Wisdom, Word and Parables

Wild flowers at the top station, Brambrüesch

(Wisdom of Solomon 12, 13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30, 36-43)

 

The Church of England’s General Synod has just met in York; and like so many meetings of that body recently, the most contentious items on the agenda were to do with gender and sexuality.

 

On the surface, these issues are about ethics and church practice; but actually, what lies beneath the ethical and theological arguments are questions about the Bible, and more specifically the use, abuse, status and authority of Scripture. This is not a new issue (though some commentators would have us believe it is a 21st century phenomenon) It is an issue which comes up again and again in the history of the church. It is a perennial question, which takes an enormous amount of unravelling, because it is so closely entwined with culture, and varying concepts of what constitutes authority.

 

Anglican belief has always been based on a combination of Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add ‘experience’ to those three. But some parts of our traditions insist that Scripture takes precedence, or even that it is the only basis on which we make judgements about what is right to do. But even if you accept that, how do we judge which bits of Scripture to obey?

 

If we are to deal intelligently with the debate over the use of Scripture, we need to understand the way different parts of scripture came into being, the different forms it takes, and the cultural and religious context in which it was formed.

 

Our readings today give us the opportunity to look at two different forms of Biblical teaching – wisdom literature and parables.

 

In the Old Testament tradition all wisdom literature, and particularly the Book of Proverbs tends to be ascribed to King Solomon (just as all Psalms are ascribed to David and all Law to Moses).

 

Wisdom literature is a distinctive strand in the Israelite tradition. In our Old Testament it is found in not just in Proverbs, but also in Ecclesiastes, in most of the Book of Job, in Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49,112 and 128 and in the Song of Songs. In the Apocrypha, it is found in Ecclesiasticus and in the book our first reading came from, entitled ‘Wisdom of Solomon’.

 

However, modern scholarship has shown that it is highly unlikely that all of this writing was the work of King Solomon. Wisdom writings were common across the ancient Near East, and there are numerous parallels in the Book of Proverbs to the Egyptian ‘Instruction of Amen-em-opet’. The Apocryphal book called the Wisdom of Solomon was almost certainly written after the Exile in Babylon. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, in fact, comes from across the whole time span of the pre-Christian period.

 

Wisdom literature was able to cross cultural boundaries because it was chiefly interested in the individual, and the problems of human existence, and because its teaching drew on observation of the natural world and human life to make its point.

 

One strand of wisdom consists of practical advice, expressed in short memorable phrases about how to get on in life and run your family. Much of the Book of Proverbs is like this. There are lots of proverbs about bringing up children – and several about living with a nagging wife! There are proverbs about being lazy or stupid or being wise and hardworking, and others about how to deal with powerful and rich people.

 

Another strand however, is more philosophical and ponders on the deeper meaning of life: what is the point of existence, why do good people suffer, where does true wisdom come from? The link between the two forms of wisdom writing, the practical and the philosophical, was the belief that both the moral world and the natural world reflected the mind of God

 

In Jewish tradition, wisdom was seen as a gift from God, and later wisdom writing saw Wisdom (who became almost a separate divine person) as the companion and agent of God in the process of creation. In the New Testament, Wisdom became identified with ‘The Word’ and therefore with Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

 

Then, in our Gospel reading we have a parable, another form of Biblical writing. The Hebrew word for proverb, ‘mashal’ was also the word for parables. Both were memorable ways of teaching. Both drew on observation of the natural world to cast light on the spiritual world. Both could be quite short.

 

There is a lot of discussion among biblical scholars about what passages in the Gospels are the actual words of Jesus, and which have been added by the Gospel editors. One thing on which they are all agreed is that the parables are the original teaching of Jesus, and that parables were the characteristic mode of teaching which he used in his public ministry.

 

There’s a comment in Mark’s gospel chapter 4, which says that Jesus taught in parables so that some people who heard him wouldn’t understand. That is almost certainly an addition by the writer of Mark, designed to explain to his readers why the Jews who heard Jesus did not accept him as the Messiah.

 

In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus taught in parables precisely because this concrete, pictorial teaching would be accessible to anyone, no matter what their education or intellectual ability. Since the parables, like the wisdom literature, drew on observations of the natural world and human society, which anyone could make, the parables have continued to be accessible across cultures and across time. Though we may no longer live in a predominantly agricultural society, we still have sufficient contact with the natural world, and with largely unchanged human nature, to understand what the parables are describing.

 

The allegorical explanations for some of the parables were very probably added by the Early Church, to apply them to current situations in their community life. This is certainly the case with the explanation to the parable of the Weeds and the Tares we heard. This belongs to the situation of the Early Church, and its preoccupation with what would happen at the Second Coming (which they expected to come very soon after the resurrection.)

 

Originally, however, most of the parables were designed to make one particular point. Some of them were just a couple of lines; others were full blown stories with a cast of characters. In all of them, the hearers are presented with a situation, asked to make a judgement on it, and then (either explicitly or implicitly) challenged to act on that judgement in their own lives.

 

One big difference between wisdom teaching and parables is that, whereas wisdom taught generalities, which could be applied in any situation and any culture, parables were about a specific situation. So, to understand Jesus’ parables, we need to understand the context in which they were told. Very often, as in the parable in today’s Gospel reading, we are given the context. Jesus tells us he is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, (better translated as ‘God’s Sovereign Rule’) which is being ushered in by his ministry. He is challenging his hearers to recognise that, and to act on that recognition.

 

With that in mind, we can make an attempt to guess the particular point this particular parable is making. This explanation is based on the work of C.H. Dodd, who wrote a seminal book on the parables.

 

Tares were a form of edible grass which gave a very small yield. Because, as the parable of the Sower shows us, the Palestinian farmer didn’t go in for elaborate preparation of the ground before he sowed seeds, there would inevitably be some of its seeds growing among the good seed. But it would be dangerous to try to pull it up while the wheat was growing, because that would risk destroying some of the good crop.

 

One part of Jesus’ teaching talked about a Judgement in the future. However, other parts imply the Kingdom of Heaven was already here. One objection to the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven was here was that there were still many sinners around; in this parable, Jesus may be telling his listeners not to worry about those who they regarded as sinners, even if they were members of the people of God (Israel or the Church). Any judgement and sorting was for God to do, in God’s good time, not for human beings. Attempting to cast out those who you regard as evil does more harm than good.

 

But this is only one possible explanation. The whole point about parables is that they were vivid and memorable, yet at the same time they left sufficient doubt about their precise teaching to prompt people into continued questioning, trying to tease out what exactly they meant. That was Jesus’ chosen way of teaching. He didn’t give rules; he didn’t provide set answers; he said ‘This is what I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is like; what do you think?’

If there is any element of compulsion in that decision, it is not Jesus’ way.

 

And, for those of us that follow the news about Synod and its decisions, that is a very relevant point for today’s Church of England, which some seem to be trying to turn into a church where only the ‘pure’ are allowed. It is something we need to remember when certain sections of the Church try to tell us “You have to believe this” or “You have to subscribe to that” if you are to be counted as a Christian.

 

The Word, in his wisdom, chose to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, inviting us to walk with him, alongside others who are seeking the way, and to explore and question and decide, each one for ourselves, what God wants of us.

Let those who have ears to hear, listen!

 

Unknown

 

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Choosing a Leader

Unknown

(Romans 7, 15-25a; Matthew 11, 16-19 & 25-30)

“For John came neither eating and drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; and the Son of Man comes eating and drinking and they say, ’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.”

 

Human beings find it very difficult to choose their leaders. At one time, of course, they had little say in the matter. The most powerful person got the job. But now, in our more democratic age, people can influence the choice, and are free to say what they do and don’t what. But this hasn’t made life any easier, because different people want different things from those who lead.

 

The tendency is to ask for too much, for qualities that can’t possibly all be met by once person. I once heard an Archdeacon say that every parish who prepared a profile of the new vicar they wanted, asked for the Angel Gabriel, but with a spouse and 2.4 children.

 

Part of our Gospel reading for today is concerned with the characteristics of leaders.

 

Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is commenting on how the people of his time reacted to two very different leaders, John the Baptist and himself. Neither of them seemed to fit the current ideas of what a prophet should be like.

 

But Jesus claims to know the mind of God, not as God’s servant, but as closely as a child would know the mind of its parent. What God wants of us, he says, is that we should rely on God and rest in God; then we will find that the yoke of religion is light, not repressive, and will bring peace to our souls. Obeying God is not a matter of following a host of rules, but of being close to God and being true to what God made us to be.

 

St Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians to prepare for his first visit to them in person. He regarded himself as a leader of the Church, an apostle, one especially chosen by God to take the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. This letter sets out his understanding of that Gospel, and in particular of its relationship to the Torah, the Jewish Law.

Earlier in the letter, Paul talks about his understanding of the Law: how it had a good purpose, but yet seemed to tempt human beings to sin, because of the human tendency to want what is forbidden.

 

Then, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul gets personal, and talks about his own struggle to do what is right, and how he constantly fails. It’s a situation we all recognise from our own lives, isn’t it? It shows Paul admitting to very human failings, not claiming to be a perfect leader at all.

 

In the past year, we seem to have been constantly reading about or taking part in elections, in this country and elsewhere. The tendency nowadays seems to be to concentrate attention on those standing for office, their religion, looks, race and personal attributes, rather than on the policies they are putting forward. Each side seeks to discredit the leaders of the opposing parties, often dragging up incidents from the past, to show them as untrustworthy, or stupid. But, in view of some of the results, it doesn’t seem to be a very good way of influencing how people vote.

 

At this time of year, we also tend to be thinking quite a lot about our religious leaders. In both the Anglican and Methodist churches, ordinations take place around the end of June and the beginning of July. In the Church of England, it’s the time when parishes receive their newly ordained deacons, curates who will be training with them for the following three years.

 

And because curates only tend to stay for three years nowadays, it’s also the time when we have to say farewell to those curates who have now been appointed as vicars of parishes of their own. And at this time the dioceses will be beginning to consult about the placement of deacons who will come in twelve month’s time.

 

All of these ordinations and appointments involve consultations and decisions about what sort of leaders churchgoers want nowadays. Different groups have different ideas!

 

Some will ask for a pastor, good at helping people with their problems; some for a person  who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths. Some ask for a person who is good with youth, as numbers of young people attending our churches diminish. Others think it is important to have someone who can hold onto the older people we have got! People also ask for someone who can inspire more realistic giving; or a pioneer minister, who can reach out to people who don’t find their spiritual needs met in conventional churches; or someone who can encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’.

 

Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said, and Paul admitted, “No-one is good but God alone”. Some people are looking for a leader who will give them all the answers; but Jesus rarely set down rules and regulations about beliefs or morality; more often he told a story and asked his listeners to draw their own conclusions. Some people are looking for a leader who will give a moral lead, and condemn the sinful (usually those whose behaviour they disapprove of); but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers.

As our reading from Matthew indicates, it is impossible to find a leader who will please everyone!

 

The Revd. Colin Coward wrote in a recent blog that when he attended an ordination service, he found much of what was said about the role of the priest unhelpful and uncomfortable.

He said “The purpose of priestly ministry expressed in the ordination service is, among other objectives, to bring people to know Christ, to seek out the lost, to teach the truth and rebuke error, to pray, to lead worship, to preside at communion, and to maintain orthodoxy and tradition – to conform, control, and discipline.

In contrast, I think the role of a priest is to help people discover, in the words of my spiritual director, the God they already know. It is to help people discover within themselves the light of Christ, the unconditional, infinite, intimate love that is innate, infused into the heart and soul of every human being. Many seem to be unaware of the divine presence in their core, while others seem to have a natural affinity with their divine centre. The priestly role is to help people discover and nurture within themselves and their community Jesus’ most profound truth: that he has come that we may have life, life in all its fullness.”

 

I want to suggest to you that the sort of leader that the church needs at the beginning of the 21st century is one who is humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, like Jesus, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the church.

 

And our modern religious leaders no longer need to be people who do everything themselves. Rather, they need to be enablers and encouragers of others. As priests and deacons, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which many of the clergy don’t have. In particular, they might not have the experience of living as a Christian in the world of work, and also perhaps, training in current management and personnel practices. A wise leader will value and make use of these, as well as the other talents and skills which lay Christians offer.

Any new leader will need to act as a focus for the local church where they serve, but he or she will be a focus in a church which is increasingly diverse. If they attempt to impose their own views on the church, whatever they may be, they will fail. I believe, that the primary task of any Christian leader nowadays will be to hold the church community together, and to teach its many factions how to live with disagreement, and how to talk through their differences without splitting the body.

 

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus compares some who hear his words with a bunch of children. One group he compares unfavourably with children who complain when they can’t get their own way, and refuse to play. There are groups in the church who all too frequently act like that.

 

Jesus compares others to children who accept whatever is offered to them with enthusiasm, their minds untrammelled by prejudice or convention. This group gains his approval.

 

 

All those in positions of Christian leadership need our prayers, as they face the enormous responsibility and the enormous opportunities of leading each part of the church into the future. Let us pray that all Christian leaders will find, as our Lord promised, that God’s yoke is easy and his burden light.

 

 

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Doubting Thomas?

(Ephesians 2, 19-22; John 20, 24-29)

 

It’s possible nowadays to have very professional looking greetings cards made by a commercial company, using photographs you yourself have taken. My husband had one recently from our son.  But I wonder how you’d feel if someone sent you a birthday card with a very unflattering photo of yourself on the front? Not very pleased, I would imagine.

 

But it seems to me we have something similar with our Gospel reading toady, as we celebrate the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle. The passage we heard from John’s Gospel shows Thomas as the only one not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples, so the only one who failed to receive the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. What is more, he is portrayed as the only one who did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples, and who refused to believe in the resurrection until he had actually seen for himself, prompting what is usually seen as a a rebuke for his doubt from the lips of Jesus. It really can’t be seen as a very flattering picture.

 

Now, it is very difficult for us to celebrate the lives of the New Testament saints, because we know very little about most of them, apart from the ‘inner four’ of Peter, John, James and Andrew, and, of course, St Paul. Apart from his inclusion in the lists of the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, Thomas appears only in John’s Gospel, in three incidents which each portray him as someone lacking confidence in Jesus’ words and showing doubt.

 

In John 11, when Jesus resolves to go to Bethany after Lazarus’s death, and his disciples argue against going because of the opposition of the Jews, Thomas says, “Let us go so we can die with him”. This could be seen as loyalty to Jesus, but is usually portrayed as a failure to believe in the divine power of Jesus, which can overcome all opposition, and even raise his friend from the dead.

Then, in John 14, during the Last Supper, when Jesus says he is going to the Father, and that the disciples know the way he is going, Thomas is the one who objects that they don’t know where Jesus is going, so how can they know the way. Again, Thomas is shown as having little understanding and little faith. Jesus responds with one of the great ‘I am’ sayings, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” which has been much used by those who claim  that only believing Christians can be saved.

 

Then, finally, we have this story in which Thomas expresses doubts, Jesus has supernatural knowledge of his doubts and his request to see and touch him, and as soon as Jesus appears, Thomas believes, and acknowledges him as “My Lord and my God”. Several scholars believe this was one of a number of later additions to the original resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel, since no-one in the earliest New Testament tradition would refer to Jesus so explicitly as “God’.

 

One is prompted to ask why there is such a negative portrayal of Thomas in John’s gospel.

Thomas has not been a significant figure for most Christians in recent church history; he is just one of the Twelve. But, in the Apostolic Age, he seems to have had more importance. There are legends that he travelled to evangelise Syria, Persia and India. The Mar Thoma Church, which still exists, traces its origins to the visit of Thomas to the Malabar coast of Southern India in AD 52, and believes he went on to be martyred in Mylapore. His followers were known as Nazraani Margam (followers of Jesus of Nazareth in the Way) and were mostly Jews. Only Gentile followers, originally, were known as Khristianos.

 

For many centuries, the Church has known of writings attributed to Thomas: a gospel, acts and an infancy narrative; but they were known only in quotations, mostly by writers who regarded them as heretical (though some of the more colourful stories from the infancy narrative, like Jesus turning children into goats, were favourite subjects for mediaeval stained glass windows). However, in 1945, a full text of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic was rediscovered in a manuscript that was part of a cache of documents found hidden in a pottery jar in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is thought they were placed there by the monks of a nearby monastery after Bishop Athansius of Egypt (him of the Athanasian Creed that we never say nowadays!) drew up an orthodox canon of Scripture in 367 AD and ordered all other ‘heretical’ writings to be seized and destroyed.

 

When scholars examined the Gospel of Thomas they were amazed to find that, far from being strange and heretical, about half of the 114 sayings had close parallels with passages in the Synoptic Gospels and John. For instance the saying about taking the log out of your own eye before the splinter out of someone else’s is there, as are versions of the parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed, the Thief in the Night and many more. Some scholars believe that Thomas’ version of these may be closer to the words Jesus actually spoke than the versions we have in the Gospels.

 

So why didn’t Thomas end up in the New Testament, whereas books like John’s Gospel (which paints a very different portrait of Jesus and his teaching from the one we get in the other three gospels) did? Thomas’s Gospel has only sayings, dialogues and parables; no stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood, or his trial, death, resurrection, or any talk of of judgement. But Mark has no birth stories and no resurrection appearances either. Mary Magdalene is prominent among the disciples in Thomas, asking questions and being the subject of a strange final saying about making females male to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but she appears in other gospels too.

 

Both Thomas and John have a great emphasis on knowledge and on light, but whereas in John the light is in Jesus, in Thomas the light is in everyone. In John, people are saved by believing the ‘truth’ as defined by the gospel, and in particular in John’s account of the things that Jesus did and said. In Thomas, Jesus says that the evidence for the truth is here in the world, available to everyone, and the disciples need to work things out for themselves.

 

There is evidence from the history of the Early Church that there were many different groups of Christians who believed different things about Jesus and ‘The Way’, who had different church structures, different ways of accessing the truth about God, and who honoured different apostles and their writings. These co-existed, although as we see from the New Testament letters, some groups’ beliefs were condemned by others. Elaine Pagels in her book on the Gospel of Thomas called “Beyond Belief”, puts forward the argument that the stories told against Thomas in the Gospel of John were put in to discredit those groups in the church who followed Thomas, and their practice of seeking knowledge of God through direct experience.

 

It may surprise many who love St John’s Gospel to know that this book was at one time considered unsuitable for inclusion in the Bible, as were Revelation and the Johannine Epistles. However, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the 3rd century promoted the belief that the Gospel was written by the disciple John, brother of James (a position strongly contested by many present day scholars). He also argued that there could only be four true Gospels, since, just as the throne of God seen by Ezekiel was held up by four living creatures, so the Word of God was supported by four pillars, the memoirs of the apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He resolved to destroy all apocryphal and illegitimate writings, which included the Gospel of Thomas.

 

It was only in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire, and ‘orthodox’ beliefs were defined by the Creeds drawn up by the great Church Councils like Constantinople and Nicaea, that some groups were declared heretical, and their writings not just opposed but destroyed. It was about the same period that the canon of the New Testament was decided. The list of authorized books included the four Gospels championed by Irenaeus, and the other Johannine writings, but not Thomas’s Gospel, most copies of which were destroyed.

 

All this may seem like a squabble from nearly fifteen hundred years ago, with no relevance for the church today. But throughout Christian history there continued to be a suspicion of believers who encountered God through visions and prophecy, and an insistence that only those visions that conformed to orthodox belief were acceptable. There also continued to be disputes between different groups of Christians about what was orthodox belief and practice, and those disputes were at the root of the great splits in the Body of Christ, like the Reformation.

 

Disputes in the church continue nowadays between exclusivists – those who maintain that only those who believe certain things or follow certain practices will be saved; and universalists – who believe that God is too great to be contained within any one human system of belief, and that a God of love will provide many ways to salvation.

 

This division is still very much a live issue in the church. Some of you may have heard of a writer and preacher named Rob Bell, who was accused of ‘universalism’ (a dirty word in some Evangelical circles) because his book ‘Love Wins’ said that God wants everyone to be saved. Bell also says that the Bible suggests it’s what people do, rather than what they believe, that God is interested in; that a God who condemns people to eternal torment cannot be a God of love; and that Heaven, Hell and Judgement may be as much present in this life as they are in the afterlife. This goes against the beliefs that many Evangelicals insist are central to Christian faith.

 

This debate is also very alive in the worldwide Anglican Church at the moment. Some groups of Anglicans maintain that there are beliefs and practices that put you outside the limits of God’s people, and that churches who allow these must be excluded from the Anglican Communion. Many of these have to do with gender roles and sexuality.

These groups take the Bible as the only standard for Christian behaviour and don’t think that tradition or the use of reason are important.

 

Others in the Communion would argue that in a worldwide church there is room for a variety of beliefs and practices, all of which can be considered ‘Anglican’; and that reason and modern knowledge can change what we believe about God and Christ. They would say that the Holy Spirit is still active, leading the church into truth.

 

These disputes between Anglicans today remind me of the disputes between groups of Christians in the early Church, which led to the declaration that some ways of believing in Jesus were ‘heretical’ and some saints less worthy of honour than others. The reputation of Thomas seems to have suffered from this.

 

 

St Thomas attracts me as a saint to follow precisely because he doubts, and asks questions, and doesn’t just accept what other people tell him is true. I’ve been intrigued by the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and by its difference from the canonical gospels, and by the alternative message of Jesus that it contains.

 

So happy Feast Day, Doubting Thomas, I say! Long may you continue to be the patron saint of those who ask questions and seek direct experience of God, free from dogma, free from exclusiveness.

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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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