Details of the Anglican Church Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot can now be found at https://www.anglicanchurch-poland.org/gdansk
Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.
Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.
Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
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Photo by Margot Krebs Neale
The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly, this sign…
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Jesus’ promises of life, powerfully demonstrated by signs, have for me made for a thrilling and challenging journey through John’s Gospel during Lent. Now, however, we are confronted by dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and by illness, death and grief in John 11. The sisters at Bethany had believed wholeheartedly in Jesus and his healing power and the Martha’s “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21) is heartfelt. In contrast, her reply when told that Lazarus will rise again sounds less so and more like a lesson obediently learnt from the rabbis (“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”). With death comes corruption. Who does not “wobble” sometimes?
Those wonderful promises to Nicodemus (in John 3.16) and to the Samaritan woman (in John 4.13-14) include the two word “eternal life.” In the end we either trust Jesus or we don’t.
We live in time and in eternity
The promises mentioned in John 3 and 4 were both linked to teaching about the Spirit, the “Breath of God,” taking us right back to the first sentences in the Bible. The bottom line is that the Creator can also recreate. The breath came into them [the bones] and they lived (Ezekiel 37.10). We are not asked to understand how. After all how can the mortal understand the immortal? When asked “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37.3).
Faith – not in a proposition, but in a person
Let us go with Jesus to the tomb as the sisters did. Jesus’ tears showed, as the onlookers remarked, his love for his friend, but also, surely, his love for the whole human race facing death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3.16). Martha’s fear at the prospect of the removal of the stone acknowledges physical fear at the horror of death. Illness is real, shock is real, loss is real, grief is real and, yes, death is real. Yet the sign of the unbinding of Lazarus is one of release from the fear of death: Unbind him and let him go. Furthermore, in death we go, trusting, where Jesus himself has gone before: “O Lord God, you know.” And we know that death was conquered and a new kind of life opened up.
And eternal life …?
Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”
“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” […] “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands- dead […] The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
[…] the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. […] now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read…
(C. S. Lewis The Last Battle)
Words and knowledge fail, of course. But the signs given in John’s gospel during Lent prepare us to contemplate the death of the Lord and His victory over death itself.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)
I can count on one hand the times in my life when I have been properly thirsty. Many of us are so blessed with good things that it is a rare experience. The same may be true in the spiritual sense. Indeed we may not even be able to identify our problem. In western countries it is all too easy to turn aside from spiritual thirst and dryness, seeking a panacea, a distraction or a quick fix. Some of us may ‘treat ourselves’, seek out ‘comfort food,’ decide we need a holiday or some entertainment to lighten the mood, watch a box set, perhaps escape into ‘retail therapy’ or decide that the cure lies in a nice cup of tea. Yet these strategies, helpful as they may be in the short term do not solve the problem when strength is sapped and morale sinks (nor, of course, does escapism cure the suffering of depression). At worst this turning aside can take the form of rebellion against God and the idolatry of materialism, as was the case with those of the Israelites in the wilderness who, experiencing real thirst, denied God’s work among them and wanted to return to Egypt.
If Nicodemus in last week’s gospel was pointed forward to the cross, the Lord’s discussion with the woman of Samaria looks forward beyond this to Pentecost. Nicodemus, a man who seemed to have his life under control, struggled with the sheer simplicity of the call to accept a free gift and be born again. New birth is the beginning of new life, but now we are made to consider how spiritual life is to be sustained, grow and flourish. The unnamed woman at the well seems to become aware that her life, and indeed her religion, were stagnating and responds to Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. She leaves her water jar (and remember that set of enormous water jars at the wedding at Cana!), understanding what is meant by “living water”, an endless stream bubbling up from the source that will transform the staleness of her life.
Many in religious communities have deliberately turned their backs on the avoidance tactics that the materialistic world offers. To do so is not a kind of self-flagellation, but trust, and those who have done this often describe periods of spiritual dryness followed by a discovery of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Those who accept the challenge to trust, find the streams of water in the desert. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35.6)
When in the noonday heat we may be tired (as Jesus was), when in suffering we may thirst for God (as did Jesus, unimaginably, on the cross when he bore the sin of the world), we are not abandoned in the wilderness, as individuals or as a people, if we go forward in trust instead of turning aside. The living water bubbles up from the source, ultimately filling everything. It is from the source that this life-giving sustenance comes, by contemplation of what the Creator has done, by prayer, which is the daily centre of our relationship with God, the Bible and the sacrament. This may be experienced as we pass through green pastures or, through perseverance and trust, in the wilderness.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3.1-2)
His religious commitment was not in doubt, he was an experienced interpreter of the Scriptures and he followed a demanding rule of life. A teacher and a thinker, he was well-organised, thorough, competent and well-respected. This may be supposed from Nicodemus’ identity as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. He responded to Jesus’ teaching in a thoughtful, questioning and respectful way, rather than feeling threatened and trying to outdo him or trip him up, as were some of his fellow Pharisees.
As a result of his position, he had good reason to approach Jesus under cover of night and out of public view. Yet John’s Gospel also marks off darkness from light symbolically. Jesus himself claimed (and was immediately challenged by the Pharisees), ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8.12).
Can humans reach out to God, whose Spirit, ‘the wind of God’ was present at creation? No. ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases.’ Instead, God has come to us and can bring about a rebirth and a restoration of the relationship of trust between God and humankind.
A simple question.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. (John 3.9).
Rabbi to rabbi: not understanding but trust
At first Jesus explains in Nicodemus’ own terms: an interpretation of the Torah. The Israelites under Moses, suffering a deadly disease in the wilderness, a consequence of their own lack of trust in God, were invited to acknowledge this and, by faith, receive life (Numbers 21.4-8). Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3.14-15).
The Gospel in a nutshell
John 3.16 Breath-taking in its simplicity. It tells of the trust that was built into creation once more becoming a reality. The door stands open. How can this be? It is by the very nature of God, who is love. It is a gift, which becomes a reality when received in the grateful acceptance that is faith.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In the light…
And Nicodemus? He is referred to twice more in John’s Gospel, in each instance with the explanation that he had first come to Jesus by night. In both cases he identifies himself clearly with Jesus, while doing so by means of the law and ritual in which he had been trained. In the first he questions the conduct of his own colleagues towards Jesus, only to be turned on scornfully as being himself one of Jesus’ followers (John 7.50-52). In the second he anoints the body of Jesus at his death and assists Joseph of Arimathea at His burial (John 19.38-42).
In view of the secrecy surrounding his first meeting with Jesus, is it not also likely that it was Nicodemus himself who was John’s source for the wonderful account of that meeting given in John 3?
:ow disheartening it is to feel that we are constantly being side-tracked from the main business of our lives! This frustrates us in our daily round (bureaucracy, household chores, distractions on the internet, unsought obligations) or as we look back with regret at longer periods in our lives when we lost a sense of purpose.
It helps, of course, to identify clearly the purpose that we are being distracted from. The first representatives of humankind had a God-given purpose, working with their Creator in caring for the creation: ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it..’ (Genesis 2.15)
All that they needed had been provided. What response could there be other than trust, obedience and walking with their Creator? Yet, this was not enough. Despite the abundance of food supplied for them, they reached for what had been set apart, they rebelled against God and the friendship was broken.
Retreats are everywhere: for businesses, churches and individuals, and there is quite a “retreat industry.” There is value in trying to put aside the distractions and making the most of our God-given time, but it can’t be confused with any kind of “self-help,” let alone an escape or anaesthetic, if we are to rediscover God’s purpose. It will involve restoring trust (and this is where fasting comes in), obedience (seeking God’s will in the Scriptures and listening to his voice in prayer) and the restoration of our relationship with the Creator through Christ our Lord. Only then will we be able to realign ourselves with his purposes for us. This is the source of peace, something which no wellness centre can supply.
Getting away from it all – in the wilderness
In the wilderness (which in the Bible is certainly not a retreat centre and is generally a setting for a struggle) Jesus, weakened by hunger, was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4.15). He declares trust in his Father and obedience to his word: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). His ministry, suffering and death cannot be separated from God’s purposes. Indeed a refusal to walk with God is identified as both rebellion and, ultimately, idolatry.
Purpose and peace
Trust, obedience and a restored relationship with God are themes echoed in the closing lines of James Edmeston’s hymn Lead us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us:
…thus provided, pardoned, guided,
Nothing can our peace destroy.
And thus we can face the distractions.