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Victory in Jesus

1 John:5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ[a] has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God defeats the world. And this is the victory that defeats the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that defeats the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

It’s a special day in the life of our church: after we do our prayers of the people, we’re going to baptize Will Stapleton. This is a big moment for Will and for us, and I think our Scripture this morning helps us make some sense of why this is important, what we think we’re doing together, when we perform this ritual, but also in general as a church. This passage takes us through a movement from new birth to victory over the world. And there’s a lot compressed in this very short text tracing that movement.

So let’s start with “new birth.” Our passage starts, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” So belief is a kind of new birth. Maybe this reminds you of another famous story, in the Gospel of John where Jesus is talking to a rabbi named Nicodemus, and Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from above. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirt.”

So there are two different kinds of birth here. Now, I don’t think Jesus is saying here that your body is bad, so you need to hate it in favor of your soul. I think he’s talking about two different ways that things come into being, two different ways that things get started. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says that the Spirit is like the wind, in that we can see it’s effects, but no one knows where it comes from (the causes aren’t straightforward). There’s not a clear cause and effect relationship where X happens and so Y happens next—we can’t trace out and engineer and predict the Spirit.

The flip side of this is that with the flesh, there is a very clear cause and effect relationship: sperm joins an egg (by whatever means that might happen), which becomes an embryo, and then a number of biological processes can play out that might lead up to a birth. It doesn’t always go exactly that way, because of other causes, but in general, the difference that Jesus is pointing out here is a difference between something getting started through a clear cause and effect relationship that we can map out, and something that starts more spontaneously, unpredictably, mysteriously.

We can understand how some things begin because we can map out how the world works. What goes up what comes down. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. If I break the law, , or if certain respectable people are annoyed by me, the police will come for me. There are patterns to how the world works that we can make sense of. When our scripture talks about overcoming “the world,” the word for world is “cosmos.” And the cosmos in Greek isn’t just “matter,” the stuff the world is made from, it’s the whole arrangement of the universe, the patterns organizing matter—a cosmos isn’t just “water,” it’s water arranged into an ice sculpture of a swan.

OK, so the “world” isn’t just secular stuff, it’s the status quo. Many people historically thought of the universe as arranged into a hierarchy, with the earth at the center, but then the moon, and the various planets that represent the various Gods. And each sphere of that hierarchy turns the one underneath it, so that what happens in each lower sphere is the result of the movements of the higher spheres,  and this includes what happens here on earth. If that all sounds very abstract, you might consider how people’s uteruses seem to be synced up with the cycle of the moon and babies tend to be born after nine of those lunar cycles. Something is happening “up there” than influences what happens “down here,” and so a birth is caused in part by the whole arrangement of the cosmos.

This is also part of why rulers like the Caesars claimed they were related to the gods. It was a way of saying that the order of the Empire, the status quo of a political situation, mirrors the order of cosmos. This is just the way things are. If Caesar says something’s going to happen, he’s going to make it happen. And if you go with Caesar and are a good citizen, the effect will be blessing. If you go against Caesar, then the result will be punishment and ultimately death. We can map out all of the causes and effects.

That’s what it means to be born into this world. We’re born into a cosmos, into these arrangements. And we’re already implicated in them, whether we like it or not, because they are how we got to be here. Many of you have probably heard of a theologian named Augustine who wrote that because of original sin, even babies are wicked and evil, which I think is probably a rhetorical failure, but then when I hear white people say things like, “I never owned slaves or made anyone get up from their bus seat, so why am I responsible for things that happened 200 years ago?” or when I hear people of an older generation say things like “I didn’t go into debt, why should my tax dollars pay off their debts?” or when I hear folks from Duke say, “Why should we make payments to Durham, we do so much philanthropy now—why should we be responsible for decades of segregation and union busting and low wages?” I can’t help but think, ya know, maybe Augustine was onto something. Just by being here, we’re implicated in the arrangements of the cosmos, not all in the same way or to the same degree, but all implicated still. And living our lives means wrestling with those implications and figuring out how to live with them or overcome them.

We live within the arrangements of this world. Even if you just sit at home all day watching Netflix, your money is going to a landlord who’s probably trying to invest in new properties, and your viewing habits are generating data for corporations and heat in servers that are some of the leading causes of climate change. Even just sitting there not doing anything, you carry with you legacies, generational privilege, generation trauma or some mix of both. And that’s before you even leave your house to go about trying to make a wage in an extractive economy or enjoy yourself in a gentrifying city. We’re a part of the world’s arrangements just by being here.

And the sneakiest trick of all is that the cosmos tells us this is inevitable, that it has to be this way. If you step out of line, you’ll just get brought back in. The cosmos is too well planned out for improvisation, every effect has been mapped out, there are no new causes, no new beginnings. That’s the kind of thing immature college students talk about before they join the real world and learn how things actually work. And this is the way people talk about the ethics of the Scriptures, too! Hold all things in common? Well that’s not sustainable! Give to those who ask from you? We’ll get taken advantage of! Love your neighbor as yourself? That’s not safe! We know what happens when people try those kinds of things! The effects are predictable! That’s the way of the cosmos, the way of competition and fear, the way that looks upon creation and says “I already know how this is going to go.”

But the Scriptures teach us another way, not the way of the status quo, but the way of the Spirit. Where the cosmos burdens us with fears and a cold sense of inevitability, the commands of the Spirit aren’t burdensome. They’re freeing. And where the cosmos laughs derisively at the commands to love, to share, to hold all things in common, to wager our lives for each other, it does so because it thinks it knows how things are going to go. But no one knows where the Spirit comes from and no one knows where it’s going. Which is why “whatever is born of the Spirit defeats the world.”

This passage is begging us to imagine victory over the cosmos, over the powers of sin and death, over the empire, over capital. The Greek word “nike” is the one here for the verb defeat and the noun victory, so the writer repeats that same word 4 times in a row. They want us to picture victory even when we don’t understand how it’s going to come into being. I feel like one of the tricks the cosmos plays is to keep us from imagining what it would look like to win. We’re not supposed to be overconfident that we can bring about the kingdom of God, which sure, but this passage isn’t afraid of letting us want victory, which doesn’t mean colonial conquest. It means a more loving, caring, equal world. It means a world where we can truly surprise each other because all of the causes and all of the effects aren’t already mapped out for us.

That refusal to imagine victory, the shame we’re taught to feel at imagining victory, is part of how the cosmos keeps us inside their patterns, but the Spirit wants us to break out of those patterns to be born again, to find a new beginning not within the way things already are but through new patterns of love that we make together. Let yourself imagine winning. Imagine UNC divesting from Israel and a free Palestine. Imagine Duke making payments to Durham, imagine teachers and classified staff getting paid what they deserve, imagine going to the doctor and not worrying what the bill is going to be, imagine Black people getting reparations and the highways that segregated neighborhoods rolling up like scrolls, imagine a world where we don’t need cars to get around and the climate begins to heal; imagine we have enough time on our hands that we can actually spend it with each other rather than grasping for the last little bit of rest available to us. Imagine this place full, and those of you who have put so much energy into this community and are feeling a little burned out just getting to be here to rest and know you’re loved. None of that’s immortality, none of that’s perfection, none of that is usurping what’s possible for God alone. That’s a world that’s winnable and we can name that victory and want that victory…because we are not born of flesh alone and what the world tells us is possible, we are born again of the Spirit and so the cosmos doesn’t know where we’re coming from or what we’re gonna do next, it just trembles at the acts of love that it sees us performing in spite of it.

Whatever is born of the Spirit defeats the world. And this is what we act out, what we practice, when we baptize each other. In the beginning, God defeated the churning chaos of nothingness to draw creation out of the water. In the Exodus, God defeats the tyrant and sets people on the way to a land of milk and honey. On the cross, Jesus defeats the powers of this world, takes away their weapons, and puts them on trial before rising in victory over them. And so the earliest Baptists and Mennonites practiced what was called Believer’s Baptism. One of the main reasons for this was that in the official church, who baptized infants, people were put in the rolls of the state at the same time as they were put on the rolls of the church. Infant baptism became a practice of the church after the Emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. And so Believer’s Baptism was a way of saying, “No, this is a new birth. This isn’t just being a part of the world, it’s becoming a part of a different society within the world.”

But I think today, in a cosmos where we’re taught to be responsible for ourselves, to be individuals  whose best hope for happiness is “self-care,” where we can Instacart and AmazonPrime our desires to our doorsteps without interacting with another person, I think infant baptist is it’s own act of dissent. It’s a way of saying, “Yeah, you’re implicated in the world, but that’s not the only society you’re a part of, that’s not the only reality you’re caught up within.” You’re gonna grow up hearing about how you’re not good enough, how you need to buy the right things to become good enough, and you need to be productive enough to by those things. But there’s another story you belong to. There’s a group of people who have had your back since before you even knew you needed someone to have your back. You have been born of the flesh, but you’re born of the Spirit, too and that means the cosmos is already overcome, you’re already free to love your neighbor, and you’re going to grow up practicing that here before you even knew what you were doing. Don’t walk in the fear of the cosmos, walk in victory. Walk in love. Don’t be afraid. You just have to become who you were already born in the Spirit to be. Amen.

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