20 March 2011

Love and life in the light of the Kingdom of God

Nicodemus ... came to Christ by night (John 3: 1-2)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Sunday 20 March 2011, the Second Sunday before Lent:

11 a.m., the Cathedral Eucharist

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, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our readings this morning remind us how God’s call can come to us in the most surprising places, and at the most surprising times. And how we respond to his call has consequences far beyond our expectations and our imaginations.

Old Abram in our Old Testament reading may have felt that he and Sarah were settling nicely into old age and into a nice home. But the call came to him to get up and go, to leave his family home, and to move once again. It’s a good thing for young men to have visions; it’s very disturbing for families when old men start to have dreams that they want to act on.

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 whims are founded on a call from God?

Nicodemus too may be in advanced middle age when he comes to visit Christ at night during Passover, and finds Christ’s comments puzzling in the light of what may have been looming old age.

But the call to follow God comes at any time and at any age. The Holy Spirit is neither chronologically prejudiced nor socially challenged when it comes to calling us.

Although I was not as old as 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 day I was ordained I was conscious that God’s call had come many 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 in the house where I was staying, I decided to head back into the centre of the cathedral city to plan a night on the town. I was enjoying life, and if you asked me my religious views they probably wavered between sceptical agnosticism and posed atheism.

Saint John’s, Lichfield ... walking into the light and love and life of God (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As I strolled in – looking forward to a good evening on the town – my imagination was caught by the tall Tudor chimneys of Saint John’s Hospital at the corner of Birmingham Road and Saint John Street. It is a centuries-old establishment, under church management and providing sheltered housing for the elderly, but I was simply interested in it as an historical building. Then, once inside 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 and think in the closing shades of evening, I was conscious for the first time ever that my life was filled with love and light and that this light is the light of God.

I emerged dazed. I knew that no matter how I responded, no matter what happened from then on, 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 choices or decisions I was to make.

What was I to do?

I didn’t know.

I made my way on down Saint John Street, up Bird Street past the offices of the Lichfield Mercury, and 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 as if I had been born all over again, and my whole life was before me.

Outside afterwards, I was taken aback when one of the residentiary canons greeted me at the door by asking me whether I had started going to church because I was thinking about ordination. A few hours earlier, Christianity, commitment and Church were as far from my mind as you could imagine.

Lichfield Cathedral ... coincidences can be God’s way of giving us stage directions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

At the time, I thought he had put his two big feet in first. Perhaps it was a coincidence. But there is a monk in Glenstal Abbey who says coincidences can be God’s way of giving us stage directions. Or as Archbishop William Temple once said: “I’ve noticed that when I pray coincidences happen and when I don’t, they don’t.”

I did not know where God’s call was leading me that late afternoon, forty years ago, in the summer of 1971. It was another 29 years before I was ordained.

But did Abram know the consequences of answering God’s call to uproot himself and to leave his own country, like a new-born, with a new life ahead of him? Later Sarah would laugh, not with a sense of humour or fun, but at the sheer absurdity of what she was being asked to take part in.

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), 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 so that it says “God so loved humanity.” Our translation says: “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 this morning’s translation. The original Greek of the Gospel tells us that God so loved the κόσμος – the whole pulsating, created order as imagined by Pythagoras and the philosophers – God so loved the kosmos that he sent his only son … [Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν …] Not that he gave insipidly or passively, but that he sent actively, sent him on a mission.

When Nicodemus came to visit Christ in the dark, during the feast of Passover, he too was surprised by the challenge he was being offered 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. Instead, after a lengthy reply from Jesus, 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 more occasions in this Gospel: when he risks his status and is pilloried as a Galilean as 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 to prepare the body of Christ for burial (John 19: 39-42).

In anointing the body of Christ, in this lavish preparation for burial, Nicodemus prepares him just as Lazarus was wrapped in linen before his burial and his being raised to new life. In claiming the body of Christ for burial, Nicodemus is performing a priestly act, 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.

In his careful though hasty preparation of the body, Nicodemus does 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 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. Yet he could never have known what the consequences would be for him, for the Church and for the world when he first came to Jesus in the dark, when he engaged with the fact that this Jesus would die, when he claimed the Body of Christ and when 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.

Most of us know where we are from. In Irish terms, this is not where I was born, or even where I live or work, but where I have deep emotional and family roots.

Although I was born in Rathfarnham, for much of my life I have thought of myself as being from Wexford. But does it really matter where we are from, or even when we were born?

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but everyone thought he was from Nazareth, from Galilee. The members of the Sanhedrin found a bitter way of rejecting him when they goaded Nicodemus as he spoke up for him: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee?” (John 7: 52).

If Abram had stayed where he was born, or had remained a wandering Aramean, what would the consequences have been for the story of salvation?

If Christ had stayed in Bethlehem, or the Holy Family in exile in Egypt, if they had never returned to Nazareth and brought him up as a Galilean, if he had stayed at home working in the carpenter’s shop, what would have been the consequences for us?

If we remain wedded to our past, if we refuse to see new opportunities, if we fail to grasp new opportunities for life and love, for relationships and for our society, then we may be behaving as if we were never fully born.

Many of us may find the language of being “born again” difficult to articulate or to accept … not because of what it signifies, not because, like Nicodemus, we think of it in physical terms or retrogressive terms, but because that term often implies one particular and exclusive approach to spirituality.

But Christ constantly calls us to new life, offers us new opportunities to be bathed in his light and love.

And if we seize them, when we seize them, it is so refreshing that it is like being born again. Seizing those opportunities can empower the Church to be a true sign of the Kingdom of God.

And so, we can move from darkness to light, from Lent to Easter, from restraint to freedom, from the pressures and perils of this temporal world to the joys of the eternal kingdom, lived in the here and now.

It does not matter where we were born or where we come from. It matters whether we are able to find life in Christ and to live it out in the world as signs of love and life in the light of the Kingdom of God.

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield


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.

Post Communion Prayer

Creator of heaven and earth,
we thank you for these holy mysteries
given us by our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which we receive your grace
and are assured of your love,
which is through him now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 20 March 2011.

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