Sunday, March 12, 2017

To Disciple Christ is to be ‘Born Again’: A Re-reading from ‘Below’

John 3:1-17

Greetings to you all in the precious name of our Lord, Saviour and Liberator Jesus Christ.
It is such a delight to have SCM gathering happening here at St. Peter’s this weekend, which makes me nostalgic of my work at SCM India and some five years ago, particularly I remember coming to speak at a national conference of SCM UK here at St. Peters. I can only say how grateful I am to SCM for the way it has challenged my faith on several counts and called me to a vocation of wider horizons, particularly inspiring me to translate faith into actions, which is the key that I learned from SCM. Wish and pray that this mission of God will continue to challenge and inspire many more young people in translating our faith in Jesus Christ with more concrete actions and reflections, as needed for our context and times today. SCM played a midwife role in my life for a renewed life experience in my faith journey, for which I am grateful to God and to SCM.

The gospel lesson read for us today from John 3, for this second Sunday in Lent is a call towards a new birth in faith and to become a new creation in Christ and for Christ, for Christ plays a midwifery role in trying to give a new birth experience in faith to Nicodemus. Jesus tried hard and insisted Nicodemus to push hard to come out as a ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ person, and also helping all of us as listeners of this word today to push hard to come as ‘new born people in faith.’ Nicodemus was struck in between in that labour for new life, for he neither could come out nor go in that day.

The conversation between leader Nicodemus and Jesus, which comes straight after the Wedding at Cana and the Cleansing of Temple by Jesus in the previous chapter. For Nicodemus on knowing these acts he came to Jesus by night, for in verse 2 he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus was a powerful person in that context, for he is a religious teacher by calling who has well read all the religious scriptures, a Pharisee by birth, a leader and a ruler in the government of his day, and commanded authority on all fronts of his life. Jesus encounters this powerful man with the gospel of ‘born again’ theology, a theology which is invitational into a journey towards a new birth experience, giving up all the old forms and practices. This periscope did not mention, how Nicodemus responded or acted to Jesus invitation, probably he went unconvinced and confused about this new birth experience, for we see him to be mentioned at two other instances in John’s gospel, once in 7th chapter asking his co-governmental authorities to investigate properly on the accusations made against Jesus, and for the last time in 19th chapter where he comes with expensive spices to embalm the body of Jesus Christ at his burial. I think those appearances are too late for Nicodemus to emphasise that he had this ‘born again’ experience. To understand further,
I want to share two things this morning from our text,

1.      The Activities of the Presence of God:
Nicodemus in verse 2 recognises that Jesus has come from God, and he says no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. What were those signs and activities that Nicodemus knew which he says are the activities of the presence of God. In chapter two we have the first miracle at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and then the cleansing of the Temple, for he contested that ‘the house of God is a place for prayer for all nations’ driving away all activities of commercialisation that is taking place there. The activities of the presence of God are those that challenges the normalisation of status of quo, in other words it was the activity of the presence of God, that sees to it that the least and the last who came for the wedding were given fresh and new wine, for Jesus tries to locate his mission of God among and with the margins. The activity of the presence of God is to ensure that the least gets the best, the least are the privileged friends of Jesus, and best wine is served to those at the last who are willing to stay with perseverance with the last.

In the second account, Nicodemus as the leader of the government and of the temples, saw that no one can overthrow the tables of money lenders, for those moneylenders had the patronization of the powerful religious authorities and the empire, except from the activity of the presence of God. Perhaps this is a wakeup call for us to feel that it is the activity of God’s presence to speak truth to the powers, cleanse our churches and worships and to see to it that ‘these are the houses for prayer for all nations.’ The presence of God is in the cleansing of the corrupt systems and unjust structures. The church today needs to see its mission as cleansing our own systems and ensure that our worship places becomes a place of prayer for all people of all nations, encouraging diversity and affirming in pluralities. Here I need to affirm that our St. Peter’s Church has been trying to explore ways and means in which we can be ‘a house of prayer for all people of God and for all nations.’

In short, for Jesus’ ministry and from Nicodemus’s acknowledgement we recognise that, the activity of the presence of God is to quench the thirst of the people, to ensure that the least gets the best, to cleanse the corrupt structures, to make our churches a place of prayer in action for all people of God from all nations. This morning this is a call to audit our own Churches and mission engagements, for are we able to partake in the activities of the presence of God, and how actively are we engaging in the activities of the presence of God? The Church as a body of Christ cannot collapse because of our own whims and fancies, but has to engage creatively and enthusiastically in the activities of the presence of God, relevant and needed for our times in this 21st century.

2.      The Applications of Being Born Again:
In my youth one of the questions that I was often asked by some of the peers in the evangelical circles, “are you born again?” or “when was I born again?” What does it mean to be born again? In this age of modernity, the language has come to suggest some sort of conversion experience, a shift that promises eternal reward. ‘Born again’ Christians have become a new class today who takes privilege in their self-righteous attitude of being ‘more’ Christian than others.
But in the context of the Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says in verse 3, “very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above,” by which Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to a journey of Christian discipleship which includes denying oneself, taking up one’s Cross and follow Jesus Christ, which was a call towards subversive discipleship of leaving the old self, and renewing to be a member of a new community in communion with Christ.  
Allow me to say that being ‘born again’ is not to take a birth afresh after death, but a second birth which calls us to be born anew, into a renewed community, which is a marker of the Kingdom of God. We need to understand that ‘born again’ is better translated as ‘born from above’, which is to say ‘born of Spirit.’ This then calls us how should we understand ‘born from above’ from the perspectives of the margins, or in other words “what does it mean to read ‘born from above’ from below?” In the context of the caste system, ‘birth’ becomes a norm to define one’ s status of caste, for those born outside of the body of caste system are considered to be polluted and out-casted. ‘Twice born’ takes the privilege of the dominant Brahmin caste, for they consider themselves superior to the rest of the people, in a way ascertaining that they are ‘born from above’ from the head of the body of God. In such a context, subalternity contests these notions of ‘twice born’ and affirms that ‘born from above’ is to be ‘born again’, which is an invitation of erasing the norms of status quo which classifies people into different castes, by virtue of their birth and descent.
The second birth of water recalls Jesus’ own emergence from the waters of the Jordan, for such a baptismal experience according to Sathianathan Clarke is to ‘give up the privileges ethnicity in Jewishness, giving up the domination of male-ness and also giving up his ‘white-ness.,’ for Jesus by giving up such privileges was forging a new identity for the Kingdom of God, which does not privilege any one by their birth or piety but which will be governed by inclusivity, justice, equality and liberation. Therefore, ‘born again’ experience is an invitational call to give up all privileges of power and domination, and foraging for a renewed community in Christ.
‘Born again’ is to start living subversively different from the logic of empire, for it expects people to shift their gears and journey with a drive from the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is to locate and explore the activities of God among the margins. This was an invitation to Nicodemus from Jesus to give up his power and prestige, and join the oklos the people on the margins in their movements for justice and peace. It was a call to turn away from colonial episteme, which calls on rationality as a norm, for Nicodemus replies Jesus with such an episteme, where he asks, ‘how is it possible for him to get into his mother’s womb second time?’
‘Born again’ therefore is an invitation to acknowledge the counter oppositional collective knowledge that comes from below, which seeks re-ordering of the public sphere and even to reclaim it by those on the margins. It was a tough call for Nicodemus to catch up with Jesus’ invitation of ‘born again’, for he was left confused and unconvinced. Have he been convinced of what Jesus meant, he could have come open to join in Jesus’ movement for justice, giving up his privilege and power. The theology of ‘born again’ did not match with his ideologies, for he left more puzzled from Jesus.
Towards the end, Jesus says, ‘for God so loved the world that he sent God’s only Son, and who ever believes in him will have eternal life,’ by which he explains that the gift of salvation that Jesus brings to this world is a salvation that seeks people to be ‘born again’ and ‘born anew’ in Christ, which is to give up the old self and become ‘new creation’ in Christ.  To disciple Christ one must be ‘born again’ which is to engage in the activities of the presence of God as reflected and demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
Allow me this morning to conclude to mention the SCM theme song of SCM India, which was written by a young friend from Burma, the modern-day Myanmar, which summarises the application of being ‘born again’ Christian, relevant for our times today.

1.      The song we sing not for ourselves,
For those who are oppressed and chained,
Build up a new society,
Let’s share and feel with them

Come SCMs unite be one
pull out injustice from this world,
Live with people, build together,
One day we ll reach a new just world.

2.      The way we work not for ourselves,
For those who are oppressed and poor,
Suffer with them and let us know
That our struggle will win

3.      The life we owe not for ourselves,
Women and men work hand in hand
The unity will triumph,
We share the vision and hope

Rajbharat Patta,
12th March 2017

(Sermon preached at St. Peter’s Church and Chaplaincy, Manchester)

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