On Thursday 28 May our Community Eucharist preacher was Jesse Zink, a tutor at Westcott and Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College. You can read his sermon below.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
May my words lead us into the written word, which guides us to the Incarnate word, who is Jesus Christ. Amen.
We may lack many things in the world, but here is one of which there is no shortage: fear. Indeed, fear seems to be one of the dominant emotions in our society right now. Immigrants are coming to take our jobs and our benefits. Islamist terrorists might be right around the corner. The country is going to run out of money tomorrow. We can discern a pretty common reaction to fear: control. We’ll put ever harsher restrictions on the entry and movement of immigrants. We’ll increase our powers of surveillance and detention. We’ll impose austerity on ever more sectors of society. The world is changing quickly and that makes some people fearful. And fear leads to control.
It’s not just in our society that we find fear. There’s no shortage of fear in the church as well. Changes in the world are having immense impacts on the church, changes that it is our privilege to grapple with. But change in the church provokes fear about what the future might hold. And fear leads to control. If we can just find the right bishop for every last sliver of church membership, we’ll be able to control our future direction. If we ensure that clergy are unable to perform marriages that are permitted by law we’ll know that control has been achieved. Meanwhile, the great juggernaut of Reform and Renewal rolls through the church, attempting to exert control over all in its path—church finances, leadership development, theological education. Change leads to fear. Fear leads to control.
|Jesus and Nicodemus | Henry Ossawa Turner|
The Pharisee Nicodemus knew something about change. His basic understandings about God and about his religion were being shaken by this itinerant teacher named Jesus, who had turned water into wine and was gathering around him a new community of followers, teaching them strange—and compelling—things. Nicodemus wants to learn more. But he also knows that it will be difficult for a Pharisee of his stature to openly approach Jesus with his questions. He’s fearful of what that will mean for his career. So he tries to control the situation. He approaches Jesus under the cover of night. If he can control the encounter such that no one sees it, then there will be nothing to be afraid of. And it works. Nicodemus meets Jesus and begins to ask him the questions that have been consuming him.
Immediately, however, things go rather off-kilter. Rather than giving straight answers, Jesus responds confusingly. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” This is not at all how it is supposed to go. Rather than answering his questions, Jesus is confounding Nicodemus’ efforts at control. Then Jesus completely stumps him: “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.” This is anti-control: “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Nicodemus replies, somewhat plaintively: “How can these things be?” His efforts at control have gone entirely out the window.
To be a follower of Jesus, it is clear, requires letting go of control. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” Jesus says. This might frighten someone like Nicodemus. It certainly frightens me. But it is actually really good news. Because here’s the dark secret. Our efforts at control don’t work. No matter how hard David Cameron tries to keep foreigners out, the causes and needs that are driving immigration are beyond his control. We cannot control our way to the end of Islamist terror nor can we cut our way back to prosperity. We will not control our way to church unity. We can and should pray for Reform and Renewal but the history of massive, unaccountable, steamroller church programs is not promising. Control is only ever an illusion. It will never put rest to our fears. It will never be the response to change that we so desperately crave. And yet as Christians we must have some response to change and to fear, if for no other reason than that they shape the world in which we minister. Control manifestly is not the answer. What is?
The Christian understanding of change begins not by noticing the changes that buffet us on a daily basis. The Christian understanding of change begins with the action of God. In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has changed the world. God has broken into our world, brought into being the kingdom of heaven in our midst, and through Christ’s death and resurrection invited us to participate in it as members of a new Israel. In response to change like this, Christians do not fear. Instead, Christians hope. Christians hope because we know that the change God has wrought in the world is life-giving. It is change that invites us into a life of rich and full relationships with God and with one another. God’s change is the foundation of our Christian hope.
And yet no matter how much I may tell you about the change of God or the hope of Christians, it can all seem pretty pale stuff next to the traumas of the world. It can be hard to hope when so much around us seems to be falling apart. It can be hard to hope for the future of the church when the church seems so able at shooting itself in the foot, time and time again. Fear can be awfully hard to avoid.
And it is hear that we can find comfort in the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit very deliberately leads us away from fear and into adoption. And it is in that adoption that we are lead to call God, “Abba,” an intimate, loving form of address. When we approach God with such intimacy, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”. This is the grounds of our hope, that the Holy Spirit is constantly driving us to stand in the same beloved position as Christ in relation to our Abba God. If we are to live as Christians in a world of change, we are to live as Spirit-filled Christians, people who can know in our innermost being that God’s Holy Spirit is not a spirit of fear but a spirit that grafts us into the deepest love of God.
Every time I read the story of Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter four. The two encounters are in parallel and John very deliberately contrasts them. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Jesus approaches the woman in the middle of the day. Nicodemus is a male religious leader. The woman at the well is an outcast in society. Nicodemus tells no one else what he has done. The woman tells everyone.
The contrast between the two is instructive for another reason as well. It is this woman who shows us what the life of Spirit-filled hope is like. After her transforming encounter with Jesus, she runs into town and starts talking to all she meets: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The woman is in awe and wonder and what she has encountered. I wonder, she thinks, is this man the Messiah?
If fear leads us to control, Christian hope leads us to wonder. And it is wonder that is in such short supply these days. Our world and sometimes our church has been stripped of awe, of curiosity, of amazement. The most characteristic statement of the Spirit-filled Christian is to say, “I wonder.” I wonder what these migrants from other countries have to contribute to our society? I wonder how these Christians who do not share my views can enrich my faith? I wonder how we incorporate these people who are peripheral in our society more fully into the life of our community? These are not always easy questions to ask. But we are fortunate that the life of this Westcott community offers us so many opportunities to wonder. I wonder what that person from a different diocese, of a different generation, of different theological convictions has to offer that can enrich my walk with Christ. These are the questions that the Spirit is constantly prompting us to ask. Saying “I wonder” is the first step into the way that leads us into deeper faithfulness and into a life more fully marked by the transforming power of the Spirit.
Change is not going away, either in the world or in the church. Change will continue to provoke fear and fear will continue to lead to control. Christians, by contrast, name and proclaim that change which God has already wrought in the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In response to that change, Christians are people who live in Spirit-filled hope, a hope that constantly drives us to wonder.
“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.” I wonder where the Spirit is blowing you in these last weeks of the year?