Sunday, 12 March 2017

Born Again? (a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent)

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Raise your hand if you’re a Christian … Now raise your hand if you’re a “born-again” Christian … Just as I thought: a disparity. Which disappoints me hugely, but doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been asking the question to congregations for 35 years and the results are always the same. Instead of being a term with which all Christians can and should identify, “born-again” has become a phrase that some Christians are hesitant to claim for themselves, while others claim it for themselves with a sense of exclusive ownership, both fervently and vehemently, in a weaponised, “Gottcha!” sort of way.

In the US, you get this phenomenon at its worst, because it is associated with evangelical Christians who have an ultra-conservative cultural and political agenda. You’ve heard of the Religious Right, with its idolatrous identification of America as “God’s own country”, its twinning of faith with patriotism, its hardly hidden racist agenda, not to mention its election-winning support for Donald Trump. Fortunately, the UK has been spared this kind of distorted nationalist, nativist faith. Unfortunately, we have not altogether been spared abuse of the term “born-again”.

Above all – yes – the way the term is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian. Apparently it is not sufficient to say (as Jesus himself rephrases being “born again”) that you have been “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5), that is, that by baptism and faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, you have been incorporated into the church. No, to be a “real” Christian, you’ve got to have a special conversion experience, usually dramatic, often dateable, and frequently expressed in public “testimonies”, punctuated with proof texts from accredited Bibles. Otherwise you’re suspect.

And then there is this: because the focus is on personal experience, our theology of mission, which includes God’s global work of reconciliation and liberation, becomes truncated. Evangelism is reduced to Christian cloning – inducing the “born-again” experience in other people and directing them to so-called “Bible-believing” churches; salvation is marketed as “fire insurance” (“Turn or Burn”, as the bumper-stickers so invitingly put it), or at least as the spiritual “equivalent to a healthy retirement fund” (Beverly Gaventa); while a commitment to justice and peace, as well to ecumenism, is completely marginalised.

The huge irony is that all this is quite unbiblical, for justice for the poor, peace among the nations, and a passion for the unity of God’s people – these are fundamental, not negligible, let alone expendable, biblical themes. Justice/Peace is the central message of all the great prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. And the theme of the ministry of Jesus is – what? The “kingdom of God”, which is a corporate concept and refers to the establishment of shalom, not just in souls but in bodies, not just for individuals but for communities, and not just for some after-death or post-apocalyptic future but for the here-and-now. Or do we need reminding of the manifesto of Jesus, proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (no altar call – the congregation tried to kill him), his “mission statement”:

God’s Spirit is upon me:
God has chosen me to preach good news to the poor;
to announce pardon for prisoners and sight for the blind;
to unchain the enslaved and emancipate the oppressed;
to announce: “This is salvation! Right here! Right now!”

And St. Paul, following Jesus’ great prayer “that they may be one” – again and again the apostle fervently pleads for a common purpose among Christian communities.

That is what mission is about: not about saving my butt and getting sinners, via my church, out of the Pit because “the Bible tells me so”, but about witnessing to the fact that in Jesus Christ God is renewing, reconfiguring the whole universe, inviting people to join in his cosmic programme of reconciliation, and encouraging churches to demonstrate God’s shalom by embodying in their life what Jonathan Sacks calls the “dignity of difference”. Each of our experiences of coming to faith – these are no doubt different. But this vision of the one church and the new creation – that is what binds us to Christ, to each other, to the world.

So to be “born again” – well, let’s look – closely – at the famous text in the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3.

First, observe how Jesus begins by pointing Nicodemus to the “kingdom of God”. Right from the get-go we’re not talking about personal salvation and getting to heaven, we’re talking about the new world that is God’s work in progress.

Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without” (John 3:3) – without what, exactly? In the Greek text, “without being born anothen”. Anothen may certainly mean “again”, but it more commonly means “from above”. So the question is: what does anothen mean in this context? Nicodemus obviously takes it to mean “again” – hence his bewilderment at the idea of entering a womb twice. But what if we take anothen to mean not “again” but “from above”? Then what Jesus tells Nicodemus links perfectly with what John tells us in chapter 1, where we read that Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives to all who believe in him the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man but” – of what? – “of the will of God” (John 1:12-13), the God who, in John’s up-and-down heaven-and-earth cosmology is “above”. And then what Jesus tells Nicodemus also links perfectly with what John tells us at the end of chapter 3, where in a single verse (31), he refers to Jesus as “the one who comes from heaven” (v. 31c) and “the one who comes from” – you guessed it! – “anothen” (v. 31a), which clearly means not “again” but “above”. Thus not “born again” but “born from above” turns out to be the better translation of anothen – as, in fact, many Bibles in English now acknowledge.

But look, I’m not the word police! By all means let us speak about being “born again”. Paul never does in his letters, but the First Letter of Peter does (“born anew”). Rebirth is actually a quite fantastic image. It speaks vividly to the point that Jesus is making to Nicodemus, namely that faith is, well – “Wow!” – like a new-born emerging from darkness into daylight, a new world alive with possibility, because (as the mysterious Mr. Smith declares on arriving from London in the small 18th-century town of New York, in the cracking Francis Spufford novel Golden Hill) – because “what I am is all in what I will be”. To speak of being “born again” is not a problem unless you make it a problem by reducing its meaning to a specific experience that all Christians must have. Being “born again” or “from above” – they are both powerful metaphors of transformative faith. But the how of faith is not important.

Only two things are important. Firstly, the that of faith, which finally demonstrates its authenticity not in our personal experiences and “testimonies”, however compelling – we are, after all, notoriously unreliable narrators of our so-called “inner lives”, and Christians have form in being rather egocentric about salvation – but in the outward, public, and often costly practices of grace and actions of love. “Only a person who obeys believes,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ.”

And, secondly, the object and the content of faith around which the that of faith orbits. The object of faith: Jesus, of course, but Jesus “my personal Saviour” only insofar as he is identical to Jesus the strange, disturbing, feral figure that stalks the pages of the New Testament, the one with a fondness for those who aren’t in my gang, otherwise he is simply the Jesus of my personal fantasies. And the content of faith: the quite specific teaching of Jesus – for an overview, that Nazareth Manifesto, and, for more detail, the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount and those subversive tales-of-the-unexpected we call parables. It’s no good crying “Lord! Lord!” or claiming Jesus “lives in my heart” unless that Jesus and what he teaches actually matches the person and project of the Jesus of the Gospels.

Finally, remember that the new birth is just that – a birth, a beginning; but discipleship – that’s a daily departure from the safety of the neonatal unit and a lifetime of growing up, leaving home, taking risks – like old Abraham and Sarah, whose road trip from Haran to who-knew-where, further and further, is the defining journey of biblical faith.

So the next time someone asks you if you’ve been “born again”, don’t feel intimidated and don’t be shy; rather modestly but boldly say, “Of course – I’m a follower of Jesus! But following Jesus – and keeping up – that’s the arduous journey of a lifetime. Are you too on the way?”

Friday, 10 March 2017

Barth Graduate Student Colloquium

In case you hadn't noticed, the Center for Barth Studies in Princeton has been developing an exciting number of new initiatives over recent years. One of these, The Barth Graduate Student Colloquium is presently calling for applications. The colloquium is open to any doctoral student whose works touches on Barth's theology, and the meeting this year will focus on CD III/3. If you need further enticement to apply, you should note that Willie Jennings is this year's senior scholar and will deliver a paper during the colloquium. So, without any further excuses, follow the link to read more about the colloquium and apply.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

To dust

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death / Pray for us now and at the hour of our death” - T. S. Eliot

My teeth ache as though I were biting ice-cream. The chill wind blows through my lips and circles around my incisors—it dries my eyes and freezes the condensation on my upper lip. I look down and continue to make my way along the English roadside. I notice the puddles from yesterday’s rain. No longer wet and young, they are frozen with age. Deliberately, I let my foot fall on one and relish the satisfying sound of puncturing the world’s surface. Creation, I realise, is brittle.

Remember that you are dust

I lie still, listening to the clicks and hums as I am slowly drawn up into the tube. The song of moving parts and hidden magnets plays up and down my brain and spine. I rest here in my little mound of dust.

And to dust you will return

I lean forward, keeping as still as I can. The needle goes near the spinal cord. From deep within, she drains my nervous essence into tubes and flasks for examination. Somehow, this blessed cocoon of dust holds together.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

When we first arrived here, I saw the moon cover the face of the sun. It was vision of the end. The skies will darken and the ocean will recede. When the last stars fall we will see that all the lights of heaven were but the embers of a fire disturbed.

We are what you say we are, O Lord. Do not be silent.

On that day we will warm ourselves in the Lamb’s light, as the sun warms the soil. The seeds of faith will germinate, and the tree of life will stand tall amidst our beloved dirt.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Join in the Karl Barth seminar via Facebook

My postgrad seminar on Barth's early theology starts this week. If anyone would like to join in the weekly readings and to be part of the discussion, I've created a Facebook group. Anyone is welcome to join. The first short reading is Barth's early lecture, "The New World of the Bible". The 12 weekly readings are listed here.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

#PresidentPrayer and #PresidentLove

Old Nobodaddy –
who lives in Manhattan, parties in Atlantic City, and holidays in Florida –
let your name be up in lights!
Do what it takes to make America great again [repeat].
Turn it into the New Jerusalem –
replete with casinos, golf courses, and precious stones by Melania;
surrounded by a great wall and, of course, Arabless.
Give me today – make it a Big Mac, Lay’s Potato Chips, and a Diet Coke.
Forgive me … – cancel that: WTF do I have to be sorry about? –
and forget about me forgiving losers!
Don’t bring me to trial – you’d be wasting your time (I’ve got an army of lawyers);
and deliver me from “so-called” judges (goddam enemies of the people).
For mine – sorry, I mean yours – well, ours –
is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for as long as it takes.
We’re done here.

If I speak eloquently and coherently, I’m not speaking like Trump: Trump-speak is a cacophony of bullshit. If I don’t know my ass from my elbow, and if I have the fantasy of draining a huge swamp, and if I have access to state secrets that can be used to destroy the world – that’s Trump. And if I give all my money to the poor, disclose my tax returns, pay the ultimate price for goods and services, and permanently delete my Twitter account – now that would be the Antitrump.

“Trump is patient; Trump is kind; Trump does not want what others have; he is not full-of-himself or high-and-mighty or in-your-face. Trump is not an ego maniac; he never flies off the handle or bears a grudge; he does not gloat when others fail; he relishes only what is actually the case.  Trump is a paragon of virtue” (Kellyanne Conway).

Trump will be as everlasting as a mayfly, as ephemeral as fart.  He will never give up, but he will finally self-destruct.  One day (Inshallah) he will look in a mirror, point his little foredigit at the caricature before him, and shout, “You’re fired!”

“When I was a child, I thought, felt, and acted like a child.  When I grew up, I continued to think, feel, and act like a child – no, make that a big cry-baby.  I’ve got the self-control of a dingo on acid. I don’t see things clearly yet, but one day I never will” (Trump, after being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques).

Meanwhile, there are three things that will sustain us in our overwhelming perplexity and despair: faith, hope, and whatsit. And the greatest of these is Trump.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum Doodlings

What an immaculately conceived picture of Queen B as Madonna del Parto in the Instagram icon. I hear that Gabriel has told Beyoncé to name the twin boy after his father: Jay-Zeus.

The Trinity is like pornography: you can’t put it into words but, as Justice Potter Stewart famously declared, “I know it when I see it.”

Praying the other day, I was suddenly interrupted. “Why do you keep calling me ‘Jesus’?” he asked. “Because that’s your name,” I replied. “In Latin,” he said. “For God’s sake, speak English: call me ‘Jack’.”

God gives us the bread of life on the table lest we starve on the scraps from the pulpit.

What is “closure” but the therapeutic ploy of putting putty in the cracks so the light can’t get in?

The profundity of Leonard Cohen’s poetry is that it doesn’t dispel the darkness but illuminates its different shades.

To riff on Hopkins: stars star and planets planet, continents continent and oceans ocean, trees tree and tigers tiger. And humans? Alas, humans inhuman.

Power disempowers; absolute power disempowers absolutely.

I would never have believed it, but it’s actually happening: Trump is uniting the American people in a common cause and achievable project – national self-hatred and suicide.

To paraphrase Erasmus, “In a nation of the blind, the one-eyed man is president.” In this case, he happens to be Cyclops, with the same temperament and appetites.

Just a few weeks into his presidency and Donald Trump is already posing the serious threat of a paradigm shift over Godwin’s Law.

I hear that henceforth all US editions of 1984 will be retitled 2017.

Sunday January 29th: in church. The Gospel is the Beatitudes. No need to preach it today. The text comes alive by simple juxtaposition with the anti-sermon, the anti-Beatitudes, of Trump’s execrable executive actions demonising Muslims.

Sunday January 29th: at home. After seeing the chilling, ugly game of xenophobia that Trump is playing, felt filthy. After watching the thrilling, beautiful tennis match between a Swiss and a Spaniard, felt cleansed.

Forget a coherent opposition, mass demonstrations, or the power of prayer, what we now need is a first-class White House asshole whisperer.

According to the British daily the i, scientists are suggesting that our earliest ancestor was a small creature with thin skin, a large mouth, and no anus, which means that “waste material would simply have been taken out back through the mouth.” Yikes, the missing link is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

“No matter how many body-politic-parts there are, you are still only one body-politic. If the heart-valves were to say, ‘Because we’re not the anus, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. Or if the brain-lobes were to say, ‘Because we’re not the penis, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. If one part of the body acts like an asshole or a prick, all the other parts share in the shite and the piss” (I Americans 11:14ff.)

Of course Trump doesn’t get the fundamental constitutional principle of “checks and balances”. He thinks it’s the discourse of banking, not government. You sign checks and you balance the books – or rather you bounce checks and cook the books.

I’ll tell you what makes me want to knock a thousand heads together: American evangelicals, in sackcloth and ashes, wailing that Thank-you-Jesus-for-President-Trump Christians are the last straw. Earth to American evangelicals: evangelical Americans have been building a haystack of alternative theology (as in “alternative facts”) for my entire adult life, a rick so enormous that by the Reagan presidency astronauts could have seen it from the moon. The trajectory is hardly a quelle-surprise: what began with “The Apostasy of Billy Graham” (the working title of a book on Nixon’s Hananiah that William Stringfellow had planned to write) reaches its nadir in the religious nihilism of Trump’s court toady Franklin.

Would someone please tell Christians who police the boundaries of their communities that faith is supposed to be the trigger of ecclesial fusion, not fission?

Doing theology takes time. Some of the time is for research and writing, of course. Most of the time, however, is for prayer. At least it is if you’re doing it right.

Prosperity Gospel market update on Revelation 1:8a: “‘I am the Alpha but not the Omega; rather I am the 1942 Rolex Chronograph,’ says the Lord God Almighty.”

And Pilate said, “How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” The cuffed Christ replied, “Er, both.” “Ah,” the procurator smirked, “the old PS defence.”

“Whose side is God on?” we are tempted to ask in all kinds of conflicts, but his answer is always the same: “Not yours.”

Grief cuts us adrift. The tides of time take most people back to shore. Lifeboats may retrieve others. But some continue to drift, drift, drift out to a bleak and pitiless sea.

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