It’s stating the obvious but you can’t learn to swim on the side of the pool. Where I learned to swim is now a Weatherspoons pub. It amuses me to think that where I earned my beginners certificate is now a dining room. I recall Mrs. Belk and Mrs. Shapland our stern and despairing instructors.
I reckon those of you who had swimming lessons with school will have similar memories too. It’s one of those formative experiences but it’s a skill that once learnt might just save your life.
And although on dry land we could learn all sorts of theories about swimming. The different strokes, the ways to breathe, the theory of how to do a flip turn, These won’t mean anything unless we get in the pool. Unless we take the risk and push out into the deep and try to swim.
It is possible to study theology, the things of God as if you were on the poolside. You can learn all sorts of academic theories, who said what and when, you could pass exams and though it might be very interesting something is missing.
It’s a bit like having learned the strokes and got changed into your swimming gear only when having looked at the water that you decide to return to the changing room for fear of getting wet.
You cannot swim without getting into the pool. You cannot really know about God unless your prepared to enter a relationship.
To swim if you like, with all our doubts, fears and questions into the deep and fathomless depths of who God is. Discovering time and again that our vision of God is always too small because God is infinitely greater than we can ever understand or articulate.
One of the great systematic theologians in the life of the Church was St. Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologie was composed from 1264 to 1274 and is an attempt to grapple with the things of God.
He certainly swam into the depths but wrote at the end of his life ‘“I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”’
In other words though he had spent his life discovering God, there was still more, more to know of the inexhaustible source of truth and love that we call God.
So, having said this what then are we to say? Nothing? Well no, and I don’t want to do myself out of a job – no, we are here because we believe that something of God’s self has been revealed in the person of Jesus.
And it is in and through our relationship with him that we begin to understand something of God. And so, to turn this morning’s Gospel where Jesus meets Nicodemus and tells him that he ‘“must be born from above.”’
Jesus is saying that if you want to know God then you have to leave the side of the pool and swim into an intimate relationship of mutual love. St. Paul writes of this intimacy when he says that we are ‘children of God’.
And it is in and through this relationship that with Jesus as our companion we begin to understand something of who God is. And yet, and yet just as we do in all our relationships – we sometimes struggle and get things wrong.
Perhaps, we cannot believe it to be true or are seduced by that which draws us away from the source of life and love. Whatever it is for us both Jesus and Paul describe it as the flesh.
And this image of living in the flesh is I think not just about the physical the stuff we do wrong but also about how we understand our life.
How, though we are made to contemplate the beauty and depth of God we are so easily drawn to the superficial and the easy, instead of that sometimes-challenging place of unknowing that is the life of faith.
So, perhaps to live in the flesh is to live a life defined by binary truths, black or white, right or wrong, God or nothing but this is not the language of faith. Its the language of the shallow end of the swimming pool where no one has learned to swim.
It is sadly the language of much of our contemporary life, the quick quote, the sound bite, the crude simplification. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie once said in one of my favourite quotes that in the life of the church all the noise comes from the shallow end. And it is from the shallow end where we are often overly anxious to defend God, as if God needs defending. For surely if we believe that God is, then God is. For God is not an argument to be won but truth to be discovered.
But it’s possible I think, especially for people like me, Vicars to know all the theory, all the ideas, all the arguments, to say the right words and offer poetic prayers and yet know nothing of the living God.
A God, who is always more who, expands our world rather closes it down. A God whom we meet in the person of Jesus Christ, through whom we step into the divine life as St John puts it ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
So, it is in and through our life with Jesus, as we read him through the scriptures, as we gather around his table, as we pray in and through him that we discover time and again that God is more, that God is surprising that God is.
And it was our forebears who swam into the sea of God’s mystery and discovered in the early years of the church that the life-giving energies emanating from God were distinct, flowing from the same source but distinct. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, one God.
Perhaps before the Trinity Nicodemus’ words are ours ‘“How can this be”’ we say. And yet as we contemplate this understanding of God like countless before us, we enter a mystery and through it encounter a God who lives, who loves and who is.
A God who invites each one of us to leave the safety of the side of the pool and learn to swim, time and again and who knows it might just save our life.