World Interrupted

by Mar 9, 2020Sermons

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night

As a priest I often find myself talking to people where they assume that because I’m a priest I won’t have any idea about what they are talking. Like about the way a computer works, or how a house is built. I’ll ask a question and the person in front of me will feel it necessary to explain the rudimentary way something works. When I then say, no I understand that, but why is this not working in this instance. The person’s assumptions are challenged and they must take a step back and rethink what they are talking about.

Women will know this experience as Mansplaining, where a man explains something with the assumption that the woman in question couldn’t possibly understand, even if they happen to have a PhD in the subject. I must admit, I too make these kinds of assumptions. 

We all make assumptions about other people, or about the way things work. But every now and then we get interrupted in our assumptions and have to take a step back and think it through. If you drive a stick shift and something unexpected happens, you accidentally put the car in 3rd instead of 5th, unless it’s the sort of mistake you make all the time, it has interrupted your innate assumptions about what is happening – it’s a surprise. You have to take a step back and rethink it.

In engineering the would happen if we had a new technology that was being used. Even with loads of rigour in the design, assumptions about the environment would be made. In flight tests were designed to find where those assumptions were wrong. And when they did – it took a huge effort for everybody to take a step back and figure out where the assumptions were mistaken and then some thinking out of the box to fix them.

Responding to the environmental crisis needs the same kind of interruption and the same step back from our normal assumptions. Extinction Rebellion has made a great effort to interrupt us so we recognise we cannot carry on with business as usual. Responding to corona virus in a way also demands the same interruption to our normal way of thinking. Not in that we need to panic – quite the opposite, we need to do our best to be safe and hygenic, and not to panic. But even more importantly, unlike the automatic consumerist world we live in whose response is to buy everything imaginable to take care of ourselves. We need to think about others who might be more frightened, more at risk, more in need.

In today’s gospel Jesus demonstrates his ongoing subversion of our understanding of the world we live in. Jesus has been stirring up trouble, this passage comes just after John’s telling of the cleansing of the money lenders from the temple. It also comes just after Jesus tells them that the temple will be torn down and he will rebuild it in three days, only the word he used for temple also means body and he is talking about his resurrection on the third day.

Perhaps that’s why Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, To challenge him for his outrageous teaching. Maybe some of the Pharisees have been chatting around the water cooler and are thinking – what is he doing? He’s going to get us all in trouble. Because, of course Jesus was a Pharisee. A teacher of the Jewish faith who believed in some form of resurrection and eternal life. Maybe Nicodemus was going to say: We know you are from God, but you need to cool it or we will all get in trouble with the temple officials. But Jesus had no interest in fitting in. Before Nicodemus says his piece Jesus interrupts him and, in much the same way as he did with the temple being torn down, Jesus makes another ambiguous statement to catch Nicodemus out. It’s not clear from the translation we read, but the word Jesus uses for ‘from above’ also means ‘anew’. Hence Nicodemus’ confusion about having to re-enter his mother’s womb.

Jesus is trying to subvert his assumptions. And he is also subverting ours. We generally associate this passage with being a born again Christian, or being baptised. But to tidily connect it to either of those phrases, creating a new test for belonging. Have you been baptised? Have you been born again? Misses the entire point.

Jesus is instead talking about being born of Gods Spirit. It’s not about passing a test – because, after all, we never earn this eternal life that Jesus is telling us about. If we believe all of God’s creation is an act of God – then who is not born of the spirit? Then he tells Nicodemus something of what truly knowing you have been born of the spirit is about. It is about recognising that God and God’s action in us cannot be fully known or understood. Like the wind which can neither be seen or predicted. Living this eternal life is one where we need to be open to a different approach than we expected or necessarily hoped for.

This eternal life is about modelling our life on and following the life of Jesus. Being willing to have our assumptions challenged, our lives transformed and our expectations dashed. But confident that Jesus has come not to condemn us, but to transform us ever more into the image of God. That we, shaped by the spirit would reflect the God who so loved the world sent his only Son.

The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams

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