08 March 2020

God so loved all he
created: hearing the
‘Gospel in miniature’

Reflections from above on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath … what would Nicodemus have understood by being born from above, or being born again? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 March (Lent II):

11.30 am: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Morning Prayer 2

Readings: Genesis 12: 1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17.

There is a link to the readings HERE

‘Christ Instructing Nicodemus,’ attributed to Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (ca 1604-1645), oil on panel, 87.5 x 111.4 cm, sold by Sotheby’s, London, 1994

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There are no Lenten study groups in this group of parishes this year. Instead I thought I might concentrate in our Sunday sermons on the interesting, unusual characters we meet in the Gospel readings on the Sundays in Lent this year.

These figures include:

1, The Devil, who appears as the serpent (Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7) and the Tempter (Matthew 4: 1-11) in last Sunday’s readings (Lent 1, 1 March 2020)

2, Nicodemus, who comes to meet Jesus in the night (John 3: 1-17) this week (Lent 2, 8 March 2020)

3, The unnamed Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42) next week (Lent 3, 15 March 2020)

4, The women at the Cross (John 19: 25b-27) on Mothering Sunday (Lent 4, 22 March 2020)

5, I am leaving it to the Revd Joe Hardy to look at Lazarus who is raised from the dead (John 11: 1-45) when he takes our United Group service on the fifth Sunday of the month (Lent 5, 29 March 2020)

All these characters, as we meet them on our journey through Lent, challenge us to prepare to meet Christ in Jerusalem at his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

All are marginalised people in the Gospel. But they challenge us to abandon our old ways of thinking, to ask what holds us back, what keeps us rooted in old ways, those old places in our minds or hearts that hinder us from taking up this challenge. Where do we refresh and renew our faith and find new life?

This morning, we meet Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, a rabbi, a teacher and a member of the Sanhedrin. He has a Greek name – Νικοδημος (Nikodemos) means ‘victory of the people’ – and this Greek name probably indicates he is an urbane and sophisticated man.

Nicodemus appears three times in Saint John’s Gospel:

1, He visits Christ at night to discuss Christ’s teachings (John 3: 1-21)
2, He reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person should be heard before being judged (John 7: 50-51)
3, At the Crucifixion, he provides the embalming spices and helps Joseph of Arimathea to prepare the body of Christ for burial (John 19: 39-42)

In this first encounter, Nicodemus comes to Christ by night. Perhaps he did not want to be seen consulting Jesus, who is newly-arrived in Jerusalem and is already causing a stir. But we should remember too that Saint John’s Gospel uses poetic and dramatic contrasts: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and doubt, truth and falseness. Here too we have the contrast between darkness and light, the world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus is a good and pious Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court. But, to draw on ideas in our other readings, despite his positive attitudes to the Mosaic Law, what is the foundation of his faith?

Nicodemus acknowledges Christ is a teacher sent by God. But is this enough – is it simply an understanding of Christ without faith? At this point, Nicodemus sees but does not believe; he has insight but does not have faith.

Christ’s reply puts the emphasis back on faith rather than on law, on believing more than seeing. But does Nicodemus understand this?

Nicodemus seems to misunderstand what he hears. He thinks Christ is speaking about a second physical, natural birth from a mother’s womb.

The dialogue that follows includes two of the most 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)

● ‘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)

For many people, this second phrase is a summary of the whole Gospel: ‘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.’ Martin Luther said this verse is ‘the Gospel in miniature.’ But the original version does not say that God so loved the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος) that he actively sent his only-begotten Son on a mission. And this love is the beginning of missio Dei, God’s mission.

Nicodemus finds it difficult to understand what Christ is saying. But what about the first saying, the phrase, ‘being born from above’ or ‘being born again’?

The key word (ἄνωθεν) here has the double meaning of ‘from above’ and ‘again.’ A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what does it mean here?

The way we hear the phrase ‘born-again’ being used today may be derived from this event in Saint John’s Gospel. But that understanding is not available to Nicodemus, because it can only be traced to American evangelicalism in the second half of the 20th century.

Until the 20th century, most discussions about this phrase focussed on questions about baptismal regeneration. The key references are in Article 15 and Article 27 in in the 39 Articles, if you want to look them up later. [Article 15 seems to imply that all who are baptised are ‘born again in Christ’ – which is not the phrase used in this reading. Article 27 says, ‘Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference … but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth …’]

Despite its present-day use, the term ‘born again’ has been widely associated with evangelical Christians only since the late 1960s, beginning in the US. The phrase ‘born again’ now refers to a particular type of individual conversion experience – although the plural is used grammatically in verse 7 in this Gospel story.

The phrase gained popularity after 1976, when the Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson published his book Born Again. The term was so prevalent within a few years that in an interview during his presidential campaign Jimmy Carter described himself as ‘born again.’

But Nicodemus could not have anticipated late 20th century, evangelical, American uses of this phrase, let alone decide to answer the words of Jesus in an individual way that is promoted by the modern ‘born again’ movement.

So, what could a pious Jew and rabbi like Nicodemus have understood Jesus to mean in his own time?

According to the Mishnah, the duty of loving God ‘with all your soul’ (see Deuteronomy 6: 5) means ‘even if he takes your soul.’ Love of God is a total commitment – unto death. In commenting on this insight in the Mishnah, the rabbis quoted the psalms, ‘Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter’ (Psalm 44: 22, NRSVA).

One rabbi (Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya) asked what it could possibly mean for a righteous person to die many times throughout the day. He answered: ‘It is not possible for one to be killed every day; but God reckons the life of the pious as though they died a martyr’s death daily’ (Sifre Deuteronomy, 32).

Tradition said that when the people in the wilderness heard the words of the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, the revelation struck death into their hearts. But [Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said], they were brought back to new life ‘by God’s power [Rabbi Joshua ben Levi here quotes Songs 5: 6 and Psalm 68: 10].

In this way, the Ten Commandments were given to the people through a succession of deaths and rebirths. In other versions, death and rebirth come with direct encounters with God’s glory, with the miraculous rebirth of each of the 600,000 people present as they continuously encounter God face-to-face.

In this way, an encounter with the living God brings death and rebirth, a rabbinic tradition that a pious rabbi like Nicodemus would be familiar with.

It was believed that longing for spiritual transcendence is expressed through overcoming material desire. In this way, a life imprisoned by desire is a living death, but dying into God by total self-giving brings true life.

This tradition of interpretation continued into the Middle Ages. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075/1086-1141), in his poems, says he would gladly die, for life without God ‘is death.

In other words, in the rabbinic tradition, life without God is like death, but life committed to loving God with the whole heart is lived as though I had died and had been given back my life as a new life by God.

What happened to Nicodemus after this reading? And what makes this an appropriate Gospel reading at an early stage in Lent?

In line with this rabbinic tradition, Nicodemus would have left Jesus that night challenged to ask whether he needed to move beyond the Law to an encounter with the living God, an encounter that brings death and rebirth.

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We meet him again when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7: 45-51).

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

Compare the unfolding faith of Nicodemus in these three encounters with the way Saint Peter is going to deny Christ three times.

So, in this Gospel reading, in the story of Nicodemus, birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls Nicodemus really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

It is an appropriate Gospel reading for an early stage of Lent, as we prepare to recall the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ; he becomes a full communicant member of the Church.

This Lent, I invite you to join me on this journey, this pilgrimage, that leads to Good Friday, and that leads, of course, to the joys of Easter Day.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Entombed’ … Christ is laid in the tomb by Nicodemus, Station XIV in the Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 3: 1-17 (NRSVA):

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 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.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 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?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 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.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus 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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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.’

Andor Borúth (1873-1955), ‘Portrait of a Blind Rabbi,’ the Museum of Jewish Culture, Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: Violet

The canticle Gloria may be omitted in Lent. Traditionally in Anglicanism, the doxology or Gloria at the end of Canticles and Psalms is also omitted during Lent.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
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 Collect may be said after the Collect of the Day until Easter Eve

The Collect of the Word:

God of mercy,
you are full of tenderness and compassion,
slow to anger, rich in mercy,
and always ready to forgive:
grant us grace to renounce all evil and to cling to Christ,
that in every way we may prove to be your loving children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)


Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

‘Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews’ (John 3: 1) … synagogue leaders portrayed in Murano glass in an artist’s workshop in Murano, near Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


323, The God of Abraham praise (CD 19)
227, Man of Sorrows! What a name (CD 14)
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart (CD 21)

‘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’ (John 3: 16) … a sculpture at the Library in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘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’ (John 3: 16) … Luke Jerram’s installation of the Earth can be seen in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, from next Sunday [15 March 2020] for a week.

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