2nd Sunday of Lent Genesis 12.1-4a Romans 4.1-5,13-17 John 3.1-17
The traffic in Brighton never seems to stop. Day and night, cars, buses, lorries, taxies and bikes, trundle through its streets. It’s a relentless flow of life and restlessness.
It’s entirely unsurprising that few drivers or cyclists would ever pause outside our churches, so I’ve taken to looking at what their noticeboards say to the fleeting passer-by. In one place I was struck by the sight of a crucifix, standing cold and proud, but on which the inscription, “God so loved the world” (John 3.16) could barely still be read.
We live in a culture that finds it easy to ridicule Christian faith and the practice of religion. Recognition of this demands that we reflect carefully on what forms our presentation of John 3.16 should take. Strident claims about truth and authenticity will do little to promote an expectation that experience of God is characterised by tenderness.
Experience of God’s love so often requires us to learn how to handle what is tender and fragile, like the miracle of new life. Vulnerability is how we learn that knowledge of God is incomplete and always will be in this life. Like the wind, says Jesus, “thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3.8 KJV).
Incomplete does not mean imaginary. These days we find that the news often brings us face to face with the persecution of the Church. We remember ferocious attacks on the Coptic Christian community and on Christians in Southern Sudan. These seem to come closer to us when we also meet Coptic Christians living as part of our community, here in Sussex.
This expresses the material nature of Christian faith and it always has. Writing to Christians in Smyrna in the early part of the second century an elderly bishop, Ignatius faces execution and declares, “If these acts of our Lord were mere appearance, then so are my bonds. Why then have I exposed myself to death, fire, sword, wild beasts?”
As Jesus seeks to explain all this to Nicodemus, there is something in the exchange between them that suggests what our presentation of this truth might need to be like today. “How shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3.12).
One senses a blend of bewilderment and pity in Jesus as he says this. And those emotions are perceptively interpreted in essays edited by an American academic, Kenneth R R Gros Louis, where it is observed that “men like Nicodemus have identified themselves with definitions they know too exactly...For them revelation has become, quite unconsciously, a kind of technology.”
Perhaps, on this second Sunday in Lent, we need to re-examine our preparations to live, through liturgy, the experience of death and resurrection that is the expression of how much God loves us. Does worship ever become mere technology, needing release in order to convict us afresh, and many others with us, of the love of God?
Like many churches in this diocese, the “parish church of the nation”, St Paul’s Cathedral, in the late 19th century set about the task of releasing its worship to be more effective, and it adopted the famous words from today’s gospel, “God so loved the world”, as its strap line. In 1888 a huge altarpiece was installed, illustrating controversially in words and graphic sculpture the story of the life of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, dead, and buried; risen again on the third day.
In the previous year, 1887, the Organist of St Paul’s, John Stainer, described by Sir Arthur Sullivan as a genius, had composed an oratorio that captured the popular mood. In this work music was used to bring to life the truth held by visual art. Liturgy was released from the technology of mental processes in order to engage heart, mind and imagination.
Like Nicodemus, people came seeking light that shone in darkness. In art and music they sensed the stirring of the Spirit of God, like the wind, as their imaginations were prompted to seek heaven, even here on earth. And today, those who hurtle past St Augustine’s, Highgate, have hearts and minds made by God with the same capacity for imagination and wonder.
It’s over a hundred years since the revival of amazing, atmospheric, ancient and life-changing worship in the Church of England set itself the task of releasing the technology of its liturgical resources. Its mission was to engage with many thousands who had little or no idea what John 3.16 was or meant. The success of this outreach was copied across the land. Stainer’s Crucifixion became a standard expression of Good Friday devotion, while in many churches bold letters proclaimed above the altar or across the chancel screen: God so loved the world.
Different tunes and pictures are needed to capture the contemporary imagination, as will an unfailingly gracious generosity, holiness and tenacious endurance, even to death, whenever Christians can reveal them. And the evidence in our cathedrals is that, Nicodemus-like, many come in search of Jesus, the Rabbi who is from God, and his teaching about heavenly things.
Having been driven hard at work, or by lack of it, they do not seek more exact definitions, or a spiritless technology. They are looking for love. May they find in us the pledge of love bequeathed by Jesus Christ.