Worship was led by The Revd. Canon Adrian Alker who preached on the meaning 0f newness of life, focussing on Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus. Individuals and the Church need to move forward, to expand our understanding and experience. This will lead us to a new understanding of God and his love.
Rejoice and Sing 203 How good, Lord, to be here
Rejoice and Sing 726 I to the hills will lift my eyes (Psalm 121)
Rejoice and Sing 553 To Abraham and Sarah the call of God was clear
Rejoice and Sing 204 O vision blest of heavenly light
Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 – 4a
John Chapter 3 verses 1 – 17
The season of Lent can be many things for many people. To the vast majority of our fellow citizens it means very little, perhaps the marking of Shrove Tuesday with a feast of pancakes but little else. For those who attend church this season can be viewed and experienced in different ways. Today I want to suggest that Lent might offer a period of time before the great Festival of Easter to lift up our eyes to the hills, as the Psalmist says, in other words to seek for new horizons. The Genesis passage reminds us of the call to Abraham to look ahead for those new experiences, to go on a journey into the unknown, to leave behind the security of home and with his family to take the risky adventure of striking out. But it is the gospel from John, telling of the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus that emphasises the need always to experience newness of life. And it is this story in today’s gospel that I would like to explore with you.
The gospel of John, as you know, is very different in its feel and theology from the other three synoptic gospels. It is far less a story of Jesus’ earthy life but rather a form of Jewish mysticism, using symbol and sign to point to the way in which Jesus of Nazareth becomes the channel through which people experienced something of the mystery, the transforming power, joy, wisdom and compassion of God, as seen in Jesus. Through those symbolic and metaphorical accounts of changing water into wine, of the multiplication of bread and fishes, of healing the blind and the sick, of raising Lazarus from his tomb, profound insights into the meaning and experience of the Divine are offered to the reader.
Nicodemus is described by John as a Pharisee, an orthodox Jew who was clearly inquisitive about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. Nicodemus addresses Jesus as rabbi and acknowledges that in the person of Jesus ordinary people were glimpsing something of God. But Nicodemus had come by night. Darkness and light are of course powerful contrasting images and in the opening verses of Johns gospel we are reminded of the image of the coming of the Word made flesh, the Light shining in the darkness. Nicodemus hesitatingly refers to the signs which mark out the presence of God and Jesus declares that one must be born from above, which can be translated born anew, born again, in order to see and experience the realm of God. But Nicodemus just doesn’t get it – ‘can I enter again my mother’s womb?’ he laughingly asks. And Jesus says you must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the realm of God.
These kinds of phrases – born again- have been taken up by Christians and churches in different ways and I think we need to discount some interpretations. Being born anew does not call for a conversion experience which draws a line between true believers and others. It is not a test of belief but rather an invitation to enter a new consciousness, to lift up one’s eyes, to see the signs of the kingdom of God around us. Being born of water simply means born into this life and to be born of the spirit is to enter a new dimension of what it means to be fully human, connected to the mystery of creation. And yet Nicodemus, this teacher of Israel, is still in darkness, still not searching for wider and greater horizons.
Lets just try and ground all of this in our present day world and lives. In the Church of whatever denomination and tradition, there is so often an inability or unwillingness to seek and to see new horizons, to journey into more risky territory, to be born anew in understanding and in experience. The controversies in the Church of England over gay relationships and same gender weddings or the more closer at home disquiet over the refusal of some bishops to ordain women are examples of how we can fail to see the signs of the kingdom of God around us.
We are living through times of immense suffering endured by refugees from war. Yet so often those in power can shut their eyes and stop their ears and refuse to go the extra mile in helping those who are in such desperate situations. We prefer the darkness to the Light of God’s fierce justice and demanding love.
The concluding two verses of today’s gospel are well known as texts, used by many Christians to judge the worthiness of others. Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it. How are we to grasp the depth of meaning of these verses in this mystical gospel of John? Well believing in Jesus is not about assenting to a set of doctrines about Jesus. Believing in Jesus is about beloving that kind of life which Jesus demonstrated – a life infused with the Spirit of love, of compassion, of wholeness, of justice, of healing. When we enter a new awareness of the Light of God’s love in our midst, experienced through a thousand acts of kindness, inspired by the self sacrifice of others, overwhelmed by the love extended to the stranger and the alien, then we have entered that eternal life of God.
When Moses put the bronze serpent on a pole and those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents sent by God as punishment for faithlessness, looked upon that bronze serpent and lived, John is saying that Jesus too, lifted up on the Cross became a sign to the world of human beings, that in him and in his way of life, we see the way of love and healing.
These are powerful stories, symbols and images. But behind the metaphors and the symbols lie a deep truth – that each human being can be born anew, can enter a new experience, a new dimension of life, a new understanding of God, not hemmed in by the past, by tradition, by regulation, by fear. Lifting one’s eyes upwards, moving away from the shadows, seeing new possibilities of love, of justice, of bringing in that realm of God , right here into the heart of human existence – this is the great invitation, the call of Christ to each one of us as it was to Nicodemus. It is the call to those in power in the church to dare to break free of the constraints imposed by rule and regulation, by tradition and by the past and to dare to think afresh. It is a call to those in secular power to be born anew, to see those possibilities of love in action at all levels of society in order that indeed the world might be saved and made whole.
The times they are a changing, sang Bob Dylan. Indeed they are and always have been. The invitation of Jesus to Nicodemus is to try and catch the wind, as Dylan sang, be aware of the Spirit moving and transforming us with the love and justice of God.