In our lives we journey through stages. There are the obvious stages of physical development. We physically grow and develop throughout our life reaching our peak in our mid twenties. Its not as if everything is downhill after 25, but physiologically you are no longer growing and developing. However, one doesn’t reach maturity at 25 years of age and even though we peak at 25 we don’t quit growing as humans at 25. I mean how many of us would love to go and have a chat with our 25 year old selves and tell ourselves to not worry so much and just enjoy life.
Just as we grow and develop physically we also grow and develop mentally and spiritually. There is a great book called, “Stages of Faith” by James Fowler. In seminary it was mandatory reading for pastoral care. In Fowler’s book he takes the reader through 6 different faith stages. The evolution moves from early/primitive understanding of God to a fully enlightened and universal understanding of God’s work in the world through Jesus Christ. In between these stages are a progression from learning the need for God’s laws in the world and in your life, to living for God, to doing for others for God, and ultimately living so intimately in God’s will that you become one with God’s plan. Ironically, faith development has nothing to do with age and it is all about how God encounters with humans and how humans react.
Why am I talking about stages of faith? Because in our lessons today we see all the different stages of faith development play out in front of us. From Numbers, through John, through Ephesians what we are witnessing is where different people are in their faith development. At first it appears as if the people of the Exodus found in numbers are on the lower level of faith development, and Nicodemus and Paul are at a high stage, with Jesus as the pinnacle of faith development.
The people in our first reading are struggling in their relationship with God. They have been journeying in the wilderness free from slavery for years. Throughout their sojourn in the wilderness they have been everything, but obedient. One would think that being delivered from slavery, ushered through a sea on dry ground, observing the destruction of Egypt’s army in that same sea, being supplied water, bread, and food for years would be enough to create trust in God. You would think that God’s actions and saving power would be evidence enough to create unwavering faith, but it isn’t. Literally, from the moment Moses arrived in Egypt the Israelites have been complaining. Even before the Passover when Moses begins to demand to let God’s people go the Israelites are like, “Yo, Moses. Could you stop sticking up for us because you’re just making life worse.” It isn’t until half way through the plaques that the Israelites begin to trust that Moses is really God’s messenger. Then after Moses leads them out of Egypt and Pharaoh’s army sets out after them the people begin to whine, “You led us out of Egypt to destroy us!” After they cross the Red Sea it isn’t, “Gee. God is really looking out for us.” Nope, it’s “You brought us out of Egypt to starve us. In Egypt we ate are fill.” This is the running theme throughout the Exodus. The people whine, God acts and the people are still not happy.
In this early stage of faith development the people need a strong image of God. God has to appear in clouds of fire and thunder. God has to speak and the people tremble. The law has to come down harsh and fear has to be the primary mode of God’s expression. Why? Because its what the people will respond to and anything short of what they expect quite frankly goes right over their head. How do we know this? Because last week we heard God give the Ten Commandments to all of the Israelites, and they told Moses to go up the mountain and speak to God because they were too afraid of God. While Moses is up there receiving instructions on how the people are to worship Him what are the people doing? The people are demanding Aaron, Moses brother, to make an idol that they can worship. What?! They heard the First Commandment! They know God’s number one law is to not have false gods so the first thing they do is make a false god! These are people who need a strong concrete image of God. They need a God to fear and who lays down the law. It isn’t God who set the standard, God’s people did created the parameters of their relationship with God. The angry, wrathful, God we see in the Old Testament is actually a God working with people where they were at because anything else wouldn’t have worked.
Personally, I have struggled with reconciling the God found in Numbers with the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I have struggled with understanding how Jesus can use such a horrible example of God’s wrath and yolk it to his own ministry. Maybe it isn’t that God acted wrathful in Numbers and Jesus makes God user friendly in the gospels. Maybe it is that God acted merciful in both cases because God interacted with humanity in the only way humanity was able to interact with God.
Think about this for a second. How else can we hold together the image of God found incarnate in Jesus with the God who sends snakes to bite and kill his people in Numbers? How can the God in Numbers be the same God found in the gospels? It isn’t as if God evolved because God is the same yesterday, today and always. What has changed is people. People begin to mature in their relationship with God and their ability to understand the complexity of God evolves. In Numbers the Israelites only stop whining and complaining when God lays down the law with wrath. The people are incapable of any other kind of relationship with God. Even after they move into the promise land living according to the covenant takes centuries and ultimately banishment. Each stage of faith for the people comes with hardship and failure.
By the time we come to Jesus the people of Israel of been banished from their land, lived in exile for seventy years, returned to a destroyed land, have lived under foreign occupation for four hundred years and have slowly come to accept that the only way to be in relationship with God is through obedience to the Law. After centuries of discipline God’s people are finally open to the reality of the complexity of God and the openness of God’s love and will. We know that people have finally reached this point of maturity because it is at this point that God sends Jesus into the world. However, people are not ready to take the next step. Those in power are living in fear of a wrathful God and truly believe that the only way to keep God’s wrath at bay is by strict adherence to the Law. Jesus tries desperately to reveal the true nature of God to God’s people, but they just can’t go there yet.
In today’s Gospel lesson Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night after Jesus cleanses the Temple. Nicodemus is a law and order Pharisee and is afraid that Jesus is going to bring about the wrath of God through his actions. Jesus tries to explain that God’s wrath was never truly the final word and that in Jesus’ ministry, life, death, and resurrection Jesus is revealing God’s true nature. Jesus, who possesses the ultimate understanding of God, God’s nature, and God’s will, tries to convey God’s true intentions for all of humanity. Nicodemus operates on a whole different plain and their world views just don’t mesh.
Jesus explains to Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. Nicodemus believes God so loved the world that he gave the Law to save the world from wrath. Jesus believes he will embody the wrath of sin and the means of salvation. When Jesus alludes to the image of the serpent being lifted up he is saying, “God didn’t want to act through wrath and I am the way God always wanted to act for people.” Jesus is leading all of us into a deeper understanding of God and God’s will in the world. Jesus reveals that God will now interact with people through Jesus so that sin and hardheadedness can be destroyed. God was always a God of grace and mercy, but people were not always a people who could cope with such a God. The truly good news is that God believes we are a people capable of accepting God’s radical grace and love and through repentance we can all achieve wonderful things through Christ his Son.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a perfect example that people can achieve the ultimate stage of faith, which is a radical understanding of God’s love and grace for the world through Jesus. Paul, who was Nicodemus, only worse, was able to repent and change. Paul, who truly believed that God only acted through the Law and anything else was evil, became the ultimate disciple of Jesus. In Ephesians he lays out what a life of faith looks like and how it is achieved through God’s gracious gift. Ultimately, Paul explains that salvation in Christ was always God’s intention and that because we are saved we are free to strive for the betterment of others. True freedom in the gospels means freedom from the fear of God and wrath and freedom to serve others.
The struggle within the church and in Christianity is that her members are all over the faith stage spectrum. Some are still locked into the need to fear God, some are struggling with the ambiguity of God and the contradictions found in the bible, others are beginning to embrace that God is bigger than our understanding of him and are open to new horizons, while others have seen the wideness of God’s mercy and are empowered to work for the fulfillment of God’s will. Sometimes the diversity of faith stages leads to conflict and stagnation because we want to be considerate to all. Ultimately, no matter where we are in our faith development Paul’s words at the end of Ephesians should be our guide, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” This is true if we are on the first step of our faith development or have reach the ultimate step of enlightenment. All of faith in Christ is for the doing of good works for the sake of others because in Christ we are saved.