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The letter and the spirit

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Second of Lent (Year A) St John and St Stephen’s 8 March 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a: The Call of Abram

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

John 3:1-17: Nicodemus Visits Jesus

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘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.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

A prayer to begin:

Lord, still me.

Let my mind be enquiring, searching,

Let my heart be open.

Save me from mental rust.

Deliver me from spiritual decay.

Keep me alive and alert.

Teach me, that I may teach others.

 

(adapted from Donald Coggan).

 

I wonder what your state of mind is this morning, on this second Sunday in Lent in early 2020? Some of us are fearful about the corona virus, which has caused us to reflect on how connected we are across the globe, for good or ill. It is no doubt our collective responsibility to mitigate the local spread as best we can. So thank you for your understanding and patience.

 

Meanwhile we are faced with what some think of as another ‘collective responsibility’ – towards migrants who have recently crossed from Turkey into Greece, a country that is essentially an opening into the heart of Europe. Each country is having conversations about how few or how many they could take, even though the reality is that the commitment to offer sanctuary to migrants has been very unequally borne by the countries in question.

 

I heard Lord Dubbs on the radio this week begin interviewed about his escape to England via the Kindertransport rescue mission, in the shadow of the impending Nazi holocaust, and how this has been the inspiration for his continued efforts to retain the rights of displaced migrant children to be reunited with family in this country even after Brexit.

 

In the US they’ve been having the Presidential Primaries to see who will run as Democrat candidate against Donald Trump, a process that seems to favour the candidate with the biggest budget. The openly gay Christian and the female candidate are out at this stage and one wonders gloomily if the sitting Incumbent might not in fact be re-elected at the end of the year.

 

And finally, as we face our reality today, many people are still living with the devastating effects of recent flooding after the wettest February in the UK since records began in 1862. On the flip side, plans for the third runway at Heathrow were ruled illegal by the Appeal Court this week as being inconsistent with the government’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis.

 

So perhaps there’s a sense in which we are at last facing our climate reality and realising that it cannot be business as normal with a small nod to climate change; rather we will no doubt have to radically re-think our entire relationship with capitalism.

 

As we attend to our being-in-the-world, it seems we must take deep account of actual human experience, something governments appear to find particularly difficult. When we look at the debate about how many migrants we should take, for instance, we can focus on numbers, social services and budgets, or we can look at an image of a three-year-old Kurdish refugee child lying dead at the water’s edge after drowning in the Mediterranean. Each approach – the ‘doctrine’ of our standpoint, or the powerful human story – will evoke a different response. Perhaps we shouldn’t prioritize either approach but weave them together in all our collective moral decisions.

 

We heard the Ten Commandments this morning as part of our Confession, but we could have equally remembered the times when we have kept the letter of the Law but been found wanting with regards to the spirit of the Law, a distinction that Jesus was prone to making when in conversation with the Pharisees.

 

There’s long been debate in faith circles and in wider society about the relationship between rules, doctrine or dogma on the one hand and on the other, human experience, including the inner life. This tension lies within Christianity too and can be seen in the conversations the Church of England is currently having on the subject of human sexuality. How far to prioritize doctrine over lived experience, and how far to change it in order to accommodate lived experience, is one of the vexed areas of debate.

 

In our readings today we see two characters of faith who are faced with a radical re-think and call to change. And they also epitomize the struggle between obedience to the rule of Faith and a spontaneous grasping of something more nebulous that nonetheless has the power to bring change, transformation and Life. A contrast between the outer laws that structure us, and the inner journey that frees us, and the relationship between them (because you can’t have the second without the first).

 

Abram is called, famously, in Chapter 12 of Genesis, to ‘go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you’. His call might be seen as the mythic call of the hero or heroine to embark on a spiritual journey whereby they must reassess what they have hitherto been taught, and find their own path through life. They will inevitably be wounded on the journey; no one can go through life without it, and eventually they will return, but changed. They are essentially the same person as when they started out, but in many significant ways, they are transformed forever.

 

This archetypal journey, which we all have to make, is charted by Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upwards, which I would describe as ‘a must read for the over 50s’!

 

The spiritual journey is begun in childhood for many of us, but at some point the journey must be owned by each of us, and although some of us may be able to recall a crisis moment when we ‘decided for ourselves’ to follow Christ (a moment of re-birth, perhaps?) what matters is not so much when you were reborn, but that you are ‘alive’ today.

 

Nicodemus doesn’t know all this yet, and we might try and have some patience with his puzzlement as he comes to Jesus by night. What he’s doing is trying to make sense of what he has seen and heard – his experience of Jesus’ miracles – or as John puts them, signs. He is puzzled because he ‘knows’ the Law, yet he ‘senses’, by looking at Jesus, Life, hope, freedom and some dynamism that doesn’t fit into his existing framework. What is going on? That is his conundrum. He is honest enough to face the uncomfortable dichotomy.

 

Let us pray that this becomes a conundrum for all those people whom we encounter who are stuck in their outer frameworks and haven’t been able to taste the Good News of freedom. Let us ask God that he will graciously give us the chance to be some Good News for them by connecting them to God in our prayers, by offering our own spiritual lives as a sign of the True Life that is available to all.

 

In Nicodemus’s favour he at least recognizes the presence of God in Jesus’ ministry. But he is about to get a surprise. It’s as if, being a Pharisee, Jesus holds him to higher account about the sort of things he’s teaching. If he’s apparently so ignorant of the way real spiritual life works, what hope is there for the ordinary Jew sitting at his feet imbibing the Law?

 

So, to his opening gambit, Jesus comes back with an uncompromising: ‘very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’. ‘Born again’ is of course another translation, but carries with it more baggage, ironically because it became used in such a way as to suggest a water tight salvation that doesn’t actually work because if you are so called ‘born again’ but palpably not growing in holiness, then your born again status is nothing more than a label that says nothing much about dynamic growth.

 

So Nicodemus has prioritized doctrine over experience and cannot, it seems, really speak about his own spiritual life. He doesn’t understand metaphor and gets stuck on the image of a baby going back inside the womb to be born again.

 

That’s why ‘born from above’ is a better translation – it indicates that the real spiritual life is of a different order to our physical life – and with hindsight, we know this theologically. The ‘Life that will never, never die’ (as the song puts it) is given the Greek term ‘zoe’, whereas our physical life that is mortal, is called ‘bios’. As Rohr puts it: ‘Most people confuse their life situation with their actual life, which is an underlying flow beneath the every day events’ (Falling Upwards, p. 19).

 

We saw this distinction beautifully illustrated in The Two Popes at our first Lent Film Club event this week. Pope Benedict begins the film by holding fast to the outer doctrines of the Church, and when that’s what your first priority is, of course, you are going to be defensive – it is your job to protect the structure. Bergoglio, by contrast, is in tune with the inner flow, the spirit of the Law, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in him. What is compromise/ what is needed growth? That is their initial question. And many in the Church are still asking it, no matter what denomination. You will have your own position on this!

 

As the film progressed we saw that Benedict was, in fact, able to get in touch with the Spirit as he sought an answer to the apparent silence of God regarding the direction of his life. A sign of his sensitivity to the Spirit is that he ‘sees’ God’s answer in the very man with whom he seems to have the least in common – the one who will become the progressive Pope, and prioritize the Poor, like St Francis did.

 

As the story of Jesus’ Passion unfolds later in this season of Lent, I think we see how Nicodemus had taken on board some of what Jesus said in this nighttime encounter. For example in John Chapter 7, he speaks in favour of a fair trial for Jesus in the presence of the other Pharisees, garnering their withering riposte that he’ll search the Scriptures in vain for a Messiah from Galilee. And finally in Holy Week, he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus down from the Cross and give it a decent burial.

 

We see his journey of faith developing therefore, as John’s gospel unfolds. We see the gracious hand of God and God’s patience with him and with our slow growth in understanding and courage, our hesitancy to look outside our framework and embrace the new thing that God is always doing.

 

A predictable church life is one that is perhaps lacking the refreshment of the Spirit or the readiness to take up a new calling. I wonder what the opposite looks like? I don’t know if I can live with unpredictability every single day of my ministry (!) but within a well-ordered church, I do like the idea of us giving the Holy Spirit the space to do what the Spirit wants.

 

If Abram could jump at a new challenge aged 75, there’s probably hope for many of us! ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

 

What would it mean for the world if our churches were spaces where the Spirit was able to blow? What would it look like for our communities if the people of God were people of the Spirit?

 

The writer Joy Buchanan has said that ‘Nicodemus can speak to an age saturated in information but hungry for spiritual wisdom’ (washingtonpost.com, March 27, 2003).

 

Can we speak about our own spiritual journeys with authenticity to those who might trust us with things on their mind like loneliness, purpose, goodness and justice? I met someone this week who had all these, and more, on her mind, who was trying to find a path after reassessing the one that others had previously laid down, that no longer seemed to be going in the right direction.

 

And as we learn from the journey of Nicodemus (who had a shaky start, let’s face it) maybe we can grasp the challenge to keep in step with the Spirit ourselves, to follow when the Spirit calls, to dance to the tune of our own vocation.

 

“What if you jump and just close your eyes? What if the arms that catch you, catch you by surprise?”

 

(quotation from Willow Creek Community Church: The Story of Nicodemus: Easter 2018, YouTube).