ON MATTERS of faith, human beings may claim to be intellectually agnostic. But each of our lives embodies a set of convictions. Whatever we say, our actions and habits reveal our deepest commitments. Do we trust in wealth, power, and success, or place our faith in the one who is “lifted up” on the Cross to reconcile us to the Father?
To trust in God involves having knowledge of him, and of his Son, Jesus Christ. That requires us to move beyond those forms of knowledge, prized in modernity, which involve detached observation. There is another kind of knowing, which is the fruit of love; for God is not another object in the world, and our knowledge of him flows from participation in his life.
As Pope Francis explains, “Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us.” The decision of faith is costly. To become “radically open” to God’s love involves a rejection of the idols of worldly wealth, power, and success.
We come to know the faithfulness of God by accepting his invitation to journey out in trust. Abraham responds to “a call to leave his own land, a summons to a new life, the beginning of an exodus which points him towards an unforeseen future”.
This does not make faith a purely arbitrary matter. When Abraham hears God’s word, he “recognises a profound call which was always present at the core of his being”. We are made for fellowship with God, and so the call of faith likewise resonates with something in the depth of our hearts.
Paul’s message to the Roman Christians is that such faith must lead on to a way of life which is visibly different — different, in particular, from the ways of life chosen by those who trust in the power of Empire, or who trust in their own goodness to save them. As Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh explain, the founder of Rome secured his home through military conquest.
In contrast, Paul is reminding his readers that “Abraham has nothing to go on except a promise. He was promised a home, and he received that promise in faith.” Against the temptation to self-justification, Paul declares that sinners are welcome in this home. “Indeed, Paul can’t imagine any other kinds of members of the household” (Romans Disarmed: Resisting empire, demanding justice).
In our Gospel reading, Nicodemus has to decide whether he is willing to risk the consequences of placing his trust in the Lord. He tells Jesus that “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.” But, in contrast with the blind man in John 9, he is not willing to risk exclusion and opprobrium by responding to his encounter with the Lord (David Rensberger, Overcoming the World: Politics and community in the Gospel of John).
Jesus’s reply indicates that Nicodemus now needs to move beyond a posture of enquiry to one of commitment. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We are not told how Nicodemus responded to these words. We encounter him again at the end of John’s Gospel, however, as he comes with burial spices for Jesus’s crucified body (19.39).
When he bears myrrh and aloes to the tomb, Nicodemus encounters the physical reality of the sacrifice that Jesus describes in John 3: his being “sent” by the Father, and “lifted up” for the salvation of the world. God does not compel Nicodemus’s obedience or faithfulness, but invites him — and each of us — to both “believe” and “believe in” his Son.
As Pope Francis explains, John uses various forms of the verb “to believe” to highlight the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus. There is much more to faith than “believing that” certain things are true: “We ‘believe’ Jesus when we accept his word, his testimony, because he is truthful. And we ‘believe in’ Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey towards him, clinging to him in love and following in his footsteps along the way.”