SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
17th February 2008
Rom. 4.1-5, 13-17
If we compare John with the synoptics Matthew, Mark and Luke we find a different method of story telling. Here we find a developed interior monologue that takes us into the heart and inner mind of Jesus but dumbs down the other characters: outworking of he must increase I must decrease of John the Baptist (Jn. 3.30).
Nicodemus enters into a long protracted discourse with Jesus – and like most of his interlocutors does not come out of it appearing to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. But the passage is not about Nicodemus – except in so far as Nicodemus will exemplify the story, himself entering into a journey of ego-decrease and pneuma-rebirth. Paul is adamant that this is precisely the journey of faith: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. The image may seem macabre, but the invitation is in a sense to become like one of the unfortunate caterpillars that are eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps, their body taken over by the wasp larvae. So too must we allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ.
By the end of our story Nicodemus inhabits a grey area. He doesn’t altogether get it, but he is on the way. I remember some conspicuous moments in my own journey into faith – the journey from atheist to agnostic, from agnostic to theist, and from theist to Christian believer. For me they were distinct and identifiable moments, but this will not always be the case – and in any case my journey, like that of Nicodemus, has been a slow and not always right-directioned stumble into faith.
Nicodemus stumbles over the whole question of rebirth – doing so in the story so we can get a better understanding of Jesus’ terminology. This is a complex point. The Greek words gennhqh~| a)/nwqen (born again / from above): they have become a hallmark of certain wings of Christianity, and have been badly abused by those wings. Yes they refer to a new start – and to new start after new start. They refer to an event and to a process. This is a conversation between minds fixed on God – the minds of the theologians Jesus and Nicodemus – and we belittle the potential of these profound words if we turn them into no more than a revivalist slogan. Yes: the wasps of faith must infiltrate your body more and more and more until it is not you, but Christ, who is the totality of your existence, says Jesus.
In the end Nicodemus is allowed to become proof of the Jesus pudding. He who comes fearfully at night becomes he who stands up for Jesus – as the old hymn used to invite us to do – in the Temple, reminding the antagonistic community that its own standards of decency demand that Jesus be treated fairly. Nicodemus is mocked by his audience (Jn. 7.50), but the wasps of faith are slowly but surely taking him over, and he is as it were being born again, being born from above. The last time we see him the process is complete: he gets it, over-killing in the anointing of the body of Jesus, pouring his resources out in love and adoration. The wasps of faith have him, and he is as we are called to be: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.
The clumsy start has led to adoration, and there the journey begins and ends and begins and ends again and again and again.