Can one sin before one is born? John 9:1-8
The Gospel passage set in the Lectionary for last week has a curious line in it which reads as follows: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
The question we might ask is, in what way could the man have sinned before his birth, for him to be born blind? Is it possible to ‘sin’ before one is born?
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
We’ll come back to that question:
At the time of Jesus, most scholars will tell you that there appear to have been two dominant Jewish views of what happens after death:
The first view represented by the Sadducees was that there is no life after death. At most they would have believed that those who had died resided in the place of the dead called Sheol, a kind of shadowy existence but where nothing really ever happens.
The Pharisees however believed in what they called the Resurrection of the dead. In other words, that those who had died and dwelt in this shadowy place called Sheol would one day be raised to life again with a new bodily existence.
This idea seems to have largely shaped the views of the Apostle Paul who had himself been a Pharisee. His view expressed in 1 Thessalonians 3 was that the general Resurrection of all who had died would take place when Jesus returned, and that in the meantime those who had died were sleeping until the day of Resurrection.
But Paul’s views seems to have modified over time. In his letter to the Philippians which is one of his later writings , as contemplates his own looming death he says “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and he speaks of his desire to depart the body in order to be with Christ, nothing about sleeping until the day of Resurrection.
What is interesting about the passage from John 9 is that it suggests that at the time of Jesus, there was possibly a 3rd view on what happened after death that was held by at least some in the general population and indeed possibly even by some of Jesus disciples, the belief in what is sometimes called rebirth or reincarnation. It is difficult to know how else to interpret this question put to Jesus by his disciples:
‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?’
How else would it be possible to have sinned before birth in order to be born blind if not by sinning in a previous life before being born back into this world?
This is not the only possible reference in Scripture to this belief in rebirth or reincarnation. There are a few other allusions to it. For example, in Luke’s Gospel (:18-19) we read these words:
Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
It is quite possible that many of the Jews of Jesus day had been influenced by Greek thinking and culture. In 165 BC the Greek Hellenistic King of the Seleucids, Antiochus Epiphanes, invaded Palestine and forced Greek culture on the Jewish people. And so by the time Jesus lived, Greek ideas had been influencing Jewish people in Palestine for at least 180 years.
The eminent Greek philosopher Plato was a major exponent of this belief in rebirth or reincarnation as was Pythagoras. Plato wrote that these views went back to Socrates.
Also, according to Greek mythology, it was believed that if a person were to achieve Elysium (or Heaven), they would have the choice of either staying there, or being reborn. A person would be brought to the River Lethe to forget one’s past life before being reborn.
And so it is quite probable that after 180 years of the influence of Greek culture, many Jews of Jesus day may have imbibed or absorbed some of these Greek views of rebirth and reincarnation in much the same way that many modern western people have imbibed and absorbed some of these views from exposure to religious ideas from India and East Asia. This is not an absurd suggestion because the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria accepted the doctrine in his writings.
What is perhaps interesting to note is that in the first few centuries of Christianity, there clearly were groups of Christians who held these views. While St Jerome did not hold these views, he states that some Christian sects did teach it, and these seem to have included Clement and Origen of Alexandria who were both influenced by Plato and Philo.
I can’t be sure if this is an accurate quote from St Gregory of Nyssa who died in 332 AD, but it certainly summarises the perspective which some Christians like Clement and Origen might have held at the time:
“It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives. . . . The soul . . . is immaterial and invisible in nature, it at one time puts off one body . . . and exchanges it for a second.”
About two weeks ago, I had some communication with my father in which we spoke a little about the changing religious and spiritual landscape in the world today. Interestingly, he shared an article with me with statistics from the United States that suggests that 33% of Protestants and 36% of Catholics in the United States believe in the doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation.
Many would find in the doctrine an alternative to the more simple traditional view of heaven and hell as the two possible destinations one might go to after one dies.
For some people the doctrine of rebirth provides a helpful framework to make sense of life and that maintains a sense of justice in a world that doesn’t always feel just. From this perspective, this world is a school in which lifetime by lifetime we gradually evolve and grow as we gradually learn the rules and the ways of love, slowly awakening to the knowledge of our Divine origins. From this perspective, even the Hitler’s and the Putin’s of this world will need to learn the harder lessons of life that will enable them to grow in love. And from this perspective perhaps in his next lifetime, Putin might be born into a situation that will teach him more empathy towards those who are living under despotic, ruthless and cruel leaders.
Those who might hold such views would believe that, we have all done cruel and unloving things in past lifetimes and we are all learning at different speeds the lessons that will enable us to evolve and grow to greater maturity and to become more and more loving just as Christ embodied love in his earthly life.
I offer these perspectives with you today, not that you need to adopt these views yourselves, but to make us aware that these views exist and that at various times in history some Christians have held these views as not necessarily contrary to their faith in Christ or the view that there are indeed heavenly realms which we will experience the deeper we grow in the Love of God. Even Paul speaks of different levels of heavenly existence in 2 Corinthians 12:2 where he speaks of having been taken up into what he calls the Third Heaven a reference to the Jewish belief in the existence of 7 heavens or 7 levels of heaven.
At the very least having an understanding of these views on rebirth and the evolution of the soul can help us to better understand the views and beliefs of many people of other faiths across the world from India to Japan, including people from a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, and Jewish Kabbalist backgrounds.
While he does not refer specifically to the teaching of rebirth or reincarnation, the Non-Subscribing Minister Rev. Wilde from many decades ago suggested that at that time, many Non-Subscribers believed in the ongoing evolution and growth of the soul even beyond this earthly life. On page 10 of his little booklet “The Faith of a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian” he writes: Non-Subscribing Presbyterians Believe that men (and women) never die. Of course their bodies die… But Non-Subscribing Presbyterians do not believe that the real person dies. They are sure that man is much more than a body. He (or She) is a soul or spirit, and spirit is immortal. The spirit or soul lives on after the body dies, and the real person goes on growing and learning, doing better and better the gracious and perfect will of God. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians do not pretend to know much about what the after-life might be like. But we do know that when people die, they are still in God’s love and care and are happy in God’s keeping; that they are with those they love who also have died, and that the immortal life is a life where people go on growing and learning.
Getting back to the disciples question to Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus is not interested in getting into the blame game. His answer is short and to the point. Neither. It was not the sin of either the man, or his parents.
May God bless you as you ponder these things and as you consider what your own beliefs are in the afterlife and as you seek in your own way to grow in Christ’s love for all the people of the world. Amen.
A Short History of Mothering Sunday.
In preparing for today's Mother’s Day Service, or Mothering Sunday as it is more traditionally called, I was quite intrigued to see that the origins of Mothering Sunday go back much earlier than the American Mother’s Day. Which officially started in 1914.
Mothering Sunday in the UK however goes right back to the medieval period. As early as the 8th century AD, in the readings for the Catholic Mass for the 4th Sunday of Lent, there were a number of references to the theme of mothers.
The Introit which was largely taken from Isaiah 66:10-11 makes reference to the city of Jerusalem as a mother who suckles her children:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
all you who mourn over her.
For you will nurse and be satisfied
at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
and delight in her overflowing abundance.”
Secondly, the Epistle reading set for the Day from Galatians 4:21–31 makes reference to two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, comparing the slave Hagar to the earthly Jerusalem who is described as being in slavery with her children, with Abraham’s wife Sarah who stood as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem as the true Mother of all Christians who have been born into freedom through Christ. Sarah and the Heavenly Jerusalem are used by Paul as symbols of the Church.
The key verse was verse 26 “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”
Thirdly, the Gospel reading that was set was the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 2:1–14, and in this passage it could be said that Jesus, like a mother feeds his children with the gifts of bread and fish from Mother Earth.
And so with these readings, that all contained mothering themes, the fourth Sunday of Lent became associated with Mothering, but more in a spiritual sense than the earthly sense, with the Church being understood as the Spiritual Mother of all Christians.
Inspired by the words of the Psalm 122:1 which were also contained in the introit “I was glad when they said to me, We will go into the house of the Lord”, it became the tradition on this Sunday to travel to the Mother Church of the area, which was normally the Cathedral where the Bishop sat, or if that wasn’t possible to go to the Church where one was baptised, where one had first been received as a child of Mother Church, and nurtured from that time on by the sacraments.
Apparently these mini pilgrimages to the Mother Church or the Cathedral could get a little out of hand. Because the fourth Sunday in lent was also a day mid-way through Lent when the Lenten fast would be temporarily broken. And so, there would be a little bit of feasting and celebrating on this day before getting back to the hard work of fasting the following day. Apparently this could all descend into brawls and fighting.
In a letter written by a church leader at the time (Robert Grosseteste (Letter 22.7) instructions were given to clergy to strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions, and that those who dishonour their spiritual mother in this way should not escape punishment.
The Mid-Lenten Women’s Carnival in France that continues up today also on the 4th Sunday in Lent, goes back to a common tradition in the medieval period.
This practice of visiting the Mother Church on the 4th Sunday of Lent continued after the Reformation in England right into the mid 1600’s and anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone 'mothering'. Because the day was a holiday (ie a Holy Day), domestic servants might have been given some time off, during which may also have chosen to visit their families, which might include their flesh-and-blood mothers
At some point this tradition fell out of practice, but in the early 1900’s, in response to the creation of Mother’s Day in the United States by Anna Jarvis, in the United Kingdom Constance Adelaide Smith, a High Church Anglican, began a movement to revive the traditions of Mothering Sunday.
She wrote three works under her maiden the name Constance Penswick Smith:
• Firstly a short play entitled “In Praise of Mother: A story of Mothering Sunday” (1913),
• Secondly she a “Short History of Mothering Sunday” (1915),
• and thirdly she wrote her most influential booklet entitled The Revival of Mothering Sunday (1921).
In this book she wrote four short chapters outlining the different aspects of motherhood that should be honoured on the day:
• 'The Church – Our Mother'
• 'Mothers of Earthly Homes'
• 'The Mother of Jesus'
• 'Gifts of Mother Earth'
Ellen Hawley writes: that “The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war.” She writes that this doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but as she says, grief is a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.
She says that “By 1938–or so… Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.
And so if truth be told, the earliest origins of Mothering Sunday were not really about honouring one’s earthly mothers at all.
But since the 1950’s Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom has become more and more secularised following the tradition of the American 'Mother's Day'. It has also become known more and more as Mother’s Day rather than Mothering Sunday losing it’s religious significance and becoming more of a secular observance of the celebration of motherhood.
In closing, the concept of the Church as a mother is quite a compelling one, not the Church as a hierarchy as perhaps in the Roman Catholic institution, but rather the Church as a community.
In what way has this church been like a mother that has nurtured you? Or perhaps it was another church that you grew up in?
If I think back to the church in Pinetown where I grew up, the church community in my memory was indeed like a mother or a mothering community that helped nurture me as I grew through childhood and my teens into my twenties.
In what way has Church been like a nurturing mother in your growing up?
And lastly, what memories do you have of your own mothers at Church? When I asked Wendy, she said that her memory of going to Meetings with her Mom is of having imperial mints. She only ever had imperial mints at the meeting which was normally two hours long. Half way through, after the first hour, her Mom would give her an imperial mint as a kind of a reward and perhaps also as a bit of sustenance to get through the second hour.
What are your memories of going to church with your mother?
(With thanks to Wikipedia and Ellen Hawley’s Blog Post “Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history”. )
Wendy and I are clearly not very adventurous. On our daily walk, we generally just walk the streets of Dromore, but this week we decided to walk down the footpath at the top of Barban Hill near the Rugby Club. We were amazed how quickly we found ourselves in the countryside with the sounds of birds and the rolling green fields. It felt like we had stumbled on a little piece of heaven… it was really good for the soul. We’ll come back to that later.
There is a famous parable that comes from an important Buddhist Scripture that is known as the Lotus Sutra. The story goes as follows:
A poor man came to visit a wealthy friend. Late into the night, the two friends ate, drank, and talked. When the poor man went to bed, he fell into a deep sleep.
In the middle of the night, a messenger came to inform the rich man that he must go immediately to a distant land far away. Before he left, he wanted to do something for his poor friend to show how much he cared for him. But he did not want to wake his friend from such a deep sleep.
So the wealthy friend sewed a beautiful coloured gem inside the hem of his poor friend’s robe. This jewel had the power to satisfy all of one’s desires.
The next morning, the poor man awoke to find himself alone in his wealthy friend’s house. Totally unaware of anything that had taken place while he was sleeping, he wandered off.
The poor man travelled from place to place, looking for work. All the while, he was completely unaware that he possessed a priceless gem in the hem of his robe.
A long time passed until one day, by chance, the wealthy friend came upon the poor man in the street.
Seeing the man’s impoverished condition, the wealthy friend asked him:
“Why have you allowed yourself to become so poor? You could have used the jewel that I gave you to live your life in comfort. You must still have it, yet you are living so miserably. Why don’t you use the gem to get what you need? You can have anything you want!”
Bewildered, the poor man fumbled through the inside of his robe and, with the help of his friend, found the gem. Ashamed of his ignorance yet overcome with joy, he realized for the first time the depth of his friend’s compassion. From then on, the poor man was able to live comfortably and happily.
(Taken from https://buddha-stories.holova.net/2017/03/parable-of-the-gem-in-the-robe/)
When I was a teenager I remember hearing a very similar story being shared in a sermon by the minister of our church. In that story it was someone who lived for years in poverty unaware that they had been the recipient of a very large inheritance that they knew nothing of.
The basic premise or moral of the story is therefore not unique to the Lotus Sutra. The spiritual meaning of the story and other similar stories is this: Metaphorically speaking we all have a priceless gem that has been sown into the hem of our spirit. Each of us has is spiritually wealthy beyond our wildest dreams and expectations.
There are Divine riches that have been placed within us that most of us have little or no awareness of. We live as spiritually poor people, when all along the riches of God are within us. In the language of Buddhism, it is said that all people have the Buddha-Nature within them. In our Christian tradition, it could be said that we have the Divine presence or the Christ presence within each of us. It could be said we have the Christ-nature within each of us as those who have been made in the image of God. In Jesus words in Luke’s Gospel, he says we have the Kingdom of God within us.
And yet despite the fact that we have all these spiritual riches within us, we live as though we were spiritually poor. We live restless, discontent lives, often driven by anxiety and fear where we feel a deep lack within us and a constant sense that life is not right and not as it should be. We long for a deeper sense of peace, love, contentment and joy, but it continually eludes us. And yet, according to this parable and the teachings of many religious traditions, these spiritual riches have been ours all along.
In the Gospel story we read of the Women a the Well, which also comes to us as a kind of a parable. She goes to the well every day to fetch water, but all the while she has a deeper spiritual thirst that she doesn’t know how to satisfy. And as a result, it would seem that she had found herself living restlessly moving from one relationship to the next and never being truly satisfied and content.
In meeting Jesus, she learns that there is a Living Water that can quench her thirst that she has not been aware of before. Jesus makes her aware of it. He is able to share it with her because he himself is in touch with this living water of the Spirit. He knows how to access it. His life is lived drinking from the inner spiritual wells of living water on a daily and moment by moment basis.
How might we access this living water that Jesus offers the Women at the Well? How might we access the valuable gem that is hidden in the metaphorical hem of our spirit?
Different religious traditions have sometimes offered spiritual practices designed to help access this Living Water of God’s Spirit.
Many would suggest some kind of regular practice of sitting silence or stillness. Some might offer meditation techniques, becoming aware of the breathe, of sensations in the body or of deep listening to the sounds around us. Others might offer a practice of some kind of chanting that enables one to get out of the normal obsessive thoughts that get in the way of accessing the treasures of the spirit and the Living Water within. Slow meditative reading of Scripture, other spiritual writings and especially the gospel stories of Jesus is another way to access the spiritual treasure within and to begin to drink of the Living Water of the Soul, enabling us to feast on the Love, Joy and Peace that lies just beneath the surface and which is always with us, and which is our true nature as children of God.
I suspect that it may not always be the case, but going to Church on a Sunday should ideally enable one to touch the living waters of Divine Peace, Love, Joy that lie within us. If Church is not enabling us to experience week by week some degree of peace, love and joy, then something is wrong with the service and I would certainly value your feedback if this is not the case for you.
But even ordinary everyday activities can help us touch the spiritual treasures and the living water that lie within us. For some people gardening might be an activity that brings a deep sense of contentment, love, peace and joy in your life. For others, it might be taking a run, engaging in some kind of art or craft, perhaps staring out at the ocean, or for others playing a musical instrument or sitting quietly listening to inspiring and relaxing music. Or as Wendy and I experienced this week, going for a quiet, walk in nature, listening to the birds, watching the sun shine through the clouds and reflecting gently off the rolling green hills.
If we are not making time in some way to access the spiritual treasure of God’s peace, love and joy in our lives, then the alternative is getting lost ever deeper in our own obsessive thinking, worrying, fears, regrets and constant planning or the constant desire to get new and better stuff to fill the hole inside. To live in this place all the time is exhausting and deeply unsatisfying. But to drink from the Living Water of the Spirit is to find a deep contentment within, as the Women at the Well did when she uncounted Jesus and was able to drink the peace, love and joy that could be experienced just being in his presence.
The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people, ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did?’ I wonder if she might just as easily have said, ‘Come and see a man who has helped me to find love, joy, peace and contentment for the first time in my life’.
May God bless you as you make time with whatever may help you to slow down and touch that place of love, peace, joy and contentment in your own heart, The Living Water of the divine Presence, and the priceless spiritual gem within you!
Last week I shared an insight from Richard Templar’s Book The Rules of Life.
He has written a number of books including: The Rules of Thinking; The Rules of Wealth, the Rules of Work, the Rules of Living Well, the Rules of People, the Rules of Parenting, The Rules of Everything, and even a book entitled The Rules to Break.
Despite writing so many books, there is almost no biographical information about him on the Internet.
Despite the fact that it seems he died in 2006 at the age of 56, from what I can tell only 2 or 3 of his books were actually published before he died.
I only have a copy of his book The Rules of Life in which he shares 106 succinct and practical rules for living a happy, meaningful and successful life.
Last week we looked briefly at Rule 46 entitled “Prune your stuff regularly” making reference to Jesus words in John 15 “I am the Vine and my Father is the Gardener, he cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit”
Today I turn to Rule 6 entitled “Dedicate your life to something”. He says that in order to know what counts and what doesn’t count in life, you have to know what you are dedicating your life to. He suggests that there are no right or wrong answers to this one, as it is a very personal choice. But, it is useful to have an answer rather than not really knowing.
He speaks of his own life that he writes has been dedicated to two main things:
Firstly, someone once told him that if his soul or spirit was he only thing he was likely to be taking with him when he went, then it ought to be the best thing he had.
For him, this struck a chord and triggered something in him, although not ultimately in a religious sense. But he did come to the conclusion that whatever his soul or spirit was, he ought to do a bit of work on it to make sure that it would be the very best thing about him. But how on earth would he go about doing so? He writes quite honestly that he doesn’t have a clue. But after having explored, experimented learned and made mistakes the only conclusion that he has come to is that it means to live as decent a life as possible which for him means going through life causing as little damage as possible and treating everyone with whom you come into contact with with respect and dignity. He says that it is something to dedicate his life to and that it works for him.
Secondly he refers to what he calls, his curious upbringing, which is a euphemistic way of saying that his childhood was dysfunctional. He doesn’t elaborate. One can only imagine is was not the easiest of childhoods. Instead of letting his dysfunctional childhood affect him negatively, he says he chose to let it motivate him, being acutely aware that many other people also need to throw off that feeling of being badly affected by what has gone before in their lives. And to this, he has dedicated his life.
He writes: “I might be crazy. But at least I have something I can focus on, something (for me) that counts.”
And having something to dedicate one’s life to he says enables one to have a yardstick by which to measure firstly how one is doing, secondly what one is doing, and thirdly where one is going.
He suggests that we should all decide what it is we are dedicating our lives to, because it makes the rest much easier.
As we turn our thoughts to the life of Jesus, last week we considered briefly his temptations in the desert, and how for 40 days he radically pruned his life to help him get clarity for what his life purpose would be. In a way, there in the desert as he wrestled with the temptations that were put before him, he clarified what it was he wished to live his life for.
And as the story of Jesus unfolds from that point onwards, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus chose in that desert experience, that he would live his life for love and he would seek to do this by his words and deeds, and his life and death. That would seem to have been one of his primary mission’s in life. He would be unswayed from this mission. When his commitment to living and teaching this way of love threatened firstly the religious and then secondly the political leaders of his day, he remained steadfastly committed to this purpose to which he had dedicated his life. Even when it became apparent that plots were being hatched to take his life and that eventually he would have to sacrifice his life for this purpose that he had dedicated himself to, he chose to go through with it, perhaps knowing intuitively that his death by crucifixion would in the end assist in spreading his message and teaching of love.
Today’s Gospel passage is the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It happens in the story after he has come to terms with his ultimate fate and he knows that he is going to die at the hands ot the authorities in Jerusalem.
Did the story happened exactly as it is described in the Gospels? In the end I can’t be sure. Not all of the details across the three versions of of the story found in Matthew, Mark and Luke neatly line up in agreement. Some might read the story more symbolically. Some might read the story more literally. Whichever way you read the story, it stands in the Gospels as an affirmation in the story-line that by remaining true to the thing that Jesus has dedicated his life to, he is doing the right thing. In the story, Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Jewish Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets appear along side of him as if to encourage him on the path he is on.
Just as happened at the moment of his Baptism when the fullness of his spiritual awakening occurred, so we read again in this story that a voice comes from heaven affirming him saying: This is my son whom I love, listen to him. And in this moment a light shines from Jesus face.
When people find something to dedicate their lives to, it energises them. There is often something infectious about the life of someone who has a deep and abiding sense of purpose and mission in life… sometimes it can even seem that people who know what their purpose is in life have a glow about them.
Even Hitler had an energy about him. He had dedicated his life to making Germany great again after the humiliating defeat of World War 1. There was clearly an energy about Hitler, even if it was a dark and malevolent energy that arose from the purpose to which he had dedicated his life. Clearly many in Germany at the time felt inspired by him. Maybe in their eyes there was a glow about him as their own hopes for a triumphant and resurgent Germany would be realised.
How much more so with someone whose life has been dedicated to living for love. Regardless of whether one reads this story of the transfiguration as symbolic or not, (and there is a large part of me that would not too quickly dismiss something of the essence of it), undoubtedly there was a brightness that shone from Jesus, because you can see a glow and a brightness in the faces of people, even today, who have chosen, however imperfectly to live, consecrate, or dedicate their lives for love.
What is it that you have dedicated your life to? Do you have some goal or purpose, no matter how humble, that helps you to get up in the morning that becomes a yardstick to measure how you are doing, what you are doing, and where you are going in life?
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