Sunday, 9 August 2020

Walking on water

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 9th August, the Ninth after Trinity.

We have just heard Matthew’s account (14:22-33) of how Jesus came to help his disciples, when they got into trouble in one of Galilee’s notorious storms.

The same event is also recorded in the Gospels of Mark and John.

The Sea of Galilee is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly. I see it in my mind’s eye as rather like our Lough Derg – it’s about 40% bigger in area and wider, but not so long. Those of us who have spent time fishing or sailing on Lough Derg can imagine how the disciples felt, because we know how quickly a squall can blow up.

Immediately after feeding the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, while he told the crowds to go home, and went off by himself up the mountain to pray. The disciples set out in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. I imagine the night was bright and moonlit, since Mark tells us that Jesus saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.

Early in the morning, Matthew tells us, Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus, walking on the high ground after praying all night, saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to help.

But what is this about Jesus walking on the sea?

Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water, stepping over the waves? This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it.

But we should be aware of a translation problem here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore. The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes Jesus miraculously walking on the water in the middle of the lake. In the second, the disciples’ boat is driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus comes down from the mountain to help when he sees them struggling in the dim light of dawn, and Jesus walks through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

When the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

Whichever way we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.


Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.

It’s a charming vignette, and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but he often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him the very next day.

When Jesus said Come, Peter bravely got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Lord, save me!’ he shouted, and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he came through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch you when you stumble and sink.

Finally, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?

Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus in the flesh and to sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a fearful struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made, by us or by others. Many today struggle with fear for the future of a world that seems to be spinning out of control towards disaster - fear of the Covid-19 virus and its consequences, fear of an impoverishing Brexit, fear of life destroying climate change. But none of us need struggle with our fears alone. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!

If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out Lord save me, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’


Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Mighty God and ruler of all creation, 

give new strength to our faith,

that we may recognise your presence

even when all hope seems lost.

Help us to face all trials with serenity

as we walk with Christ through the stormy seas of life

and come at the last to your eternal peace.

We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

St Mary Magdalene - Seek, Find, Tell

Reflection during Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 21st July 2020, the Eve of the Feastday of St Mary Magdalene.

St Mary Magdalene, whose feast day falls tomorrow, plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry.
Her name tells us that she came from Magdala, now called Migdal, then a small fishing village on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a little over 15 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth.

Luke tells us that she was one of several women who supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, after being cured of 7 demons. In those days all kinds of psychiatric illness were blamed on evil spirits. I think she must have been in great distress when she encountered Jesus, to need so many demons to be exorcised! We don’t know what her illness was, but perhaps she experienced psychotic hallucinations or something like that.

Mary was one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his last trip to Jerusalem. All 4 Gospels tell us she was one of those who watched and waited as Jesus was crucified, and we are told that she was close by when he was put in the tomb prepared for Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb was sealed with a stone on Good Friday evening.

In the early morning of the first Easter Sunday she went to the sepulchre with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and saw that the stone had been rolled back. She ran back to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. She returned to the tomb, weeping, and saw a vision of angels. And she said to them They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

Turning around, she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She didn’t recognise him at once. She thought he was the gardener, even when he spoke to her. It was only when he called her by name, Mary!, that she knew who he was, and responded Rabbouni, meaning teacher in Hebrew.
And then she went to tell the disciples what she had experienced: I have seen the Lord.

That’s all we hear of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, though no doubt she was one of the women who joined the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus’s ascension, as Acts tells us.

Many traditions and stories grew up about Mary Magdalene over the years.
Hundreds of years after her death, leaders of the Western Church identified Mary Magdalene as the same person as John’s Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s woman who was a sinner, who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon about it in 591. But there is absolutely nothing in scripture to support this.

Quite unfairly, Mary Magdalene came to be seen as a prostitute who repented of her sins. There are many beautiful pictures of her, traditionally with long red hair immodestly worn down over her shoulders - other female saints have dark hair kept under a scarf. And her name was used for institutions for “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalen Laundries here in Ireland.

The Eastern Churches are quite sure Mary Magdalene is different to the other two. In their tradition she retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there.

But in Provence a quite different tradition arose in the late middle ages. Mary Magdalene is supposed to have travelled with her brother Lazarus across the Mediterranean in a frail boat without rudder or mast to land near Arles. After converting Provence, she lived a life of penance in a cave for 30 years until her death, when angels carried her to her burial place in the oratory of St Maxime at Aix. The monks of V├ęzelay in Burgundy competed for years with the monks of St Maxime as to who had her real relics. They embellished their stories as they relieved pious pilgrims of their money.

To do the real woman justice, we must chisel away the later legendary incrustations, and get back to the simplicity of what we read in the gospels.
We should remember and celebrate Mary Magdalene, because as well as being a close friend of Jesus and supporting his ministry, she walked with him on the road to Calvary. She watched as he was cruelly murdered on the cross. She was there when he was laid out in the tomb. And she was the first person to experience his resurrection.

She was also the first person to carry the message of the resurrection, when she rushed to tell the news to the disciples. She was literally the Apostle to the Apostles. Let us put ourselves for a moment in her shoes that first Easter morning.

She was a seeker after God’s Kingdom. Jesus was her teacher. She believed he was showing her the way to the Kingdom. But he had been arrested, subjected to a show trial, and cruelly crucified. It must have seemed that all she hoped and prayed for had been dashed. Yet she loved him, so she couldn’t let him go without the proper rituals of mourning.

When she found the tomb apparently desecrated and the body gone, she must have felt she was living a nightmare. But she didn’t give up - she kept on seeking. She asked the person she thought was the gardener where the body had been taken to.

Then Jesus called her by name. Jesus found her - only then did she find him.

She heard Jesus say Go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”, and she did as he asked. She must have felt an overwhelming joy, when she announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’.

What Mary Magdalene teaches us can be summed up in three words: Seek, Find, Tell.

If we seek God, we shall find him - but only when he calls us by name. And then we are compelled to repeat his message to others.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 19th July 2020, the Sixth after Trinity

Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?
Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, he declares in ringing tones the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman interrupts him, saying, “But I have no teeth”; to which the hell-fire preacher replies, “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:24-30, 36-43) follows on from the parable of the sower we looked at last Sunday, and it is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.
Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging the roots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield.

The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it used to happen.

Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it literally, but rather look for the underlying message.

It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.
We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong? We have been created as souls with consciences - in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us, which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin, and Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in our culture it may be easier to think of it as the bad side of ourselves, that part of own psyche which enables and encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

Let me illustrate it with some examples. Advertisers play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They tell us that we will live more exciting lives if we buy a new car which will pollute the air in cities and damage health. They offer us a surfeit throughout the year of the rich food we all crave, even though air miles and intensified agriculture damages the ecosystems we depend on. They tempt us with foreign sun holidays, contradicting the public health advice we must follow to suppress Covid-19. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities cannot afford to take the steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

However, Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.
He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

Of course, we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given. And it is surely right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken. We would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and try to find it.

But of one thing Jesus assures us – we will be judged eventually.
‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire’, says Jesus, ‘so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think we should understand it as the end of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us, in one piece from our conception to our death, how we have touched those we have met, all the good in us, and all the bad too.

We are all a mixture of good and bad. Throughout our lives we have often done the wrong thing, but we have also often done the right thing. God loves each and every one of us, and will forgive our failures if we repent and change for the better.

At the end of the age, at a time that will come to us all, each one of us will see clearly. We will burn in the torment of shame for the evil we have done in our lives - we will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

The issue in front of us is the balance between burning and shining.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Saving God,
in Jesus Christ you opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure and constant wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Sowing the seed

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh 1888
Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th July 2020, the 5th after Trinity

Do you find it difficult to remember the point of a sermon you’ve just heard?
I do – as a child my father used to test me over Sunday lunch and I often failed. It is as if what goes in one ear comes straight out the other. But a vivid, familiar and appropriate image makes all the difference in making words stick. And Jesus in his parables shows himself to be a master of using images to make his point.

Today’s reading from Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, what we now call the Parable of the Sower, is a great example of this.

Let us enter the scene in our imagination, and reflect on the point that Jesus is making.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach.
The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my mind’s eye as rather like Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. I imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus sitting in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this is what prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about.

The sower broadcasts the seed by hand, just as our ancestors did 200 years ago before seed-drills were perfected. The seed is in a bag or a basket, and he walks steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he can. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he is doing, because they have seen it hundreds of times before, and many will have done it themselves.

Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips farmed by different families, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.

Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality. Some parts are rocky. Don’t imagine small pebbles - imagine sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. Think of the Burren or the Aran Islands. The soil above the rock warms early, and the seeds germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.

Some parts of the field are infested with perennial weeds - imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which quickly outgrows the delicate crop, choking it.

But other parts of the field are good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop has nutrients and water enough, and little competition. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the seed sown on it.

‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

When the crowd has left, the disciples are uncertain what he meant – as so often we are too.
So Jesus interprets the parable for them himself - perhaps to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.

The seed sown on the path is the word of God’s kingdom spoken, but not understood. This is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, which Jesus offers everyone. But the good news is snatched away, before it ever has the chance to sprout in people’s hearts.

The seed sown on rocky ground is the good news received with joy, but by people with shallow roots - without character. Their initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution, and they fall away.

The seed sown among thorns is the good news heard by people who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

But the seed sown on good soil is the good news heard by those who understand it, and do act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

The point of Jesus’ sermon for us today is just the same as it was on that lake shore 2000 years ago.
If we are to be the good people God wants us to be, we must cultivate our characters so that we become like good soil which will yield a rich harvest of good.

Each one of us must develop the character traits of attention, of persistence, and of concentration.
·         Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes.
·         Persistence, so that we can withstand opposition and the mocking of others when we answer God’s call.
·         Concentration, so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

I think hese same character traits are also the ones we need to overcome the Covid-19 virus. Attention, to hear and understand public health advice. Persistence, to follow it when we see others ignoring it. And Concentration, to avoid being distracted by the calls of those with ulterior motives to prematurely reopen our society.

None of this is easy, of course. We cannot do it without help. So let us thank God for the vivid image Jesus has given us in the Parable of the Sower to show us the dangers we face. And let us remember, as St Paul tells us in today’s epistle reading from Romans 8: 1-11, that we have received the Holy Spirit to work within us to help us avoid the dangers: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’.

Through that Spirit, by God’s grace, we will be like good soil which yields a rich harvest of good.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word.
Bountiful God,
we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word:
by your Holy Spirit,
help us to receive it with joy,
and to live according to it,
that we may grow in faith and hope and love:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Wesley Day

Reflection given at a Community of Brendan the Navigator evening service to commemorate Wesley Day on Tuesday 26 May 2020

This evening we join with our Methodist brothers and sisters in Christ in commemorating John Wesley’s heart-warming and life-changing experience in Aldersgate, London on 24th May 1738. So, what exactly did John Wesley experience?

John wrote this in his diary that very night:
“In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was, ‘out of the depths have I called unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.’ - words from Psalm 130, which we have just heard - John continues:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”

He would have heard these words of Luther.
“To fulfil the law is to do with willingness and love for the works which the law requires.
Such willingness is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.
But the Spirit is not given except through the word of God which preaches Christ.
As Paul said: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine
heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
So faith makes righteous for it brings the spirit through the merits of Christ.
And the Spirit makes the heart free and willing as the law requires; and then good works proceed of themselves from faith.
Grace is the good will or favour of God toward us which moved him to share Christ and the Holy Spirit with us.
Therefore, when we believe in Christ, we have the beginning of the Spirit in us.
Faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, begets us anew from God, bringing with it the Holy Spirit.
O this faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing!
Such confidence and personal knowledge of divine grace makes its possessor joyful, bold, and full of warm affection toward God and all created things;
All of which the Holy Spirit works in us through faith. Pray God that he may work this faith in you.”

These words had a profound effect on John, as they may also have on us - his diary entry continues:
“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death… I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.”

As well as John’s experience, we also commemorate this evening his brother Charles Wesley’s own conversion experience, just three days before, which inspired him to write over 6,000 hymns, many of which we still love to sing today.

What does the experience and life’s work of these two brothers mean for us today in 2020?

We see in them examples of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of human beings very much like you and me, if gifted in ways that almost all of us are not. Their smouldering faith was kindled into a fire that led them, with others, to evangelise Britain, Ireland, and America. They brought multitudes of men and women, who felt alienated from the established church, to follow Jesus and consciously seek holiness of life. They themselves remained Anglicans, but after their deaths the hardness of other hearts led to the sad separation of the Anglican and Methodist traditions.

So it is wonderful today to be able to celebrate the Covenant relationship between the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. Through this Covenant both churches mutually acknowledge a common faith and each other’s ordained ministries. And both churches commit themselves to share a common life and mission, and grow together so that unity may be visibly realised.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Death stalks the garden

Address given at a Service of the Word for the Community of St Brendan on the Monday of Holy Week, 6 April 2020

Death stalked my garden a few days ago. The wings and feathers of an unfortunate wood pigeon lie strewn over the flowerbed beside the water-filled famine pot where pigeons often come to drink. And I think I know the culprit: next day I spotted the feral cat we often see, skulking close by, no doubt hoping for another meal. Of course, the cat was simply doing what God has created cats to do, and deserves no moral blame - cats must kill to eat, and God feeds cats as well as people.

We all know that a different killer is stalking God’s wider garden just now – the Covid-19 corona virus – and we human beings are its prey. It appears that for most the disease is quite mild. It kills a proportion of both older people like me and those with pre-existing conditions, though even for these most will recover. The Chinese and the Koreans seem to have brought it under some control, and we can pray that we in Europe do so too, but I think most of us will be infected eventually. Lives can be saved if we succeed in reducing the rate that it spreads (‘flattening the curve’), so that the health service is not overwhelmed, and those who need intensive care can get it. This is why it is so important for us to follow official public health guidance. Let us be the good people God has made us to be by doing so, showing God’s love to our neighbours.

I do not fear death. I hope to stay around for quite a bit, to see the grandchildren grow up, and perhaps to welcome their children. I am, of course, apprehensive about dying, dreading indignity and suffering. Yet we will all die, we are mortal, and perhaps Covid-19 is not the worst death.

The way I see it is this. My life from birth to death is like a string winding through the 4 dimensions of space-time, starting at birth and ending in death. My life-string twines around the life-strings of every other person I encounter along the way, including family, friends, neighbours and strangers. God is not constrained by dimensions. God sees and knows the whole of my life-string, from birth to death. Love is what pleases God. God judges me as a function of the love I show, both for him and for every person my life-string touches, summed over the whole of my life-string. And despite the times I have displeased him, I believe that God is forgiving and will always love me, always love the whole of my life-string, just as he sees and loves everyone else’s.

This, to me, is eternal life. This is why I do not fear death.

And God’s garden is full of life as well as death. While we worry about Covid-19, the natural world burgeons and unfolds as the days lengthen, this year as every year. The buds of the magnolias in my garden have opened already. The asparagus is sprouting in the poly-tunnel. And other pigeons are billing and cooing, getting ready to raise a new generation.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Nicodemus visits Jesus

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th March 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Today I want to reflect on Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus as recorded by John in the Gospel reading (John 3:1-17)
Jesus uses that conversation to teach Nicodemus – and through him ourselves – some great truths, which are crucial for the later development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology.

Nicodemus finds it hard to understand what Jesus is saying – as we may too – because Jesus is speaking in the language of metaphor. It is as if  Jesus is speaking in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘being lifted up’; ‘having eternal life’: What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try my best to tease out what his words mean to me.

We should start with the kingdom of God, I think – what did Jesus understand by it?
The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We can’t do so unless something changes us to be immune to human wilfulness. That change is like being ‘born anew’.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.  Now ‘born from above’ can just as well be translated as ‘born anew’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands it. He understands the need for it, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our wilful natures which lead us into sin – that is what baptism symbolises. But we cannot by ourselves surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we surrender ourselves to God’s will completely, without reservation.

In NT Greek the same word ‘pneuma’ is used for both wind and spirit. Jesus says, ‘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.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view, I think. This is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and is enjoying their conversation.
Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep heavenly truths, theological truths.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.
‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘the ideal man’ – in other words, the perfect model of what God has created a human being to be, whether a man or a woman. Jesus is saying that for the ideal man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And he clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the ideal man, who has come from God.

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’, says Jesus, ‘so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
Moses lifting up the serpent refers to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp, which healed those with snakebite when they looked at it.
Jesus is saying that he, the ideal man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross and to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as the image of the serpent healed those who came to it.

But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We must distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I’m sure. Everlasting life might just as well be an everlasting hell as heaven. Duration doesn’t matter - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

‘For God so loved the world’, says Jesus, ‘that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ Those of us of a certain age will recognise these as the first of the ‘comfortable words’ in the traditional language of the communion service. In these words, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the ideal human being, is also the only Son of God. The breadth and depth of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son.

‘Indeed’, Jesus continues, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
Our loving God seeks to save us through the gift of his Son, not condemn us. He makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with God’s will, in imitation of his Son, the ideal human being, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.
You might expect Nicodemus to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t.

John goes on to tell us (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Jewish Council when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40).

Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches.

So to finish
Let us give thanks for the insights – both the earthly and the heavenly truths - that Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships between God, his Son, his Spirit and human beings like you and me. They are at the heart of our Trinitarian faith.

And let us pray that the Holy Spirit may instil in us trust in God’s promises made through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: ‘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.’
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. Amen