Last Saturday I had other things to do and so I didn`t get to see the Royal Wedding at Windsor. But during this past week, several people told me to take a look at the Sermon given by the American Bishop; which I duly did. And what struck me about it (and it`s not for me to judge its content) were the expressions or looks on the faces of many in the congregation. Although we can`t begin to know what people were actually thinking, somehow the television cameras managed to capture not just the occasional smile but also what looked like astonishment or even expressions of incredulity on the faces of some well-known people.
I don`t think it`s just me but what I observed were the kind of looks and glances one often sees when the name of Jesus or the faith is mentioned in an apparently serious way. I mean, some people react to this as if it`s odd. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury once observed, it seems that in many respects our culture has become opaque to the Gospel. And for some people Sneering, feels the appropriate reaction. This is why, for instance, you might find that declaring yourself a Christian can be a great conversation killer at a party. For many people, their default setting is that `religion` in any form is territory for bigots, fanatics, terrorists and the inadequate. After all it`s been `de-bunked` hasn`t it?
But the worst of it for me are two unthinking assumptions. The first is that people have already examined the claims of Christ and found them wanting; which hardly anyone has, because they`re just lazy. And secondly, you`ll note that the faith is judged like just about anything else these days; that is- by it`s usefulness to me. In other words, unless it will enhance my life-style and fit in with my goals and ambitions, then forget it. Which of course, is to get things entirely the wrong way around. But anyway.
So, (and again I can`t categorically say that this is what was going on in the hearts and minds of those particular wedding guests) if I`m correct that what we saw was a kind of sneering; or a look that says, “What was he talking about?” then we perhaps shouldn`t be entirely surprised. Of course, I can`t imagine that the Bishop was at all put off by all of this. He didn`t strike me as some kind of `shrinking violet` and besides, Clergy are used to this kind of thing. It`s often said of the Vicar that he`s anonymous for six days of the week and incomprehensible on the seventh! I`ve been there and got the tee-shirt! But this is where we encounter the same `sneering` phenomenon, the same kind of problem; only this time from within the Church.
The unexplored assumption in the minds of so many of us is that what we do here Sunday by Sunday should be characterised by a certain `reasonableness`. The unspoken requirement is that I will be confirmed in what I think I already know. As I`ve said before, that`s why we stick with the same newspaper. But you see, when we give in to this way of operating, we reduce the essentials of the faith to something WE can grasp, control and squeeze into our own world-view. And when we do this… dear old Nicodemus becomes our Patron Saint.
Because I would suggest that this is what he was looking for in that late night conversation with Christ….. but in the event he was terribly disappointed. Nicodemus is, in one sense, a great blessing to us simply because he shows us what it`s like in the presence of Christ. He embarks on this religious conversation with this new Rabbi from out of town and as soon as Jesus starts to speak we can`t help thinking Nicodemus has a look on HIS face that says, “What was he talking about?”
And the point is that Jesus isn`t phased by this opaque and blinkered man. He even, I think, teases him by speaking of him as a “teacher of Israel” (John 3.10). No, Jesus addresses his inclination to sneer and mock. He metaphorically `tweaks` him by the beard and says that “it`s not surprising that you can`t see the Kingdom of God. You need a complete transformation in your way of looking at yourself, the world and God`s purposes”.
You see, I`m not sure the impact of what Jesus is doing here really gets under our skin as it should. I think, for most part we get all distracted by the silliness that`s often associated with that phrase `born again`… and so we miss out on what the Lord is actually saying by, as I say giving too much attention to the religious `fruit-cakes`. While the rest of us are just uncomfortable with the notion of some kind of transforming work of the Spirit in our lives as described by Jesus. Surely, we think, we ought to be able to `reason out` this thing we call faith. But it just doesn`t work like that. No, what it all boils down to is that when that Bishop got up to speak… Or whenever we open our mouths about faith… Some people `see it` and some people don`t.
But let me continue the `royal` analogy. When I was very little I learnt a nursery Rhyme. Maybe you did too… It went like this:
Pussycat pussycat, where have you been? I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen. Pussycat pussycat, what you did there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
Confronted by the Queen, the cat couldn`t actually see the Queen. Why not? Well, firstly, because cats aren`t really interested in Queens. They`re after mice – so it saw what it was looking for. It got the answer to the question it was asking. And secondly, the idea of royalty is beyond its comprehension. The cat saw only a woman, rather than the Queen. This I want to suggest, is the problem for Nicodemus….. and for so many of us in the presence of Christ. Nicodemus looks at the King but can`t really see him. He`s rich and learned but he`s like the cat who`s only interested in mice. He sees everything from a well proscribed point of view; that of his ego… Or how `useful` Jesus might be to him.
Yes, clearly, Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus; the `signs` he had been doing had provoked him to thought and even to make this surreptitious visit to speak with him….. but Jesus won`t let him off the hook. For Jesus, the priority is, as ever, the coming Kingdom. The reign of God in his world. And no, Nicodemus, you won`t see it; it won`t make any sense until you surrender your life to it.
This is why it`s hard. You have to die to be born again. The surrender of our ego-centricity… exposure to the life and breath of the Spirit means that the whole structure of life AS WE HAVE SHAPED IT, will have to collapse. And this is always especially painful if you shape your life like a Nicodemus; if you prefer a tidy, superannuated, highly-insured world, trust in your own righteousness and your ability to get your own way. In contrast, how shattering it is to become tethered to the Spirit; a mysterious and unpredictable partner who like the wind, blows where it wills. But there it is.
This Gospel passage with its reference to being born again so often provokes a reaction. But it doesn`t matter whether you dismiss it, look sheepishly down at your feet or sneer… insisting that “I`m not THAT sort of Christian” and “it doesn`t really apply to me”. It won`t do to pretend that Jesus didn`t mean any of this; or attempt to create some `reasonable` version of the faith, more palatable to our way of thinking. To coin that phrase that has been much over-used in recent times; it won`t do to imagine that we can “have our cake and eat it.”
Yes, we live in a culture that sneers and finds what we proclaim at best odd and at worst offensive. To which my uncharitable response is “So what!” My more considered response is “Why are we fretting?” when the Lord teaches us that it is quite natural for people not to `get it`. It doesn`t mean we leave people to stew, of course not. But the more `reasonable` and palatable we try to make things; the more effort we put into `persuasion` or even `selling` the faith the less room we leave for the work of the Spirit. The NECESSARY work; the transforming work WITHOUT WHICH, as the Lord says no one can truly see the Kingdom of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls someone; he bids them `come and die`”. As one who died at the end of a Nazi hangman`s rope his words cannot be taken lightly. But this encounter with Nicodemus brings home exactly what it is that has to die. This is what we need to pray with this morning. This ego-centricity. This inclination to see and assess Christ and the faith according to how `useful` it is to us and our agenda. And our need, instead to be `born from above`…. Subject to the work of the Spirit. Because, in the end, it`s resistance to THIS … that`s the reason for all the sneering.