Preacher Ruth Martin
Pope Francis, who last week celebrated his first year in office, and Tony Benn, who died last week, have something very much in common.
Both inherited the trappings of power, the one elected by fellow Cardinals, the other inherited from his father. Both decided to do all they could to shed those trappings of power and privilege in order to demonstrate with their lives their identity with the powerless.
Both stepped away from their earthly parentage to make their own mark on the world in quite spectacular ways, whatever our view of Tony Benn’s politics and whatever our view of Roman Catholicism. Both were/are men of integrity, mission and purpose.
They also of course had something very different; Pope Francis a man with faith in God, through Jesus, acknowledging the Holy Spirit.
Tony Benn, though surrounded by people of faith as a child, his mother was a theologian, regarded the Bible as moral teaching, and Jesus as the carpenter who was a prophet.
Those of us with faith know how grateful we are to have it, how testing it can be, how reassuring in times of trouble, how comforting it can be in times of need.
To walk in the light is impossible for some peoples of our time for reasons that are totally beyond their control for prisons that encircle them where they have no key from which to escape. But for Nicodemus, as for us, the prisons may be simply in our own minds because of our culture, our own backgrounds, and so he struggles – as we surely struggle – to understand what Jesus means by a new birth that is not from our human world. Sadly, just as he crept into Jesus presence at night, so he disappears again, into the darkness, just as we might question and push our faith forward, and then retreat again for a while .
We hear about Nicodemus later on in the Gospels, when he comes back again and eventually he makes it into the light of Christ but Nicodemus in this story struggles to escape from the constraints of his times and hasn’t reached the light, literally, yet.
What is our new birth and how do we mark it? There are of course traditions in the church where rebirth is dramatic, sudden and a complete transformation takes place almost it seems overnight; for others of us, it is a transformation that takes a lifetime.
Our baptismal certificate, if we still have ours, is in one sense our new birth certificate. It doesn’t say what we will do to live out the life offered to us as a child of God, but it does say that something important has happened to help us on our way. That we belong to God.
How can we use Lent to walk more confidently in this light ?
Pruning our lives, shedding what we do not need, spring cleaning our lives, sorting out our baggage, Lent can do all of those things.
There will be many Christians who mourn the fact that Tony Benn never quite made that step of faith in recognising Jesus as God’s gift of His son, but he did see in Jesus a radical, bent towards a mission of valuing each person; in Jesus time this meant enabling Gentiles as well as Jews to be children of God, not just Jews with their careful genealogy of proving parentage as descendants of Abraham, but everyone. As Christians being re-born we have to be prepared to let go some of the constraints of who we are in order to become whom God wants us to be. There is always some personal baggage to sort out.
For Tony Benn, fighting injustice meant first turning aside personally from privilege, which he saw as a burden to the person he felt he needed to be. And so he renounced his peerage in order to emerge more strongly as a man of the people. It is a cliché to say that sometimes the people of God do not acknowledge God in themselves or their lives, but surely Tony Benn would be one such man. No one could doubt his integrity, or his moral purpose, or his attempts to ensure his own life aligned with his beliefs and values.
Yet I believe that Tony Benn was short-changed by his belief that the Bible was only about moral teaching.
Our readings today show that ultimately it is God’s righteousness, God’s instruments on earth and our gift from God should we acknowledge the grace of God’s presence in our lives, and that is the rebirth we search for. To love God, acknowledge God, and live for God as new people. To rejoice in the gift of Faith.
As we hear so memorably:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’
There are traditionally forty days in Lent and during this time we can spring clean ourselves in a number of ways. We can show justice to God by prayer, and reading scripture; Paul actually takes three chapters of Romans to explain man’s great need of God, and God’s remedy; Jesus and how Faith is the cornerstone of our new life in Him.
It is hard to feel full of sorrow for our sins, which is so important in Lent, when we have such a glorious day of early springtime, and so positively I think we need to celebrate faith, and so an excerpt from a poem by E E Cummings:
I thank you God for this most amazing day
For the leaping greenly spirits of trees
And a blue true dream of sky
And for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is ‘yes’.
How should tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing any-lifted from the no of all nothing-human,
merely being, doubt unimaginable you?
So let us all have a holy lent and encourage each other in our journeys of faith.