Friday, 18 April 2014
Second Sunday of Lent: Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3
I think I was about eleven when I said to my Dad, ‘I suppose that after all these years as a scientist, there’s probably nothing much new in your field for you to discover.’ There was a pause, and then he said to me, ‘If a day goes past without me learning something new, then I consider that to be a wasted day.’
It’s funny how these things stick in your mind, but that statement has stayed with me ever since. As you can probably imagine, the journey over the last few years into understanding some of the more mystical spiritual paths has been an intriguing one. At the forefront of this has been a journey into a new way of seeing the world around me.
Coming from a scientific background my tendency has been to think in rationalist and literalist ways, and I have had to come to terms with people who speak in far more symbolic terms. And of course the most intriguing part of this for me is to arrive in this place, only to discover that Jesus was there all along waiting for me.
And we have a wonderful example of this in the Gospel reading today. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in symbolic terms, ‘You must be born again’, and Nicodemus seems to become ever more frustrated as he responds in literalist terms, asking, ‘How can a person be born again? How can they get back into their mother’s wombs?’
I think that the author, John, intends that we see this difference in understanding by the way he refers to Nicodemus as coming to Jesus by night, suggesting that his rationalist interpretation of reality is getting in the way of him seeing the light. So let’s have a look at the encounter and see how Jesus uses symbolic language to convey some deep truths.
If we were to turn back a few verses, to end of the previous chapter, we would find where this story really begins. It was the Passover festival and Jesus had been in Jerusalem. His ministry had been accompanied by many signs and people where beginning to believe in him on the basis of what they had seen. However, Jesus would not entrust himself to them.
Then we meet Nicodemus the rationalist who says, ‘We have seen the things that you are doing and so we know you must be a teacher who has come from God.’ In other words, ‘I’ve been watching what you’re doing and weighing the evidence in my mind. If you do all these things which are beyond what a normal person can do, then you must be a teacher from God’.
Can you see what he’s done? He’s been quite scientific about it. He’s weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion. Sure of his facts he has told Jesus who he thinks he is. The trouble is, because he is a literalist he’s not seeing all the evidence, and so his conclusions are wrong. He has stayed in world terms and decided Jesus must be a human teacher whom God has sent. And so Jesus gently begins to show him why he’s got it wrong.
The first thing Jesus does is to use one of three phrases with double meanings, opening Nicodemus to the world of symbol. He tells him that he must be born again, a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into most Anglicans because of the associations it gives us to those who insist on calling themselves, ‘Born again Christians’, as if there were some other, lesser kind of believer.
But this phrase, born again, can equally well be translated as ‘Born from above’. It actually makes more sense if we use that as our primary reading because clearly if we, who are born from below are also born from above, then we must obviously need to be born again.
Jesus then explains that, although Nicodemus is clearly a religious leader, his religion is very rationalist, very worldly. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit, and so his thinking is precisely that, thinking. He is unable to get past his head knowledge of what Jesus must be about. He can only see with physical eyes and Jesus is explaining to him that he needs to see with spiritual eyes.
Jesus then explains about the wind blowing where it wills, and we cannot tell where it is coming from and where it is going, and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, except here is another of those double meanings: The word for wind and the word for spirit are identical, and so Jesus could be referring to the Spirit blows where it wills, and he could also be talking about those who are born of the wind.
It’s a lovely use of symbol upon symbol which tells us something about the people of God and the Holy Spirit because it has a vulnerability to it. It tells us that believers are people who are perhaps like leaves on the wind, or as the twelfth century mystic, Hildegaard of Bingen, put it, as feathers on the breath of God.
Nicodemus had probably forgotten more about religion than most of us will ever even know, yet that knowledge didn’t help him because he was looking at it all wrong, and to underline it, we have the third double meaning, that the Son of Man should be ‘Lifted up’, a word which also means, ‘Lifted up on a cross’, in other words that paradoxically that which the world’s eyes sees as humiliation will be, through the eyes of the Spirit, the ultimate victory.
And this is where I, if I am not careful, will come unstuck. My tendency in sermons is to try and explain things, but if I’m not careful I will follow Nicodemus. Instead I think it’s important that we recognise the double meanings and see the symbolism, that we should be born from above in order to be born again, that we are to be children of the wind and Spirit, and that Jesus’s humiliation was his greatest victory.
And then we need to recognise that we are going to be puzzled by these things. How is it that we can be born from above? How are we to be children of the Spirit? How can humiliation become victory? I cannot explain those things, I can only say that it is as we experience the living presence of the Holy Spirit that these mysteries somehow begin to make sense, and our beliefs begin the long journey from head to heart.
It is only in prayer and meditation that we touch the Divine and experience the truth for ourselves. A rationalistic and literalistic account of spirituality is never going to take us deep into the depths of the reality of God. Jesus knew this and so he used story and symbol so much of the time because these elements require prayerful reflection rather than a textbook of knowledge.
Might I suggest that for some of us we need to look on Lent as a season of giving up a reliance on the literal, and instead begin to engage with, and be enriched by, the symbolic.