Monday, 12 March 2018

God’s generous love, our generous response: why John 3:16 can be good news after all

Sermon preached at Duston URC, 11 March 2018. Texts: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21.

A couple of months ago, my son and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. Perhaps my favourite moment in the movie, and there are no spoilers ahead because it’s in the trailer, is where Luke Skywalker says, “this is not going to go the way you think”. Well the same is true with this passage.

There’s such a lot we could talk about here. I’m not going to spend time on the reading from Numbers, which is a very odd story indeed. It’s in the lectionary because it’s quoted by Jesus, and because there are parallels to Jesus’ story – of the people of God rescued from suffering by an intervention provided by God. The parallel to the snake on the pole, and the phrase about Jesus being lifted up, may make you think of the cross, and I think that’s part of the story but not the whole thing. Because Jesus was lifted up in other ways too – he was raised from death, which is the same word; and in later time he was lifted up to heaven in the event we call the ascension. It’s not enough to look just to the crucifixion – we have to look to the resurrection and the ascension as a package together to see the way in which Jesus was lifted up, the way he gave life to others.

But I want to spend most of this sermon unpacking one verse in the John reading. You may have noticed that the John passage contains one of the best-known verses in the New Testament – John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life”. That’s one of those verses that appears everywhere, especially in the more evangelical parts of the church. It’s on adverts, T-shirts, tattoos. It’s a verse that a lot of people learn by heart. When you hear the 8 verses of this passage, or the 21 verses of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus that this is part of – your eye, your ear, they just jump to this passage. It takes up all the oxygen in the room.

And it’s well-known for a good reason. It’s short, it’s apparently straightforward. Martin Luther described it as the gospel in a nutshell. But here’s the thing. It’s often really badly misinterpreted. The verse itself has many subtleties that make its meaning quite different from the way it’s often treated, and the passage as a whole shows those up even more clearly. So that’s why I’m agreeing with Luke Skywalker: John 3:16 is not going to go the way you think. And that’s good news, that’s gospel news.
Image: Biblia
The interpretation you’ll often here goes like this: because of God’s love, he sent Jesus to die on the cross. We must each respond individually, by taking up a set of intellectual opinions about Jesus and his nature. If we do that, we’ll go to heaven after we die; if we don’t, we won’t.

Now I want to be a little gentle with this interpretation, because it’s a source of hope for many people. But the good news is better than that. What we see in this interpretation is a God who is unable to forgive human beings, and has to be placated by an act of violence. We see a God who separates people into those who live and those who die. We see a God who requires an individual response, based on what you think about the world. It’s not a happy picture of God at all. It’s a picture of a God of fear, not a God of love. Sadly it’s a picture of God which is held by a lot of people, and it does them harm, because we have a God of fear and violence, then the universe is built on fear and violence, and human society needs to be built on fear and violence. And then you get war, gun crime, terrorism, and so on. And it’s also a picture of God which is driving people away from the church in droves – because if God’s like that, why does he deserve any worship?

But the good news is right here in the passage if you read it different. And I’m afraid that requires me to mention a few more Greek words than many sermons.

We’re told in verse 16 that God loved the world, and indeed the word is kosmos, so that’s the whole universe rather than just our little planet. God is a God of love for the entire universe, whatever their race or nationality or religion. Flag-waving nationalism and racism have no place in the love of God.
Image: Transforming Me

Then we’re told that God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, or to judge the world, but in order to save it. Now the word translated condemn or judge doesn’t really have the same negative connotation in Greek as in English, and so although we are told that people are condemned by their own actions, it’s perhaps better to say that by their own actions they are separated from God.

Specifically, we’re told in verse 19 that the light has come into the world and yet there are those who loved darkness rather than light. The gospel of John is full of images of light – recall that phrase in the prologue to the gospel that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” – and at several points describes Jesus as the light of the world. We all know of people who hate light and love darkness, who are dedicated to causing other people pain rather than giving them joy. [more on who] Yet they have not been forced away from the light – they have chosen to turn away from it, and thus have chosen to separate themselves from God.

Often in John’s gospel we see light and life twinned together. The gospel begins by saying that “in him was life and the life was the light of all people”. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that “I came that they may have life, and have it in abundance”. So turning towards the light or away from the light is about choosing life. It’s about choosing the eternal life that Jesus mentions.

And now we need to look at that idea of eternal life. To our modern understanding, it’s about life that lasts for ever. But that’s not the way that Jewish people of Jesus’ time understood the phrase, and it’s not really what the Greek word aiōnion, which is translated as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’, means. That word is related to the word ‘aeon’, or age. It’s not about a very long period of time, but is rather about a particular quality of time. It’s about life which exists outside of time and inside of time at once. Jesus said in many places that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand, or that it’s within you. The Kingdom of Heaven is not something you get when you die, if you’ve been good enough. That’s why Jesus’ promise is so important – the Kingdom of Heaven is something you can experience here on earth, right now. And there’s one more clue in the Greek to that point, which is the word ‘have’ in the phrase ‘have eternal life’ is in the present tense not the future tense as you might think for life after death. Eternal life, the life of Heaven, life lived in abundance, is something Jesus offers to us right here and right now.

Jesus is that generous. God is that generous. He came not to offer us some kind of future life after death. He came to offer us real, deep, life in communion with God right now.

And this is absolutely crucial for the way we live our lives. Because if we live in this kind of eternal life, if we choose life for ourselves, we surely can’t do anything other than choose it for others. And again I don’t mean this in an evangelical, convert-the-unbeliever, way. I mean it in the way that Jesus taught us: that the way to love God is to love our neighbour as ourselves. That if we choose life, we must choose to follow the path Jesus taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats, which also talks of eternal life: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.

Put another way: if God has been as generous with his love as to send his son to us, we too must be as generous with our love towards others. If God loved the whole universe, we too must love the whole universe. We must love all people as individuals, and we must love them as groups. We must be agents of God’s liberation, against the oppression of the world. I was reading recently an amazing article on black theology in the face of suffering and oppression, by the Reverend Allan Boesak who was deeply involved in the struggle against apartheid. Boesak writes that:
When we fail to stand with those who suffer, we fail to stand with God, because that is precisely where, and how, God stands, not just in front of the oppressed, in protection of them; not just alongside in solidarity with their struggle but in identification with them in their struggle for liberation.
God’s love for the world involves justice for the oppressed peoples of the world. We see that again and again throughout the scriptures. But this means that if we are following the love of God, we too must stand for justice for oppressed peoples. It’s shameful to the church when it supports oppression, when it reads the Bible in twisted ways that allow it to support slavery, or the subjugation of women, or treating same-sex relationships as less than equal. Some of this has gone from the church, some of it is still around. But it is not the love of God, or experience of eternal life.

There’s one more thing to say about this passage and our response to it. Jesus says that it’s those who believe in God’s son who’ll have eternal life. Except he does and he doesn’t. Because that word ‘believe’ is another wonderful Greek word, pisteuōn, which means believing in somebody in the sense of putting all your trust in them, putting your faith in them, putting your life into their hands. It’s precisely what people mean when they say “I believe in you”. When you fly on a plane or have a medical procedure, you believe in the pilot or the doctor. This means far more than believe that they exist, or some theoretical idea about who they are. It means that you have put your trust in them, in a very deep way. It’s profoundly about relationships. In the same way, Jesus expects his followers to put their trust in them. It has nothing to do with credal statements – it doesn’t matter whether you think he was born from a virgin, or your doctrine of the trinity, or your view on atonement theories. What matters is that you put your trust in Jesus, your life in his hands, and follow in his way.

This is a difficult passage, which is full of beauty and depth but equally has the potential for misuse and misunderstanding, in ways that cause harm to those in the church and to the world as a whole. But ultimately it really is about the most amazing good news: that God loves the entire world, that those who place their faith and trust in Jesus can find their way towards the life of the kingdom of God here on this earth, and that in placing their trust we enter into a calling to show God’s love towards others.

Moses was the great liberator of the people of Israel from oppression in the land of Egypt. He knew about God’s love and its relationship to liberation, and he knew about life. In one of his last sayings to the people of Israel, he said:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.
May we all choose life, and choose to have it in abundance and joy through trusting in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Race, gender and class: deeply intertwined with information

Our research group is increasingly focused on developing a discipline of critical information studies - exploring the social impact of information and information systems, in particular through examining the way they interact with, and strengthen, imbalances between different powerful groups. As part of this we're especially concerned with the ways that race, gender and class interact with each other, with power issues, and with informational phenomena.

My colleague on the group, Dr Mustafa Ali, is working hard on issues of decolonial computing, and we have been having many discussions about the interplay between race and gender in particular - the concept often called intersectionality, but which Mustafa prefers to call entanglement.

Mustafa pointed me to the work of Thomas Curry, who argues strongly against the concept of intersectionality as being inadequate to capture the lived-experience of black people and their relation to gender. In an essay entitled Ethnological Theories of Race/Sex in Nineteenth-Century Black Thought: Implications for the Race/Gender Debate of the Twenty-First Century [subscription], Curry argues that "In the nineteenth century, what we know as gender was believed to exist only among civilized races" and that "Under nineteenth-century ethnological thinking, races were gendered, rather than those bodies biologically designated as male or female by sex".

I find this very interesting, and it raises all sorts of questions. I doubt anyone would subscribe explicitly to a view like the 19th century approach to race & gender (though there’s probably a nastier sort of intersection between white supremacists and so-called men’s rights activists) but I can readily see how such a view was only widely-held and would persist in some kind of background form. All that said: it strengthens my view that race, gender and class issues are deeply intertwined and need to be considered together, and that in turn they’re intertwined with information. Because it seems to me that these views are deeply based on information - constructed narratives which put together half-selected 'facts' about the world, from a strong worldview, choosing those which fit and rejecting those which don't.

Two more thoughts about the intertwining of race, gender and class. Earlier this week I was reading about the Irish potato famine and specifically the Gregory Clause of 1847 which worsened the plight of the poor considerably (my eye lit on it because my son is called Gregory). Named after a Sir William Gregory MP, it restricted public assistance to those who possessed essentially no land, less than ¼ acre, to avoid ‘absorption by undeserving persons of a large portion of the public funds’. Interesting because of the entanglement here of class and race – the Irish of course are white but have always been treated as a sub-race by the British/English.

Second, in choir yesterday we were singing Heinrich Schütz’s St John Passion. Of all the gospel accounts, John’s is often said to be the most anti-semitic, and I’m finding the English translation here to be very starkly so (dated 1963 in the score but I think possibly a few years older). There are constant references to ‘the Jews’ saying nasty remarks, or asking for unpleasant actions. It reflects older Bible scholarship, and the translators (Imogen Holst and Peter Pears) were musicians not theologians, but no modern translations of John’s gospel would say ‘the Jews’ – they say ‘the Jewish leaders’ or a more specific term such as ‘the Sanhedrin’ (the ruling court of leaders). I’m wrestling with the text still, but in a way it gives me hope, that ideas do shift, and that contemporary Christians, however suffused with racism (and I can name plenty), are recognising our need to move away from our historic anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.

Lastly all this makes me uncomfortable about my own complicity as an affluent middle-class white male, but as I've written more than once on this blog, I'm used to that discomfort!

Monday, 15 January 2018

Being seen and being called

Sermon preached at Long Buckby URC on 14th January 2018. Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

These two passages are often described as being about calling. The calling of Samuel. The calling of Philip and Nathanael. Now calling matters. We are called to all sorts of different things in this world, Some of us are called to parenthood. Others are called to teaching, or medicine, or creating art, or fixing problems. Others are called to care for others. Some are called to preach the gospel. But we’re all called to something. I believe that calling changes through life, and that part of our role in life is to discern what God is calling us to, and how that might be changing. 

But part of calling is about being authentic, true to ourselves, about accepting OUR call against the call that was given to others. There is a Hasidic tale told about a certain Rabbi Zusya, who said as an old man, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’  We must all guard against not being ourselves. 

The American Quaker author Parker J. Palmer comments on the story of Rabbi Zusya and writes that:
Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given to me at birth by God.
So the calling of Samuel and Nathanael is important. But I think in lots of ways that those aren’t the main point of these passages. Rather, they’re about being able to listen and to see, to wait for the presence of God. 

We’re only a week on from the celebration of Epiphany, and in some churches the period between that festival and the start of Lent is referred to as the season of Epiphany. Now Epiphany is often associated with the Magi bringing their gifts to the Christ-child, but the Magi and gifts aren’t really the point. Epiphany is about an experience of the divine, breaking through suddenly like the rays of the sun through the clouds.

And to me the thing that’s so interesting is that both Samuel and Nathanael were experiencing the divine already, but they didn’t know it until they were able to see. 

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Samuel was being called by God, again and again. And yes he responds with ‘Here I am’, just as in the song we sang, but he’s responding to the wrong person. He thinks that Eli is the one calling him, and so he hears the calling in the light of that assumption, and he gets it wrong. Samuel’s call is genuine, but he needs to listen better. 

Nathanael had it differently. He had received witness from Philip that Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for. Yet Nathanael was prevented from seeing who Jesus really was, by his own prejudices and preconceptions.
Source: Interrupting the Silence
We don’t know a lot about Nathanael, beyond this story and his name, which means ‘gift of God’. However John tells us at the end of his gospel that Nathanael came from Cana in Galilee, the place where Jesus performed his miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding. This might explain Nathanael’s rather crass question as to whether anything good can come from Nazareth. You may have heard that Donald Trump made some recent remarks about immigrants from Africa that even by his standards look particularly unpleasant. Nathanael’s scepticism about Nazareth may not be quite so extreme, perhaps it was only founded on the kind of local rivalry. To pick a local example, it’s as if somebody here was told the Messiah was to come from Daventry or Rugby, and to respond with incredulity. 

Philip responds with an invitation. He doesn’t tell Nathanael he’s a small-minded fool, he instead gives Nathanael the offer to see for himself – he says ‘come and see’, the same invitation that a few verses earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had given to Andrew, the first disciple to follow him.

But before Nathanael can see, he is seen. Jesus has already seen him under the fig tree. Nathanael’s calling is an act of pure grace on Jesus’ part – Jesus reaches out to him, and sees him as he truly is, an honest and decent man. Jesus looks inside Nathanael’s soul and sees good. 

And that’s the first message from this passage. We have to be ready to respond to God’s calling, to seeing Jesus, but it’s always possible because God always makes it possible. Because God looks inside each one of us and sees good. He sees past the uncertainty and doubt, past the weariness, past the wrongs we’ve done or think we’ve done, past our sense that we can’t cope – and he sees us as good, sees us as loved children of God. I know that’s something I need to hear, that however much I can’t believe it myself, I am called by God through the love of God, not through any action of my own.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Now January can be an exciting time, with the new year and new life and new challenges. But it can also be a dark time, if you don’t know what the year will bring. It can literally be dark – the mornings continue to get darker not lighter for a few weeks after the winter solstice, and the Christmas lights and decorations have gone down at last. But sometimes it’s precisely in the dark times that God speaks to us. A couple of stories that I heard recently of God speaking into the darkness.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, celebrated as a holiday in the United States. Dr King was a great agent of change, a man of the gospel, and a powerful orator, but he too suffered doubts. In his book describing the Montgomery bus boycott, he writes of a moment of despair in his kitchen:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
If Martin Luther King could face that kind of despair, how can it be wrong for the rest of us to do so? Yet that kind of experience of God is just as much available to all of us as it was to Dr King. Sometimes it comes through others as much as well. Here is an example of this.

The BBC broadcaster Ernie Rea tells of attending an Easter Vigil in the night in a Catholic church in Derry during the Troubles. The church was in complete darkness, but not a peaceful darkness – on all sides he could hear the sounds of violence, of gunfire. And then the priest lit a single candle, and proclaimed the light of Christ, and the light spread through the church, bringing hope in the darkness. But then something else happened. Ernie Rea was the only Protestant in the church, so when all the rest of the congregation moved forward to take the Eucharist, he stayed seated – and again, he felt cast down into darkness. But having served the others, the priest walked all the way down the aisle, and served Ernie Rea the Eucharist at his seat. And he was lifted up, and it felt to him that light had returned to that place. Because the priest hadn’t tried to teach anything, he had simply shown by his actions that hope comes through relationship, that God acts through other people.

And that can be part of our response to God’s calling upon our lives. It’s partly about understanding what we’re being asked to do or be, about casting aside preconceptions and assumptions, about learning to listen to the still small voice of God which doesn’t for most of us come booming out of the sky but calmly chips away at what we thought we knew. But it’s also about building relationships, about demonstrating God’s love through our actions. It’s about inviting others to ‘come and see’, and it’s about living our lives so that people will see God’s love through us.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Samuel eventually responds to God’s calling as you might expect a prophet to do – faithfully, carefully, preparing himself to listen and act. We’re not told in the reading today of the message God will give him, but it turns out to be unexpectedly powerful, one which “will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle”. Because Eli’s sons are corrupt and violent, and Eli isn’t doing anything to stop them, and Samuel’s message from God is that he, Samuel, a boy, is to speak up against Eli the great prophet, a powerful figure, his own mentor. So Samuel’s message turns out to be a tough one. And sometimes we’re called to speak out against the powerful, to call out corruption or bad practice or sexual violence or a lack of compassion, and to say ‘no! this is wrong!’. And sometimes we’re given strength to do that speaking out, and we’re carried in the arms of God – and other times it’s much harder to do so, and we might suffer for it, as Martin Luther King suffered for his witness against oppression. 

Then we turn to Nathanael’s response. And that’s perhaps still more surprising. Because he turns 180 degrees, he suddenly goes from having no interest in Jesus to recognising him as the son of God and the king of Israel. In our world, 2000 years on, those are important but innocuous titles, common things to call Jesus. But in Roman-occupied Israel, they were revolutionary statements. Because the king of Israel was ultimately the Roman Emperor, and the Son of God was a title that the Emperor gave to himself. And if Jesus was those things, then the Emperor was either a liar or due to be deposed or set aside. Nathanael was not making a profession of faith, he was making a political statement. He was setting himself very clearly on one side rather than another. 

And Jesus promises Nathanael that this particular epiphany is just part of a much larger epiphany to come, when he will see the angels and the son of Man face to face, language to do with the end-times in Jewish thought. Nathanael’s experience and his statement will lead on to more and greater experiences of God.

And so at last we’re promised this too. That if we listen for our calling, if we build relationships and bring hope to others, if we challenge the powers of this world and put ourselves on the side of the powers of the kingdom of God. That if we do these things, we will see God and we will hear God and we will walk more deeply with God.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. And respond.