The Roman Catholic comedian Frank Skinner was recently quoted as saying that “you can be anything in Britain today except a Christian”. Certainly, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury once observed, it seems that in many respects our culture has become opaque to the Gospel. Which is why, for instance, you might find that declaring yourself a Christian can be a great conversation killer at a party. For many people, their default setting is that ‘religion’ (in any form) is territory for bigots, fanatics, terrorists and the inadequate. Sneering would seem to be appropriate. After all it’s been ‘de-bunked’ hasn’t it?
Well, I suspect that the territory is far less monochrome and negative than this but the worst of it for me are the unthinking assumptions one encounters. The first is that people have already examined the claims of Christ and found them wanting; which hardly anyone has, because again, they`re just lazy. And secondly, you`ll note that the faith is judged like just about anything else these days; that is by its usefulness to me. In other words, unless it will enhance my life-style and fit in with my goals and ambitions, then forget it. Which of course, is to get things entirely the wrong way around. But anyway.
However, my main concern is to note the effect this atmosphere and culture is having upon us. What I mean is that, putting it crudely, since we all want to be liked our default setting for the last few generations is one of accommodation. That is, we have striven to make every aspect of what we do and believe acceptable according to the predispositions of what`s called `modernity`. So, for instance the often, unexplored assumption in the minds of so many of us is that what we do here Sunday by Sunday should be characterised by a certain `reasonableness`. For much of the time it seems that the unspoken requirement is that I will be confirmed in what I think I already know; which is probably why many of us stick with the same newspaper.
And all the while, when we give in to this way of operating, we reduce the essentials of the faith to something WE can grasp, control and squeeze into our own world-view. And when we do this… dear old Nicodemus becomes our Patron Saint. Because I would suggest that this is what he was looking for in that late night conversation with Christ; but in the event he was terribly disappointed. But, Nicodemus is, in one sense, a great blessing to us simply because he shows us what it`s like in the presence of Christ. He embarks on this religious conversation with this new Rabbi from out of town and as soon as Jesus starts to speak we can`t help thinking Nicodemus has a look on HIS face that says, “What was he talking about?”
And the point is that Jesus isn`t phased by this opaque and blinkered man. He even, I think, teases him by speaking of him as a “teacher of Israel” (John 3.10). No, Jesus addresses his inclination to sneer and mock things he finds different. He metaphorically `tweaks` him by the beard and says that, “it`s really not surprising that you can`t see the Kingdom of God. You need a complete transformation in your way of looking at yourself, the world and God`s purposes”. What I`m getting at is that, I`m not sure the impact of what Jesus is doing here really gets under our skin as it should.
I think, for most part we get all distracted by the silliness that`s often associated with that phrase `born again`; and so, we miss out on what the Lord is actually saying while giving too much attention to the religious `fruit-cakes`. I mean why are we so uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus means what he says when he talks about of some kind of transforming work of the Spirit within us? No, rather than risk getting emotional about it; rather than surrender control we think, we ought to be able to `reason out` this thing we call faith. Which is why we`re suckered into thinking that people will come to faith if only we come up with the right words to explain it all!
But it just doesn`t work like that. Jesus told Nicodemus, “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”. Some people `see it` and some people don`t. When I was very little I learnt a nursery Rhyme. Maybe you did too… It went like this:
Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat pussycat, what you did there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
It`s a strange little rhyme. But confronted by the Queen, the cat couldn`t actually see the Queen. Why not? Well, firstly, because cats aren`t really interested in Queens. They`re after mice – and the cat saw what it was looking for. It got the answer to the question it was asking. This I want to suggest, is the problem for Nicodemus….. and for so many of us in the presence of Christ. Nicodemus looks at the King but can`t really see him. He`s rich and learned but he`s like the cat who`s only interested in mice. He sees everything from a well proscribed point of view; that of his ego… Or how `useful` Jesus might be to him.
Yes, clearly, Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus; the `signs` he had been doing had provoked him to thought and even to make this surreptitious visit to speak with him. But Jesus won`t let him off the hook. For Jesus, the priority is, as ever, the coming Kingdom. The reign of God in his world. And no, Nicodemus, you won`t see it; it won`t make any sense until you surrender your life to it. This is why it`s hard. You have to die to be born again.
The surrender of our ego-centricity; exposure to the life and breath of the Spirit means that the whole structure of life AS WE HAVE SHAPED IT, will have to collapse. And this is always especially painful if you shape your life like a Nicodemus; if you prefer a tidy, superannuated, highly-insured world and you trust in your own righteousness and your ability to get your own way.
Just think, in contrast, how shattering it is to become tethered to the Spirit; a mysterious and unpredictable partner who like the wind, blows where it wills. But there it is. This Gospel passage with its reference to being born again so often provokes a reaction. But it doesn`t matter whether you dismiss it, look sheepishly down at your feet or sneer; insisting that “I`m not THAT sort of Christian” and “it doesn`t really apply to me”.
It won`t do to pretend that Jesus didn`t mean any of this. It won`t wash attempting to create some `reasonable` version of the faith, more palatable to our way of thinking. We can`t “have our cake and eat it.” Yes, we live in a culture that sneers and finds what we proclaim at best odd and at worst offensive. To which my uncharitable response is “So what!” My more considered response is “Why are we fretting?” when the Lord teaches us that it is quite natural for people not to `get it`. It doesn`t mean we leave people to stew, of course not.
But the more `reasonable` and palatable we try to make things; the more effort we put into `persuasion` or even `selling` the faith ….the less room we leave for the work of the Spirit. The NECESSARY work; the transforming work WITHOUT WHICH, as the Lord says no one can truly see the Kingdom of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls someone; he bids them `come and die`”. Since he gave himself up to death at the end of a Nazi hangman`s rope his words cannot be taken lightly. But this encounter with Nicodemus brings home exactly what it is that has to die. This is what we need to pray with this morning. This ego-centricity. This inclination to see and assess Christ and the faith according to how `useful` it is to us and our agenda. And our need, instead to be `born from above`…. Subject to the work of the Spirit. Because, in the end, it`s resistance to THIS … that`s the reason for all the sneering.