The Allusive, Alluring Truth

March 12, 2017

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using John 3.1-17 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12th March 2017, the Second Sunday of Lent.

Visitors to Winchester Cathedral might well be disappointed if they were to come here to find a building looking much like any other – like a school or library or supermarket. This great structure is not a slightly tweaked Tesco but something wholly other, and indeed one of the exhibitions opening in our south transept next year will be called ‘Decoding the Stones’, because for most people the stones need a lot of decoding. It will set about explaining why the place looks the way it does – and it’s a story that involves decay and wilful destruction as well as lots of creative vision, faith and ambition.

So the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a tourist found it she said, well I had expected to find history and architecture here and to have my interests tickled, but I found instead something glinting, half-buried, that reflected my hidden hopes and desires. And I wondered.

Here in the inaccessibility and attraction of this cathedral lies a parable about communicating the deeper things. There are some truths that we cannot approach too quickly. We can’t immediately take them into our stride. If we were on a guided tour, we could take into our perambulations the fact that the tower collapsed in 1107 and then just as easily forget it by the time we got home, but the truth we are seeking is more allusive and substantial.

I’m sometimes struck by how after some terrible trial for murder the victim’s family stands outside the court relieved that they have at last had justice. Justice can never reverse wrong or hurt, but it is real and substantial. It can salve the wounds of love and refresh hope as surely as water slakes the thirst of someone lost in the wilderness.

We’re thinking here about one thing. The way in which the truth touches us and how this relates to our sometimes intermittent, sometimes failing attempts to seek what is true. It’s a good theme for Lent because it’s all too easy to think of Lent as a season for pulling in our whalebone corsets in order to catch God’s eye in life’s beauty pageant – and that’s just the men.

But as Christians we’re not allowed to do this. Our whole tradition is against self-improvement and nowhere more than John’s Gospel, our Gospel today. We’re not allowed to imagine truth as an eternal idea and to see all our attempts to grasp it as being like trying to catch the shadows projected onto the walls of a dark cave by the sun, as Plato had it. Truth in Christian faith is far closer. It dwells among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t make things easier, though. We can sympathise with Nicodemus. He is sniffing about the truth revealed in Jesus, so he comes by night to seek him out. A respected religious leader with a good reputation among his people is entitled NOT to commit himself too far, too fast. And his opening remarks show respect and a willingness to learn and understand a new position: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’.

And that is right, as far as it goes. Turning water into wine, as Jesus did at the marriage at Cana in Galilee, is not merely a magician’s trick. It’s the sign of an abundance around which can only be from God.

So we might expect encouragement from the Rabbi Jesus or perhaps some coaching. Coaching is in vogue, but I’ve been coached in tennis, on-and-off, for 46 years. And what I’ve learned about coaching is that it builds on the positive. It does not say, ‘Why is it that almost every time you trying to smash the ball you’re square-on to it and so likely to stuff it into the net?’ It says, ‘Wow, when you turned your shoulder that one time, did you notice how much more power you got on the ball. I think that might quite possibly be the best smash you’ve ever hit.’ And if that is said, there’s a small chance of some shoulder movement on subsequent occasions – occasionally … maybe.

But Jesus does not coach like that at all. Instead, he moves the goalposts. And he does this for the sake of truth – this allusive and attractive reality brought near to us in his words, his signs and his presence. And it’s fair to say that Jesus leaves Nicodemus behind at this point, though if we trace Nicodemus’s other appearances in John’s Gospel we find him growing in courageous discipleship.

What Jesus gives us in this conversation with Nicodemus, though, is challenging, alluring, allusive, beautiful truth. Nicodemus is wrong-footed, as his imagination is pulled from the womb to the weather to the witness given by Christ, till we reach the last, most famous verse: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in his may not perish but may have eternal life.

It is a statement of truth as majestic as any of these soaring arches, but how are we expected to understand it? Nicodemus should understand as a teacher of Israel, but he doesn’t. What do signs, such as the turning of water into wine, indicate? They indicate that we need to receive Jesus, the One who does them. These signs invite a response of faith or belief in Him.

If we believe in Jesus, we will be born again. If we believe in Jesus, we will feel the wind of the Spirit and will have eternal life, a quality of life which comes from above, from the heart of the Father.

But receiving the truth is not in the least easy, and this is one reason why Lent is a gift for us. I am currently rather haunted by the scene of Christ in the wilderness. Lots of people have had to suffer talks from me on it and you are sadly no exception. Because in the wilderness even Jesus had to learn how to believe in Jesus – had to take on his calling, discover who he was for others and in the world. He had to be present to what lay beyond his obvious needs, in wind and fire.

Lent is a struggle because the truth we seek is not some small variation of our respectful intentions towards God. Nicodemus so wanted a slightly bigger picture of the truth, till Jesus blew it up. And if we want to receive Jesus we have to allow our respectable, cautious selves to be displaced. Sometimes this displacement will happen because we are caught up in suffering. Our familiar horizons and our ways of coping are challenged and even destroyed. God is in that and his invitation in Jesus Christ extended personally to you.

And sometimes, out of a strange sense that our coping routines and small pictures of truth really belong to the dust and not to the Spirit, we shall voluntarily allow ourselves to be displaced. These are the disciplines of Lent – prayer, fasting and works of mercy – the ways in which we deny ourselves to follow Jesus Christ and learn with and in Him what the truth is.

It is allusive and alluring that when we probe who Jesus is, all we hear him say is we must believe that He is sent by the Father: he displaces himself to show us the mystery of God – a God who is not distant, but who is giving himself to us in truth, in the person of Jesus.

Jesus is our Lenten invitation; he is the way, the truth and true life.