Sunday, 18 March 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16)

This is regarded as the most quoted part of scripture. You see it on billboards, notice boards, letter heads, church mission statements throughout the world. Others include “God is live and he who abides in love …” Also, “Come to me all you who labour and are burdened.”

 Deciding what these sayings mean, and what they might mean for each individual is difficult. Today let’s stick to John 3:16.

 Experiencing God’s love in his gift of Jesus to save.

·         What does that mean?
·         What does believing that feel like?
·         How does it work?
·         Eternal life – what is that?
·         Can we be sure everybody wants it?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, who is caught up in the message and drama of Jesus. He is also frightened. He is a leader amongst the Jewish people and Jesus has a message that is unsettling and powerful. Under cover of darkness he comes to Jesus, hungry to learn more from this intriguing man. He and Jesus have an involved conversation about the kingdom of God, about being born from above, about water and the spirit.

After Jesus’ crucifixion it was the same Nicodemus who found the courage to accompany Joseph of Arimathea to prepare the body of Jesus for a dignified burial. Surely something must have happened to Nicodemus, a change, a conversion. Something is happening at the core of his being. That is what this text tackles. Some inner being stuff.

Since January I have spent some time working in schools with a Catholic theatre company. Each day we go into a different school and through drama explore the complexity of relationships, their joys, pressures, difficulties, burdens, vulnerabilities and expectations. Martin O’Brien, the writer of the plays has created some wonderful characters to build his plots around. One of my favourite characters is a fifteen year old girl called Sian. When we first meet Sian she is waiting with her brother for a coach that will take her to Lourdes. She is in a wheelchair and gradually her story is revealed. She was hit by a car at the age of 11 and since then has been confined to a wheelchair. She is angry, ‘shouty’ and bitter. The next time we meet her something has changed. The same strong personality comes across but there is a difference.  This is how she describes it.

“Well I sat there by the river that runs through Lourdes. And across the river was the grotto where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette. And all around me there was a big procession going on with thousands of people, many of them in wheelchairs like me, and they were just processing around singing this song over and over again. Ave Maria. I dunno how to describe it, yeah, but as I sat there I got this deep sense of peace. I felt loved. By God. God loves me. I knew it. I can’t describe what happened but for some reason now I just know that God loves me.”

“After my accident, I hated myself. I was proper bitter. I just thought I was a piece of rubbish and good for nothing. But the thing is God made me. And he doesn’t make rubbish does he? Only good things. Only good.” (Two Faced © Martin O’Brien)

This experience of love is the message of the gospel. Some think experiences like these are the preserve of great saints and mystics, but a fifteen year old girl, caught up in the drama of her own life, feeling isolated and useless, comes to know just how beautiful she is in God’s eyes.  Why? Because, ‘God so loved the world…’

As we journey through Lent and move closer to the dramatic events of Holy Week, I encourage you to ask the same questions that Nicodemus did. I invite you to be as open to the winds of change and grace that Sian experienced.

Yesterday we celebrated a saint of these islands – Patrick. His prayer puts this experience beautifully

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
We are not forgotten. St Paul tells us that we are works of art. We are something beautiful. We are beloved.

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