Saturday, 29 May 2010

Trinity Sunday - God who is One and also Three, and why it really matters!!!

I have to say that this is one of the hardest sermons to write. When I put together a sermon I usually work closely with the scripture and unpick it in such a way that we can learn what it means. I then look to see how we can apply this to our lives and what changes we may need to make.

When it comes to preaching about the Trinity that all begins to unravel and there’s a very good reason for that. Scripture, in no way at any time, offers any direct teaching about it. What that means is that everything that we know about the Trinity is based on what we infer from scripture rather than from interpreting what is written in individual passages.

Now that has led many Christians to think that it’s maybe not that important, so the first thing we need to recognise is that the Trinity is important simply because the separate persons comprising the Trinity are mentioned throughout scripture, but the formula we use, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, only comes up occasionally in the later written parts of the new testament.

Those who came to the Well service a couple of weeks back will recall how we spent some of the service meditating on passages about the Holy Spirit. About half of those passages were from the old testament. Indeed the Spirit of God first appears in verse two of Genesis chapter one and is explicitly mentioned many times throughout the old testament. If you look at the online version of this sermon you will see just a handful of verses about the Holy Spirit to ponder.

What I am trying to say, therefore, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is something that we use to describe what we see in scripture. We haven’t made it up. The Trinity is not a human idea. It is what we use to describe as best as we can the way that God has revealed himself to be. Therefore it is not an optional add-on to Christianity: it is at its heart.

This means that what makes writing a sermon about the Trinity so hard is not that there is very little to work on; it is that instead of preaching from one passage I need to preach to you the message of the entire Bible!

So although there is no clearly stated doctrine of the Trinity, it is writ large across scripture as a whole and becomes explicit in one or two places such as our Gospel reading where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit coming and teaching the disciples from what is his, and that what is his is also the Father’s. Whilst that may not teach us anything about the Trinity, it certainly makes its reality quite clear.

And you may remember this reading from a couple of weeks back where, in praying for all believers, Jesus says these words: ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one’. John 17:22

So let me see if I can teach us something from the whole of scripture about the Holy Trinity. Whilst I do that, please bear in mind that this is humanity’s attempt to describe the indescribable, that God, who is one God, is actually three persons. We cannot understand it because we are each individuals who know that we are also one person.

Let me first say what the Trinity is not. Some people have tried to describe the Trinity by saying that God shows himself to be a Father in some instances, a Son in others and the Spirit in yet others. However that is not true, and in fact is described as heresy because it gives a false account of the Trinity. That would be to say that you have one God with only one person who just reveals himself in three different ways.

The reality is that God is one being who is three persons. God is a community of oneness. The reason it is so confusing for us is that we have no frame of reference for that because we are all individuals, each of whom is one person. All that we can comprehend is one person in one body.

However, although we may have no frame of reference, that doesn’t mean we can’t describe it, and I think we can get much closer to understanding the Trinity if we do so. I’ve recently rediscovered the book Theology for Beginners by F. J. Sheed and I highly recommend it in terms of understanding our theology. What I want to say now really draws on that book.

I believe that not only does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity find its basis in scripture; it also teaches us something very important about human nature being created in the image of God, and what we should therefore be like, so what I’m going to do is to describe what the Trinity is like and then see what that challenges us about.

Let me first outline the doctrine for us. God is one God, with one divine nature comprising of three persons. Each of these persons is distinct from the other. Each is also, as the name suggests, a person. This includes the Holy Spirit who I know many people think of as being a divine force.

The Holy Spirit has a personality too, and if you look through the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, this is abundantly clear, as you can also find from the scriptures I’ve attached to the on-line version of this sermon. The very first thing we discover about the Holy Spirit is to see her brooding over the unformed creation. Isaiah talks about the Holy Spirit being grieved by our behaviour. You cannot grieve an impersonal force, and a force cannot brood.

So the Holy Trinity is one God who has three persons, all of which are distinct and non-interchangeable. I suspect that we have difficulties with the Trinity because of our western logic that gets hung up on it as if it is some mathematical problem. Of course three cannot be one, we all know that, and that’s not what the doctrine is saying.

All that is being said is that one God has three persons, it is not three Gods. Each person of the Trinity has the same nature, but is a different person. What I mean by that is you could ask two questions of the different persons in the Trinity. Let’s say the first question is, ‘Who are you?’

The Father would say, ‘I am the Father.’ The Son would say, ‘I am the Son’ and the Spirit would say, ‘I am the Spirit.’ That is because they are distinct persons. But if I said to each, ‘What are you?’ then the Father would say, ‘I am God’, the Son would say, ‘I am God’ and the Spirit would say, ‘I am God’. Their personalities are distinct but their nature is the same.

Who am I? I am Paul. What am I? I am a man. It’s exactly the same two questions, but the difference is that although I am in nature a man I am only have one person whereas God is in nature God but has three persons and they are all distinct from each other. I have one nature and am one person; God has one nature and three persons.

It is actually quite simple, so long as we recognise that this is us humans trying to put into easy(ish) terms what God has revealed about Godself. God is one God who has three persons.

What does that mean for us in the real world? I think it is all to do with community. Sheed asks the very poignant question, what does God actually do? We might think that the obvious answer is that God runs the universe. For physicists of a particular persuasion we might go so far as to say that God runs the universes in the plural. But is that enough for God?

The answer is probably no. This is where we might have to think a little harder. Our visible universe extends away from us 13.7 billion light years. There are about a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy and we can see about a hundred thousand million galaxies, each with about a hundred thousand million stars. There is also every reason to believe that there is more besides this.

Isn’t that enough for the Deity? Well actually, probably not, and it’s only when we begin to grasp that, that we can start to comprehend just how powerful God is. If God is all powerful and all loving, then running the universe isn’t going to take up all God’s time. It won’t be the main event. The main event for God is loving.

Who does God love? Well clearly God loves us, but would that be enough for an infinite all powerful God? The answer must also be no. God indeed loves us, but we are not worthy of that love and we can never dream of responding to God with a remote fraction of the love that he loves us with. So where is that love focussed?

Here is where the understanding of Trinity comes into its own. God is a community of three persons. God is one God with three persons and long before the universe was created God the Father was loving God the Son, and God the Son was loving God the Holy Spirit, and God the Holy Spirit was... well you get the picture.

It was out of that love that God was inspired to create. God didn’t need to create us. God is complete in Godself. It was out of that self-giving overflowing love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that God decided to create so that others could benefit. We exist because of God’s self-giving love. In God’s selflessness God knew that the love the different persons of God felt for each other should overflow, and so created us.

You and I, we are all a product of God’s love and were created so that we could experience God’s love. And as an expression of love we are also created to be like God, and this is what I most want us to take from understanding the Trinity. Read again through Jesus’s prayers in John’s Gospel and you find over and again that he prays for us that we would be like God in that we would love each other just as God the Father loves the Son, loves the Spirit, loves the Father and so on.

We are meant to be a community of love reflecting the nature of the Trinity. If you think I have preached a lot recently about needing to be good to each other, to respect each other and to stop gossiping or pulling each other down it is because I have been leading up to this, the ultimate in Christian teaching:

God has revealed Godself to be a Trinity of three persons in one God; a community of love. We were created by the Father, saved by the Son, and empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God to become like God in whose image we are created. The church, the Body of Christ on earth, is meant to be a community of love and I believe that this is our calling. The church is modelled on the Trinity, so let us strive to live up to our calling by loving each other and letting that love overflow. Anything less is not Trinitarian. Amen.

F. J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, Stagbooks, London, 2001

Biblical references to the Holy Spirit
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters. Genesis 1:2

The Spirit of the LORD began to stir him (Samuel)... Judges 13:25

...and the Spirit of the LORD rushed on him (Samuel)... Judges 15:14

(The words of David) ‘The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me... 2 Samuel 23:2

(Obadiah to Elijah) ‘the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where...’ 1 Kings 18:12

‘You gave your good Spirit to instruct them...’ Nehemiah 9:20

‘For many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets... Nehemiah 9:30

‘The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ Job 33:4

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Isaiah 11:2

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:10

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12

‘The Spirit/Wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit/Wind.’ (Jesus to Nicodemus) John 3:8

‘It is the Spirit that gives life...’ John 6:63

‘And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive...’ John 14:16-17a

‘...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.’ John 14:26

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God... Romans 8:14

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

...for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

Friday, 21 May 2010

Pentecost: The God who goes between us


Acts 2:1-21: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

John 14:8-17
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I never believed in love at first sight. I simply didn’t believe that you could fall in love with someone until you had got to know them, and that it would grow gradually. I was a scientist and could see that it wasn’t logical to think of love like that and so I didn’t believe it, that is until it happened to me.

It’s back in 1988 and I’ve gone to the Christian Greenbelt festival on the August bank holiday with a group of people I don’t know terribly well. One of them is a young singer called Alison Eve who I’ve worked with a few times in the worship group of which I’m a part. She’s also asked me to play drums for her in a one off concert.

We have been there for about a day when I realise I have feelings for her. Over the course of about twenty four hours I realise that it’s more serious than that, and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckily she felt the same way and nine months later we were married. Now why, on Pentecost Sunday, am I telling you this story?

It’s because it poses a question which, if we can answer it, tells us something deeply exciting about the nature of the Holy Spirit, and also challenges us deeply about how we treat each other. Let me give you a little more background to the story I’ve just told you. It wasn’t as if Alison and I had never met or talked before Greenbelt that year.

We’d had a long conversation earlier in the year about putting a band together and decided that we were too far apart musically. We had enjoyed each other’s company in the pub as part of a group and we had sat in car chatting about feminism and discovered just how different our views were on a whole raft of things. I had even told a good friend that I liked her but wouldn’t have considered her as the kind of person I would want to date.

So what happened? Let me put it like this: Something between us commanded our attention to each other. Something made a connection between us. Something had gone between us and said, ‘Look, really look, and see who the other really is.’ Something, or someone: the One who goes between.

A name for the Holy Spirit coined by the late Bishop John V Taylor in his book by the same name is ‘The Go-Between God’, a book that has inspired much of what I am saying today and which I would recommend to anyone. The very name sums up this idea that the Holy Spirit is the One who goes between us and each other, making the connection. This is what I believe happened between Alison and I.

Our relationship, that connection, was made, and continues to be made, because of the Holy Spirit going between us; that divine inspiring stillness that makes the connection. Now why have I told you this? It is because it is always the Holy Spirit who makes the connection between us. In fact there is no mission without the Holy Spirit.

I believe that the meaningful encounters we have in our lives are set-up for us by the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes these encounters will be of the more radical type, such as my encounter with Alison. On other occasions they may be conversations at the bus stop, or outside the school, but always we know that moment when something clicks and we have made the connection, except what I’m telling you today is not that we have made the connection but that the Holy Spirit has made the connection.

Now if this all seems a little far fetched and airy-fairy to you, have a look again at what happens on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and entered into them. There have been occasions in the Old Testament when this had happened to individuals for a specific reason and for a specific and limited amount of time, but here the breath of God, the wind of God, the Spirit of God is breathed into the disciples for the rest of their lives.

What is the very first thing that happens? They go outside and, speaking with the gift of tongues, they tell out the Gospel in the native languages of all those gathered there. Now at that time and in that place people tended to have their own languages and a common language. The language of commerce was Greek, much as English is today, but the list of visitors and their languages runs to fifteen different places.

Each of those present who had been filled with the Holy Spirit was speaking in the language of someone in the crowd that had gathered. Indeed we can suggest that the Holy Spirit had gathered the crowd together as well. In other words the Holy Spirit was making the connection between them. The Holy Spirit, the Go-Between God, was going between the disciples and those who had gathered and making communication happen.

This miracle opened the gateway for Peter to declare the good news. If you read on you find that the new church, on the day of its birth, grew by about three thousand people! The Holy Spirit made the connection. The Holy Spirit made the introductions. Mission is dependent on the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus told the disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit came on them before starting their mission.

In fact you can see the same thing in Jesus’s own life. Thirty years he waited. The Son of God, divine yet human, did not act until his baptism at which time the Holy Spirit came upon him. According to Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptised in the Holy Spirit he firstly goes into the wilderness and then when he returns the very first thing he reads before he preaches his first sermon is a reading from Isaiah with these words:
The Holy Spirit is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

The Holy Spirit is the person of God who is vital for mission and indeed for all connections between people. This also ought to convince us that the Holy Spirit is not just a force or power. The Holy Spirit has a personality. A force cannot make introductions; that takes a person, and the Holy Spirit is personal. You can pray to the Holy Spirit.

So the main thing for us to take from this today is the sense that if we are serious about mission as a church, then we must also be serious about the Holy Spirit. You cannot have mission unless it is directed by the Holy Spirit. We don’t make the connection with other people; the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit is the Go-Between God.

To be dependent on the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have to become some loopy fundamentalist church like the ones we sometimes see ridiculed on the TV. But we must recognise that we cannot grow as a church unless we are dependent on the Holy Spirit and unless we are inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us as individuals and as a church.

But there is one more thing which is important for us, and that is the nature of our communication with others. We depend on the Holy Spirit to make the connection, yet not all the communication we pass on is all that positive is it. I suspect that most, if not all of us, know that feeling when we realise that we are saying something unsavoury about someone.

Maybe to people who aren’t Christians, who do not have the Holy Spirit resident within them, being nasty about someone feels fun. But for us, do we not know that prick within our conscience when we start gossiping about someone? Why is that? It’s because the Holy Spirit, the Go-Between God, wants to make connections between us, but when we gossip we are working against the Holy Spirit.

That’s why we feel uneasy. Of course there are occasions when we need to pass information on, in confidence, to a third party to make them aware of difficult situations; that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s when we start passing on negative comments about people, allowing one person’s perception of another to be coloured by what we say about them, then we are actively working against the Holy Spirit of God.

That’s why gossiping feels wrong to a Christian; because the Holy Spirit is saying, ‘Please stop this; you are making it difficult for me to set up connections between that person and another. You are working against me.’

The Holy Spirit is the Go-Between God. The Holy Spirit is the One who connects us up with each other, showing us the other, mediating communication between us. Through the Holy Spirit we become friends or maybe lovers for life, and through the Holy Spirit the Good News about Jesus Christ is passed from one believer to another.

And so we should cherish this gift of communicating which comes from God, and we should honour all our conversations as taking place through one person in the Trinity, and we should take care of what we say, and we should be praying for more of God’s Holy Spirit to fill us and anoint us that our mission in this place may grow.

Nothing of any value in terms of mission can take place unless it takes place through the Holy Spirit. And every single person who we have reached and will reach, we reach through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings about the Holy Spirit of God
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters. Genesis 1:2

The Spirit of the LORD began to stir him (Samuel)... Judges 13:25

...and the Spirit of the LORD rushed on him (Samuel)... Judges 15:14

(The words of David) ‘The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me... 2 Samuel 23:2

(Obadiah to Elijah) ‘the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where...’ 1 Kings 18:12

‘You gave your good Spirit to instruct them...’ Nehemiah 9:20

‘For many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets... Nehemiah 9:30

‘The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ Job 33:4

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Isaiah 11:2

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:10

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12

‘The Spirit/Wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit/Wind.’ (Jesus to Nicodemus) John 3:8

‘It is the Spirit that gives life...’ John 6:63

‘And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive...’ John 14:16-17a

‘...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.’ John 14:26

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God... Romans 8:14

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

...for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Seventh Sunday of Easter: Avoiding Conflict or Living with the Consequences?

Acts 16:16-34
Paul and Silas in Prison

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

John 17:20-end
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’


This story from Acts is a challenging one because it asks us whether we’re willing to do the right thing, or whether we are always more concerned for the consequences for ourselves. We’re continuing with the journey that St. Paul has been on and here we encounter him getting into trouble for doing the right thing, and then seeing God at work in the midst of what ensues. What I’d to do is to take you through the story because we need the entire picture to see how the end result turns out.

And so we find Paul and Silas continuing their work in Philippi. You may remember from last week that there was no synagogue in the city and so Jews and other believers in the one God met outside the city at a place by the river that was dedicated to prayer. Luke, the writer, begins his eyewitness account by describing how, one morning, they were making their way to the place of prayer.

On the way they encounter a slave-girl. In the Greek we discover that she is possessed by a python spirit. That doesn’t literally mean the spirit of a snake, but rather she was a slave to the Greek god Apollo, represented by a snake. If she was one of the oracle readers, who were usually young women, then she would have been highly valued because she would have been one of those who, when in a trance, would give answers to people seeking the wisdom of Apollo.

But if that was the case, why on earth was she declaring that Paul and Silas were slaves of the Most High God? Surely she would have been declaiming them as imposters. The commentator Paul Walaskay suggests that what was happening was that a woman who was enslaved to a god by a spirit could not help herself because she recognised that they were slaves to a higher power, hence the use of the phrase Most High God.

On occasion I’ve suggested that Paul had a bit of a temper, and we might wonder whether the way he treats the slave-girl is an example of that, but on this occasion I don’t think it is. Luke, the writer, makes it clear that Paul and his companions live for days and days with this young woman following them around screaming out that they were slaves to the Most High God offering the way of salvation. He didn’t do anything about it to begin with, and maybe at first he thought it was a bit of good advertising, or maybe he was weighing up the consequences of taking action.

But maybe after a while it became more disturbing. You know how it is when someone’s behaviour can be really annoying, but out of goodwill you try and just live with it for as long as possible, but eventually you lose patience and say something, perhaps something you go on to regret? Well I suspect that’s what happened here.

Older translators say that Paul was grieved whilst modern ones refer to Paul as being ‘very much annoyed’, but it doesn’t tell us what he was annoyed with. Was he just fed up with getting no peace and quiet to pray in and talk to people? Or was he, as another translation puts it, ‘troubled’, which may hint that he was upset that she was enslaved by this spirit.

Either way, Paul turns to her, clearly vexed in some way after days of her incessant screaming, and commanded the spirit to leave her, which it did. However, that action by Paul had some fairly major repercussions. The slave girl was what her owners might have referred to as a ‘nice little earner’. They weren’t concerned about spiritual matters. All they wanted was the profit, and because of Paul that well had dried up.

So they stir up trouble for Paul and Silas, playing the ethnic card, showing that the BNP’s reaction against foreigners coming into our country and, as they might put it, ‘stealing our jobs’, has an evil history dating back at least two thousand years. Following a joke of a trial in which everyone who’s present jumps in to give Paul and Silas a good kicking, they are thrown in jail.

Paul and Silas did the right thing, but I wonder whether they felt regret given their circumstances. If we’d been in the jail might we have been thinking to ourselves, ‘Oh if only we’d just lived with her babbling, think how many more people could have heard the good news about Jesus, but instead we’re locked up in this cell, naked, beaten, and in pitch black.’

That would be the 21st century way of it I suspect. But for Paul and Silas that was not how they reacted. They knew that they had set a girl free from being enslaved by a spirit, and were prepared to live with the unforeseen repercussions. Whilst we might think everything out to the nth degree before acting, they did what was the right thing and trusted God.

They knew that being a Christian will sometimes put us on a collision course with the powers of this world and the result was that they were badly beaten and thrown in jail. But even there, battered and badly bruised; probably still bleeding, they begin to worship God and the other prisoners listen. There is a violent earthquake that throws all the doors open. What happens next is curious. They could have escaped. There was an instance when Peter was in jail and an angel set him free and he did indeed escape, but that’s not what happened here.

Perhaps it was at Paul’s instigation, but for whatever reason the prisoners all stayed in their cells, saving the jailer from the honourable suicide that he intended, having, so he thought, failed in his job. That act of witness, of doing the right thing, changed the jailer’s life. He obviously knew why Paul and Silas were in jail, but he’d been asleep while they’d been singing, so hadn’t heard their worship.

What convinced him was that he knew who they were and what they stood for, but when their actions testified to their words, he knew this was special and that he needed whatever it was that motivated them. And so the jailer became a believer and he and all of his household were immediately baptised.

Look again at the train of events. Paul and Silas are quietly going about their business of worship and evangelism. They are disturbed by a young woman with a spirit. Paul casts the spirit out and therefore brings them into conflict with the powers that be. They couldn’t have known what the consequences would be; they just felt they should do the right thing and then trust God.

They suffered for their decision but ultimately they stayed true to what God laid on their hearts and consequently the jailer and all of his household were saved and baptised. And so here is the challenge that comes to us, and it’s one that sometimes lays heavily on my conscience.

From time to time we are all put in difficult situations where something needs to be challenged. How do we respond? Sometimes what we do is go backwards and forwards in our own minds, trying to work out what all the possible repercussions might be. In other words we try and stay in control of the situation and avoid conflict if at all possible. The usual result of that is that actually we do nothing.

Now look at Paul and Silas. They could have been like us. They could have done nothing. They could have just lived with the constant bellowing of the possessed/oppressed slave girl and avoided prison. But eventually the felt that they had to do something and so they reacted against the spirit in her and cast it out. They then had to live with the consequences of being beaten up and thrown in jail.

Yet throughout they stayed true to God; worshipped him and trusted him and as a result the jailer was saved. So then, are we dodging conflict for a quiet life? Is there a situation in which we need to say something or do something and simply live with the consequences, trusting that if we are doing the right thing then God will bring good out of it in the end?

We might have to go through fire, but if we are avoiding taking action, might someone else be losing out because of our hesitance and fear? Amen

F.F. Bruce, 'The Book of the Acts', Eerdmans, 1988
J. Stott, 'The Message of Acts' IVP, 1990
P. W. Walaskay, 'Acts', WBC, 1998

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Sixth Sunday of Easter - Easter people


Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

The Conversion of Lydia
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

John 14:23-end

Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.


Forget the election for a moment. The really big news is that a new scientific study has found that something like 4% of our human genome is derived from the now extinct Neanderthals. Governments will come and go, but that 4% will remain in our genome. Mind you, having heard some of the political views expressed by some of the candidates, one might question whether it’s always limited to just 4%!

As we approach the end of the Easter season the reading from Acts is quite timely because it gives us a chance to draw together many of the strands about which I’ve been preaching these last few weeks. So today I want to think about the two main characters in this reading and how together they summarize much of the teaching this Easter season before we move on to Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity as the gateways into the rest of the year.

So let’s look into the story from Acts and I’ll try and fill out some detail for us before we look at what it teaches us as a church.

A few weeks ago we looked at the calling of St. Paul and his conversion on the Damascus road. We noted how he was a Pharisee; someone for whom adherence to the Jewish Law, or Torah, was the way to salvation. You may remember that I explained that his strong initial reaction against the early Christians was because they proclaimed that Jesus was the way to salvation, which, for a Pharisee, was outrageous and blasphemous.

That will be important in a moment, but we must note that although we’re only six chapters on in the Book of Acts, some considerable time has passed, probably at least ten years, and St. Paul has changed a great deal as he has travelled on his spiritual journey. We pick his story up now on his second missionary voyage.

Earlier on in the chapter he has been trying to discern where they should go next, and note that the writer, Luke, has started using ‘we’ here, suggesting we are firmly in eye-witness territory now. The Holy Spirit had forbidden them from going into Asia at that time, and when they attempted to go into a place called Bithynia they were again stopped by direct intervention from Christ.

Our reading then picks up the story with Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with them to come and help them. So, here’s our first point: far from remaining bound by interpreting the law, St. Paul has now become dependent on direct revelation from the Lord as to what he should be doing and where he should be going. Take note of that. This is an Easter change. In the light of he resurrection, if Jesus is alive we can and should be asking for his direction.

That’s what St. Paul and his group did and they then obediently went where they were called. And so they arrive at Philippi, a city that had become home to Roman war veterans some seventy years earlier.

What takes place next marks a second way in which St. Paul has changed in the years since we last met him. When St. Paul entered a city it was often his practice to find the Jewish Synagogue and begin there. It seems that there was no synagogue at Philippi which suggests a very limited Jewish presence since a synagogue needed only ten men in order to be founded. Instead they appear to have been given directions to a place of prayer outside the city, down by the river.

It is there that they encounter a group of woman. They way Luke describes the meeting makes it seem so everyday to us: ‘...and we sat down and spoke to the women gathered there.’ It doesn’t seem like much really does it. St. Paul and his companions sitting down for a friendly chat seems exactly what we would imagine a group of evangelists would do. But we are placing our 21st century cultural values on to the story.

We must remember that St. Paul had been a Pharisee. Paul Walaskay, one of the commentators on this passage, quotes from some Pharisaic writings that said this, ‘Talk not much with a woman... Everyone that talks much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from the words of Torah, and his end is he inherits hell.’ (Pirke Aboth 1:5)

A few years earlier there is no way that St. Paul would have done this, yet by sitting down with them he was adopting the typical rabbinical approach, of sitting down to teach, and treating them as equals. A couple of weeks back I mentioned how like Jesus St. Peter was in the way he behaved at the raising of Tabitha, and now here we find we can say the same thing to be true of St. Paul as he meets Lydia for the first time.

Jesus, defying the prevailing culture of the time, had counted women amongst his companions and there are a number of occasions when he sat and spoke with them. You might remember the astonishment of the disciples when they came and found him talking alone to the woman at the well, a local woman with a poor reputation.

So on his spiritual journey St. Paul has become more like Jesus and appears to have put aside what he had formerly believed. In this second way St. Paul is now treating all people as equal under God with none of the Jewish male-dominated theology of his era. So there are two main changes in St. Paul over the years since he acknowledged Jesus as Lord.

Firstly he sought guidance directly from the Lord because he knows Jesus is alive and can therefore lead him. Secondly he believed the Gospel was for all people and that he was being called by the Lord to go directly to the gentiles.

I wonder what kind of turmoil he must have gone through to shed years of learning that Torah, the Law, was the way to God. I wonder how many people he had to talk through along his journey to realise the Lord loves them all. And psychologically, I wonder how many guilt trips he had to go on as he set aside his old beliefs for something new.

Those of you who heard me preach about St. Peter’s vision last week will have heard me use the phrase, ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ which is a process we go through when something we once believed to be true seems to be challenged by new evidence, challenging us to explore a new and deeper truth.

St. Peter went through it in last week’s reading as he accepted the Gospel should go to the Gentiles, and clearly St. Paul must have gone through it as he left behind the strict laws on which he had built his entire life. Paul put aside his old ways, and completely changed, he sat down with women to teach them.

Now let’s briefly turn to the women. Amongst them is one named Lydia. Although she is not a Jew herself she is worshipping as one. Reading between the lines we sense that she was a quite powerful businesswoman. Purple cloth would only be worn by the city’s upper class so she dealt with those who were rich and socially important. Yet here she was quite at home alongside a group of ordinary women.

We can also see that she is the head of her household because after she is baptised, the whole household is also baptised. The language suggests she may have been a widow with children although we can’t be sure about that. But she was certainly a woman of influence who prevailed upon St. Paul and his companions until they agreed to stay with her, and it seems likely that her house became the meeting place for Christians in the city.

We don’t know what Lydia was like beforehand, but we can see that even before accepting the Gospel she was already a godly woman who was happy to mix with people of all social classes without any apparent need to be a social climber. But, inspired by Christ, she puts what she has at his disposal and invites the apostles in to her house.

Now let’s put this all together and see what we have: There is St. Paul, a man who has been changed by the Holy Spirit. He seeks guidance from the risen Jesus and is obedient when he is told what to do. He is willing to go on a long and difficult spiritual journey from one understanding to a deeper one, walking perhaps through the spiritual desert from time to time as he allows God to change him.

And we have Lydia, someone with power and influence who has not let it corrupt her, and who, on becoming a believer, throws open her doors and welcomes people into her house. In these two people we can see so many aspects of church life that could resonate with us. These are two people who have been changed in the light of the resurrection by the news that Jesus is alive.

How are we changed by that news? There is huge hope here. Jesus is alive. That means our beliefs should be dynamic and active. We don’t follow some image of a distant deity with whom we can never communicate. We follow one who is alive and has experienced life as one of us. What effect should this have on us?

Are we being changed like St. Paul? Are we willing to put aside what we used to believe and go on a spiritual journey with the risen Lord Jesus? Are we Easter people who are willing to go beyond the written word into the direct experience of God’s presence, seeking out God for guidance as to where we should go next?

Are we willing for the changes that he might bring about in us and what that might mean to us in terms of sometimes being in uncomfortable spiritual places? I know, because many of you have told me, that in recent years God has challenged you and opened up new spiritual vistas. If that is you, and if you are still on those journeys, tell others here and invite them onward to.

Like Lydia, many of us are in positions of influence and power. Do we still mix easily with those who have no power, or have we become like moths drawn to the flames of other people carrying power? And how about hospitality? Have we been so changed by the Lord that we will fling open our doors and invite people to come in? Or are there strings attached?

One of the compelling aspects of this particular story is I see so much of us as a church in the two main characters, St. Paul and Lydia. There is so much about us that is full of the seeds of hospitality, the desire to seek God out and ask what we should do next, and even the quiet realisation that sometimes God takes us out into the desert to be changed by him.

There are so many possibilities here. For each of us we need to think about taking the next step forward in our own journeys. At work, if we’re important do we always seek out other important people to become recognised as one of them, or are we prepared to be like Lydia and spend our time amongst ordinary people?

In caring for our homes and families, do we recognise that in Christ we are a part of a wider family who should also be welcomed into our homes? In all that we do, are we willing to seek out guidance from the risen Lord as to what we should do next? Are we seeking for direction?

These are all facets of people living the post-Easter resurrection life. This is the resurrection life that we have inherited. Jesus is alive and that changes everything, if we’ll let it. Amen

Some sermons almost seem to fall into one’s lap inspiration-wise, but others require quite a lot of background reading to find the ideas one needs. This sermon falls into the latter category and I owe many thoughts to the following:
E. Barreto, URL:
W. Brueggemann,
K. Huey,
J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP, 1990.
P. W. Walaskay, Acts, Westminster John Knox, 1998

Saturday, 1 May 2010

5th Sunday of Easter: Cognitive Dissonance - How easily do we change what we believe?

Acts 11:1-18

Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

John 13:31-35
The New Commandment

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’


We, as Christians, are regularly challenged in the media about what we believe. There are numerous secular voices, and now some prominent comedians and writers who feel that our beliefs are fair game. I’m sure that for some Christians it can be very difficult to cling to what they believe in, in the face of some of the difficult questions that we are asked.

However, I think that there is a much more difficult task that faces us sometimes than withstanding the verbal assaults of the faithless. We think we are stalwarts of the faith, but what happens when someone we trust, who has a living faith, challenges us about something that we believe and hold firmly to?

How difficult is it for us to give up believing in something that has been proven wrong? What kind of processes do we have to go through in order to stop believing something when we are confronted with the possibility that we may have been genuinely mistaken?

When I was a new Christian, back in my mid-teens, I was typically enthusiastic in that kind of way that more mature believers can find a little tiresome. I firmly believed that God was in control of everything, and that whatever happened, happened for a reason. I managed to maintain that belief for quite a number of years, that is until people close to me, people my age, started dying.

I lost one friend to a coach crash, another to cancer and a third to suicide. Gradually within my deepest self I felt ill at ease with this belief, and had to start to search for something new to replace it with. That was a long journey of several years into my early thirties before I finally accepted that God creates the universe with the freedom to be what it is. He can pull goodness out of disaster, but disasters do not necessarily have any reason for occurring.

I had believed God controlled everything, and I went from that to believing God permits freewill and freedom to have a large stake in the future. It has been quite a journey, but it began with a sense of what I observed did not match up with what I thought was true. The technical name for this is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which describes beautifully that journey we go on from where something that used to make sense to us begins to nag away at us and we have to choose either to ignore it or explore it.

Now let’s turn to our reading from Acts because there we see a beautiful example of Peter going on just such a journey. If you remember from last week Peter has been healing people and raised one women, Tabitha, from the dead. The story ended last week with the line that he stayed for a lengthy time in Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner.

Now this is deeply significant because Simon the Tanner worked with animal carcasses. That meant that he was considered to be pretty much unclean and disreputable by the standards of Jewish law. The very fact that Peter was staying with him suggests to me that he was already being challenged deep within his spirit about his beliefs regarding who was acceptable to God and who was not. Peter was already in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Into that situation, we read, came a vision from the Holy Spirit in which something like a large sheet from heaven was lowered to Peter, and on it were all sorts of unclean animals, and the divine command from heaven was that he should kill and eat. When Peter describes the vision he doesn’t mention that he was actually hungry at the time, according to the story as it originally happened back in chapter ten, so the Holy Spirit was working with Peter’s situation.

Peter declares that nothing unclean has ever entered his mouth, yet we know that he is already living with someone who is not exactly clean in Jewish terms. The Lord shows Peter this vision three times, significant because to get the same vision three times underlines its truth and its importance. Finally the penny drops and Peter comes out through the end of his tunnel of cognitive dissonance with a new understanding that the Gospel is for everyone, not just Jews.

At precisely that moment, and don’t we love God’s timing, the gentiles from Caesarea arrive and invite Peter to come back with them. He goes to the house of Cornelius the centurion and as he begins to preach, so the Holy Spirit descends on the gentiles and the spread of the good news beyond the Jews begins.

Now look at the reaction of the apostles and believers right back at the beginning of the passage. Peter’s actions has sent them on this journey of cognitive dissonance. They could not understand why he had gone into the house of unclean gentiles. So outraged were they that they questioned Peter, Peter the one to whom Jesus had said, ‘I give you the keys to heaven.’

The whole reason for Peter recounting the story as we have it here is for him to take them on the journey that he has travelled, to go through that place of dis-ease within the spirit into a place of accepting a new truth, a radical truth, a vital truth, that the Gospel is for everyone. Can you imagine how it could all have turned out differently if it hadn’t been for Peter’s courage?

We sometimes belittle Peter for being a bit of a hothead, prone to speaking his mind before engaging his brain. But here it is his courage that makes a huge difference. He was challenged about what he believed and he went with the challenge, and because of that a new and deeper truth released the Gospel into the wider world where eventually it would reach our distant shores.

So now let’s turn the spotlight on ourselves. What are the kinds of things that we are ill at ease about? What are the issues in our faith that we are challenged about? How do we respond? When something challenges what you believe, what do you do with it? Do you try and ignore it and hope it goes away, or instead do you go with it, taking your courage in both hands and start to investigate?

At the heart of this is a very deep question. Are we willing to admit to ourselves that we might be mistaken? And are we willing to do something about it? So let me offer this to you. Part of my job, and it should be a big part, is to listen to you and to help you work your way through such things. If you want to talk about matters that trouble you, you need only ask.

You see it may be the Holy Spirit who is prompting you. Amen.