Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.
A quest into brilliant darkness
Abraham’s quest is to build a nation of blessing. This story of call issued to Abraham in Genesis is the beginning of God saying I am your God and you are my people. Abraham says ‘Yes’ to God, and God says ‘Yes’ to people.
From this first ‘yes’ flows lifetimes of unfolding relationships. God says ‘Yes’ and people start to wonder, what do we need to do to maintain our relationship with God?
Having said yes we want to be in relationship with God, the next emerging question is how to maintain a relationship with God. We listen down the ages and hear Paul in a conversation with the community in Rome on this very topic. There have said yes – we want to be in relationship with God, we are God’s people – but what does that mean? Paul reminds us that God called out to Abraham not because of the things Abraham was doing 'according to the flesh'. Abraham’s relationship with God begins because as Paul says: "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." All Abraham had to do was believe and everything else followed from there….
This word righteousness might sound strange to us, we need to remember that righteousness is a word used to describe our relationship with God. Being righteous for Paul is all about being in right relationship with God. So, Paul is responding to that question about how human beings maintain the right kind of relationship with God. Paul uses the example of Abraham’s righteous faith. Abraham is righteous because he is in relationship with God – Abraham receives God’s gift of presence into his very being – I will be your God and you will be my people. He then goes on to argue that ‘If it is the adherents of the law who are right with God then faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath’; says Paul. ‘For this reason it depends on faith!’ Faith in the presence of the God in whom Abraham believed, and we are also called to believe, ‘faith in the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’.
This line of thought takes us back to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus is a Jewish Pharasee, a leader of the people, a teacher of the law, someone whose job it is to help people know how to look after their relationship with God. Nicodemus recognised something pretty important in Jesus teaching and comes to chat with him one night because he sees something of God’s presence in Jesus life and ministry. ‘No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren't in on it.’
As they talk Nicodemus wonders what Jesus thinks people need to do to maintain a relationship with God and Jesus says – you’ve got to be born from above. Well, this is all a bit too metaphorical and left field for Nicodemus. But Jesus persists, you’ve got to remember who you are in the Spirit of God “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.
Nicodemus thinks he knows about God. He know the limits of things, what is possible and what is impossible. Can you imagine the look on Nicodemus’ face when he hear Jesus claiming that the only way to look after your relationship with God was to be born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus would have been horrified. Nicodemus knew that the only way to enter the kingdom of God was to follow the law of God. That’s what a leader of the Jews like Nicodemus would have known and would have taught. That’s how Nicodemus would have lived his life. Follow the law, do the right thing and then be rewarded in heaven.
What on earth was Jesus on about? “Do not be astonished”, says Jesus, “that I said to you, ‘you must be born form above.’ The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but do not know from where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus is stumped. What on earth is Jesus saying? Nicodemus had his theological boxes all worked out We’ve got to do the right thing, that’s how we get right with God!. And here Jesus is talking about changing everything. “How can this be?” – These are the last words Nicodemus utters in Johns gospel. How can this be?
Jesus is responding to the eternal human question. How can this be? What is God like? What do we need to do to maintain our relationship with God? How can we have eternal life in God? Jesus seems to be telling us that we don’t need to do anything, we just need to be faithful. Jesus is breaking down the neat structures of religious thought and stretching the limits of the possible. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but do not know from where it comes or where it goes”.
The Spirit of God is beyond your knowing says Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is about being willing to have our categories redefined and our God boxes dismantled and blown by the Spirit to places you might never have dreamed of going. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus introduces Nicodemus not to a new theology, but to a new life.
The point is not to replace his little theological boxes with bigger boxes. The point is to get rid of the boxes all together. The point is to develop a new way of being which involves letting go of rules and regulations telling us what to do as if that is the key to salvation. Instead, embrace freedom in the Spirit of God to be born a new into a life not of our own making.
There is of course a place for theology and doctrine and rules and regulations. Thinking seriously and getting things organised is important, but only when we remember that all of our thoughts and systems and rules and regulations are only there to serve our quest journey that takes us into the light of God’s presence where none of that stuff is necessary.
Gregory of Nyssa who was the bishop in the year 372 and was a leading voice in the Eastern Church describes the experience of seeking to know God as ‘escaping our comprehension’. He asks ‘how can words possibly find any mode of description which could make God visible?’ A person may be able to speak about what he or she sees that looks spiritually beautiful. But these words are merely a step toward a far greater vision of spiritual beauty whose communication is the ultimate reason why all other things are rightly called beautiful’. Gregory of Nyssa says that the more we move toward God the more exhilarating, but darker the experience becomes. He says that the experience of beauty in relationship with God is one from light to brilliant darkness. He’s right isn’t he? Just like Nichodemus in his quest for light ends his conversation in the dark – how can this be? the enlightened mind can never gain direct access to the divine. Awareness of God is revealed to those enduring the contemplative path.
In the 4th Century the mystics of that age described stages in the spiritual path beginning with illumination, - the turning away from the multiplicity of things and discovering a renewed confidence in God where all fear and shame are removed.
The second stage is a time of seeking knowledge of God which is a gleaning of presence within the soul by spiritual senses. This is very different from concrete knowledge of God’s essence which is impossible for a person to attain. It is impossible to look directly at God who dwells in the soul, the experience is indirect and mediated whereby one captures a small glimpse of the divine.
Then at the third stage the soul realises that it cannot come to Know God directly. It is cut of by the darkness of incomprehensibility. This sounds as if it might be a stage of despair, but Gregory tells us that this movement toward God is as never- ending ceaseless luminous darkness – John 1:18 no person has seen God ‘the darkness of incomprehensibility’ becomes present to those who contemplate. It is with this recognition of incomprehensibility that the self becomes transformed. The the moment the searcher recognises this they experience what Gregory calls ‘brilliant darkness’.
I wonder what that’s what Nicodemus felt when he asked: ‘how can this be?’ We hear about Nicodemus at the beginning of John’s gospel, and we hear about him again right at the end of the gospel when he comes not in the night but as a follower in the light. Now he does not say “I know”, he says nothing. He comes bearing spices of worship and a tomb for the crucified and risen One. Spices with an aroma which will be carried by the wind that blows where it will for our relationship with God is maintained not because of what we do, not because of Works, but because of faith in God who has faith in us.