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Sermon on John 3:7

The Bible says "Ye must be born again." …

I’ll start that again. Jesus said "Truly, Truly I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot see the Kingdom of God"…

I’ll start that again. One night, in Jerusalem, Jesus said to Nicodemus "You must be born again."

Now I don’t have three points on this passage, but I do have one question. Why?

Why did Jesus tell Nicodemus he had to be born again?

And more to the point why did he not tell this to any of the other people he encountered across all four gospels?

To the rich young ruler "Be born again"

To the woman with an issue of blood "Ye must be born again."

To Simon, Andrew, James, John "You need to get born again."

He just doesn’t say it.

Judeans and Romans, rich and poor, sick and healthy, disciples and opponents, Jesus never invited, instructed or commanded anyone else to be born again. Why not?

To be clear Peter talks about out our new birth into a living hope, and Paul uses the imagery of childbirth and new creation to describe what God is doing in the whole world, but why is only Nicodemus invited into this experience by Jesus?

We know quite a lot about this Nicodemus. His name was probably Nicodemus Ben Gurion. He was a Pharisee, a member of Synod, a Judean, a rich man, well-educated and highly respected. I think we can surmise that Nicodemus’ whole identity was wrapped up in his good family name, his privileged background and his upbringing.

So what does Jesus say into this particular situation? He says that the good family name, and all the privileges of high birth are not an advantage. In fact quite the opposite, they are a disadvantage to him. Jesus said that from where Nicodemus was sitting he couldn’t even see the Kingdom of God. Think about that. He is sitting opposite Jesus. Yet he couldn’t see the Kingdom of God right there in front of him.

Jesus said to Nicodemus; "We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen" but Nicodemus only saw what was around him without seeing what was there. A poet once said "Little round planet, in a big universe / Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed / Depends on what you look at obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see."

Nicodemus saw the world through the lens of privilege – he was a man and saw himself superior to women, he was a Jew and saw himself superior to Gentiles, he was rich and saw himself superior to the poor, he was a Pharisee and saw himself superior to the unclean and the sinners. And when you see yourself like that, and you see others like that, you miss sight of the Kingdom of God, sat there right in front of you.

Jesus gave Nicodemus an image to go away and think about. One he’s not thought about much as a well-to-do man. Jesus made him think about babies. And birth. A baby is born weak, unaware of social class, coming into the world without riches, without awareness of status, without superiority. Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to become like this before he could even see the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said to Nicodemus "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus wasn’t living a wind-blown life, full of mystery and opportunity. Nicodemus was living a pretty safe and secure life. The invitation of Jesus was to lose everything he could see and in so doing gain a new world.

You see the Spirit of God yearns to bring us to a newborn perspective. And this is all grace – Who remembers how much effort it was to be born? Birth, from our perspective is something that happens to us, that then enables us to participate in the world. Just as the Old Testament writers described God as a mother; brooding,

labouring, birthing, nurturing, so too can we know God’s motherly love.

Another time Jesus said; "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" and John said; "Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God." The pure in heart could see what Nicodemus couldn’t. When any of us see with love we see something no-one else can see. If my wife was in this room, we would all see the same woman, but none of you would see what I see. And it is through loving people and by practising acts of mercy that we find our hearts changed and our vision changed.

The Spirit of God yearns to give us fresh vision, to see the world the right way up for a change, to see things as they really are and should be, to see God’s Kingdom coming – on Earth as it is in Heaven. And some of us, like Nicodemus, need to lose the ways we have got used to seeing everything. This might be the perspective of privilege that Nicodemus was born into. Or it might just be that we have been told so many times that the world is a brutal, random and unchanging place that we cannot see the hopeful possibilities of love with which the Spirit of God fills each moment.

[Prayer] Spirit of God, birth in us the fresh possibilities of your Kingdom, give us new perspectives, may we learn again to see, let us see through the eyes of love, by your grace and loving nature. Amen

Written for "Into Action" the magazine of the Parish Church of St Helier in the Island of Jersey. First published online at MennoNerds.

Relations between Anabaptists and the Church of England didn’t particularly start all that well. From its Swiss, German and Dutch roots in the 1520′s Anabaptism reached England through people like the Bible smuggler Joan Butcher, an early example that leadership in Anabaptist communities featured both women and men. Joan was arrested, sentenced and condemned to be burnt at the stake in 1549 under the famed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. At the time the well-known chronicler John Foxe appealed to the Chaplain to the King, John Rogers, for him to appeal for clemency, but His Majesty’s chaplain refused with the comment that burning was "sufficiently mild" for a crime as grave as her heretical views against the "sacrament of the altar". Interestingly her views must have been somewhat persuasive at the time as Cranmer’s own theology shifted to a position close to hers shortly after. It is of course better known to most Anglicans that both Cranmer and Rogers suffered a similar fate to Joan in the Marian counter-reformation.

In 1590 Anabaptists were given the choice to take exile to the continent or to join the Church of England. A few declined both these options and went underground. The last heretic to be burned at the stake in England was the Anabaptist Edward Wightman in 1612, whose heretical theology of the "sleep of the soul" suggested that “the soul of man dies with the body and participates not either of the joys of Heaven or the pains of Hell, until the general Day of Judgment, but rested with the body until then."

Anglicans who know their Prayer Book will also be familiar with Archbishop Parker’s Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, in which Article XXXVIII explicitly repudiates Anabaptist economic teachings "The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common … as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast". Other parts of the Anglican creed draw up lines of distinction on matters of non-violence, civil obedience, oath-swearing, the ecclesiastical authority of the monarch and, of course, baptism.

Moving from the inflammatory theological contentions of Tudor England to modern day Jersey I am very pleased to report that relations today are much more cordial indeed. To give a short introduction, I grew up without any connection to a church and was quite dramatically converted on 24 October 1987 at a quarter to nine in the evening. My Christian formation was in a House Church with equally strong charismatic and Anabaptist influences. How did I come to share fellowship with Anglicans? Reader, I married one. My wife Katie is cradle Church in Wales, and we married in St Mary’s Pennard, where she was christened, brought up in Sunday School and confirmed, and where my in-laws still worship.

So what marks an Anabaptist approach to following Jesus? Well we tend to have a fairly literal approach to reading the Sermon on the Mount, leading to well-known Anabaptist distinctives such as nonviolence and the aversion to oaths. We tend to think that Christendom was not such a good idea, and so for us "Jesus is Lord", also means "and Caesar is not", leading to a general suspicion, as opposed to an honouring , of the Principalities and the Powers that be. In many cases this led Anabaptists to turn their backs on politics, and to avoid civil office. We love to read our Bibles, and are less keen on creeds and centrally authorised of worship. We don’t have any concept that corresponds the idea of the laity, so in Anabaptist theology all who are baptised into Jesus and indwelt by the Holy Spirit are called to participate in Christ’s priestly mission in the church and the world. We tend to see the Eucharist as a "peace meal" shared among the communicants as much as it is a personal and individual sign or sacrament. And then there is of course Baptism, which we tend to see as a thing for consenting adults

But the question I was asked was what is an Anabaptist’s impression of the Church of England, well that’s a much harder one. I now know and love many Anglicans and inasmuch as they are the experience of the CofE to me, then the relationship is a fond one. There are of course things that even after a decade of being a welcome guest at the St Ouen’s Church, and husband and father to four of its members, still strike me as just odd. I can’t, for example, get used to the names of dead Victorians on the walls. I find the little sermons frustratingly short, although I do appreciate that some find that a blessing. I still find it odd to see a national flag or a military symbol honoured in a church. I find the Anglican Holy Communion Service to be a strange way to break bread, although I am grateful that communion is extended to me (even though your bread does taste a bit like cardboard). The furniture smells funny and all those names for parts of a church or bits of the Vicar’s costume just seem to elude my memory – I do know what a Narthex is now though, which must count as progress.

Above all the thing that struck me the most powerfully is that you all find these things, which I find strange as, completely normal. And you don’t just find them normal, but deeply meaningful in your discipleship of Jesus. This has been a wonderful lesson to learn, about the diverse ways in which we express our love for Jesus.

Theologically my sojourn in Anglican-land has been enriching too. I have become an avid user and writer of liturgy. I love for example using the Chrism Eucharist, I’m less of a fan of the Commination service, but then I am still new at this. Most people would think this which is very strange for an Anabaptist, but our Balthasar Hubmaier (1480 – 1528) wrote a fine Eucharist which is still sometimes used today. The rhythms of the Anglican calendar have also been a joy to discover. I love the daily Offices you all say at morning and evening prayer, although I do tend to get my coloured bookmarks all muddled up.

Finally I have come to love the variety within the C of E. In the last year I have broken bread with Anglicans at St Ouen, St George, St Peter and St Helier here in Jersey as well as Westminster Abbey, Holy Trinity Brompton, St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals in London. This has helped to show me that Anglicans do not believe in a single right way of doing church but a multiplicity of equally accepted ortho-praxies, something which I tended to think was an Anabaptist distinctive until I met again it in the least expected place.

So I would say thank you for your hospitality in the name of Jesus, the welcome has been much more cordial than the history might have given me cause to expect and it has been warmly appreciated. I have learned much in my walk of discipleship through the ways that you Anglicans practise your love of Jesus in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Peace.

At what we are now calling the contemplative service we had candles, a bit of Taize chanting, a candle-lit journey through the dim evening church into the brighter light of our circle and some thoughts on the theme of the Light of Christ…

"Today is Candlemas. Forty days after Christmas. Its the last day of Epiphany and the final end to the long season of Christmastide, which includes the expectancy of Advent, the joy and celebration of Christmas’s twelve day feast and the reflective re-ordering of this Epiphany season. Those of us who are liturgically minded now have a few short weeks of “ordinary time” before the long cycle that begins with Ash Wednesday at the beginning of March and takes us through fasting, cross, resurrection and ascension to the joyous birth of the church, a new people of God, filled with His Spirit, at Pentecost.

At Candlemas people sometimes recall the ritual purification of that Mary underwent at the temple, by way of blood sacrifice, in accordance with Levitical Law. Sometimes also people remember the “presentation” of Jesus at the Temple, which is recorded in Luke 2 – and which gives us one of the three great gospel canticles, the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon, which we shall sing together shortly.

Still other people recite folk traditions about the weather on Candlemas day, being indicative of whether Winter is mostly over, or still has a few tricks up her sleeve. It is this tradition which is taken up in the 1993 Bill Murray film; Groundhog Day, so Happy Groundhog Day too.

Groundhog Day, though a light romantic comedy, has been described as one of the most spiritual and though provoking films of its generation. In it Bill Murray’s character is a repugnantly self centred TV weatherman who seems to find himself cursed to re-live the same day of his life over and over again. Since there is no tomorrow and no consequences Bill’s character initially amuses himself with over-eating, an act of robbery and seducing a vulnerable woman. After a time the emptiness of these distractions, drives him to despair. He even seeks to escape the treadmill of repetition by suicide – ever to wake up again to the same song on the radio for the beginning once more of Groundhog Day.

One commentator has said; “The trick, as the film makes clear, is to avoid being lulled to sleep by the familiar. So long as we are alive we stand at the intersection of all our past experiences and the unwritten future.” (Tom Martinez 2011) Eventually we see him try something different. He lives out a whole day from love, putting others needs before his own. At the end of this kenotic day we see him rest contentedly tired and the next morning, the curse, (or was it a blessing?), is completed and his life carries on, forever changed by this one day.

We have celebrated Candlemas this evening as a recapitulation of the theme of the Light of Christ, which comes in the World, and into our lives. Its nice to celebrate the light of Christ, coming and come, at Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, but it is even more important for the light of Christ to take us into ordinary time. You see ordinary time, is actually the stuff of Christian life. Doing the ordinary, everyday things in the light of Christ’s revelation. And the Light of Christ illumines life in three ways…

By his own light we see Jesus. We cannot force our consciousness to have an experience of Jesus by straining our faith muscles to a great exertion of believing. No, Christ comes to us, comes gently, comes sometimes dimly at first, like a Candle from the Chancel to the Narthex. And this act of grace breeds in us both patience and wonder. My favourite theologian used to say that the Christian life is a journey in discovering and becoming a human being and we cannot become more human than our vision of Jesus.

By the light of Christ we can begin to see ourselves as we really are. Some Christian traditions appear, to my misinformed view, to take a perverse joy in seeing ourselves and more likely our neighbours as worse than one can possibly imagine. As if God was capable of all the loathing and hatred that they feel in their own hearts, but to an infinite scale. My own experience of the light of Christ, is that in Him, and by His Spirit, we find our chin gently lifted up, and we find ourselves in a safe and honest place to grow in love.

By the light of Christ we see the world. Jesus is the light of the World, and in His light we can see the world as it really is, and as it is really becoming.

An exercise. We can invoke the light of Christ into our daily vision. Take a moment next time you see someone. It could be someone you have loved for 38 years, or someone you have seen for the first time on the bus, or perhaps someone you have fallen out with recently. You might be thinking of someone right now. Bring to mind the light of Christ. One way to do this is to sing “The Light of Christ” in your mind’s ear, or out loud if you are really weird. Or just imagine those six notes of the melody. It almost makes you smile just to hear them. In the light of Christ our eyes soften and we find ourselves emptied a little of hurt, anxiety or fear, and filled a little with Jesus’ love, joy, peace, kind-heartedness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, against which there is no law.

And as we heard in the Hebrews reading, in the light of Christ, there is freedom from the fear which drives us into sin, the fear at the root of all selfishness, unkindness and the basis of the whole world’s way of doing things.

The light of Christ has come into the world. If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we are joined to one another, and the blood of Jesus, the Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7).

Amen."

In the aftermath of my talk last week at Church House “When Women were Bishops, and before there were bishops” http://www.businessconnect.je/chow/item/when-women-were-bishops.html, I was challenged as being “anticlerical and having insufficient respect for ordination”.

Well I think I gave a loving and constructive response at the time, but the question has been nagging me a little since, so I thought I’d set out what I think about this in a little more detail.

First of all, I love the fact the people are ordained in the church. Love it. In fact I love it so much that I think we should be doing more of it. Lots more.

Now as the New Testament does not give us a model for ordination we will have to come up with something of a definition. Here’s a quick one:

Ordination is a collective act of the local church in which the body of Christ; (a) together discerns who the Holy Spirit is already equipping, gifting and calling into a work of service, and (b) together recognises, supports and authorises the person or people to continue in that gifting and calling in the context of our local church and the relationships with have with others and the mission field into which we are called.

OK so its quite a long definition, but the key points for me are that, firstly, our job is to spot what the Spirit is already doing and bless and follow that, and secondly that the ordination is as much about the local congregation undertaking to accept and support the ministry as it is about the person ordained accepting it.

So what should we ordain? Well I’d love to see more people ordained to lots of different ministries, some longer term and some pretty temporary. A member of the church is about to go into the local prison every Thursday to speak to the inmates – ordain him to it. Another is about to start volunteering at the hospice – ordain her. A couple are about to lead a Homegroup – ordain them. A team is about to go to Congo for a fortnight to build a HIV education centre and encourage the local church – ordain them. Someone  seems to be increasingly used by the Holy Spirit to pray for healing – ordain them.

Obviously there are some “bigger” roles of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Teacher and Pastor, and someone who has been ordained a few times into more specific roles might well be recognised as having one of these roles too, but lets not focus too much on that end of the telescope. Similarly if your church has an eldership, diaconate, PCC or other governing body, ordain them while they serve, but lets not see these as a hierarchical status.

What should we not ordain? Well don’t ordain people for just doing the normal stuff of church life – don’t ordain someone to be able to pronounce an absolution or benediction in Jesus’ name, don’t ordain someone to be able to baptise someone they have just led to faith, don’t ordain someone to break bread. Unless of course they were somehow “stuck” – perhaps a demon of traditionalism – or feeling inhibited in their exercise of the daily bread and butter of life in Christ, by the power of the Spirit. For someone in this state maybe a little ordination will minister release to them.

And of course in ordination there is no gender bar – whoever we see the Holy Spirit working in and through, we ordain to give our human recognition to the divine gift. Perhaps there is not even much of an age bar either – maybe we would be surprised just how much the Holy Spirit can use the youngest members of the congregation.

So ordination? I’m all for it. But as for the invention of the laity… don’t get me started.

Call me an evangelical

I have just seen a great quote from Menno Simons that I hadn’t seen before. It was on Kevin Daugherty, great blog Koinonia Revolution, and its worth reading the whole post.

http://koinoniarevolution.com/2013/09/16/who-are-you-calling-evangelical/?relatedposts_exclude=986

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound.

Didn’t think I’d say this, but call me an evangelical. Or perhaps someone who is seeking to live an evangelical life, and by grace sometimes does.

The Blokes Eucharist

BREAD

 

 

 

 

 

 

Priest    Peace!

All             Likewise

Priest    God’s great, and worth showing a bit of ‘spect to

All              Yeah, too right

Priest    Let’s show one another we’re all one team

All [to one another] ‘Right mate.

All [to one another] Not so bad yourself.

Priest      Jesus done the big one – lived right, got killed for it and rose again. Now he’s ‘ere so we can share in his victory

All             Amen

The Priest takes a big chunk of bread

Priest    When I rip this bread apart, Jesus is here.

The Priest takes the chalice

Priest    When you drink this alcohol, Jesus is here.

The Priest administers the bread

Priest    Have some of that

All             Ta

The Priest administers the wine

Priest    Get that down you

All             Cheers pal.

Priest    Now you’ve ‘ad your grub what do you say?

All             Thanks Lord

Priest   Come on lads, God made everythin’ and there’s people out there who ‘adn’t got nuffin, so we’re gonna have a whip-round.

All            Fair enough

Priest   Dig deep, its in a good cause

All            ‘S only money ‘innit, can’t take it with you.

Priest    ‘Nuff said, now get out there and get building the kingdom.

All             Right.


Ordered a book off Amazon today. "On Christian Priesthood" by Robin Ward http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christian-Priesthood-Robin-Ward/dp/0826499082 Hopefully it will arrive in a few days and I’ll blog a few reactions to the text. I have been noticing more and more about the idea of Christian Priesthood lately – especially on Twitter, and I have had that recurrent dream of seeing myself dressed up in the whole clerical fancy dress virtually nightly for the last couple of weeks, so its probably a good time to get some of it down in electronic ink.
First though I have cribbed below a few jottings I wrote on the fly back in August to a dear friend whose question was on the lines of "Holy Communion – I’m just not feeling it…"
This is what I wrote to her.
"Holy Communion (to use the Anglican phrase) is an expression of our shared life in Christ. We are the body of Jesus, gathered and scattered, and when two or three of us gather we are particularly conscious of His resurrected presence. In coming together around a table we are powerfully reminded of our shared lives, the ways we have met one another’s broken needs, ministered healing to one another, stood by each other in encouragement and sympathy, met each other’s financial needs, carried one another’s burdens etc. When we feed one another at His table we remind ourselves that Christianity is not a solo spiritual journey, but a community of those who are being saved from the powers.
The openness of the table reminds us that we are not simply helping out our friends in some holy-huddle, but expressing the new creation, to which the whole world is invited, and especially those who seem uninvited by those outside the table who puff themselves up out of all proportion. There is no place for grandeur at the table of the King of Kings! The absence of any lords and leaders reminds us that we are all children of same Father, all sharing in the one loaf. The bear hug, arm-pat or gentle smile of recognition from each other as we eat assures us that we are known and accepted for who we are, both in the community of faith and ultimately by God.
The aroma of freshly baked bread fills our imagination with the joys of the age to come, and the crumbs that scatter remind us of the bounteous provision of God to every mouse or sparrow who prays "give us this day…". The warming hit of alcohol alters our senses, alerting us to the transformation of all things, that goes on by the grace of God working its way into our whole perceptions. The armfuls of leftover wine and bread that we share in the park with the homeless remind us of the astonishing generosity of God.
It is a feast for the soul and the senses, there is so much to take in that we can hardly hope to encompass 1% of it in our meagre minds, and yet over time, as we grow in love for our King and his upside-down kingdom our imagination becomes bigger and more able to contain "the riches of his grace".
And if we don’t feel these things? Well that absence if feeling should challenge us as a community. Perhaps we are not feeling the presence of the body because there are unmet financial needs among us, with some rich and some poor? Perhaps we are not feeling the presence of the body because we have guarded our wounds around the table and shied away from the healing touch of each other? Perhaps there are secrets, perhaps there are surrendered feelings of superiority, elitism or status, perhaps there is the simple pride of solitary religion, and its comforts.
So perhaps the feelings, or lack of feeling, you describe, is the prompting of the Spirit, to press on and press in to deeper fellowship and communion around the common table. Perhaps others are feeling it too… Maybe we all need to break bread (to use language I’m more comfortable with) together."
So I think while I read Ward, I’m thinking I might go through a season (perhaps through Advent) of celebrating the Eucharist daily. Some days this would be as part of my Morning Office sine populo, and where possible concelebrating / communicating at various times and places throughout the week depending where I am and what’s going on – and taking in St Pauls or wabbey on my London days, leading up to the midnight HC which I hope to spend at the lovely St Peters once again.

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