john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    John 3 - Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?

    Sandra Trapnell's Ordination as a deacon, Good Shepherd 1/7/2008


    Isaiah 43.1-4, Acts 10.9-16, John 3.1-20


    And Jesus said to Nicodemus, 'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Oh dear. Sandra, this is the sort of scenario you've got yourself into, and it's a scenario which you, me, and most other ministers here tonight, teachers, Shared Ministry Team members, even dare I suggest the bishop, will find ourselves in many times in our ministries. The scenario where someone with a little more insight than we have, finds us wanting, and lets us know.

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    How do we respond when someone asks us something like that...

    Do we try to cover for our lack of insight by making something up which we hope will impress them or put them off our trail?

    Do we get annoyed and remind them about the weaknesses we know they've got?

    Or do we do what Nicodemus did: keep a respectful silence and listen to the insightful words which follow.

    I think Jesus liked Nicodemus. I think he welcomed him into his little gathering late that evening. I think that when Jesus asked Nicodemus, 'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?' he was just being playful. Because Nicodemus had started the whole conversation, a rich conversation which gave Jesus the chance to give that beautiful one line explanation of the gospel which I know means a lot to Sandra:

    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.

    Nicodemus, a religious leader: I'd say a good model for any minister, be they ordained, unordained, preordained or plain ordinary everyday faithful people.

    A good model because this is what Nicodemus did: he came to Jesus with questions, and though that made him open and vulnerable to criticism, made him look a little stupid perhaps, a little lacking, out of his depth, Jesus swept all that away and gave Nicodemus so much more than he'd ever imagined he would see or hear on that occasion. Deep insights into eternal life.

    Sandra, your initial course of study for ministry has finished now, and that's a relief. But I know you know that the learning carries on. If they have any wisdom about them at all then any minister will embrace this truth: that we keep on learning all the way through.

    What will change, will be the questions - and where the questions are coming from.

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Imagine that coming from a bereaved parent desperate to come to terms with the loss of her two-day-old baby.

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Imagine that coming from a six-year-old schoolboy who is keen to know: if God created the world then who created God? - or some other metaphysical conundrum.

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Imagine that coming from a parishioner reeling from an unforeseen redundancy or a setback from their twelve-step programme which they thought had been going so well until last night's terrible binge....

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Imagine this question, not as something to dread or run and hide from, but as something to welcome and embrace, because of the insight it will bring when you work at it together, the three of you: that's you, the person asking the question, and Jesus - who is the other 'other' in every conversation.

    It's wonderful to be part of this special occasion which has been a long time coming for Sandra and which affirms her and the Shared Ministry Team and the rest of the good people of the Good Shepherd who've been working towards this together for years.

    I think it's a very significant service, and so I'm not belittling it in any way by telling you the next thing, I'm just putting it into context.

    Tonight's service is the second largest act of worship we've had in the Good Shepherd this week.

    Yesterday well over three hundred people crammed into this space - squeezed in standing all the way to the back - to hear me and a couple of crumbling family members as we stumbled to help them all say goodbye to a man called Robbie Parkinson, oil-rigger, Army man, long-time scaffolder and County-level footballer who knocked in many goals for our local pub team and made a deep impression on his well-loved family before the cancer took him at a desperately early age.

    Well over three hundred people crammed into this space to say goodbye to Robbie - because this is their space, as much as it is 'our' space - well over three hundred: multiply that and imagine just how many questions that represents in the hearts and minds of the people of our community today. We're hardly adequate to begin to address even a fraction of them. But what a privilege to be in a position to try.

    The good thing for a church with an Ordained Local Minister is that here is someone who might see a little more clearly what the questions are that local people are carrying in their heads and hearts.

    The good thing for a church with an Ordained Local Minister is that here is someone who has more than likely been through the same sort of life situations which also affect others in this place. And when there are no answers, then empathy and compassion enrich the open silence.

    Sandra - you, me, the Shared Ministry Team and the rest of the faithful people here will face many questions in our ministries in the time ahead. We are called to embrace these questions, however difficult, to share them with each other, to nourish each other with our insights and to tease out what the gospel really means in this community of ours today, so that we can share that, in those three-way conversations which we have with the people we are called to serve.

    'Are you a teacher... and yet you do not understand these things?'

    Well, Nicodemus trusted the future direction of his ministry to Jesus. And tonight we are trusting our shared ministry here, in a new and enriched way, to Jesus - who can give us so much more than we'd imagined we would ever see or hear in this place; who will help us to understand the words of eternal life which he has for the people of our community.