Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Lent Two, 12 March 2017
I absolutely adore visiting the British Museum in London. I’ve visited it four times, so far, which indicates how incredibly privileged I am as a person for whom flying to the other side of the world is even a possibility. But each time I’ve left the British Museum, drunk on everything I’ve seen, and aware that there were so many things I missed, I’ve wandered around London deeply envious of all the people who live there and who can drop into the museum any time they like. Luckily for me, the nice people at the British Museum have published books and created web-pages about their collections, and it was in one of those books that I found this.
I’ve never seen it in real life but, trust me, the next time I’m in the museum I’m heading straight to it.
It’s a private baptismal font made of gold. I want to repeat that: it’s a private baptismal font made of gold. In 1985 the British Museum bought it from the family for whom it had been made at a cost of nearly one million pounds. The third duke of Portland ordered it made in 1796 to celebrate the birth of his first grandson. The three figures are Faith, with a cross, Hope with an anchor, and Charity, with children. The gold is 22 carat. I find its very existence flummoxing.
Baptism is not, and should never be, private. Sadly, in some times and places it has to be, because becoming Christian is dangerously illegal, but I’m pretty sure eighteenth-century England was not one of those places. One of the things I tell everyone who approaches this church for baptism is that baptisms happen during an ordinary Sunday worship service, because candidates are being baptised into a community, both the entire holy and catholic apostolic church throughout time and space, and the local congregation who will accompany them through their life, helping them to grow into the human being God intends them to be. Baptism is both about our relationship with God, and about our relationship within God’s family. I don’t like to imagine God being ‘up there’ but for the purposes of this I’ll let myself do it – baptism changes both our vertical and our horizontal relationships.
I should be less scornful about a font being made of gold, given that I am wearing a large silver cross around my neck. Jesus was crucified on an instrument of torture made of two random pieces of wood, and Christians throughout history have taken that instrument of torture and made it pretty. On days when I’m not wearing this huge pectoral cross I wear a small silver Celtic cross on which I receive many compliments. As a gift from my Scottish mother on my twenty-first birthday it symbolises both my heritage and my coming to maturity, as well as my faith, so I don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticising gold fonts. But being baptised into the church means becoming a brother or sister to every other Christian in the world, rich or poor, and a gold font used at the private baptism of a member of a ducal family strikes me as the epitome of worldly position defying baptism’s message that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
This incredible font, and I have to admit that it’s very pretty and part of me is glad that it was never melted down to feed the poor, reminds us of just how much Christianity has changed since the time of Christ. In today’s reading we are introduced to one of the most tantalising characters in the Bible – Nicodemus. I’m not sure whether anyone has written a historical novel with Nicodemus as a protagonist, but I think it would be fascinating. He only appears three times in the Scriptures, all in the gospel according to John, and we know nothing else about him. But in the three moments when he appears we see that following Jesus was a vulgar and even somewhat dangerous thing to do.
In today’s reading we find Nicodemus the Pharisee, coming to visit Jesus by night. Why at night? Is he coming to visit a teacher in the quiet hours, when Pharisees were advised to study without the distractions of the day? Or is the night from which Nicodemus emerges to question Jesus symbolic, representing the world of evil and ignorance into which the light that is Jesus has come to shine? Given that we’re reading a story written by John, probably both answers are right. On one of the other occasions when we meet Nicodemus, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing whether to arrest Jesus and Nicodemus reminds them that the law does not judge people without a hearing, he is taunted: ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’ (John 8:52), so I think we can be sure that one of the reasons Nicodemus comes by night is that he’s trying to hide what he’s doing, sneaking away from the other Pharisees.
Emerging from the night, Nicodemus seeks Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness, and tells Jesus that he recognises him as one of the great figures of Israel, a teacher from God. Nicodemus believes in Jesus’ name, because of the signs Jesus has done. But Nicodemus has addressed Jesus as ‘Teacher’, and Jesus is about to teach him that belief because of signs and wonders is not enough. Being ‘wowed’ by miracles does not a life in Christ make.
Jesus answers Nicodemus: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ In Greek, the same word can mean ‘again’ and ‘from above’, and Nicodemus takes the first meaning and retorts: ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ His questions might not be meant aggressively, it might just be a genuine misunderstanding. After all, while we have some idea of what the phrase “born again” might mean, and understand that it doesn’t involve literally re-entering the womb, Nicodemus doesn’t have the benefit of our knowledge of 2000 years of Christian history. On the other hand, it could be that Nicodemus does have a sense of what being born again or born from above might mean, and wants to avoid its implications. If someone is born again, then presumably they will also grow up again. Their lives will change. A re-born Nicodemus might not grow up to be a Pharisee and leader of the Jews. Maybe Nicodemus senses this and is resisting it. Maybe he asks his question not because he takes Jesus literally, but because he’s playing for time, as he thinks about what Jesus is suggesting.
Being born from above. Being born again. What does it mean? ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’ It could be that here water and the spirit are being opposed; water indicating physical birth and Spirit, spiritual birth. But for us, again with that advantage over Nicodemus of 2000 years of Christian history, the idea of being born of water and the Spirit instantly makes us think of baptism. When we are baptised we die and are reborn; the font is both tomb and womb. John the Baptist said that while he baptised with water, Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. In the church today we believe that we are baptising with both. As you saw when I baptised Patrick, before baptising him with the physical water we prayed over it, asking the Holy Spirit to bless both the water and the baby. We believe that it is in baptism that we are all born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit, and that through baptism we will see the kingdom of God.
As Jesus tells Nicodemus, the Spirit is not to be controlled by humans. Like the wind, the Spirit blows where it chooses, and we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. None of us were in charge of our first births; we didn’t choose our parents or where and when we were born. In the same way, it’s God who is in charge of our being born from above. The Spirit blows where it will; all we can do is seek to be open to its coming. For all of us here, we or our parents showed our openness to the Spirit through baptism. Other people may be open to the Spirit in other ways, because at the very end of today’s reading we hear what I believe is the most important thing that Jesus tells Nicodemus: ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ God loves the whole world, not just the Jewish or Christian parts of it.
After his secret meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus later speaks in favour of Jesus getting a fair trial when the temple priests and Pharisees seem to be condemning him unheard. We hear of Nicodemus a third and final time after Jesus’ death. John tells us: ‘After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.’ (John 20:38-40) We don’t know whether Nicodemus is also a secret follower of Jesus, but it seems unlikely, given that Joseph of Arimathea is described that way, and Nicodemus is not. Nicodemus may simply be obeying an important mitzvah or commandment in Judaism, in burying the dead. But he’s showing significant courage in helping bury someone crucified as a traitor to the Roman Empire.
Nicodemus seems to have come a long way from his first, night-time, encounter with Jesus. Possibly Nicodemus has been born and grown up again: from someone taking Jesus literally and misunderstanding him; to someone who defends him, although not by name, and is mocked for it; to someone who bravely helps with his burial. This is why I’d love to read a historical novel with Nicodemus as the hero.
Today, when we baptised Patrick, we baptised him into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. He is acknowledged to be a beloved son of God, in whom God is well pleased. He has become brother to every Christian in the world, (including those who are wealthy enough to be baptised in gold fonts, should they wish to). We pray that after being born again today, Patrick grows up in such a way that he lives as a witness to Jesus Christ, and in such a way that all that he does shines like a light in the darkness of the world. We hope that Patrick will grow up to share God’s ministry, in the same way that Nicodemus bravely shared God’s ministry by helping with the burial of Jesus.
The best way all of us here can contribute to that is by living out our own baptism with love and service and courage. So let us seek to do that, to the best of our ability, with God’s help, nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer, and encouraging one another in service, as long as we all live. And let us always remember that we are baptised, and rejoice in it! Amen.