I have regularly argued that theology is not an academic exercise that belongs to theological colleges and universities. Being a disciple of Jesus is being a theologian. If you are doing theology without a relationship with Jesus, then it remains an academic exercise and, I am led to believe, this does take place in some universities by both students and academics. However, theology, in relationship with Jesus, is discipleship.
The model of Jesus revealed in the gospels is as both a disciple, that is, one learning about the mind and character of God, and as one who disciples others, that is, one who helps others to grow in their knowledge of God’s mind and character. I think we see that happening at the same time; Jesus is both a disciple and a disciple.
Following Jesus’ baptism the voice from heaven was heard, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’ It was this moment of God revealing something of himself to Jesus that led him into the wilderness to explore how he understands the mind and character of God and, therefore, what does that mean about who he is as well. From this, he was exploring what it is he is meant to do – how does he express in action this knowledge of God and self. This is the work of being a disciple.
This picture apparently comes from the Dawkins camp; Dawkins being the most vocal of the atheists in our day. According to religion, it says, ‘I am broken flawed, sinful, dumb, weak, nothing.’ According to science, it says, ‘I am full of wonder, smart, a great learner, beautiful, potential for greatness.’ It then asks, ‘Which do you think is damaging?’
I want to make the point that there is a difference between religion and faith. It may be true that religion tells us things as a means to have power over us. But my faith in the God of Jesus Christ tells me that ‘I am full of wonder, smart, a great learner, beautiful, potential for greatness.’ I want to also suggest that there is no empirical scientific basis to determine what defines beauty, so that is a nonsense argument for science to make.
The point I want to make of Dawkins and those with a history in the life of the church that have been inspired by his atheism, is this image highlights the danger of not doing theology. I would hate to be the Vicar of the congregation Dawkins grew up in when he stood before Jesus after his death being judged for not teaching his flock that they were to be disciples and continue to grow in their knowledge and love of God. Most of the arguments I hear from atheists about Christian faith, which they call religion, is a reaction to what was learnt at Sunday School. Rightly so, even I react to what I learnt at Sunday School. As St Paul writes,
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13.11-12
We are in danger if we do not moved on and neglect our being disciples.
In the story of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus we get an account of Jesus’ work of discipling. Nicodemus comes to Jesus saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has had a moment where God has revealed himself to him through Jesus’ miracles. This is significant, because it has challenged Nicodemus of understanding, as a Pharisee. His fellow Pharisees think of Jesus as an agent of Beelzebub because of the signs he does, but Nicodemus acknowledges that the miracles he is doing must be because he comes from God. The question that is really on Nicodemus mind is the real identity of Jesus.
The important point we must make here is that discipleship begins with wherever a person is in their understanding of the mind and character of God and it is something that happens that begins to stir up, even challenge, that understanding.
In addition to this, John tells us, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by ‘night’. This could mean that he has come in the cover of darkness to avoid being seen to be meeting with Jesus. John could be using it to describe that he is not yet in the light, that is, in relationship with Jesus. But it could also refer to the idea that this was a common time for Jews to study the scriptures. Certainly for Jesus night was not to be feared, but was the time when he sought God in prayer. It is perhaps a statement of all these things, but most importantly it highlights the ignorance that Nicodemus is presently in and his desire to want to know and understand. I like to think that expresses something of the Mystery about which he is still in the dark.
Jesus does not leave Nicodemus in his present confusion. He pushes Nicodemus to think a little harder. You will recall that Mark began his account of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism with Jesus’ statement, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe.” (Mark 1:15) John has Jesus identifying the same purpose. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Discipleship is not just about knowing who Jesus is; his mind and character, it is also about our response to this knowledge of what the world should be like if we are in a relationship with Jesus, it is concerned with unveiling the mystery of God that is gradually being revealed to us. After all, God is a God who wants to be known; not that we will ever know all there is about him to know. That Nicodemus doesn’t get being born again highlights his state of ignorance about the nature of faith as Jesus sees it. This kind of faith is not about rules and laws, it is entering into a new experience of God that brings about new understanding of his own identity and is, therefore, life changing.
I find it a little curious that Jesus highlights an important aspect in this discipleship story. This new experience of God and self in God is the work of the Holy Spirit. I suspect this reminds us that it is not our work to change ourselves, but God reveals himself when we are ready and it is needed. It does require us to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit to do this, but Nicodemus does not even question this Holy Spirit thing. Jesus is amazed. Nicodemus who teaches the scriptures to others has not understood the work of the Spirit through the Old Testament writings.
The story of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus concludes with that verse with which we are all very familiar, “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) This is a summary of the entire gospel: placing trust in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and, in doing so, is not condemnation but relationship with God.
It may be true that we begin our journey with God in a relationship of fear, believing that we are ‘broken flawed, sinful, dumb, weak, nothing.’ However, if we are those who enter into discipleship, exploring the mind and nature of God, doing theology, we will come to believe that, in God, we are ‘full of wonder, smart, a great learner, beautiful, potential for greatness.’ It is the lack of willingness to enter into discipleship which is damaging.