost. My wife became an alcoholic and a drug addict and I had to put her in an institution. My children won’t speak to me.
“A few months ago I was driving to work when I got a terrific pain in my chest. I managed to stop the car and got out to get some air. I remember nothing after that. Apparently I collapsed and was rushed to hospital. I was told afterwards that as they lifted me from the stretcher to a bed my heart stopped. I was technically dead. Immediately they started CPR.
Meanwhile I found myself in a room. There was a young man there. I said to him ‘Where am I?’ He said, ‘You’re in the waiting room.’ I said, ‘So what happens now?’ He pointed out two doors and said, ’Well, you must choose which door to go through.’ I saw one door was labelled ‘Heaven’ and the other door ‘Hell’. I said, ‘Well I’m not going through that ’Heaven’ door. I don’t believe in God. He’s never done anything for me.’ So I went to the ‘Hell’ door. I was about to open it when a voice behind me said, ‘Are you sure you want to go through that door?’ I turned and saw a young woman behind me. I said, ‘Yes I do. I won’t have anything to do with God. And anyway, why are you interfering? What’s it got to do with you?’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘You probably don’t remember but when you were a little boy you went to see your grandmother and she got you to pray with her, “Hail Mary full of grace….pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” I’m here to do what you asked of me.’ That shook me. After a while I said, ‘Can I still go through the ‘Heaven’ door?’ She said. ‘The choice is yours.’ So I went across to the other door and was just pressing down the handle when I woke up. In fact, they told me I shot up into a sitting position. Later when I was on a ward a nurse came to me who was wearing a crucifix. I asked if she was a Christian and she was, so I told her my story. Then I said, ‘So what do I do now?’ She said, ‘If you can’t work that out you really must be brain dead.’ So when I got out of hospital I went and got my wife out of the institution and brought her home and set up nursing care for her. Then I went to see my children and told them, ’I’m not asking you to call me Father. I just want you to know that I’ve realised how I failed you, and I’m sorry.’”
As you know, Jesus didn’t always feel he had to explain his parables. The best stories niggle away, explaining themselves. But perhaps a few comments on this story would not be out of place.
We may note that the businessman had nothing good going for him when he died. He was determined to take the road to destruction and was prevented from doing so because once in the far distant past he had asked Mary to pray for him at the hour of his death, and that was enough. One could hardly have a more last minute repentance but it was enough for God.
More than that it seems to have been an occasion when he was born again, or maybe in the context of this story, born from above as the word ‘anothen’ can also be translated. After all, it seems to have been at the moment that he chose heaven that he was given back life, born again.
For me one of the amazing things about this story is to be reminded of just how much must be going on in places that we can’t see. We seem to live in such a humdrum world, sometimes a depressing world, a world where it often appears that evil is taking over. And then we realise that this is not so. God, the angels and saints, and Mary are at work. It is not we who will save the world even with all our action plans. It is God.
God grant that I have spoken to you in his most Holy Name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.