Born, Again (John 3:16)

We’ve all been here before.  This isn’t your first John 3:1-17 rodeo.  I know it’s not.  If you tell it me it is, you are lying to be pedantic and difficult. As such, we’re going avoid scriptural foreplay and witty banter which usually leads to the John 3:16 climax I know you’re waiting on.  That’s not how we’re going to do this.  In the famous and unpublished words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “I’m going to invade Waterloo from Sweden”.  What the hell does that mean?  I don’t know.  I think it means I’m going to try something different with this passage we think we all know so well.

Nicodemus wants to know, “How do these circular answers relate to the story of my birth let alone being born for a second time?”  He’s looking for a clear, black and white answer.  I don’t get the feeling Nicodemus was looking to invest much time, energy, and thought into this process.  He’d come to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  A deep philosophical and theological discussion about the nature of life and rebirth wasn’t fitting into his ever diminishing timetable.  Nicodemus needed an answer, “what does any of this have to do with being born again?”

Nicodemus is actively listening.  Contrary to countless sermons and dramatic presentations, he is not a dumb man. Nor is Nicodemus intellectually shallow.  He is a Pharisee. This should count for something.  He is seeking to understand God.  Jesus tries to help him understand by using “birth” as a metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  Jesus uses them often.  A woman creating, carrying, and giving life over a nine month period constitutes his primary image of the idea of “birth”.  Being born “again”, as it has been presented, isn’t within his intellectual wheelhouse.  How is this central to, relate back, and tie into seeing God’s kingdom?  What is it about the act of birth; nurturing life for nine months and then at the right time delivering a human being into the world that reveals something he’s not getting about how God functions?

To really understand what’s happening, we need to be Nicodemus.  We must put ourselves in his shoes.  His limitations are ours. The pressures and constraints he experiences are those we feel:  give me what I need to make me feel whole, happy, and healthy and give it to me now.  Nicodemus doesn’t want to want to work too hard, too long, to reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana and Jesus is going to call eternal life.

There are layers of tension we don’t regularly talk about or acknowledge when we approach John 3:16.  They’re self-evident, staring us in the face, but we ignore them at our own peril.  We talk around them.  You can’t miss obvious tension in that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Jesus is Jesus.  These two men are from two different sides of the social and economic tracks.  The Pharisees, as a whole, are opposed to Jesus’ message.  That’s why Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness, seems a little shady, and is ready to ask his questions and get back to his side of town.  He doesn’t want to be caught hanging around Jesus’ house.  Economically and religiously they are as different as they come.  The worlds they inhabit are polarized.  As representatives of their distinct groups, they stand out.  Jesus looks like the forgotten people and Nicodemus stands in for the religious and political bureaucracy who left them behind.   My point is this:  there is a huge gap, full of tension (on multiple levels) between Jesus and Nicodemus.

What does Jesus mean by being “born again”?  Hasn’t it all be said?  Probably, but let’s take one more try.  Birth is a slow, deliberative, creative, and formative process.  Notice I said creative.  It is like creation.  It is creating life, think about Genesis.  Life is coming into world, one more time, just as it has for billions of years.  Being born is a Genesis moment.  Birth is not a big bang moment.  Instead, it is deliberate life giving moment that follows.  Jesus is talking about birth in these grand, Genesis like terms while also thinking about the beauty of birth which keeps the spark of creation alive.  Nicodemus is not on that level.  Jesus wants him to think a little larger.

Let’s go back to the original question.  What does Jesus mean by “born again”?  There’s one fundamental reality about birth; none of us had any choice in the matter. We have nothing to do with the circumstances of our own birth.  Birth isn’t a choice.

Jesus seems to be indicating:  to be born again means arriving at a place where we have no choice but to arrive.  Being born again points to a certain level of inevitability.  We will end up in some kind of positive relationship with God.  Does this happen because we make it happen?  No it doesn’t.  Our efforts are guaranteed to fail. God presence is the only guarantee of life’s success.  If birth works, whether the first time (or the “again” time), it’s because God is moving toward us faster than we can run away.  God has everything to do with being born again.  Since we’re all living testaments to the miracle of birth, being born again is both God’s call and God’s prerogative.  We choose who we marry, live, and work.  We don’t choose life.  Life chose us, again.

Life, birth, whether new or “again” unifies us.  If you’re a carpenter or a Pharisee, Republican or a Democrat, a NRA member or opposed to the Second Amendment, polarized or could care less; life brings people together when they appear to share no commonalities.

Look at Nicodemus’ question in verse 10.  He asks, “How are these things possible?”  How can this one story which seems to be common ground for all Christians work?  How can life and life, again bring polarized people together (people like Nicodemus and Jesus)?  I think it can.  Stories like this, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before, have resonance though we swear there’s nothing we can learn.

Let’s go back to his original question:  how is it possible to be born, again?  Given, there’s no choice in the matter, someone external to you (mother or God) does all the work, you’re totally dependent on food and safety from this external source, and you have no control over the timetable.  Now, you’re starting to really feel Nicodemus’ confusion and you really do want to know, “how is this possible?”

Do you want the good news or the bad news?  Jesus answers the question.  However, he doesn’t give an answer Nicodemus likes or expects.

We are born, again because our lives our worth saving.  Our birth makes us alive.  Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus that being “born, again” makes us human.  And God, for no better way to put it, is interested in saving and redeeming the worst parts of our humanity.  Everyone’s life has an intrinsic worth, value, and meaning.  As I said a moment ago, life is what we everyone holds in common.  When we stop seeing value in the lives of others, our humanity as our common denominator, we stop seeing God.  Dehumanization is the first step to genocide.  Saving humanity is the first step toward salvation.  The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.

God, in ways we will never imagine or understand, loved us enough give us Jesus.  Through remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist, we are given a means listening to world, forgiving others, and looking for God at work in the lives of those who surround us.  The Eucharist levels the playing field so we can see each other not as animals or clumps of carbon or groups of atoms.  When we come to the table, we see each other as those who are born, again, alive in Christ, and loved children of God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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There’s No Such Thing As the Trinity (Some Dudes Made It Up)

There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity.  There is a means of referring to the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy the Spirit which Christians call the “Holy Trinity”.  We don’t know if that’s what God calls God’s relationships or if the Trinity exists anything at all as we describe.  My inclination is to believe God functions beyond language terms and classifications.  It’s our word.  No one’s gotten a message back from God as to whether God agrees with our system or choice of terms.  Yet we, the church, live and die by three in one, one in three.

We do love our religious vocabulary.  Everything has to have a term.  If we can label something we can control its use and outcome.  By labeling the Trinity (and other aspects of God’s work and identity) we are trying to control God.  God can only work in the predefined, pre-determined Trinitarian ways.   If you control who has access to God, for most of human history, you were the biggest kid on the playground.

We’ve made up elaborate theologies to help us describe how we think God relates to God’s self.  The truth is this:  our most complex Trinitarian theology and ideas are guesses.  If string theorists, who are searching for a mathematical language to describe the origins for the universe admit that their work is theoretical, why do Christian theologians speak with such confidence when it comes to the presence and work of the Holy Trinity?  There’s faith and then there’s arrogance.  The means in which we’re describing God’s relationships are not real.  Aren’t we the “don’t put God into a box people?”  Current Trinitarian explanations are just another box, limiting how encounter God.  Is it impossible for us to be honest:  We really have no idea how any of this works.

The Trinity is a (semantic, logical, cosmological, theological, psychological, and philosophical) construct, a theological conjecture; created by flawed and fallible Homo sapiens who want to understand something no one really understands:  the way God relates to God’s self.  The word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible.  God, Jesus, nor the silent Holy Spirit refers to themselves as a Trinity.  The readers of scripture are never privy to discussions of substance and form between the members of the Godhead as we’ll later find in minutes of the historic councils of the church.  Matters important to defining Christian orthodoxy seem to be of little matter to the deity, the deity’s son, or the spirit whom we debate or celebrate in art.

We, the Homo sapiens in question, came up with the word, developed something that sounded rational and applied it to God.  For something completely man made, built on a inferences and interpretations of a handful of scripture, we created Orthodoxy from nothing.  From Jesus’ teachings about family, fathers, relationships and the spirit; we made hard and fast rules about heresies that still divide the church.  Trinity Sunday, far from being something to be celebrated, looks to me to me to be a day for caution and prayer.  This is what happens when we make up our own doctrines and start selling a fake news story to the church that God created a rigid hierarchy which really started on our own whiteboard.  The truth is:  God was nowhere to be found when we made up the Trinity and turned it into a tool to isolate, annoy, and explain God’s expansive love in terms of a dysfunctional family.

Let’s be careful with what we’re celebrating and explaining on Trinity Sunday.  Maybe, like Lucy coming home to Ricky, we still have some explaining to do.  My gut tells me it doesn’t involve eggs, clovers, or anything about a doctrine we made up. I think we need to stop making things up, reading stuff into the text, and even qualify the fancy patristic writings we’ve inherited, because it may be not be all it’s cracked up to be.  The Trinity works best when we remember it’s really a theory.  It works because we make it work.  Love, on the other hand, is a doctrine.  That’s something you can prove.  Jesus wouldn’t let go of love.  Nor should we.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Trinity Sunday Sermon Your Mama Warned You About (Genesis 1)

God is a hot topic.  Everyone seems to be talking about the “man upstairs”.  His name, or some version thereof, is on the lips of men, women, the young, and old.  I know this because I listen.  I’m not talking about news programs on television or the religious documentaries I’m forced watch when my family is out of the house.  No, God is an ever present reality, even beyond this Sunday morning (where we do talk about God a great deal) all over this island (and elsewhere).

If I walk out of my front door and turn left or right to walk down Howard Street (the direction doesn’t really matter), particularly on a weekend night, it won’t be long before I’ll hear someone talking to or about God.  In fact, if the wind is right, I might not have to leave my front porch, the sound may carry it perfectly.  I’ll hear Jesus Christ this, God blank that, and conversations galore invoking the first and second persons of the Trinity.  Someone asked me this week, “Is the Trinity a really big deal?  Do people care about the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? ” You want to know what my first answer was?  “This starfish does.”

If the God the father is in the perpetual habit of being asked to damn this, that and the other and Jesus is that name you call on when the most unbelievable things happen during you’re day, I’d say, whether we realize it or not, the idea of the Trinity is alive and well, to paraphrase Bob Seger, in the bars, backrooms, alleys, and trusty woods of Ocracoke.  It’s not the right idea but it’s there.

Here’s the good news.  We need to get the wrong ideas about God out of those places before we send the reality back into the world.  We need God in the world.  We don’t need God damning things.  We need Jesus in the world.  Jesus saves people.  We need the Spirit to infuse the relationship between all aspects of God and the world with love.

The Trinity is one of the most complex ideas in Christian theology.  The convoluted arguments used by theologians to explain the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are that way because we’ve allowed them to become so.  I’m not going to pretend I can explain something that Christian theologians have debated for over two thousand years.   That’s not what we’re here for.  However, I will tell you this:  Jesus described his relationship with God as one like a son to a father.   He said, “If we’d seen him, we’d seen the father”.  He and the father were one.  Jesus also told his disciples to except the gift of a comforter and guide, whom he called the Holy Spirit.  We talked about the arrival of the Spirit during last week’s Pentecost service.

Since the beginning creation, God’s spirit has been integral to the process of creation and helping God’s plans for humanity become reality.  The early church, since the time of Paul, was comfortable speaking of God in ways that acknowledged God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Later Christians came along and gave more complexity and understanding to these relationships and a name:  the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity isn’t meant solely to be read and thoughtfully considered.  That’s one part of the deal.  Ultimately, the Trinity is something that’s social and organic, designed to be lived and experienced.  At its essence, the Trinity is about the expression of the relationship between God and humanity.  Jesus is one way God relates to us and the Spirit is another.  If you take nothing else home this morning, hold on to that.  The Trinity is a way to understand how God relates to us.

If that’s true, and I believe it is, what does that say about we relate to God (versus God relating to us)?  What do we see when we observe living Trinitarian relationships around us?  When we talk about God, it’s not usually in as positive, “I want to build a loving, life affirming relationship with you God” terms.

As I said at the beginning, we’re damning people on behalf of God we don’t really acknowledge.  We’re calling out to a Jesus Christ we don’t expect to answer.   What does it say about you we relate to God?  It says our humanity is bewildered and the further we go from real relationship with God the less we know who we are as people.  This kind of distance from God dehumanizes you.  When you start to dehumanize yourself and see God as instrument blunt force trauma, like any other tool in the back of your truck, it’s much either to start dehumanizing others.

The Old Testament Lesson for Trinity Sunday is the creation narrative from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  It is a story like no other in human history.  I don’t believe the Earth was created in six days but I do believe the underlying story of the creation myth is true.  God did something completely new in human history when this story began.  Humanity was created to be in relationship with the divine.  Our relationships with each other were to mirror our creator’s love for us.  Gods, as the ancient world believed in them, just didn’t do that kind of thing.

Read Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity on our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the live stock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”  God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

These are the most important verses in the creation story.  This idea is the most transformational idea in the history of political theory.  Those verses are the basis of western civilization itself.  This scripture is the underlying concept behind, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Who thinks it’s self-evident that man is on a level playing field with God?  Or that freedom is self-evident?  They are self-evident to no one.  Plato would have thought them laughable.  Aristotle thought some were born to be ruled and others to rule.  No one thought equality of any kind, especially with God, was self evident.  No one thought equality between rich and poor was self-evident.  Mesopotamian kings and Egyptian pharaohs thought themselves made in the image of God, not ordinary people.  But there in this story, God says over and over again, it is good that God’s people are equal and free.  From Genesis 1, God says, “I don’t do class, hierarchy, or caste based societies.  I do relationships.”

Our God and God’s creative spirit working across the vast deep, as it is written in Genesis 1, tells a story we need to hear.  Let us look and listen to the world around us.  Our neighbors are a reflection of God at work.  We are made in the image of God. What it means to be a human is formed by being in relationship to a God made visible in many ways. Do not deny your humanity nor that God given gift in others.

Confessions of A Part-Time Heretic: How to Mess Up Trinity Sunday

It is an impossible task.  On the Sunday after Pentecost the church is asked to devote an entire service of worship to the topic of the Holy Trinity.  Volumes have been written, gallons of ink spilled, and wars have been waged over this very topic.  Yet we, the good people of mainline American Protestantism are somehow going to answer the lingering questions from two thousand years of Christian debate in one hour of worship and a 20 minute sermon.  We will do this with weak and polytheistic analogies.  We will read ideas into the Old Testament which are not there.  With good intentions, we will twist the words of Jesus into a Trinitarian pretzel to make him say what we want him to mean.   We will be wrong.  The Trinity is not a fidget spinner to keep us occupied for a week until the blasé world of “ordinary” time rolls down the center aisle.   The Trinity is one way to talk about God and maybe God deserves better than our haphazard, folksy dissections this Sunday morning.

I once read that the surest way to venture into heresy when discussing the Trinity was to “begin discussing the Trinity”.  As a part time heretic, I recognize the irony.  Our language is limited.  We only have a finite number of words to express certain relationships and concepts.  The words we do possess are approximations of the reality we’re trying to represent.  Nothing we say, no matter how close we think it comes to the truth, is an accurate depiction of how the man we knew as Jesus relates to the Israelite God mentioned in Genesis.  With that being said, what do we know?  Using the Bible as a guide, we take Jesus at his word.  It’s something like a father/son relationship but yet it’s not.  The Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit.   God’s identity is known in (at least) three different ways.

Out of these attempts by the gospel writers to provide the early church with contextual language; the Doctrine of the Trinity was born.  From own Jesus’ words and greetings in selected New Testament epistles; the church shaped a complex theological doctrine.  As Paul writes in this week’s epistle lesson, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

I don’t believe that Paul or the Corinthians believed in what we call the “Holy Trinity”.  Instead, I think this is how they talked about God.  Far from being a doctrine, this was their everyday language. The God-discourse of the early church demonized the language of the working class people.  It was not enough to speak of God but to speak of God correctly.  Even though God was already at work, we invented something and called it holy.

The Trinity (our word) is God’s prevenient grace on display.  Isn’t God already “Holy” without our labels?  When we write it up and try to explain grace with hokey analogies, it’s like we’re trying to take credit for things God has already accomplished.   I’m not sure that’s a good idea.  Give God the credit God is due.

Somewhere this week, somebody needs to speak.  Let them use their words.  We do not need to clean up or explain their language when talking to God.  There are no formulas, diagrams, or charts for making sure the right personage of the Trinity hears what we need to say.    When it comes down to it, God is God and God knows.

Love Is A Dangerous Word (John 15:12, John 16:12)

Papyrus1

In case no one has ever told you, you forgot, can’t recall, or have yet to hear; there are four Gospels.  Gospel is an English word, which comes to us through Anglo- Saxon and we translate as “Good News”.   They are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  These are the first four books of the New Testament, the second half of what Christians call the Holy Bible.

If you go to the Bible I just presented you and turn to the first page of the New Testament it says something like this, “This is the Gospel according to Matthew”.  This means you’re reading Matthew’s version of events.  It’s his perspective.  The same thing goes for Mark, Luke, and John.  I also need to tell you that these “according to stories” were written long after the events they describe.  John’s, the one we read this morning, was written some sixty years after Jesus death.  It is not a literal transcript of someone taking notes of Jesus speaking.  Instead, people are trying to recall what they remember from the distant past.  Sometimes we get our memories wrong, sometimes right.  Four people can see the same car accident and remember entirely different events.  We easily forget people, their looks, shapes, hair, and what we had for dinner last Thursday night..  Ideas and beliefs are much easier, it seems, to remember.  We can get the “gist” of things, even if we don’t remember the “thing” itself.

Sixty years after his death, some friends and followers of Jesus (people who knew him and people who didn’t know him) were sitting around asking themselves the question, “what did Jesus think was the most important stuff for us to remember?”  If there was anyone still alive, present in the room who knew Jesus, they would be between 80 and 90 years old.  In a world before modern medicine, random violence, and religious persecution; that would be amazing.  What might our 80 year old disciple remember Jesus saying?  “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”

Let that verse sink in.  We want to know it all.  It makes us uncomfortable to think about the frailties of human memory when transmitting the gospel from generation to generation.  Do we not realize the meaning of Jesus saying to us, his disciples, “we can’t handle everything he would like to tell us”?  There’s more and we’re not ready.

More what?  There are more ideas and more things Jesus wanted to tell us.  So they tried to recall, everything Jesus wanted them to remember.  Someone got a quill, papyrus, and started writing them down.  The older ones among them recalled that the night before he was executed he kept them up talking about certain ideas.  This is why, in the middle of John’s gospel, you find three chapters where Jesus is simply riffing on what not to forget, what’s really important, and what your priorities ought to be when he’s gone.

What does he tell them?  You are never going to believe this.  It is the most controversial scripture in the Bible.  This verse makes people angry.  People have been killed over this verse.  Jesus’ insistence upon these words led to his murder.  Are you ready for it?  Do you want me to tell you these most incendiary of words?

Jesus says, “Love each other as I have loved you.”  (John 15:12) Jesus tells his disciples to love each other.  You may forget many things over time but you do not forget being told to love each other by an innocent man on death row.

Can you believe the gall, the gumption, which Jesus has to tell us to love each other?  Jesus doesn’t say to judge or condemn anyone.  Jesus says to love others as he loves us, which is a crazy amount of love.

Jesus doesn’t stop there.  The controversy and easily misunderstood teachings continue.  “My command is this,” he goes on.  I’m sure when Jesus uses the word command it’s going to be harsh, official, and tell us to do serious stone casting.  Does everyone have their stone throwing arms ready?

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  I know longer call you servants, instead I call you friends.”  Let me get this straight, Jesus’ command to me is to sacrificially love you the way he loves me; to give up more than I’ll ever give in life.  Tacked on to that little beauty, Jesus goes so far as to tell us, “we’re not his slaves, we’re his friends.”  Jesus seems to be really hung up on these ideas of love, friendship, and giving.  It’s almost, as if he were trying to boil it down to the things he valued most.  Perhaps that’s why people remembered them and thought it important to share them.

If you were sixty years past the death of a great religious leader and trying to create a written legacy for the man you based your faith upon; what would you do?  When everyone was worshiping flashy Roman Gods and Goddesses would you claim your God was not into death but life, love not hate, friendship not slavery, and giving instead of exploitation?  You wouldn’t.   You’d be tempted to go with what’s trending.  Much like now, sacrificial love wasn’t popular.  This is why I believe John, Jesus, and think these are words worth listening to.  They bucked the trend.  These are dangerous words.  Words like this got Jesus killed.

You’ve been given these dangerous, healing words.  They are not only in the Bible you’ve received but are also etched on your hearts.  Love, friendship, and giving; radical Jesus endorsed ideas in a self-obsessed, social media driven world.  Do you really want to be different, dangerous, and radical?  Give Jesus’ kind of love a try.  It is dangerous, dirty, and risky.  However, the rewards outweigh any risk you can dare imagine.

 

Food for Thought-On Father’s Day

Today, like all days, is about making the outrageous counterclaim.  The state of affairs that we meet in this world are not locked in a state of permanent decay, decline, and entropy.  The original relationship of mutual vulnerability between the first and second persons of the Trinity, which led God to re-tell God’s story as an incarnate being is alive and well.  That same level of love and vulnerability is present in our own relationships.  As St. Augustine said, the bond which holds them together is love.  Love, he argued, is the third piece of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit itself.  Love links the Father and the Son.  Love is the Spirit the Spirit is Love.  Love enables the incarnation to occur.  Without the love, it’s just a reflection of the world itself; sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake.  Love makes it a counterclaim with a meaning.

Food for Thought-Trinity Sunday and Yard Sales

Rublev's Icon on Trinity

Trinity Sunday and Yard Sales

Blue, green, gold, and spirit red,
Around Rublev’s table I am led,
Three in one,
One in three,
Hypostatic union,
Forever be,
Apart of my essence,
God’s eternal reality,
As I embrace,
The cosmic beauty,
The indescribable eternity,
Of the Holy Trinity,
Surrounding me,
Need I know,
What it means,
But what it seems,
The perfect fusion,
Of God, spirit, and man,
Of street smarts,
Book learning,
And a plan,
To fuse high and low,
Lots of money and no,
Black and white,
Orange and green,
Pleasant and mean,
Into the kingdom that is
All that it seems,
Where the Spirit teems,
Where all the gifts are free,
Where the Spirit moves,
God is making a way,
Jesus is having a yard sale
Giving away love for free,
Everyday,
This is not a dream,
This is life,
In the kingdom that is,
All that it seems.

–Richard Bryant