John 9:1-41 Pain, Hope and Vision
In their book ‘Holy Conversations - Strategic planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations’, Gil Rendle and Alice Mann say that there are three sources of energy for mission planning: Pain, Hope and Vision. Without feeling pain in the church, we may never make any moves to change. Pain makes us notice that something is not right. When our bodies are in pain, we notice it and we look for a cure and we keep looking until we have some hope.
Are we feeling the pain of being the church this morning? Are we feeling the pain of declining numbers and stretched finances? Are we feeling the pain of loneliness because our friends are no longer with us, some have died and some no longer attend church? Are we feeling the pain of a world that seems out of control? Are we feeling the pain of a church that seems to have lost its way? Perhaps you are feeling the pain of losing faith?
Vision in the congregation is a very important thing. Mike Riddell In his book ‘Threshold of the future’ says that the power of vision lies in its ability to imagine an alternative to the existing reality. Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book ‘Holy Conversations -Strategic planning as spiritual practice for congregation’ say that vision is the meaning the congregation makes about its present and its future.
Vision gives us hope but it also makes us aware of the pain. If we are not already aware of the pain vision makes us aware that there is a crisis, that we cannot continue on the path we are going. We need to slow down, speed up, stop or change. Have you noticed sometimes how it is only when we stop and sit down or lie down that we notice that a part of our body is in pain? Vision also makes us aware of what is causing the pain that we are experiencing in the present and most importantly vision gives us hope: hope for the future and hope in the present despite the pain.
Let’s look at today’s reading noticing elements of pain, hope and vision. When Jesus healed the man who was blind the religious leaders could not or would not accept that Jesus had done this. They would not believe his word, and his parents like so many people at the time, were afraid to say anything that would show an interest in Jesus for fear of being put out of the Synagogue. The word 'Jews' here means the group within Judaism that was most opposed to Jesus and who were trying to kill him. A few weeks ago, we heard about Nicodemus one of the leaders of this group who was open to hearing what Jesus had to say but for fear of his own group remained in the shadows of darkness. What pain he must have lived in. Living in fear is living in constant emotional pain, it eventually effects our bodies. Imagine what fear does in the body of Christ, the church. Imagine the difference vision and hope make?
The story of the blind man has multiple layers of meaning and transformation because of the liberating work of Jesus. Though born blind the man can now physically see for the first time. An incredible story. But the story also reveals the spiritual vision the man now has, and it greatly contrasts with the lack of vision the religious leaders had. The fact that the Jews refused to believe this story or anything good about the person Jesus who had done this reveals a deep darkness that the religious leaders found themselves in. The story reveals that not all who are religious have vision. In fact, these people refused to see. They were in darkness and were refusing to come into the light, refusing to accept Jesus the light of the world, refusing his vision for the world, the vison of the Kingdom of God.
Mike Riddell quotes the amazing church community leader in Brisbane, Dave Andrews ,who said something that shocked me and challenged me. Dave Andrews says that within the institutional church there may be those who are moving away from Jesus whereas outside the institution of the church people my be moving towards Jesus. How can this be possible? Could we have lost our way? Could we have lost our vision? Surely, we could not be like this group opposing Jesus. "Surely we are not blind, are we?"
Mike Riddell talks about the congregation as an Open Community. When I read that I thought about how often my experience of church has been of a closed community rather than open to those out in the wider community, open to its neighbours. When I was at Parramatta Mission we started Open Church. We kept the church doors open seven days a week. The growth came from people who popped into the church during the week. We surveyed them and often the reasons they gave were: they were on their way to see a doctor, to find a job or going to court. They needed help, prayer and some kindness. They were welcomed, invited to our Wednesday evening dinner and often found their way back on Sundays or remained part of the life of the congregation without coming on Sundays.
Sometimes people in churches hold a tight grip on who can and who cannot use the church buildings, without realising that they may hold the keys of the kingdom. They literally keep people out of the church. They have the power to open up or close down.
A key word is Open – Are we a closed church or an open community? How might we remain a closed church? What keeps us as closed communities? How do we become an open community? What might we need to do to change, to embrace our communities, to relate to those in our communities?
Last week I was leading our congregation in the second of our mission planning sessions which I am calling a series of Holy Conversations. I asked if any of them or their children had hermit crabs as pets when they were younger. I explained that when a hermit crab outgrows its shell it finds a bigger empty shell and then moves into it. I then asked them to imagine if they were hermit crabs and what would happen as they got older and the shell became too heavy for them to carry. What could we do? Downsize? One person said, "Invite another crab in to share the load." I then likened the congregations of this area to the hermit crab. 50, 60 70 years ago congregations built bigger churches to accommodate their growing congregations and activities, now many of these buildings have become a burden too heavy to carry, to maintain, not fit for purpose.
What can we do? Downsize? Sell them? Invite others in to share them? There is an old saying, a burden shared is a burden halved. Share them with our communities, with partners, collaborators, with people who may also share our vision of working for the kingdom of God or just for a better world, share with people who are searching, looking, people who may have rejected the institutional church but seeking meaning, life, authenticity, truth.
A closed community is one that has hard boundaries defined by ‘right’ theology or correct doctrines and beliefs and strict membership and exercises tight control but in an open community there is a sharing of humanity, of becoming truly human together, becoming human like Christ, sharing one another’s pain and suffering, finding new hope together, dreaming new dreams of a better world. Mike Riddell says, ‘An open community is where everyone is welcomed, whatever their background, their language, their sexual orientation, whatever their theology. Whatever reasons people show up for their dignity is accepted.’
At Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park we share our three church properties with a number of other congregations: A Korean Uniting Church Congregation, An Indonesian Pentecostal Congregation, A Chinese Pentecostal Congregation, An Indonesian Presbyterian Congregation and two non-Uniting Church Tongan congregations. We have made a property sharing agreement with Galilee Korean congregation. They use the Campsie church mostly for worship and spiritual growth activities and we use it for mission - running a drop in once a week with a cooked lunch and as the base for distributing food from four Coles Stores seven days a week through the Second bite food rescue program. At Earlwood, we are hoping to develop an agreement with the Indonesian Pentecostal congregation around maintenance and mission and likewise with one of the Tongan congregations at Clemton Park. The Pentecostal Chinese congregation hire our Campsie hall for worship twice per week but also work in partnership helping us with the drop in and distributing food and the United Church of Tonga assist with the distribution of food and volunteering at the drop in. Some are members of both congregations.
As our congregation engages in mission planning, we are realising how our planning must include the other congregations and community groups who use our halls because we all realise that together we are seeking God’s kingdom or have a vision of creating a better world and we can do that best by assisting each other. For example, our congregation has lots of property resources, but other congregations have people who have skills and time to do things we are unable to do with both property maintenance, repairs and mission. Together we are not only seeking the kingdom but sense we are tasting the kingdom. We work well because we are all independent yet interdependent. We enjoy collaborating and partnering in mission and projects but also doing our own thing in worship. It has its challenges but It’s very exciting and energising, I feel that a shared vision is developing. What we could not see before is coming into view. Despite the pain we have hope.
Cailin Ciuin (The Quiet Girl) is a 2022 Film in Gaelic about a girl who stays the Summer at the home of her mother’s cousin and when she returns home wants to live with the mother’s cousin and her husband. We can’t choose the family we are born into but if we want to we all can choose to be part of the family of Christ. Nicodemus eventually made that life changing choice.
Nicodemus is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus had a very important position of leadership in the Jewish religion. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. The word Jews here means the group within Judaism that was most opposed to Jesus and who were trying to kill him. So he was a leader within this group.
In John 3 Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.
In John 7 after the religious leaders had tried to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up among the group who were plotting the downfall and death of Jesus. He asked, "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
In John 19 after Jesus was crucified Nicodemus came with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus' body for burial and they took Jesus' body, wrapped it and laid Jesus in the tomb.
Three times it mentions that Nicodemus was the one who came to Jesus at night. John 19 tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple as he was afraid of the Jews. This is probably why Nicodemus came at night too, under the cover of darkness, in secret to meet with Jesus, whom his group regarded as the enemy.
Throughout the gospel we see a movement by Nicodemus from the safety and secrecy of the cover of darkness, to raising a question amongst his peers, a question that caused his pears to question his knowledge of their tradition, to finally coming out into the light, fully exposing himself as a follower of Jesus at his crucifixion, touching and carrying the body of a condemned criminal.
In these three snapshots we see the gradual conversion of Nicodemus. He hears the gospel, he is challenged by the words of Jesus that ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus considers it. He counts the cost and he demonstrates his faith by physically taking up the body of Jesus and placing it to rest in a tomb.
Often evangelists expect their hearers to immediately respond to the words of John 3 which say one must be born again and For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. We push for a decision, for us to choose now. But a deep and lasting conversion, a life of truly following Jesus requires one to deeply consider Jesus' call to discipleship, to be opened to the kingdom of God, to count the cost and to follow not just with the mind or out of fear or for selfish gain but with one's whole being, heart, mind, soul and strength.
Nicodemus truly came out from the shadows into the clearness of day when he stepped out from the crowd to bury Jesus. His faith was fully formed in him and action flowed together with faith as one.
All his peers would have seen him or heard what he did. I imagine he lost his place as a leader, perhaps he was no longer welcome among them or in their Synagogues or at the Temple. We don't know what happened to him. We just have these three snapshots.
Our faith is never some private thing that we believe in our heads, hidden from others. Real faith is always lived out in our lives among other. Real faith is not just lived in church or theological college or the Presbytery but in every part of our lives in every time and place, night and day, all year round.
Jesus challenges Nicodemus in John 3: 21 to come into the light.
Like the quiet girl (Cailin ciuin), none of us can do anything about the family we have been born into but we can choose to be born again or born from above. We can choose to come into the light.
We can choose to live by the Spirit. This is entering into eternal life.
As we follow Jesus we begin to see life differently. We see People differently. We see God differently.
We begin to change and be changed. We begin to see from above or from a different place a different perspective and not only see but be different to who we were. We are now children of light, bearers of light. The darknesses of the world are revealed to us. We can no longer participate in dishonesty and injustice. We are light.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation