Fourth Sunday of Lent – John 3:14-21

Fourth Sunday of Lent Gospel reflection by Bishop Philip Moger, Auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Southwark.

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What’s in a name?  Who was this Nicodemus in the gospel? What does his name mean? Elsewhere Jesus calls him a ‘Teacher in Israel’ and his name means ‘Ruler’ or ‘Conqueror’.  But Nicodemus isn’t a major figure in the gospels; he’s not mentioned much.  He’s more important for what/who he represents than in his own right.  He is, in a sense, a ruler: he’s an influential member of the Jewish establishment, and he certainly seems interested in Jesus and in what he has to say. St John uses him to stand for all those whose attraction to Jesus falls short of commitment in faith.  His attitude is sincere, but a bit detached.  Maybe he’s similar to the rich young man whom Jesus meets elsewhere, the one who knows the Law, and who’s prepared to follow Jesus up to a point, a sort of a la carte hanger-on, but not prepared to make a leap of faith. 

Now at this point, we might feel within us a growing unease.  Isn’t this, in its way, a description of us?  If we’re honest, don’t we pick and mix a bit with our faith, with what God asks of us?  I like this bit, I’ll do that, I’ll let you have this part of me, but don’t ask me for that!  If so, don’t panic.  It’s more or less a description of everyone!   

Yet, at the heart of today’s gospel, at the heart of the entire gospel is the love of God: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And as Holy Week approaches, we relive, once again, the saving events of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, which gave us life and showed in an unmistakable way how much we are loved. 

But this love isn’t a passive thing, like oil poured over us, but something active, something which calls for a response in us.  And what is this response?  Belief. But belief isn’t a notional thing, like saying ‘I believe that certain types of whale are endangered species’.  No, for John, it has less to do with knowledge, than with activity. It’s a verb, a ‘doing word’.  When we say we believe, we commit ourselves to something. We try to live, to do God’s word. 

If this seems daunting, let’s take courage from St Paul: we are God’s work of art. When God looks at us, he sees not a pile of old bricks arranged on the floor of the gallery, but a masterpiece hanging in pride of place. Let’s not lose heart- we are capable of great things! And we needn’t lose heart if we think our faith flags sometimes.  One of the greatest statements/prayers in the gospel is Lord, I believe; help me where faith falls short. Just because we’re not perfect yet (who is?) doesn’t mean we need to remain a bystander like Nicodemus. We can, with confidence, put out into the deep.

We may feel we’re not too knowledgeable about our faith: remember the words of the Parish Priest of Lourdes about St Bernadette: ‘she knows nothing, but understands everything’. There’s a language and a knowing which doesn’t depend on intellectual ability, but on love. God so loved the world but does the world love God? More than ever, the world needs us to teach it the love of God and neighbour, or rather to live it in such a way that it converts by attraction. Maybe we can resolve for the rest of Lent to try to do nothing which makes for discord and conflict, but only those things which build up the kingdom of God.

Bishop Philip Moger
Auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Southwark.