Sermon 2017 March 12th

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 12 MAR 2017, LENT 2

Listen Here: https://youtu.be/flgDdGuNFe8

 

(Nicodemus) What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”
John 3:6-7

Where do you find spirit?

On Friday morning, arriving at church, I witnessed my first fight at St Columba’s.

The sounds of it spilled out of the Upper Hal.

A young woman wrestling for all her worth;

pinned beneath an apparently bulkier man.

The struggle was brief and intense, till the woman wrestled free –

and the room burst into applause:

Friday’s spirited,self-defence class.

 

Same venue, same day; the building reverberates

to the sound of cheers and coaches’ encouragement

as toddler footballers score their goals in mini-nets; high spirits.

 

Less noisy manifestations:

In the church office hangs an exuberant piece of modern art –

donated by a former guest of the Night Shelter –

his thank you for what he had received from this place, in time of need.

Or the Sundays in Lent in the London Scottish Chapel –

folks gathering to pray silently, together;

things unsaid, but somehow powerful.

 

Where do you find spirit?

Sometimes in worship; often beyond the walls of church.

For those attending the Ash Wednesday Service at the Tower of London –

the sign of the cross thumbed onto foreheads:

“From dust, you were made; to dust, you will return.”

A striking symbol of our mortality and fragility;

life’s preciousness, and our belief in the love that lies behind and beyond it.

 

And in my household,  the moment that will live longest, from these recent days.

Olivia, aged five, suddenly in the sitting room, temporarily solemn,

taking a tiny bottle of “fairy dust” and anointing her parents’ foreheads,

with careful, pink, sparkly crosses; intoning the words, Holy Spirit;

before completing the ceremony by placing a necklace on her mother’s head

(with the word, “Commend.”)

You might guess that girl is getting a lot of religion at her church school!

 

These mixed and random gleanings, are offered as avenues to the truth, suggested by Jesus:

“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.”

 

They are words to Nicodemus – the consummate religious insider;

Someone who understood the leavers of power and orthodoxy;

family, faith, tradition, politics and the orthodoxies of his faith.

Born into the traditions of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law;

he inhaled deeply their concerns for holiness and ritual purity,

their ethical standards and sense of being a chosen people.

He longed for the Messiah – had seen how others grew cynical or lost heart.

As a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Temple

he knew how to swim with the sharks in that most political of religious pools.

 

Then rumours – signs performed, words delivered,

a flaring up of enthusiasm wherever this upstart country preacher, a Galilean went.

Could this unlikely northerner be the real deal?

Curious, cautious, discrete, he comes to Jesus – by night.

 

The overture: “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.”

 

Beneath the responsibilities and respectabilities of high office,

Jesus perhaps perceives an emptiness or a hunger.

I think of the collect, based on the words of St Augustine:

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you;

 

“You’re right, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

(often rendered, born again.)

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?

Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

 

 “Different births Nicodemus –

there is human, flesh and blood birth,

and there is the birth of the spirit.

Different dimensions – both real – both vital.”

Nicodemus looks blank..

 

“Don’t be mystified. Deep down you know –

all your study, all your law, all your ritual and tradition – 

they can only lead you so far.

You are restless Nicodemus – even if you don’t exactly know what for.

Don’t worry. You cannot seize God – but you can surrender.

You cannot earn God – but you can receive God as gift.”

 

The breeze stirs:

“See that? Where does the breeze come from – where does it go?

You can feel it, be refreshed by it –

but you cannot compel or contain it;

you cannot banish or contain the wind.

The spirit too – always beyond prediction, always a gift.

 

Last week the story of Christ in the wilderness facing the temptations –

bread, sky-diving and power –

warned us that Jesus refuses to be the Messiah we might want him to be.

He won’t turn our stones into bread;

he won’t prove God by magic tricks;

and he won’t worship the idols we so often pursue.

This week, via the encounter with Nicodemus,

he reminds us that God is beyond the reach of our religion.

To Nicodemus who was steeped in the traditions of his faith,

knew its rules and regulations backwards,

Jesus urged him to look beyond the boundaries that he currently understood.

 

If he wants to “enter the kingdom of God,”

he must at some level repudiate his religiosity.

He must be twice-born, once by his earthly mother through water,

and then again by his heavenly Father through the Spirit.

 

It is a reminder to us all that our faith never fully arrives;

The God of all creativity may always have something new to say to us.

 

Words from a contemporary Australian Church creed:

We believe in the Holy Spirit

who waits on our moments of openness

and springs into the unknowns

with joy and delight, 

that we might be called

on beyond where we thought we could go –

where every step is walked on holy ground

 

Think of Peter the disciple:

It was pointed out to me this week that Peter experienced five conversions.

On the shores of Galilee he left everything and followed Jesus.

At Caesarea Philippi, he made the great confession: “You are the Christ.”

Then, after denying that he even knew Jesus,

Jesus lovingly reinstates him at a post resurrection breakfast.

Later in the Book of Acts, Peter comes to accept the Gentile centurion, Cornelius,

and learn that “God does not discriminate against any person.”

Yet according to the Letter to the Galatians,

Paul describes how he “opposed Peter to his face” for his hypocrisy.

Having been converted to accept Gentiles, Peter later refused to eat with them.

We don’t know the details, but somehow Peter was once again converted

to embrace the Gentiles, despite some Jewish pressures not to do so.

 

True religion requires lifelong conversion —

sometimes even from own religious ideas and practices. 

We must be born from above; again, and again; in thought and word and deed. Dan Clendenin

 

Isabel Kuhn Missionary to China said:

“When is the search ended?

 In one sense, it is finished when our hand, stretched out to God in the name of Jesus Christ, feels the answering grasp and knows that he is there.

But in another sense the searching never ends,

[for the first discovery is quickly followed by another,

and that by another, and so it goes on.]

To find that he is, is the mere starting point of our search.

We are lured on to explore what he is,

and that search is never finished,

and it grows more thrilling the further one proceeds.”

Called on beyond where we thought we could go.
May that encourage us to search eagerly,

restless till we find our rest in God:

So lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory
and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.