Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 16 March 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-16; John 3.1-17
On Friday mornings this Lent, a group of us are gathering in the Vicarage to study some of the poems of George Herbert. That priest-poet of the early 17th century is a master of the use of words to convey meaning but his method is often subtle and only yields up its meaning to careful reading and intent listening.
It also helps, to be steeped in the same sources which shaped and inspired him: the Christian faith, especially as expressed in the combination of Bible and Prayer Book. And there are times when words have varieties of meaning or had a different meaning in his time.
The approach which is needed in reading Herbert is also required when we come to listen to St. John’s Gospel. Anyone who studies it and preaches on it, soon discovers that its author is another master of the use of words to convey depths of meaning which go beyond the merely obvious and straightforward.
We see this, or we need to see it, in the case of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about the need to be born again. Nicodemus interprets these in a physical and literalist sense, so the whole idea seems to him quite impossible: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
But the word Jesus uses, anothen, like much of the language used in John, has more than one sense and John uses this double-meaning quite deliberately. It can mean both to be “born again” and to be “born from above.”
The words “born again” have come to be used to describe a particular type of Christian. They have been turned into a slogan, a form of speech not noted for subtlety.
Some of you may remember me telling you about an odd wee lady who would patrol the streets between my church in Edinburgh and the old Royal Infirmary: a place my pastoral duties often took me to. If she spotted you in a clerical collar, she would rush up and shout: “Are ye born again, Minister?”
I soon realised that this was not an occasion for a theological seminar on the fourth evangelist’s use of double entendre. A simple “Yes,” accompanied by a cheery smile, would leave her sufficiently puzzled, to allow me go about my business.
This use of this “born again” language, in isolation from its setting in the Gospel and with not attention to the variety of meaning in the original word, has the result of flattening out its meaning; reducing it to an individual’s private moment of conversion.
This is to make the same kind of mistake as Nicodemus: understanding the word at only one level. To interpret the word as describing spiritual rebirth through personal conversion can miss the decisive dimension provided by Christ: birth from above; from the one who has come from above, from God, and the one who will be lifted up on the cross. It emphasises the human at the expense of the divine: what we do rather than what God does. It focuses on personal change rather than the source of that change in Christ. And we cannot know the meaning of human life apart from the reality of the life of Jesus.
Nicodemus had come to Jesus, as a leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, to have a serious theological discussion yes, but probably to check out this new “teacher” up from the country on behalf of the religious establishment, the “We” he was a member of. “Is he sound?” they were doubtless asking, as they had of John the Baptist. But what Nicodemus experiences is something much more challenging and disturbing. He finds that he is not in charge of this meeting; he is not the one asking the questions but the one being questioned:
When we listen to this story, we are not simply meant to distil from it some meaning. We are meant with Nicodemus to struggle with it in order to discern what kind of new birth is at the same time a birth from above. The challenge is to approach the text openly, not thinking we know what it is about. The same challenge is made whenever we encounter Jesus. That encounter is meant to question and change us.
“Born again, born from above” is difficult to interpret because its language and its promise go beyond our conventional understanding. It suggests a new mode of life for which we have no precedents: a life “born of water and the Spirit;” that Spirit which “blows where it wills “– which we cannot control.
If we approach Jesus as Nicodemus did, confident that “we know,” that we understand, thinking we can fit him into our system, our ideas, we may find as he did, that our certainties and assumptions prevent us from receiving the full experience of what Jesus offers.
John is inviting us to allow these words to work on us. If we accept this invitation, we must be willing to be changed by them, to welcome new life on the terms offered by Jesus.
Belief in Jesus changes our life so that we can speak of being “born again” – not because of some self-generated change in our human nature, something we can psych ourselves up to, but because of the new beginning that comes from and through recognising the full character of God as it is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. To believe in Jesus is to believe not just that he is a teacher, someone with interesting ideas, but that he is the Son of God, and that God so loves the world that he sent his Son as a gift. The God revealed in Jesus is a God whose love knows no bounds; who asks only that we receive the gift he offers. If we receive it, we receive eternal life, because our life is re-shaped and re-defined by the love of God in Jesus.
But let me come back to that wee lady in Edinburgh and her question because I have never forgotten it. It is something more than an amusing story to use in a sermon. It is the question which Jesus asks me, as one of his ministers, “are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?” And which he asks us all as those who have been baptised, born again of water and the Spirit. Do our lives look “born again, born from above,” changed by our encounter with him, by an ongoing and growing relationship with him?
The Church reads this passage in Lent because this season developed as the time for preparing candidates for Baptism at Easter. And at Easter the Church will call us all to renew our baptismal vows: our rejection of all that is evil and contrary to God’s will, our turning to Christ.
The Collect for today echoes that baptismal theme. It calls us, as those who have been admitted to the fellowship of Christ’s religion, those whom he has bound to himself, to “eschew all those things which are contrary to our profession,” to our faith, our belief in Jesus. The only person I know who uses “eschew” in conversation is the Bishop of London. He once told an ordinand from this parish that he should “eschew vapid hilarity.” I think he had to look up what it meant when he got home. In the darkness of this world, we are recalled to Jesus as the light who guides us back into “the way of righteousness”: a righteousness which is more than a sterile avoidance of error but the active following of “all such things as are agreeable to the same.”
And if we are thinking that our lives might not stand up to a close encounter with Jesus, there is hope in the story of Nicodemus. He does not become an instant convert, but he does become a gradual one. He reappears twice in the Gospel:
First, to defend Jesus’ right under the law to a hearing when he is accused by the chief priests and pharisees. Enough for them to accuse him of being a disciple of Jesus.
And then, on Good Friday, with Joseph of Arimathea, at the burial of the Jesus whom he had once considered just a teacher, not the Messiah. Now he brings spices fit for the funeral rites of a king. The king lifted up on the cross that he might draw all to himself, had drawn him.
And even the most instantaneous of conversions is no more than the beginning of a pilgrimage.