Nicodemus carrying myrrh and aloes to prepare Christ’s body for burial … the lower right section of the ninth window in Saint John’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photograph: the Revd Stephen Day)
Sunday 12 March 2017,
The Second Sunday in Lent.
11.15 a.m., Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.
Readings: Genesis 12: 1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
This morning’s Gospel story contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born again)’ (verse 5); and ‘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’ (verse 16).
Sometimes we are so familiar with Gospel stories like this, and the oft-quoted passages they include, that we can listen to them time and again without realising that they are challenging us each and every time.
Our readings this morning show us that God’s call can come in the most surprising places, and at the most surprising times. And how people respond to that call has consequences far beyond their expectations and imaginations.
Old Abram must have felt that he and Sarah were settling nicely into old age and into a nice home when the call came to him to get up and go, to leave his family home, and to move once again. It is one thing to have young men seeing visions. It is very disturbing for families when old men start to have dreams they want to act on and decide to move home.
At that age, what woman would want to get up and go on an old man’s whim, even if there is a nagging suspicion that her husband’s whim is founded on a call from God?
Nicodemus too may have been in advanced middle age when he comes to visit Jesus at night during Passover, and he finds Christ’s comments puzzling in the light of what may have been looming old age.
But the call to follow God can come at any time and at any age. The wide variety of ages and backgrounds, for example, of my students, the students I am about to leave and who are preparing for ordination, shows that the Holy Spirit is neither chronologically nor socially prejudiced when it comes to calling us.
Although I was not quite as old as old Abram, or as wise as Nicodemus, I was what they once called a ‘late vocation’ when I was ordained at the age of 48. But on the morning I was ordained, Barbara turned to me and said she saw that day coming even when we were getting married over 25 years before that.
God’s call came to me not in advancing middle age, but in my late teens. As a brash and over-confident 19-year-old, I was trying to break into the competitive world of freelance journalism, getting my first breaks with the Lichfield Mercury in the English Midlands.
I am no wandering Aramean. But I had spent a few days hiking through Wenlock Edge and rural villages in Shropshire. I returned to Lichfield, and after dropping off my bags decided to head back into the centre of the cathedral city. I was enjoying life, and if you asked me my religious views they probably wavered between sceptical agnosticism and posed atheism.
And as I strolled in (looking forward to a good evening on the town), for the first time my imagination was taken by the tall Tudor chimneys of Saint John’s Hospital at the corner of Birmingham Road and Upper John Street. It is a centuries-old establishment, under church management providing sheltered housing for the elderly.
I was simply interested in it as an historical building. But once in the courtyard, I decided to look into the chapel. It is an old building, with old pews. At first it appeared dark and I hesitated for a moment before making my way down a few steps and into the main body of the church.
Something was beckoning me on; it was as if I was being called to come closer to the Holy. And as I sat down to pause or think in the shades of a summer evening, I was conscious for the first time ever that my life was filled with light and love that this was the light and love of God.
I emerged dazed. I knew that no matter how I responded, no matter what happened after that, I would know for the rest of my life that God loves me, that God loves me unconditionally, and that God loves me no matter what happens to me or in my life, whatever decisions I was to make.
What was I to do?
I did not know. I made way on down John Street, up Bird Street, past the offices of the Lichfield Mercury, and on into the Cathedral Close. I settled into the choir stalls in the cathedral, and sat through Choral Evensong, still tingling – rejoicing, leaping inside myself – happy being in the presence of God, and God being with me. It was if I had been born all over again, and my whole life was about to unfold before me.
After choral evensong in the cathedral, I was taken aback when one of the residentiary canons who greeted me at the door and asked whether I had come along because I was thinking about ordination. A few hours earlier, Christianity, commitment and the Church were as far from my mind as you could imagine.
At the time, I thought he had put his two big feet in first. But as a monk in Glenstal Abbey says, coincidences are often God’s way of giving stage directions.
It was another 29 years before I was ordained. I did not know where God’s call was leading me that late afternoon in the summer of 1971. I certainly had no idea that at some stage in the distant future it was going to lead me to this part of Co Limerick just as old age was beginning to beckon
Did Abram know what the consequences were of answering God’s call to uproot himself and to leave his own country?
Later Sarah would laugh, not with a sense of humour, but at the sheer absurdity of what she was being asked to take part in all this.
How could she possibly have children, let alone believe that she and Abram would be ancestors to a great nation, that his descendants would inherit the whole world (Romans 4: 13), and that through their descendants they would be a blessing to the whole world, to the whole created order.
Abraham believed. He did not live long enough to see the consequences. Yet look at what happened eventually over the course of time.
Our Gospel reading this morning translates a well-known verse by saying ‘God so loved the world’ (John 3: 16) – in China, I was shocked to see this verse translated into Chinese in a way that it means ‘God so loved humanity’ – ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’
But the original is not as limiting as that Chinese translation; it is not even as limiting as the modern Bible translations in English: the original tells us that God so loved the κόσμος – the whole pulsating, created order as imagined by Pythagoras and the philosophers – God so loved the cosmos that he sent his only son … [Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν …] Not that he gave insipidly, but that he sent actively, sent him on a mission.
In Pythagorean thinking, the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, ‘the heavenly hosts’ as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3). It is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order. It is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.
When Nicodemus came to visit to Christ in the dark, during the feast of Passover, he too was surprised at the challenge he was offered to him at his age. I get the feeling that Nicodemus already feels he is growing old (John 3: 4). But he is invited into the Kingdom of God, he is invited to that new, fresh, invigorating feeling that the Spirit offers, the feeling that life is just starting now. He is called into the light (see John 3: 21 later).
We are not told immediately how Nicodemus responded to this call in his advancing middle age. Instead, after a lengthy reply from Christ, the narrative is going to move swiftly in verse 22 to a new location and a story about Baptism. The consequences of new life, and the gifts of the Spirit are entry into the Church and to move on to journey to a new location, the Kingdom of God.
So what were the consequences for Nicodemus?
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He appears again on two further occasions in this Gospel: when he risks his status and is pilloried as a Galilean when he defends Jesus before the Pharisees and priests (John 7: 45-51); and after the Crucifixion, once again at the Feast of the Passover, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of the Crucified Christ for burial (John 19: 39-42).
In anointing the body of Christ for burial, Nicodemus provides us with a prophetic action. In his lavish preparation of the body for burial, he prepares him just as Lazarus had been wrapped in linen before his burial and his being raised to new life. In claiming the body of Christ for burial, he is performing a priestly act, for at the heart of priesthood lies presenting the world to God through Christ, and presenting God to the world in Christ, and doing this in word and sign.
The Nicodemus who came to Christ at night now claims his body before night falls. He moves from being concerned about his own safety to taking risks in faith.
Nicodemus in his careful though hasty preparation of the body is doing precisely what the women come to do on the morning of the Resurrection. He is about to find out what new life in Christ really means.
Nicodemus provides the link between the best in Judaism of his time and the Church of the future and the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5). He points us from the Cross to the Resurrection, from Good Friday to Easter, from darkness to light, from concern for myself and my own safety to engaging with God’s plans for the Church, for the world and for the whole pulsating created order, the κόσμος, which is invited into the Kingdom through the Church.
The Body of Christ is the Church. Nicodemus claims his place in the Church. He acts on his faith. But he could never have known what the consequences would be for him, for the Church and for the world because he first came to Jesus in the dark, because he engaged with the fact that this Jesus would die, because he claimed the Body of Christ and because he engaged in an Epiphany-like moment, revealing that the Christ who became his teacher, the Christ who was to be betrayed, the Christ who was executed, is also the Risen Christ.
Like Abraham and Nicodemus, we do not know in this Church this morning, in our journey in Lent, in our life of following Christ, why we are called, where we were being called to, and what the consequences are of responding to that call, even when the future looks uncertain or insecure, no matter what age we are.
All we are asked to do is to respond in faith and to be faithful. And in our faithfulness, we can pray that the God who has called us, the God we respond to, will use that call and response for his own great purposes for the Church, for humanity, for the world, for the κόσμος, and for his kingdom.
Sometimes, it is only in working through how we follow that call as disciples that we realise how God has been calling, prompting, leading us on, through all the days.
And when we are old and dream dreams, we can be thankful that when we were young we saw visions and responded (Genesis 40; Joel 2: 28; Acts 2: 17).
And now, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
John 3: 1-17:
1 ην δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων: 2 οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ' αὐτοῦ. 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν [ὁ] Νικόδημος, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; 5 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 6 τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν. 7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι, Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 8 τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ' οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει: οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 9 ἀπεκρίθη Νικόδημος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;
11 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν καὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε. 12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε; 13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.
‘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.’
you show to those who are in error the light of your truth
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
Grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things
as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lenten Collect:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This sermon was prepared for Morning Prayer in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, on the Second Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017.