Lent 2 2008

Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 17 February 2008 at 18:00 (Lent 2)
Written and delivered by Dr Peter Large, Diocesan Reader


In John 3:5. Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.'
For almost 450 years, the gospel passage that we have just heard was read in the Church of England on Trinity Sunday, and it must have stretched the ingenuity of generations of preachers to relate rebirth by water and Spirit to the festival of God-the-Three-in-One. It seems much more appropriate to read this passage in Lent, as we do today.
Several of us here tonight are involved in the Lent House Groups. Study groups during Lent are a revival of an ancient practice. In the early church, the Catechumens - the new Christian converts - had to undergo a period of training before they could be baptized. Baptisms usually took place at the Easter Vigil, and the period leading up to baptism was used to teach and prepare the new believers for their rebirth at Easter. So just as conception does not lead to an instant human being, but requires a long period of growth and development during pregnancy, so the new birth of a Christian at Easter required a period of spiritual training and discipline comparable with gestation. That period is what we now know as Lent.
In modern small families, pregnancy is not of course an annual occurrence, as Lent is, but the effects of the two processes should be the same: to produce a perfectly formed individual from something previously scarcely recognisable. We repeat the period of Lenten training and discipline each year, because learning is a lifelong process, and as we all know, we can never achieve the perfection that we are striving for, and end up being glad that God continues to love us in spite of our lack of permanent improvement.
Rebirth by water and the Spirit is a fundamental process in becoming a Christian. Attempts to separate these two aspects of Christian sacramental life: water and the giving of the Spirit have always failed. We do not know whether the twelve Apostles were baptized in water or not. Some of them had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, and they would certainly have been baptized, but the gospel of John says that Jesus did not himself carry out baptisms. So we tend to regard the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost as the rebirth process for the Apostles. But normally the gift of the Spirit to the new Christian is assumed to coincide with baptismal washing. And because of the association of Easter with rebirth, we see it as giving all believers the opportunity, in the Easter Vigil, during the blessing of the water of baptism to renew our baptismal vows. Similarly too, the use of water when we enter enter church serves a reminder that we are born again in Christ. To let the phrase 'born again' be limited to a particular kind of of evangelical extremist is a serious misuse of the term. By professing out belief, we are in effect being born again, and Lent is our reminder to turn away from sin and selfishness, and face the God who loves us, and to renew our determination to serve him in newness of life.
Christian belief is different from the mystery religions that were popular in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus, and it is also different from the New Age superstition and Eastern religions that attract people in the twenty first century. The fact that our belief is not divorced from the material world but embedded in it, is emphasised in the sacramental life of Christians. And whereas in preaching and practice, we tend to think primarily of the sacrament of the Eucharist, many people indeed would say that we overemphasize the importance of the Eucharist in worship, we give considerably less attention to the other gospel sacrament of baptism. So it is important to emphasize that while washing with water is a one-off and unrepeatable event in a Christian's life, marking an irreversible change in our relationship with God by making an act of commitment (you might compare baptism with marriage in that respect), the process of rebirth is NOT a one-off, it is a continual process of learning and development, and the annual repetition of self-discipline in the period leading up to Easter is a deliberate reminder that we need to reawaken our commitment to Christ so that we can serve him with greater joy in the festival of his return to life after his disgusting death on the cross.
In the last century and today, our attitudes to symbolism have weakened. We have mechanical minds, searching for how things work, and the use of material objects to symbolize the events of the spirit seems alien to us. What we tend to forget is the potency of symbolism. The cross, which was an object of indifference to the Greeks and Romans until the birth of Christianity, and still is an object of indifference to many people today, is an object of hatred to Muslims. The symbol of the glory and hope of our belief raises quite different emotions in the heart of an Islamist. So we need to be reminded, on a regular basis that the symbolism of water in rebirth, no less then the symbolism of the Eucharistic bread and wine, marks a deep spiritual event, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, as the Prayer Book Catechism puts it, symbolising the spiritual activity of God within the material world of his creation. The God whom we worship is an active God, not a passive one, who is deeply involved in the lives of all, but particularly active in those who return his love.
By disciplining ourselves in Lent, we are reminding ourselves that matters of the Spirit are matters of eternity. We are all well aware if the transience of the world and of our own lives, and as we get older, the temptation to enjoy the world as much as we can while we are still here gets stronger and stronger. So Lent exists to remind us that while our present lives are limited in scope and duration, God offers us an existence without limits, without end, without fear loss or disappointment, in which he will be our permanent joy and preoccupation.

Peter Large (web page by Adrian Worsfold)