Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 31st May
What matters is not that once upon a time we were born – but that we are alive now, and that our present lives, day by day, and moment by moment, are showing evidence of health and strength and purpose. All the mothers here know (we men really don’t have a clue!) that physical birth is often painful and difficult – for the baby as well as the mother – but you don’t spend your life talking about what a difficult birth you had, (unless for some tragic reason it’s left you with medical problems). You get on with being the person you are. And rejoice in the new life that’s come into the world.
Good old St. Anselm from the 11th century said “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand.” It’s more likely that Christian things gradually makes sense once people begin to see the evidence of change in their own and (and others’) lives. Once you feel that you belong somewhere and are accepted and loved just as you are – forgiven and embraced (even if it’s taken quite a time to turn around and get there) - then the Holy Spirit can get to work properly (which, incidentally, is why we’re committed to doing Family services the way we do – and Messy Church as well as ‘Tidy’ church - to let people know they’re loved in the middle of their messy lives!
So when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the new birth, we shouldn’t suppose that this means we should spend all our time thinking about the moment when we first came to Christ – or made some kind of commitment of the heart to follow him – although this kind of conscious commitment to a relationship is important if our Christianity is ever to make it beyond the pastime of simply going to church. But it’s important to acknowledge that for some, being able to point to a particular point in time, or date isn’t possible. I always remember one of our much-loved college lecturers up in Wycliffe (David Wenham – part of an incredible Christian family and theological dynasty) who said there was never a time when he didn’t know the Lord. And conversely (sadly) there are lots who claim to have had an experience of conversion who ought perhaps to go back and examine whether a real spiritual birth took place at all when there’s no evidence of a changed life. What’s important is whether there are signs of new life now – whether the fruit of the Spirit is evident in the way we live and treat each other (which is? love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and…self-control)
Nicodemus was a learnèd, pious teacher – a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin – & very different from the type of Pharisee that liked making a show of his religion. He was obviously generally impressed by what Jesus said and did and was drawn to him – although perhaps not that much – notice that he came to see him at night – maybe to avoid giving any impression that he intended to become a committed disciple. Intrigued, yes, committed – well not yet awhile!
I’m sure like many devout Jews of the time Nicodemus was longing for God’s kingdom to come – and (here’s the thing) - he would have assumed that he would have had the right to enjoy God’s blessings when they came - by virtue of his Jewish heritage – his racial identity - and maybe also as a reward for his loyalty to religious tradition. (just like many people who, by virtue of their churchgoing religious practice, think that’s cracked it – and that God kinda owes them something?!). So Nic’ comes, rather smugly, offering approval and support to Jesus, but clearly not willing to jeopardize his position as a leader of the Jews – until he’s clear which is the winning side. But Jesus doesn’t allow Nicodemus to debate. He cuts away from under his feet all grounds for self-satisfaction. “Nicodemus – listen up” (you can imagine Jesus saying) “…no-one can experience the reign of God, no matter what his or her race – or degree of religious piety – apart from the experience of new birth from above.”
“I don’t care how religious you’ve been, Nicodemus; how many years you’ve been coming to the synagogue; how many of your ancestors were pillars of the community; you need forgiving, you need the new life that only I can give – you need to be in a relationship with me”!
You can understand why he got defensive after all he’d done. But Jesus doesn’t let up (with any of us). He insisted on calling for such a radical reorientation of this guy’s religious experience that it’d be like emerging from darkness into light, or from being imprisoned to being set free.
And for all his theological learning, poor old Nicodemus hadn’t a clue what Jesus was on about. He failed to understand that Jesus was talking about a spiritual rebirth and so took him literally. He didn’t ‘get it’ – and (do you know) – neither do we sometimes. Nicodemus ought to have known better. His study of Scripture should have told him that God had always intended to give people a new heart and put a right spirit within them (he’d have read all about that in Ezekiel and Jeremiah and the Psalms). And now it was actually coming to pass, poor old Nicodemus couldn’t see that it was Jesus who was (and is) the fulfilment of his nation’s (and indeed the world’s) story – and his own story too. This is Yahweh coming back to his people despite all their attempts to ignore him and go their own way – in Jesus - inaugurating a whole new kingdom where God is really King on earth.
(Stop – is this how we see Christian faith?
It all kinda looks a bit different from nominal church attendance, doesn’t it?)
And how is such a radical transformation to be brought about? Well this is where Nicodemus fades a bit out of the picture as John (the evangelist) begins to get into gear and we get the culmination of his message in John 3:16...
We all fall short of God’s standards, so it doesn’t amount to a ‘hill of beans’ if we compare ourselves with others. Over years of university teaching and marking tons of exam scripts especially at this time of year (shiver..!) you can get a little preoccupied students’ marks: it’s like the pass mark of an exam being 50%. 3% - fail; 49% - way better in comparative terms, but?? – still a fail! So we all need rescuing – saving!
Nicodemus had to let go of all the measures he’d been using to gauge his importance and sense of worth – and launch into what Jane Williams calls “the unfathomable reality of the totality of God’s love”–
To understand this, in Jesus words, is like being born again, starting over, living in new ways, learning to walk and speak and think and grow in a world where the love of God is the very breath we breathe – and where every response to the world around us is shaped by that love.
So Paul argues, don’t try to measure the wind of God’s love, let it breathe through you and empower you – God’s Spirit. To be filled with the vitality of God’s love is to be drawn into God’s relationship as Trinity with God and thereby to know ourselves absolutely, unconditionally, beloved.