Sermon - 22nd May 2016
Here I am, send me!
Scripture - Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
From the earliest days of recorded history, in the attempt to try to make sense of the universe around us, humankind has given names. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, interpreted the world into a series of straightforward stories which would have been told and re-told down through successive generations. In Genesis 2:19, we read: “So [the Lord God] took some soil from the ground and formed all the animals and the birds. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their names.”
Humankind has never stopped the naming. Take the stars, for example: The pattern and shapes we perceive as constellations like Orion or Ursa Minor are attempts to bring some sense of order to the apparent chaos and absence of coherent meaning.
Naming the physical world around us is one thing, but naming and understanding abstract notions and concepts is far more complex. This Sunday in the Church’s year is called Trinity Sunday. If you go looking in the Bible for the word “trinity”, you will not find it. The concept of “The Trinity” is a human attempt to explain and to bring understanding of God’s nature, in that God’s nature is described across the 66 books of the Bible as having three aspects.
If you grew up as a Catholic, it is very likely you will have heard the Trinity explained as a three-leafed clover. You may have seen some preachers use the illustration of water existing in three states of ice, liquid water and steam.
Other preachers will have sought to explain the Trinity using art, where the artists themselves have sought to enlighten their audience, whether in stained glass, in painting, or through icons All of these are human attempts to bring understanding and insight to the person of God.
Embracing inclusive language, a more modern approach is to describe afresh God’s aspects to be that of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
And so to our Bible readings. The passage from St John’s Gospel challenges us with abstract concepts of being “born again” and “eternal life”; and the Isaiah passage is a literary attempt to express the mysterious experience the prophet had in his mystical vision into heaven itself.
Firstly, the passage from St John. Nicodemus came to visit Jesus late at night. Who was Nicodemus? He is mentioned only in St John’s Gospel, and is mentioned three times: here, in today’s passage, later in discussion at the Temple with other Pharisees; and finally, at Jesus’ burial.
The Gospel tell us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, part of the group of religious leaders of Israel of the time. Why did Nicodemus come at night to see Jesus? We can only guess at an explanation. Maybe Nicodemus did not want to be seen by anyone, so used the cover of darkness for his visit. Maybe he just wanted to talk to Jesus privately - without other Pharisees, without the crowds and without Jesus’ disciples - and at night was the best time to do this.
From Nicodemus’ two other appearances in St John’s Gospel, it is clear that Nicodemus is at the very least a sympathiser of Jesus’ message, or possibly he is something more.
The conversation between the two men can be broken down into three questions and three answers, each of which deserves some comment.
Nicodemus’ first question is more of a statement in which he acknowledges that Jesus has come from God, and it is the miraculous signs which Jesus has performed which has led Nicodemus to this conclusion. Curiously, Nicodemus uses the first personal plural – “we”. Was he referring to the whole group of religious leaders of which he was a part?
Each of Jesus’ answers begin with “I am telling you the truth”. This is expressed in original Greek as “Amēn. Amēn.”, and this is a common phrase throughout St John’s Gospel. Jesus’ answer is not to confirm what Nicodemus has said. It is not seeing the miracles that is important, but the change that comes over a person as a consequence of the spark of faith that began upon seeing the miracles. That change, Jesus calls “being born again”. The Greek word used for “again” is “anōthen” which has a number of meanings including “again”, “for a second time”, “from above” or “from the top”, all of which occur at different points in the New Testament.
Interestingly, it is the ambiguity of the word used which allows Jesus to explain Himself further. Nicodemus’ understanding of “again” is a physical one, which triggers his second question to Jesus: “How can a grown man be born again?”
Jesus immediately clarifies His teaching and that He means a spiritual re-birth, and it is Jesus’ longing for all humankind to be reborn. It is interesting that the metaphor Jesus uses is that of the wind. Too often, faith and religious belief are understood by many – presumably as a result of their experience - to be moral straight-jackets, creating do-gooders and party-poopers. Jesus’ metaphor of the wind to describe reborn people is one of liberation and total freedom!
This leaves Nicodemus stunned into incomprehension. His third question to Jesus is: “How can this be?” As a devout Jewish teacher, obedient in the Jewish Law, rituals and customs, the concepts of beginning life afresh, and living life with freedom akin to the wind would have been an anathema to him. A modern comparison might be trying to explain the smartphones and the Internet of today to our great-great grandparents, had we known them just some 100 years ago!
Jesus then challenges Nicodemus - and presumably the other Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders, as He said “none of you”. Jesus challenges their stubbornness; He refers to His death and resurrection; He refers to Himself in words which Nicodemus as a religious scholar would have understood immediately to be the Messiah, the Saviour: in Hebrew, “Ben HaAdam”; that is, “The Son of Man”.
And so, on this Trinity Sunday, a day on which we try to consider the all-encompassing nature of God, we read of how Jesus sought to explain His purpose in coming. The verse John 3:16 is perhaps one of the most well-known in all the Bible: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.”
Churches apart, references to this verse are often seen on signs at sporting events, even the players! Sadly, many preachers put on the brakes at verse 16 and do not keep reading into verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”
Despite recognising that Jesus was from God, Nicodemus and the other Jewish religious leaders of the time did not accept Jesus’ teaching. Their harsh condemnation has been perpetuated throughout the centuries within much of the Church, judging people instead of loving them.
The word for “love” Jesus used in John 3:16 is “agapē”. Compared to Greek, English is a poor language when it comes to describing love. Jesus was not talking about romantic love (ēros), nor was He talking about familial or friendly love (philia), nor was He talking about the love of country or respect of elders (sturgē); Jesus was talking “agapē” love, that is sacrificial love, love which brings life and freedom. And Jesus was talking about that life beginning now, not just in the life after death.
What does this passage have to say to us as LGBT Christians? Many of us have had the experience of being judged and rejected because of a sexual orientation or gender identity. Listen again to Jesus’ affirming words in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”
The so-titled Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss in his commentary on St John’s Gospel compared Nicodemus’ late night visit to Jesus with those Christians – both lay and ordained – who remain closeted in respect of the sexual orientation or gender identity; those who live their open, religious life in the daylight, but refuse to embrace their physical beings and the associated desires and longing.
All of us here today are on a journey, part of which is living out our reconciled human identity with our diverse sexual and gender identities. Robert Shore-Goss wrote:
“The integration of one’s sexuality with spirituality, the fleshly and the spiritual, requires a coming-out, a rebirth. The [LGBT] Christian disciple enfleshes spirituality and does not deny embodied dimensions of desire and passionate longing.” (ibid.)
But while we, here, are on that journey, many others are not. The voice and the volume of condemnation and hatred that has emanated against LGBT people still rings more loudly in their ears than the call of Jesus and His sacrificial love for all of humankind.
So what do we need to do about this? Our first reading today was from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6, written around 780 BCE, which can be dated accurately against contemporary historical records – “in the year that King Uzziah died”. The reading attempts to describe a vision of God in Heaven, surrounded by heavenly creatures or angels.
This vision is similar to the ones described at the start of two other Old Testament prophets, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The words sung by the angelic beings, beginning with the Trisagion – “Holy, Holy, Holy” – has been part of Christian worship from the beginning. This we sing every week as part of our celebration of Communion.
Let us put this into its original context with Isaiah. Like us, in our own feelings of inadequacy, Isaiah felt inadequate. Like us, he looked around and saw the majority of people living lives empty of God. Like us, Isaiah felt burdened by his own sin and weakness and ill-equipped to speak up.
Something wonderful happened to Isaiah, depicted in a painting where the angel took a burning coal and within touched Isaiah’s lips.
Like the rest of the vision, there is clear symbolism here. With the coming of central-heating, radiators and electric fan heaters, it is only in the past few decades that we have lost understanding of this; yet, many of us will still remember earlier our lives our homes being heated by coal fires, and the image of the glowing coal. But it is at this moment, the moment when the fire of the coal cleanses his lips, that life begins again for Isaiah, and he is ready to go and be God’s prophet.
It is perhaps mixing metaphors somewhat, but God’s call to us to be born again of the Spirit is not at all dissimilar to the call of Isaiah. This reading from Isaiah is often read at services of ordination and commissioning.
Jesus, our Saviour, has invited us in, and by His sacrificial love, we are saved and have eternal life. We are born again of the Holy Spirit, cleansed and made new. And having been born again, we stand ready for God’s question: “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?” Who will go and speak the Good News of the all-embracing, non-discriminating love of God?
Nicodemus may have been a closet believer in Jesus, coming to Him at night. Let us not be closet believers in Jesus, afraid to mention our faith, particularly among our LGBT friends. So when God asks of us: “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?”, may we have the courage, faith and strength to answer: *“Here I am. Send me!”