I had to have a chuckle the other day when I saw the words ‘The Vault’, as the name of the strip club which is coming to town. It is not a very encouraging name, is it? OK, I guess it is in an old bank building, so maybe there are connotations of riches buried within and plenty of security. Yet, even when I think of a bank vault, it doesn’t seem very exciting. It is not the first place I would think to hang out in. For a bank vault is typically dark, enclosed, and pretty lifeless. Indeed, when I first hear the words ‘The Vault’, what really comes to mind is a place with tombs. Royal and well-to-do families have had such things in the past: places where the tombs of the family dead are interred. So, being in a vault, doesn’t seem very appealing.
In a way though, I guess calling a strip club ‘The Vault’ is, in that sense, actually quite appropriate. For, leaving aside the more lurid and prurient reactions of our more wowserish brothers and sisters, I don’t think we should get too wound up about it. As Toowoomba grows, it is fairly likely that such things will come into our midst. I guess a strip club also provides a kind of a brief, cheap thrill for some. Yet it is not much of a contribution to light and life. So the name ‘The Vault’ seems quite fitting. For if I were seeking light and life, I’d be thinking about getting out into the open, into fresh air, and making real connections and relationships: not hiding away in a dark corner, furtively peeking out in a hoard of fantasies. That might work for a pile of gold or banknotes, but not for human beings. It does indeed speak of being locked away in a death-bearing tomb, rather than finding new life and resurrection. Which is the alternative option offered by Jesus in our Gospel story today…
Nicodemus in our Gospel story today represents all human beings who are caught in darkness and stuck in a vault. He is not a bad man but he is a trapped man. He senses that Jesus is offering more to life but he cannot really grasp how. For to explore that new life, he would have to let himself be changed. He would have to step out of the darkness and emerge from his vault. He would have to come out of his security and his sense of control: all of which would be good for him, but all of which is very hard to do. For Jesus calls on Nicodemus to be born in a new way. The biblical word, in the original Greek, is ανωΘεν (anothen). It has often been translated as ‘born again’, but it could mean ‘born from above’, which is how our recommended bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version, puts it. Indeed this is an alternative given by the King James Version of the Bible too. It might also be translated in other ways too perhaps: such as ‘born afresh’. ‘Born again’, ‘born from above’, ‘born afresh’: all of the translaations are about the same thing. They speak of being created into new life, in a dynamic, mysterious, way.
Dynamism and mystery: these are at the heart of Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus, and to us. Living in the light of God cannot be found in a mere set of religious beliefs or religious practices. Experiencing new life cannot be found by hanging on to our securities or staying in our tombs, or our wombs. We have to allow ourselves to be changed: to be grown, nurtured and brought into new spaces, dimensions and relationships by the love of God. And this is mysterious. For we won’t quite know what is going to happen or where we might be taken. It is much more than what so-called ‘born again’ Christians tell us. It is not signing up to their salvation security scheme, or buying into their religious vault. It is about a much deeper sense of freedom and a much more exciting journey of faith. For to be ανωΘεν – born again or born from above – is live constantly, more and more, into the mystery of the love of God. It is not about one special moment, and certainly not about becoming a particular kind of Christian. It is about being repeatedly renewed by the light and love of God. No wonder the words and images Jesus uses to describe this renewal are mysterious ones like wind and water and spirit. For this is a process of entering and growing more deeply into the mystery of being itself: the mystery of the eternal life which gave us birth in the first place; the mystery which lies at the heart of our own being at this very moment, nearer to us than the heart which beats and the breath which we breathe; the mystery of the fullness of life which longs to make that reality so much more fully alive in and for us.
Bob Dylan once wrote that whoever ‘is not busy being born, is busy dying’. How right he was. We have a choice in life, in every moment of our existence. We can choose to let God bring us to birth, or we can choose to hide away and gradually wither away. Nicodemus had that choice: the choice to step out of the darkness and come into the light. We all have that choice. Our darkness may differ. The vaults in which we prefer to hide away may differ. Yet we can all be transformed; born again, and again, and again. We can all be born from above. Last week I heard some powerful stories from two state school chaplains as they talked about their work of walking alongside young people in our schools, helping them face their darkness and pointing them towards light. One arrived back at her school this year in the immediate aftermath of the two murders of a child and her mother earlier this year. They had been a close part of the school family and their deaths had plunged the community into a terrible vault of pain and grief, touching upon their own individual and shared darkness. The other chaplain spoke movingly of the depth of darkness in those many young people who are drawn to self-harm and suicide. How can they escape their vaults of pain and living death which threaten to consume them and entomb them for ever? The answer is: there is no simple answer. We can no more save others from their darkness than Jesus could simply save Nicodemus from his own pain and darkness. All we can do, by God’s grace, is to offer one another a way out, and pray that, perhaps gradually, we will all trust in the light, in the mystery of God’s transformation.
One of the chaplains spoke of one young woman who was making that journey. Slowly, uncertainly, just like Nicodemus, she is making her way into the light, being born into new life out of her darkness of self-harm and thoughts of suicide. What has made the difference? To begin with it has been the words of the chaplain ringing in her head even in the deepest darkness of her vault: ‘you are worth it’. ‘You are worth it’; you are worth life not death; you are loved. You are loved, not for what you have done or not done, but just for who you are. You are loved whatever darkness you feel or share in; whatever vault you are entombed in; whatever keeps you from the light. And that young woman is finding new life, is beginning to be born again, by encountering a community which has loved and accepted, and affirmed her. It hasn’t, to date, been a church community, but it could be. For that is our calling, as a community. We are not called to maintain a religious tradition, or a set of beliefs, or still less a building. We are called to be midwives to one another: helping each other be born to the fullness of life; unlocking the vaults of darkness and leading one another to light.
In the name of God, the source, bearer & spirit of Light, Amen.