Three into One does go.

4173-trinity_edited.630w.tn.jpg(Isaiah 40, 12-17, 27-31; 2 Cor 13, 11-13;Matthew 28, 16-20)

 

In an edition of The Reader magazine several years back there was a page of suggestions to help the unfortunate ones among us who have been assigned to preach today, Trinity Sunday, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

 

There were the usual suggestions that we’ve all used sometimes, especially when we have had a Family Service on Trinity Sunday: water, ice and steam, three different forms of the same substance H2O; one person who is known in different relationships (father, son, brother) or different roles (teacher, churchwarden, golf cub secretary). And others that I’ve not come across before: three parts of an egg – yolk, shell and white (though that falls short because none of the three is in itself a complete egg, while each of the three persons of the Trinity is fully God);  or one that appeals to me: a blend of three different varieties  which make up a particular tea (though this was criticised on the basis that although each variety is completely ‘tea’, they each have different flavours and are thus essentially different from each other, whereas the three persons of the Trinity are not.)

 

Later, I came across another suggestion in the Bishop of Huntingdon’s blog – a power cable which has three leads in it. I am afraid I am not a physicist, so I don’t know whether his explanation of the cable showing us we must be earthed in the love of God, come alive in Christ and complete the circuit with the Holy Spirit works or not!Trinity flex

 

Some people say that maybe it is better not to try to explain the Trinity in words, but to use pictures.

So, some people find Andrei Rublev’s icon called ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ a helpful representation of the Trinity: Rublev_OT_Trinitythree figures seated around a cup (of wine or of blood?) heads and hands inclined to one another.

 

 

A more abstract representation is the Trinity shield TrinityShield1– a triangle of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each joined to the word ‘God’ in the centre by the word ‘is’, and joined to each other by arcs of a circle on which are the words ‘is not’.

 

Another pictorial representation which people find helpful is a shamrock, and I have found that this ancient Celtic symbol speaks to me of a unity of three parts endlessly interacting.

Irish Trinity

But perhaps the real problem is that we are trying to explain God the Trinity, or to represent it, when what we really need to do is to experience it.

 

As Paul explained in his letter to the Romans, we are justified by faith, and that is not faith in a set of abstract propositions, but faith in the validity of our experience of God, made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

Belief in God as Trinity grew out of the experience of the first Christians. They were Jews and monotheists, who believed in one unseen God. Their God spoke to them through major figures in their past, especially prophets and kings. They saw God’s activity in nature and history, and believed him to be the god of both. They saw him, as our reading from Isaiah illustrates, as a creator, as the source of wisdom, and as a mighty, otherworldly ruler. They used many names and titles to describe God’s being and activity – Yahweh, El, King, Lord, Shield, Shepherd, Ancient of Days.  And they spoke of certain aspects of God almost as separate beings, but still wholly God; the Spirit, active in the creation of the world and in the inspiration of the prophets; and Wisdom, also at God’s side during the process of creation, and speaking directly to human beings on behalf of God.

 

Then the disciples encountered Jesus, and in him they came to believe that they were experiencing God incarnate in a human being; someone who reflected so closely the God of their history, their Law and their Wisdom, that they could only describe him as ‘Son of God’. And Jesus spoke of God as his Father. But these were not terms which spoke of physical parentage, but of spiritual.

 

After Jesus’ death, the disciples experienced a time when this feeling of being in the living presence of God was lost; but then it returned again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, the disciple’s experience was that the Spirit had the character of both the God of their history and their scriptures, and of Jesus.

 

When the first Christians came to speak and write about their experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they drew on the language used in their Scriptures about God. But they didn’t at first go into exact definitions of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

Those sorts of definitions came later, when the Gospel was taken out into a different cultural world, that of Greek and Roman philosophy. In particular, they came as the experience of a direct encounter with the living Jesus retreated further into the past, and people began speaking of him in ways that did not ring true to the accounts of those who had that direct experience. The definitions came about in opposition to what was defined as heresy, and that affected the way the doctrines were expressed.

 

One of the essays that almost all people training for ministry have to write at some time in their training is entitled something like ‘Describe the steps in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity that led to the formulation of what we now know as the Nicene Creed’. That Creed was put together in its first form about the beginning of the 4th century AD for the Council of Nicaea and in its final form in the middle of the 5th century for the Council of Chalcedon.

 

So, our creeds, or definitions of faith, were drawn up four centuries after the experiences they were trying to define. What is more, they were drawn up in a very different culture from that in which the first disciples lived.

 

Another complication, for us, is that they were drawn up in a different language from the one which Jesus and his disciples spoke, and a different one from that which we speak. The technical terms in which the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were defined  (persons and substance) meant very different things to the ancient Greek theologians who drew up the Creeds from what they mean to us. Hence our problems with the doctrine of the Trinity which they defined.

 

Religious experience, the experience which the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to encapsulate, is most like the experience of viewing art, or listening to music, or reading poetry. Sometimes, attempting to analyse the experience can help us to a deeper experience; but very often, the analysis simply destroys the experience all together. How many of us have been put off Shakespeare, or the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, or a splendid piece of opera or orchestral music, by being forced to pick it to pieces and define why it has the effect on us that it does have?

 

Should we then abandon the observation of Trinity Sunday all together?

A good many preachers would answer yes!

 

But I think Trinity Sunday is a useful corrective to our all too human tendency to make our God too small. It reminds us that God has been made known to us through many forms of revelation, and yet is still beyond our understanding.

 

It reminds us that our faith is not just in the God of the Old Testament, nor in the incarnate Son, nor in the Holy Spirit, but in God revealed as all three. It reminds us that the persons of the Godhead are in relationship, and that a relationship is a living, growing, constantly changing thing.

 

So we cannot limit our faith to belief in the God revealed through the Scriptures; nor to the God we experience in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; nor to a God who inspires us through the Spirit. A complete faith needs to encompass all three, and needs to be open to new experiences and interpretations of all three, while being faithful to the revelation of Scripture.

 

Trinity Sunday reminds us to remain open to new truths and new experiences of God.

 

Trinity Sunday also has important things to say to us about how we live and work as God’s Church. Our Christian life should reflect the character of God. That is what Paul is writing about in the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians. That is what the Rublev icon is trying to illustrate.

 

The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we cannot be Christians on our own. We can only truly reflect the character of God when we are in relationship with others – respecting their differences from us, but acknowledging their essential oneness with us, as we believe the persons of the Godhead do.  And that is something which both our world and our churches  need to be reminded of, not just once a year but constantly.

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Receive the Holy Spirit…….

 

(Pentecost 2017)

(John 20, 19-23; James 1, 1-27)

 

What does it mean to be a Spirit-filled Christian?

 

I was reading an account the other day from a blog called ‘Charisma News’ of what happens when you are ‘slain in the Spirit’. He discussed the discomfort some Christians feel at accounts of people falling backwards, shaking crying and emitting strange noises and contrasted them with his own experience:

“When I got slain in the Spirit, did I receive prayer and the laying on of hands? Yes … and no. Yes, I received prayer and felt a powerful electricity go into me—thus, pushing me to the ground. I also fell to the ground when the manifest presence of God entered the room and sovereignly touched me—with no human aid. I simply say, He is God; let Him do what He wants!”

 

There are two accounts of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In the story in the Book of Acts, which is the one we usually hear at Pentecost, the Spirit comes like a violent, rushing wind and tongues of fire. The disciples immediately receive supernatural power, and begin to speak in different languages. From being afraid, and hiding themselves away, they are changed into bold preachers of the Good News, and immediately go outside to share their experience with strangers. They are so changed, that the people outside think they are drunk!

 

By contrast, in the account in the Gospel of John, the Spirit comes on Easter Day, and the Spirit comes quietly, when Jesus breathes on the disciples when they first seem him after his resurrection. Through it they receive peace, and the power to forgive sins. There seems to be nothing supernatural about the Spirit’s effects. This picture of the Spirit is also found in Paul’s epistles: in 1 Corinthians, Paul describes many gifts of the Spirit, some of them involving supernatural powers, others of them spiritual gifts; but he concludes that the greatest gift is love; in Galatians, Paul says the Spirit-filled person is recognized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

 

The Letter of James, which we are studying in the Bible Month, is also trying to work out what it means to be a Spirit-filled Christian, although it never mentions the Holy Spirit, and only mentions Christ twice.

We don’t know who wrote this letter. There were at least five people named James mentioned in the New Testament; traditionally, the letter is attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, who became a prominent leader of the early Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, but if it had been written by him, it is unlikely that it would have taken as long as it did to be accepted into the canon of the New Testament.

 

What we are told is that it was written to ‘The twelve tribes of the Dispersion’, that is to Jews who lived around the Mediterranean, outside their Jewish homeland, but who were following the Way of Christ. There were many of these in Jesus’ lifetime, and even more after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, at the end of the Jewish Revolt.

 

The letter has a very Jewish character. It doesn’t have any theology about the person of Christ, or the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Its thoughts and words reflect the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets and the Wisdom literature, as well as other New Testament writings. It talks a little bit about God, but mostly it is about practicalities. How, it asks, as those whose faith has been shaped by the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (what we would call the Old Testament) do we live out our faith as Christians?

 

At first sight, Chapter 1, which we are looking at in detail this morning, seems to be a muddle of brief unconnected thoughts. But that is how the people of the time wrote letters of advice and counsel. First they summarised the content of their advice in an introduction, known as an epitome; then they went into more detail. Chapter 1 is the epitome of the letter of James.

 

The first half of this first section deals with what believers are to expect from God. They are warned that they will undergo trials, which they are to face with joy, in the knowledge that such tests will strengthen their faith. They are to ask God for increasing wisdom in faith, and continue to trust in God’s good purposes no matter how bad things become. Those who fail to trust, they are warned, will not grow in wisdom.

 

Then the writer takes up the theme of God’s bias to the poor – a theme that is found in much of the OT prophets and the Gospels, and will be taken up in more detail later in this epistle. The writer then moves on to urge the believers to resist temptation, which he insists does not come from God, but from evil desires within the individual. Although written two thousand years ago, James shares the insights of modern psychology – that it is our inmost, uncontrolled desires that lead us to temptation, and then, frequently, into wrong action. This section ends with a repetition of the assurance that all good things come from God, who is all benevolence, and through his gifts is giving believers new birth into a new and different kind and quality of life – another Pentecost theme.

 

Then James moves on to summarise what is expected from Christians. He talks about listening before speaking, and controlling your tongue and your anger – themes that are found in Proverbs and other Wisdom literature, and will be discussed at greater length later in the letter. In words that echo Jesus’ Parable of the Sower he urges his readers to allow the word of the Gospel to be planted into their hearts, and to allow it to grow and produce action. He also echoes Paul’s reference to looking into a mirror from 1 Corinthians, when he says, those who listen to the gospel but don’t live it, are like those who look into a mirror, and immediately they look away, forget what they look like. It is the doers who will reap the blessings of belief, not those who just listen, he says.

His words remind me of the prayer of St Ignatius Loyola: Dearest Lord,
teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing I am doing Your Will.

 

 

After another reminder about controlling the tongue (a subject that seems to be very close to his heart), James concludes his introduction by summarising what he believes true religion is all about: caring for those in need, and not conforming to the standards of the world.

 

Some people don’t very much like the Epistle of James. Luther, whose great insight was that we are justified by faith, not saved by our actions, called it a ‘real strawy epistle’ with no ‘evangelical character’, compared with the letters of Paul, the Gospel of John and the first Letter of Peter, which Luther judged ‘show you Christ’.

 

I don’t think this is a fair judgement. The Epistle of James may not be as long as some of the other letters of the New Testament. Its theology may not have evolved as much as the theology in some of Paul’s major epistles, or the much later writings of John the Evangelist. It may not draw on deep philosophy. But being a Spirit-filled Christian is not just about knowledge and theory, or saying particular prayers or believing certain things about the person of Christ. Jesus and Paul are both emphatic that belief without action is of no use.

 

True faith is demonstrated in the actions that flow from it. As Wesley wrote “Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbour as one’s self.”

 

The Letter of James, short and traditional as it is, is evangelical in showing the Spirit-filled believer how to imitate Christ in putting faith into action, day by day.

 

 

 

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Ascension and Cognitive Dissonance.

Reredos Detail, Ascension

The Ascension – a church reredos.

Acts 1, 6-14; John 17, 1-11

 

When I studied for my first degree in Sociology, one of the elements in the course was a unit on Social Psychology; and in the course of that unit I was introduced to the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’.  Now, you may think that you don’t know what ‘cognitive dissonance’ means; but you have almost certainly experienced it at some time during your life.

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort we experience when we find a discrepancy or conflict between what we already know or believe and another piece of information, or interpretation or action. So, you might experience it if, for instance you believe you are an honest person, yet you take an opportunity which is presented you to steal; or if you have always maintained you are a pacifist, but find yourself hitting out at someone who’s just beaten you to the last parking space at the supermarket.

Cognitive dissonance also occurs when your prejudices or principles are challenged by some new piece of information, or by someone’s actions. Jesus made use of this in many of his parables: characters in them behave in unexpected ways – the Samaritan treats a Jew as a neighbour, the owner of the vineyard pays the late arrivals as much as those who have worked since dawn. Jesus’ intention in presenting people with these dilemmas is that they should resolve the psychological tension they feel from the dissonance by abandoning their prejudices or changing their beliefs.

According to Festinger, who first put forward the theory, people feel most comfortable when there is consistency between their beliefs. Therefore, when they experience cognitive dissonance they will deal with it in one of three ways (or a combination of these). They can change one or other of the beliefs which are inconsistent; they can try to acquire more knowledge which may reduce the apparent inconsistency, or allow them to accommodate both belief systems; or they can try to isolate themselves from the information that conflicts with their own beliefs, or to denigrate the source of the conflicting information, so that they don’t have to change.

Religious belief can be a rich source of cognitive dissonance. The very first research on the concept was a study of a group of believers in the US whose prophet had told them that the earth was to be destroyed by a flood in December 1954, but that the faithful believers would be saved by aliens in a space ship sent by extra terrestrial Guardians. When the flood didn’t happen, some of the less committed believers gave up membership of the cult; but the most committed members remained, convinced by a new prophecy which said that their faith and good works had saved the earth from the planned flood.

 

We twenty-first century Christians, who belong to one of the ancient world faiths, find ourselves constantly experiencing cognitive dissonance, because the scriptures and other foundation documents of our faith were written by people from a pre-scientific culture, whose way of understanding the world was very different from our own. And this season of Ascensiontide is one of the times when that dissonance becomes most acute. We read the biblical accounts where, apparently, a human body is transported up through a cloud, to be with God above the sky. We sing hymns which say things like ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ and ‘Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies’. Yet, we have watched on TV as people walk on the moon, we have seen pictures from spacecraft of the distant planets, and even images from radio telescopes of galaxies, far distant from us in space and time, colliding, exploding and re-forming into new stars and galaxies.

If we believe in a physical universe like this, then where is there for the body of Jesus to go to? Perhaps that is why so many in the modern church tend not to celebrate Ascension Day. The fact that it always falls on a weekday makes it easier to ignore it. Yet, our faith ought not to be something we just pick up on Sundays, and ignore the rest of the week; and the Ascension is a major festival of the Church, which means it should have something important to teach us about the Christian faith. So how can we deal with this particular instance of cognitive dissonance.

You will remember the three strategies Festinger suggested people used to deal with cognitive dissonance. Employing the first we could abandon one or other belief system. Many of our contemporaries have abandoned their religious faith because they find it incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world – it is what those who argue so loudly in books and the media against religious belief, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believe is the only possible course for a rational modern person to take.

 

At the other extreme are people who won’t accept any of the scientific understanding of the world, or who reject the bits of that understanding that conflict with what they believe the Bible says – the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, religious fundamentalists. Many of these will also try to denigrate the sources of scientific knowledge as a further protection against dissonance.

 

Or, you could compartmentalise your beliefs – and a lot of people do this unconsciously. So you operate with one set of knowledge about how the world works during your normal daily life – and you slip back into a pre-scientific understanding when you pray or come to church or discuss religious faith. But splitting your life up into sealed compartments is not a very satisfactory way of living – and if our faith is worth anything, it should be something that informs the whole of our lives.

 

So I believe that the only satisfactory way of dealing with dissonance  between the thought systems with which we operate in everyday life, and those in which our faith is expressed, is to seek more knowledge and greater understanding, so as to reduce the conflict we feel between them. The question we need to ask is one posed by Leonard Hodgson and quoted by John Robinson in his book, ‘The Human Face of God’: “What must the truth have been if men who thought and spoke as they did put it like that?” And following on from that, John Robinson says we should ask, “What must we say, for it to mean what they meant. when they said things like that of Christ?”

When we read the Biblical accounts of the Ascension, we need to understand the hidden meanings, the ‘code’ as it were behind the language of the stories.

Flower Festival Ascension

The Ascension, interpreted in flowers

The Jews of the time used ‘body’ to stand for the totality of a person – their mind, spirit, soul, personality and history. So, for the Gospel writers, the body of Jesus encompassed his personal history, his teaching, his actions, and the feeling which his followers had about him: that in him they had met God in a new and complete way. The passion stories tell us that Jesus was killed and buried; the Easter narratives tell us that the ‘body’ of Jesus was raised by God from the realm of death, and that this raised body (recognizably Jesus, but different) was seen by many of his followers. This was a resurrection body, part of a new creation, and, Paul says, not flesh and blood.

Now, for the writers of the Bible, mountain tops were places of interaction with God, and the cloud signified the presence of God. So, when Luke tells us that the ‘body’ was taken from their sight into the cloud, he is sharing the disciples’ belief that the human being whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth, was now being taken into God, and in future would be part of their understanding of what God was.

Included in that understanding was the belief that God reigns over the people of the earth from a place that is hidden from our sight and understanding – for the people of that time, this was the sky – so ‘the heavens’ became ‘Heaven’, the spiritual realm.

The Ascension story also looks forward to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. From now on, the story tells us, (through the angelic messenger, another metaphor for the presence of God) the disciples will no longer encounter Jesus through his physical body, confined to a particular time and place, but through the Holy Spirit; and that Spirit will empower all who follow Christ to continue his ministry through the whole world and through all time. Through it, Christ will always be available to everyone, in a way that the human Jesus was not.

 

What then is the Ascension story telling us? It is telling us that there is a dimension to life beyond that which can be seen and touched and measured by scientific means, a spiritual dimension which believers know is as real as the physical world. The Ascension story describes a moment when that spiritual world, is for a moment, more open than usual to our human understanding.

 

It completes the story of the Incarnation, by telling us that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who was so completely open to God that those who met him believed he had in some way come from the spiritual world, was, after his death, absorbed into God, so that our knowledge of him becomes part of our understanding of God.

 

It is a story that tells us that the physical body of Jesus is no longer of any importance. From this moment on we will know him, relate to him, and be empowered by him through the Holy Spirit – unseen, but nonetheless real – which is the Spirit both of Jesus, and of God the Father and Creator.

 

Because we struggle to understand and express all of these deep truths about God, who we know and experience as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are probably always going to have to fall back on the picture or code language in which the Bible and the Creeds are written. But so long as we remember that they are just pictures, to help us express the inexpressible reality which is God, we shouldn’t be too much troubled by ‘cognitive dissonance’.

12around1ascension1

The Ascension – a modern interpretation.

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Not a Comfort Blanket

img_0640.jpg
(Acts 17, 22-31; John 14, 15-21)

 

Can you remember having a something which you used to comfort yourself when you were a baby or a small child? Or something your children had?

For some children it’s a dummy, for some it’s their thumb, while other children have a toy, and still others a piece of material like a sheet or a blanket, that they carry everywhere with them. It can be a real disaster, not just for the child, but for the whole family if the ‘comfort object’ gets lost. Families with foresight have a spare one (I know of one family who surreptitiously cut bits off the comfort blanket so that they would always have a spare). But even adults have ‘comfort objects’ that they rely on in times of stress – cigarettes, alcohol or food are common ones.

The Authorised Version translation of today’s Gospel passage from John has Jesus promising to ask the Father to send the disciples a “Comforter”, and perhaps, hearing those words, some of you, like me, have a picture of God sending down a teddy, or a piece of blanket to help Christian believers through the hard times ahead.

The original Greek in John’s Gospel, parakletos (παρακλητος) has always been a difficult word to translate; many of the Church Fathers struggled to find an appropriate word in their languages. The Authorised Version copied Tyndale and Wyclif’s earlier English versions in using ‘comforter’. But that choice shows how unwise it is to continue to use a version of the Bible in old-fashioned language, since the meaning of ‘comfort’ in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries was almost diametrically opposite to what it means now.

When Wyclif and the translators working for James 1 used the word, it meant something that empowered you or made you stronger (as you can guess from its Latin roots which mean ‘with strength’). This makes sense of its use in Psalm 23, where the rod and staff of the shepherd give strength and confidence to the sheep. A comforter in this sense prepares a person for action and danger. In modern English, however, a comforter is understood as something that gives consolation to the weak, and particularly to children. It is inward looking rather than outward looking.

Paraclete is a favourite word in the writings of John. In the 1st Epistle of John it is used of Jesus , who as ‘paraclete’ pleads our case with the Father. In John’s Gospel it is used several times of the Holy Spirt. So, it is important that we try to understand what the write is trying to convey by the word.

Originally, in secular Greek a paraclete was someone who was called in to perform a public duty; later it was used of someone who was called in to stand alongside a person in a court of justice (in a similar way to the provision that you can have a ‘friend’ with you at an employment tribunal or disciplinary hearing).

The paraclete is not just called in to stand there, though; they are called in to do something to change things for the better for you. So it came to mean a lawyer, and advocate, a counsellor (in the American sense of a counsellor at law). More modern translations than the Authorised Version have used a number of different words and phrases to try to convey this: advocate, strength, helper, counsellor, one who befriends, one who stands with you.

So, the function of the paraclete is to stand alongside us, plead our case with God, and to empower us to do God’s work on earth, when we cannot cope in our own strength. When Jesus is no longer physically present, according to John, then the Holy Spirit does the same work in and through the disciples as Jesus did during his life. The paraclete as Holy Spirit is Jesus alongside us and Jesus working for us and through us. The Spirit and Jesus share the same character and do the same work in the world, revealing God and God’s purposes.

Now this may not necessarily be a ‘comfortable’ experience for Jesus’s disciples in the way which we now understand the word. Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for his followers and opened their minds to God’s call. He demonstrated what it was possible to achieve in a life dedicated completely to love and obedience to God.

But according to the Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, he was often quite hard on the disciples, and told them very plainly when they had got things wrong or had misunderstood his mission. This is also a task which the Holy Spirit fulfils, as it leads believers into the truth. The paraclete is not just alongside as helper, but as a ‘critical friend’ (a phrase that will be familiar to anyone involved in education, especially as a school governor), who supports, but also is honest with criticism, asks leading questions and challenges actions, in the drive to achieve the best possible outcome.

There’s no time limit given for the action of the paraclete. Its influence is not limited to the apostolic age, or the time before the New Testament was written. The Holy Spirit continues to advise, strengthen and challenge believers in the present age.

Nor is the paraclete’s action limited to a particular place or a particular organisation. The Holy Spirit may work through the Church, but is also at work outside the Church. As Paul told the Athenians, God is at work in the world even when unrecognised and unacknowledged.

With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s disciples will know in a concrete way the reality of the Trinity – that the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in character and purpose and operate through love. This is not, however, a sentimental sort of love. It is love which is shown by keeping Jesus’s commandments.

Again, this is not a case of keeping a list of rules; the overriding commandment is to love – love God, love one another, love neighbour. A clear indication of what that means in reality comes from Jesus’ example, especially his humble and sacrificial service, even to those who despised, betrayed or denied him.

The Spirit is given to those who love and obey Jesus – and those who love and obey Jesus will show the fruits of the Spirit.

This passage also prepares the disciples (and the Church) for the fact that the powers that control the world will not understand this sort of love and obedience. Jesus was opposed and eventually killed by the political and religious authorities of his time. If the Church is being obedient to Jesus, it is likely to find itself frequently at odds with the state; and if it is too cosy with the state, or if its structure becomes too much like that of the political authorities, it is not likely to be being obedient to Jesus.

The Holy Spirit comes as a free gift from the Father to those who love and obey Jesus. It is not something they earn by believing the right things, or belonging to the right congregation, or worshipping in a particular way. Nor is it up to those who have received it to say who else may or may not receive it. That is up to God alone.

The Holy Spirit comes so that we may be empowered to do the work God has given us to do in obedience to Christ. It’s not a comfort blanket – it’s our spur to action.

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All we, like sheep……

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(Acts 2, 42-47; 1 Peter 2, 19-end; John 10, 1-10)

 

If someone called you a sheep, how would you feel?

 

I suspect you would feel insulted. The usual adjective that goes with ‘sheep’ these days is ‘silly’ or ‘woolly’ and the usual simile is ‘followed like sheep’.

 

Today most people value independence and intelligence in themselves and others – so being compared to something which is regarded as thoughtless and stupid, and which follows the group in a mindless way, is not going to be taken as a compliment!

 

On the other hand, however clever and independent we think ourselves, most of us like to feel we have somewhere secure to return to; so the idea of being kept safely in a sheep pen might appeal to all except the most adventurous among us.

 

In this first part of John’s meditation on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he pictures the sheep in a pen in the village, surrounded by high walls, and guarded by a gatekeeper. The gate is only opened for the shepherd who owns the sheep, and they respond to his voice and follow him out. The gatekeeper will not allow anyone else near the sheep – if they want to get a sheep, strangers and thieves have to climb in over the walls, and the sheep will run away from them because they don’t recognise their voice.

 

This is a very different way of regarding sheep from our modern one. These sheep are not seen as silly – they know who they belong to. They hear and respond only to the voice of the person they know and trust, the person who will lead them to places where they will be safe, where they will be fed and grow.

 

They are also valuable. Sheep represented a major part of the the wealth of an individual or a community, so they were worth protecting and nurturing. They also represented for most people a celebration meal – meat was eaten rarely, and only on special occasions. Think of them, then, as the Palestinian equivalent of your bank account, and caviare, smoked salmon, fillet steak and champagne, all rolled into one!

 

That should make us feel better about being compared to sheep. This tells us that we are people whom God values, who are precious to him. All we, like sheep, represent God’s wealth on earth.

 

There’s only a very small amount of sheep farming going on now in the UK. But in, say, Australia, many people still have a lot of their wealth invested in sheep. Because of that, the sheep are marked with a brand. So, how are we, as Jesus’s sheep, branded?

 

 

We were marked at our baptism with a cross in oil or water, but that is now invisible. The only way we now show that we are branded with Jesus’s mark, is by the way we live. Our Acts reading tells us that the first believers were visibly marked by their experience of the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so much so that even non-believers noticed the change. Are we distinguishable from our neighbours by our Christian way of life? Are we visibly owned by God?

 

In our second reading from the Letter of Peter, we are reminded by the writer of the way that Jesus lived, enduring abuse and suffering without complaint or retaliation, and are urged to imitate and follow him, as sheep follow their shepherd.

 

John distinguishes in the reading between the true shepherd who owns the sheep, and leads them to abundance of life, and ‘thieves and robbers’, false shepherds who want to exploit them. At the time when John’s Gospel was written, Jesus and his followers were accused of being ‘sheep stealers’, taking loyal Jews away from their true allegiance to the Law of Moses; in this passage, Jesus is accusing the leaders of the Jews of the same thing.

 

Jesus also says he is the gate for the sheep. A door or gate has two functions: it can let the sheep (the followers of a religion) out into the place where they are nurtured and grow, or it can confine them in a place where they can be at the mercy of false shepherds or thieves who will destroy them. This is what Jesus accuses the contemporary leaders of the Jews of doing.

 

It is worth pondering, then, what is it that steals people away from the true message of Jesus in our own time? What calls us in a voice which is not the authentic voice of our true shepherd?

 

It is hard sometimes to hear the voice of Jesus through twenty centuries of tradition and interpretation; though we are lucky that there are scholars (like the Jesus Seminar) who try to take us back to what Jesus actually said. Unless we can get back to the original words of Jesus, we may be following ‘thieves and robbers’ rather than the Good Shepherd.

 

The Good Shepherd is one who leads the sheep in the way that leads to ‘green pastures’, which stands for fullness of life. It is important to notice that, in this metaphor, the shepherd we follow is a living one. This passage is not talking about gaining fullness of life as a result of the death of the shepherd, but as a result of following his way of life.

 

So, as our other readings from the New Testament remind us, we are called to follow Jesus’ way of openness to the outcast and the stranger, of sacrificial service, and of peaceful opposition to the forces that oppress and dehumanise us and others. It may put our lives in danger (as Jesus says the Good Shepherd does in the verses that follow this reading); it will certainly involve living sacrificially.

 

That makes this a very good set of readings as we approach the start of Christian Aid Week in a week’s time, and as we enter a General Election campaign. They reminds us that we cannot help others without being prepared to sacrifice our own self, as Jesus did.

 

The Acts reading illustrates some ways of following the Good Shepherd in the way we live. Some of them may be appropriate to our lives now; others may not, but the passage should give us food for thought about the way we show that we are part of Jesus’ flock.

 

Acts tells us that at this time the followers of Jesus held all their goods in common. That ‘communal’ way of living is not something that works well in today’s society; but it does remind us that we should not regard our possessions as being just for our own enjoyment and benefit; they are meant to be used for the good of the whole flock. The goods of the believers were used for the benefit of those in need, as should ours be.

 

Acts also tells us that worship was important in the life of the first disciples. They went together to the temple on a daily basis; they prayed; and the Eucharist – the breaking of bread – was central to their lives. They were attentive to the teaching of the apostles, and they spent time in fellowship with each other. In all these way they went deeper into God on a regular basis and strengthened their commitment to following the Good Shepherd.

 

Their attitude was one of thanksgiving and joy. This made them attractive to outsiders. It was apparent that they were enjoying a new fullness of life. Their faith enabled them to do signs and wonders – through their faith they were transforming the communities in which they lived.

 

Their joyful attitude and the obvious mutual love and fellowship had the effect of drawing in new disciples, expanding the flock and increasing the wealth of their owner. This was not overt evangelism, but it was, and remains, the most effective sort of evangelism. People will be drawn into the fellowship of Jesus’ flock not by our words, but by the attractiveness of our worship, the strength of our fellowship and the witness of our service to the community. That is the sort of sheep fold that the flock of the Good Shepherd is meant to be in.

But the sheep in God’s flock are not meant to stay in the sheepfold for ever. We may remain for a time within the safety of the sheepfold; but the voice of the Good Shepherd invites us to follow him out into the wider world, to live life abundantly in the green pastures we will find there, transforming the community we live in and adding more and more new sheep to his flock

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Resurrection – word for word!

Sunrise at sea – Version 2Sermon for Easter Sunday 2017

 Acts 10, 34-43; Matthew 28, 1-10

 

Easter, like Christmas, is a Christian festival, and occasionally the media remember that, and publish a story that has to do with religious belief, rather than about bunnies and chocolate eggs and what we call them.

 

Last weekend, the BBC had a story about the results of a survey commissioned by BBC local radio about belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, and life after death. One of the questions they asked of 2,010 British adults was whether they believed in the resurrection of Jesus “word-for-word” as described in the Bible; whether they believed it happened but that some of the Bible content should “not be taken literally”; whether they did not believe in the resurrection, or whether they did not know.

 

I was not one of the 2,010, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked ‘Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?’ and ‘What exactly do you mean by resurrection?’

 

The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.

 

The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews and Jewesses, whose world view was very different from that with which we operate. They would have been expressed in Aramaic, within a Palestinian Jewish culture. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history. Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.

 

Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, and mostly in connection with the general resurrection that some Jews believed would happen at the end of time. When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

 

What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these, like the accounts of Jesus’ birth, are contradictory.

The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.

 

The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew as we heard, has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to go and baptize in his name.

 

Luke has an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and others are now named. They tell the disciples who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish before them. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This last story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost. In the speeches in Acts, again there’s no mention of a tomb or a garden, but there is of the disciples meeting, eating and drinking with the risen Christ.

 

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). John says that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up. (John uses the active verb). Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!)

 

That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a late addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, and commissioned to lead the church and the manner of his death is predicted.

 

So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ word-for-word as described in the Bible’, which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

 

Rather, I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that the Scriptures attempt to communicate, in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’.

 

This experience was real. We know that by its effects: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that ‘the Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change in them from those who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God to those who saw it as the gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.

 

So the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that can be experienced by the senses or filmed by a video camera. Rather the questions we need to ask of the Scriptures are “What was the experience of those first disciples, especially Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them? What was it about Jesus of Nazareth that demanded his story be written and interpreted in terms of the sacred traditions of the Jewish people? What convinced these people that Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth who died as a criminal in a Roman crucifixion, could be acclaimed as the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant, the Logos described in the Jewish sacred writings.

These are questions that go beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

 

If I am asked: ‘Do you believe in the Resurrection?’ I would answer: ‘Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God.’ If I was asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord I would again answer: ‘Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, or after 3 days and nights, since that is ‘religious time’) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous’. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: ‘Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God will experience a life that death has no power to extinguish.’

 

What I personally do not believe in is that somehow the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated after lying in a grave for about 36 hours. I do not believe that his physical body escaped past a large stone from a tomb, passed through closed doors, ate fish and bread and was finally removed from this planet to an existence in some other part of this universe or outside it. I cannot believe that, because it is meaningless in terms of my beliefs about human life and death, about the physical universe and about the nature of God and God’s interaction with human beings.

 

At one time, the symbols of angels and the tomb, the stone rolled away, the stories of the body that was revived on the third day, the conversations with the disciples, the touching of wounds, eating bread and fish, expounding the scriptures, passing through doors, being in two places at the same time and so on were powerful vehicles of the truth of the resurrection for ordinary people. I don’t believe, that they are any more, and the survey that the BBC carried out seems to confirm that.

 

For some of those of us brought up within the Church, these symbols still carry a powerful message of the truth of God which Jesus showed us. But if we are to continue to bring that truth to many in our generation and the generations to come, we will need to engage once again in the task of translation, not just of the language but also of the symbols, so that new generations will be able to say: ‘We believe in the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ’ and will be empowered by their belief, as we are,  to live his resurrection life.

Sun up

 

 

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Good Friday Reflection

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Psalm 221-21; Mark 14.53- 15 end.

 

Today we reach the conclusion of the Holy Week story; perhaps the inevitable conclusion.

 

We have heard how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, riding on a beast of burden, fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah of a ruler who comes in the name of the Lord, to bring peace and justice, presenting an alternative to the Roman forces who marched in at the same time. We have heard of his week teaching in the Temple, challenging the religious authorities by his words and actions.

 

We have remembered the institution of Holy Communion as Jesus ate the Passover meal with his friends, redefining the symbolism about the way in which freedom is achieved, and calling his disciples to share his vocation of love and service. We have heard of his betrayal by someone he regarded as a friend and companion. We have watched as all his friends deserted him in the face of a threat to their own lives and liberty.

 

We have witnessed the travesty of a trial before the religious authorities, who were willing to encourage perjury to rid themselves of this threat to their secure position. We have listened to the exchange with the political authority, to whom he was also a threat, a possible leader of unrest at a sensitive time.

 

And today we come to the final act: rejected by the mob, condemned to death in spite of his obvious innocence, mocked, beaten and tortured by the military, humiliated and executed in a most terrible death; and perhaps most dreadful of all, losing his confidence in the presence of the God of love.

 

And as we watch, and listen, and witness the death of Jesus, we remember also all those other innocent people who have suffered and died, and still suffer and die, at the hands of the vengeful mob, or the political or religious authorities.

 

And we remember our frailties, the frailties we share with our fellow men and women: the times when we have let down our friends, when we have turned against those who trusted us, or deserted those who needed our support because of fears for our own position, or our own safety; the times when we have misused the power we have, the times when we have bullied those who are in no position to resist, the times we have colluded with actions we know to be wrong, the times when we have discriminated against those who are different from us, the times when we have failed to speak up for the truth.

 

And as we contemplate the cross, which is the result of all those failures, we pray that we may be given the grace to turn again, and make a new beginning, raised up by God to a new life, following in the way which Jesus trod.

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