Archive for March, 2014

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


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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.

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