Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Philippians 1:3-11

(Just a placeholder until I write the next commentary)

Theme – prayer as participation / extended community

Theme of work, labour, harvest

Theme of love, fondness, kindness, compassion of Jesus

Eschatological angle – "the Day of Christ"

Theme of "the gospel"

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

 

I’m very excited to be starting a series on Philippians at church in a couple of weeks, which readers will know is a book on whose themes I have done considerable research and teaching on over the years. So here I shall attempt to keep up with the series and blog my way through the epistle between now and the end of November.

Verses 1 & 2

We tend to gloss past the first couple of verses of the Pauline (and pseudopauline) epistles, partly as they are all quite similar and partly I suppose because the familiarity of the words chosen by our English translations tends to cause them sweep over us. The NRSV renders the opening of the letter like this:

“Paul and Timothy, δοῦλοι of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the ἐπισκόποις and διακόνοις. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Voice paraphrase avoids the transliteration “Christ” and goes for

“Paul and Timothy, δοῦλοι of Jesus the Anointed One, greet you, our friends in Philippi—those set apart by Jesus the Anointed—and we greet the ἐπισκόποις and διακόνοις who serve with you. Grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the Anointed.”

Slaves or Servants?

I’m going to start this first post with the three words doulos, episkopos and diakonos. The two translations I have chosen today differ in their handling of douloi – NRSV renders it as “servants” (along with NIV and KJV) while TV chooses “slaves”. With five other NT words for servants of various kinds I think “slave is the better gloss in English, although even this is problematic in the light of the racial slavery of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and the legacy of legal and cultural discrimination that has persisted since. In a first century Mediterranean context slavery was a stark fact of life for around 30-40% of the population. Whether forced into slavery by miliarty defeat, economic destitution or kidnapping marauders, many would have experienced the reality of being close to servitude, and at risk of finding themselves in that condition themselves. The massive agricultural economies of Egypt, Greece and Rome were built on slave labour, as were the building projects – including all of the “seven wonders of the ancient world” and other vanity projects which vied for their fame. We shall see echoes of this when we come to our analysis of the Christ-Hymn.

So why did Paul consistently choose that as a ministry title for himself and his apostolic team? Well, I think we need to start with an appreciation of the honour-culture in an Imperial colony such as Philippi. Elsewhere Paul reveals that he is in fact a citizen, but in writing to the churches he takes the title of slave – a title loaded with shame. By taking the shameful label onto himself he neutralises it, giving honour to those who really were slaves in the Philippian gathering.

Caretakers and servers…

Coming onto episkopoi and diakonoi, which the NRSV renders “bishops and deacons” and TV shows as “elders and deacons”, we have several pitfalls lurking ahead of the reader. The first is to read anachronistic fourth century theology of ministry onto the first century text. The second is to treat the nouns as describing something with distinct characteristics. Paul often uses episkopoi and diakonoi, fairly collectively and interchangeably. Interestingly he never uses “presbuteroi” (although the author of the Pastorals prefers that term to diakonoi). The words are always used in the plural – indicating a collective approach to ministry in the local church. The words themselves are odd ones to place as synonyms for “leader”. The NT writers had a very useful word for leader that they used frequently and in a variety of contexts – it is “archon”. Paul allergically refuses to use that word for individuals in the local church – preferring words which speak of manual service, or careful tending. These are not words that the honour-conscious Imperial colony would latch onto – indeed they are somewhat shameful again – so Paul is extending his honouring of the despicable and shaming of the honours system to his beloved friends in the local church.

And what is it that enables him to both see beyond the cultural labels that both blind and separate, and to lift up the lowly under the noses of the mighty – well the grace and peace, which comes from God and is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup…”

The breaking of bread together is and 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 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”.

john9Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples saw a theological question. The religious leaders saw an example to be made.

He was Judah, or Joshua, or Eli – – the evangelist John doesn’t record his name. But Jesus knew his name. The disciples didn’t stop to learn his name. John simply refers to him as “the man”. The man who was born blind and to whom Jesus gave sight. The religious leaders didn’t stop to learn his name. He was just a blind beggar. He was useful to them for a moment, to try to catch Jesus out, but after that they didn’t care. His parents gave him a name. Probably a name that evoked Israel’s glorious past, a name that reminded them of Israel’s bitter present, a name that hinted at Israel’s hidden hopeful future. If he was born in the Greek city states, or in the Imperial colonies he would probably have been left on a cliff one night, shortly after it became obvious that his new-born eyes were not going to open. But they did not do that. They kept him. They nursed him. They soothed him when, in darkness, he bumped into things and stumbled and fell. They raised him. He would never do any work. He would never contribute and every day they heard the whispers. “What sin must they have done to be given a child born without sight?” Was it their sin, or the grandparent’s sin that was being so visibly demonstrated for all to see – in this useless offspring, who could neither provide for his family nor bring in a dowry in marriage.

Everyone knew that sin had consequences. Sin had Consequences. It just did. Everyone knew that. And the sins of the fathers were visited on the children, and the grandchildren, even down to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:4-7b)

Everyone knew that the whole country was reaping the bitter harvest of generations of sin. Look at them. Economically – on their knees. Socially – divided from top to bottom. Militarily – defeated, humiliated and occupied. Theologically – bereft of the glories of earlier days.

Everyone knew because it was obvious. You just had to look around. You could see it. Because that was what life was like. That was what the world was like and that was what God was like.

Some people started believing that God was like the being described by the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle. A kind of being outside of time, who could see all of past, present and future in one glance. All knowing. Ever present. All powerful. Unchanging.

They even read their won Scriptures through Greek lenses.

For them it was obvious. God was a God of Justice. God was a God of Consequences. A God of logical rules. God was the God in which everything made sense.

7,250 people die on the sides of the Himalayas. Their feeble houses shaken to pieces while they slept. Over 3,000 of them children and babies.

For them it was obvious. God is a God outside of time and space. God has a perfect plan. God knows what is going to happen and God has the power to move mountains.

Who sinned? These 3,000 children or their parents?

A gorgeous little boy is born. He is surrounded by love and prayers. There is something wrong with his heart. He struggles for life. He endures procedure after procedure as highly skilled physicians work hard to employ the latest techniques to save his life, while his family and friends pray.

Why him? Why does any little baby need a heart transplant? Why does this happen to us?

For some it is obvious. God is a God outside of time and space. God has a perfect plan. God is all knowing and God is all powerful.

At Siloam a tower falls, crushing 18 men and boys – masons, carpenters, builders. Perhaps the materials were not the best. Perhaps the design was unsound – 18 fathers, brothers and sons taken from their wives and mothers.

13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-4 (NIV)

Who sinned? Was it the builder? The chippy? The architect? The client? The cement supplier? Their fathers or their grandfathers?

To them it was obvious. God is in control. God can hold up a tower long enough for everyone to escape unharmed. God, in his mysterious ways chose not to and God knows why?

In sub-Saharan Africa 22 million people live with HIV, over two thirds of them children. Every year 1.4 million are removed from this number as a result of secondary illnesses for which they have no immunity. Every year another 2 million are infected to take their places.

Who sinned? Was it the child with HIV, or her mother?

To them it was obvious. This is evidently the wrathful judgement of a holy god upon the wicked, and their victims, and their children…

What about those Galileans who enraged the Roman Prefect by staging a demonstration against his building works? Who could have predicted it would have broken out into violence? Who could have known that so many would have died?

Who sinned? The rebels or their fathers? Or the soldiers who were just following orders or the powers who were just trying to keep the peace?

To them it was obvious. God knows the past, the present and the future. God has a plan and God’s will is sovereign.

***

John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John is probably the most skilful writer of the four canonical evangelists. Some people say he was writing in the style of “apologia” – a type of document produced as a defence in court. In which witnesses are introduced, give their evidence and are never heard from again. There is some merit to this understanding. Typically in John the minor characters do not interact with each other, only with Jesus – but this pericope is not like that. Jesus frames the section at the beginning and end, but there is extensive dialogue between the characters. John also uses recurring characters, such as the disciples or the Pharisees to put questions to Jesus that move along the argument. This is a passage like that.

John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John also uses big metaphors– flesh / spirit, life / death, light / darkness, blind / seeing. This passage is a good example of that. In fact the Tanzanian theologian Elia Mligo remarked that this is a passage where, other than Jesus, every single character is shown to be blind, including the reader – and only some of them receive the light of Christ by the end of it.

John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

You see when you ask simple closed questions you already know the answer. Its either A or B, so which is it? But as we have seen in our studies all this year, when you ask Jesus a question, you might find your whole world opened up to a new way of thinking.

They asked Jesus “is it A or B?” – and Jesus refused to be drawn into the limitations of their thinking by answering “Neither”

When you ask Jesus “is it A or B?” – don’t be surprised if the answer is “Neither”

The disciples knew what life was like, and they knew what God was like, so they asked Jesus…

***

Now, if Jesus had a favourite saying it might be relevant at this time. It wouldn’t be “Your sins are forgiven”- he said that on seven recorded occasions. It wouldn’t be “Ye must be born again” – he only said that twice, and then to the same man. It wouldn’t even be “love your enemies” – he only said that four times. What is the phrase Jesus is recorded over 28 times of using – the nearest thing Jesus has in the Gospels to a catch-phrase?

“You have heard it say, but I say unto you…”

Whatever you have heard about life, whatever you have heard about God, whoever you have heard it from, listen.

Listen. Its not like that. Life is not like that. God is not like that. Not like either of those choices.

Our stories about life, and stuff, and God and the why of everything don’t work. They don’t work because God isn’t like the Greek-statue version of God portrayed in those stories. They don’t work because God isn’t a classical Theist – unchanging, unemotional, beyond time and space, infinite in power, mysterious in wisdom. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise. In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Jesus came to show us what God is like. And the revelation of the early church was simple – God is just like Jesus.

The Bishop John V. Taylor said “God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all”.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury put it this way: “What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is – is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition.”

Tripp Fuller reminds us that for our theology to qualify as Christian, our picture of God has to be at least as nice as Jesus.

***

So how does Jesus encounter the man blind from birth?

Well there is a word that the gospel writers use time and time again for the way Jesus interacted with people in pain, people in distress, people who were being excluded by their betters in society, people who were being blamed for their sin or tat of their parents.

And the word is “splagchnizomai”

The RSV renders it “pity”. The NIV sometimes translates it as “indignance”. King James has it as “compassion”, not a bad word, but one which to our modern ears loses some of the impact of the visceral nature of the metaphor. The Greeks derived the word for “spleen” from this word. And good old John Wycliffe, in his more earthy language renders it as “Jesus was moved in his bowels”. In fact we see the same root word in Acts 1:18 when in death Judas spilled his “splagnon” over the field. The word can also have shades of being “tenderhearted” – although again that word has been de-tenderised by a million boy-band song lyrics.

You see “splagchnizomai” is not about having a nice thought about someone. Its not about feeling guilty, or sad, about the pictures of homeless children in the Himalayas. Its not about hoping someone’s going to get better. Its not a word we experience in our head’s at all, or even in our hearts.

“splagchnizomai” is the gut wrenching, heart tearing, entering into someone else’s pain, and letting them enter into the mess of your own life – that both of you are transformed by the experience.

“splagchnizomai” is not the distant uttering of an abstract, immutable God, who knows everything already and is unchanged by experience.

“splagchnizomai” is a concrete expression of love. It is ragged love. Dirty love. Honest love. Open love. It is the love that completely shares. It is the love that risks both hope and disappointment. It is the love that gets down in the mud.

“splagchnizomai” might move you beyond pity, beyond indignance, beyond empathy to action – action which according to Jesus own brother is the difference between real live faith and the lifeless, belief in God that characterised demons and the powerful of his day.

17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? James 2:17-21 (NASB)

“splagchnizomai” might birth in us the love of which John in his later letter wrote:

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NASB)

With “splagchnizomai” people might hug the person living with HIV, visit the convicted criminal in HMP La Moye, bake a casserole for the family who are having a hard month

“splagchnizomai” is both a divine gift of the Holy Spirit and the moment in which we are most human – bearing the image of God.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that spits on the ground, makes a spitty, muddy paste and rubs dirty saliva in your face.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that risks the social contagion of being seen with the wrong sort of people, of embracing the excluded and honouring the stigmatised.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that recognises that not all families come in the same size and shape as ours, that not everyone is turned on by the same things as us and God has made some people who are turned on by what disgusts others.

My favourite theologian says “splagchnizomai” is an immersive love that peels off the daily pleasantries of life to lay yourself raw and bare to the needs of someone else. (KSN)

It is what Jesus is like – and that if we are Christians that is what we say is what God is like.

Jesus said […] anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… John 14:9b (NIV)

Jesus took great care on numerous occasions to show that God was not like the powerful deities that sat behind Caesar (or Antiochus Epiphanes). Jesus showed God to be more like a woman who seeks out a lost coin until it is found, or a parent waiting to throw a party for a returning wayward child, or a good shepherd, caring for and tending for every last one of the flock.

The Greek and Roman deities of infinite sovereign power ultimately stand behind the principalities and powers who plunge the world into war, famine and poverty. Gods of power sit atop cultures of violence. An omnipotent deity is a God who builds crosses.

In Jesus we see the God who bears the cross, who is nailed to a cross – just as the powers always execute and humiliate their opponents. A God who is killed by the powers.

As it was remarked in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri recently – a legal system shows its power not by killing the guilty, but when it knowingly kills the innocent. That is the message of power of the cross which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians.

If that is what Jesus is like, then what is our calling?

Well firstly, Jesus calls us into this “splagchnizomai” way of being…

“Become compassionate as the father of you all is always compassionate”.

Luke 6:36 (AT)

So our vocation in God is to be compassionate.

Secondly, we recognise that it is not a natural thing to do. Our natural drives and Darwinian instincts propel us to look after our own, to protect and preserve, to play it safe and to keep things polite. The way of Jesus is outrageous to civil society. You just don’t act like that. Especially towards those kind of people (who had it coming to them anyway). No it is a distinctly unnatural way of being. Some might say supernatural. I prefer miraculous. Jesus recognised that only the infilling of the Holy Spirit makes it possible to love as God loves. And we need to be filled and filled again with the breath of God, present in every fibre of our being.

So our vocation in God is to be filled.

Thirdly, we need rituals. First, baptism to mark our death and burial to the ways of the powerful and to enact the resurrection life of the age to come.

And then the breaking of bread. As Cranmer wrote in the BCP “at all times and in all places” we are called to be a people characterised by the breaking of bread in Jesus name. Our vocation is to be a people known for the odd company they keep around Jesus’ table. We need to be a people giving Jesus to others. Our vocation is to be a people bringing the presence of Jesus – in open hospitality – to the stranger, the blind man, the person living with HIV, the convicted prisoner, the doubter, the hater, the person whose life is falling apart.

There is so much to cherish in the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer, but we need to become the BCP. To become a people to whom the world can “draw near with faith”. To be a people who say to a painful world, ‘here “take this holy Sacrament to your comfort”‘. To be a people whose very life, as well as our frequent words, says “God have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus”.

Our vocation is to be a people who are the body of Christ in our community. His feet. His hands. His words. His embrace. His compassion. To be a blessing, an absolution, a benediction to those we meet. To make a difference and be part of the solution.

To be a people, whether we take Communion monthly, weekly or daily, who say to the world around us ‘this is “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was” and still is “given for thee”

To be a people, whether we break bread with hundreds, dozens or just one person who needs the touch of God in their life, whose service to the community will “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”

To be a people, whether we share Jesus in a Cathedral, around a dining room table, in a prison, a hospital or on the dirty pavement outside a car park, who can invite the whole world to “Take (us) and eat (with us) in remembrance that Christ died for thee (and for me).”

Our vocation, whether like me you believe in the “real presence”, or like the Protestants you hold to a symbolic Eucharist, is to offer Jesus to the world, and to say “feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.”

And that is good news that will change the world.

Amen.

Once again the devil took him to a very high mountain, and from there showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence. “Everything there I will give you,” he said to him, “if you will fall down and worship me.”

“Away with you, Satan!” replied Jesus, “the scripture says, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve’.” Then the devil let him alone, and the angels came to him and took care of him.

Matthew 4:8-11 (JB Phillips)

So, Satan had tried tempting Jesus to base His ministry, and by His example the ministry of the renewed people of God, on the two classical appeasement strategies of the ancient world; bread and circuses. The meeting of people’s basic needs of life and the amusement of their social interests.

We saw in the French revolution and in many popular uprisings before and since, that if you can satisfy the crowd’s needs then you have their power at their disposal. Naturally this only works if you are in a regime that has stripped the people of the means of providing the basic food and shelter of life, but whether you look at eighteenth century France, first century Palestine or many parts of the twenty-first century’s global south, you can see the appeal of this route to power. It would have been so easy, with 5,000 well fed people at his back to march on Jerusalem, which may have been held by as little as 600 Roman legionnaires. Jesus resisted this temptation to use meeting people’s physical needs as a means of securing their allegiance.

We see, too, in the modern celebrity culture of music, film, sport, business and politics, and just as much in the idolatrous honours system of ancient Rome, that you can control the minds of the population through spectacle, amusement and trivial distraction. And the more spectacular the bigger the draw…

But Jesus wasn’t drawn by the temptation of providing bread and circuses and nor should we.

Obviously it is a good thing to meet people’s needs. To give food to the hungry, shelter and clothing to the homeless, company to the lonely, to be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate… But the temptation is to use that provision to coerce a reaction, to hold captive an audience to our well meant Gospel message, to create a loyalty of dependency.

Obviously it is a good thing to minister healing, deliverance, blessings, sacraments to people and we should earnestly seek to be used by the Spirit of God to bless and to heal and to minister and to make manifest the sacrificial presence of God at all times and places… But the temptation is to use the wonders, not as a sign pointing to the One who is the ever living priest of the whole world but as a pointer to our own programmes, ministries and churches.

Jesus said no, and so do we.

So how could Satan pull Jesus away from his Messianic vocation, and us away from our priestly vocation as the renewed people of God?

According to Matthew, Satan, the principality of this world, the power that stands behind all of the powers that be, played his Ace card. “You could run all of this Jesus.” You could have the power. More power than Alexander the Great, more power than Augustus Caesar, more power than King David, more power than Herod, Pilate and the whole establishment of lackeys, cronies and hangers on.

Of course there’s a catch. You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you don’t build an empire without breaking a few heads along the way. If you want to concentrate this much power in the hands of a few then someone’s gonna bleed.

It is a price worth paying say the Kings and CEOs, it’s the only inevitable way of the world say the Presidents and Generals, its for the greater good says Satan and the media barons. And what does Jesus say?

Away with you Satan.

Jesus identifies the temptation to use power, with its inevitable violence, as the temptation of Satan, the spiritual identity behind all the powers that be. The true face behind the celebrated image of Alexander, Augustus or Herod.

In the words of Brian Zahnd, whose reflection inspired me on this passage, “Jesus realises that there is no such thing as “good violence” and “bad violence”, there is only violence and that comes from the devil. To use violence for the sake of good is to bow down before Satan. Jesus would not worship Satan, even to do good.” The ends do not justify the means, although Satan’s words are gentle on the ears and coax us into thinking that.

And so Jesus, God’s rightful King of the world, is executed by some middle ranking provincial official, in a dusty backwater of Empire. In doing so Jesus demonstrated the true power of God as what Caputo calls a “weak force” in the world. A force of love from below, not power from above. The power of the cross overcomes a world which is beholden to the power of the sword, the bond markets and the law.

And so Jesus resisted Satan, which led inevitably to the cross. And the church? The church has fared less well over the centuries in resisting the Satanic temptations to create social justice programmes which turn human beings into mere animals, in resisting the Satanic temptations to sensationally market the gospel like a wonder product, or circus spectacle, or ally itself to the violence based powers of the world, as if by association it could achieve the redemption of Satan without the corruption of its own soul.

And as for us. We are tempted in every way like Jesus. We are tempted to use the resources we have to coerce or curry favour rather than to bless without any hope of return. We are tempted to do things for show and spectacle rather than merely for their own sake. We too are tempted into the system of honour and power, which greatly rewards its loyal subjects and renders the illusion of goodness and justice.

Jesus, help us to resist the temptations of the Evil one. We cannot do it without each other and without your Spirit, so inspire us today, in your name. Amen.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 443 other followers