Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Second Sunday after Epiphany - Encounter

Revelation 5:1-10
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’


I always find the exchanges around the calling of the disciples to be a little hard to deal with. I’m pretty sure in my own mind that these are meant to be more meditations on what actually took place rather than an exact recollection of events. In their simplicity and in the exchanges between Jesus and his future disciples I think that John is trying to convey a deeper meaning for us, and that is the meaning of encounter, and specifically, encountering Jesus.

Just before this passage Andrew and an unnamed other man, both of whom were disciples of John the Baptizer, had taken John’s advice and gone to see Jesus. They were so impressed with who he was that after spending some time with him Andrew went off to find his brother Simon to tell him that they believed they had finally found the person that all Jews were waiting for, God’s anointed saviour, the messiah.

Simon went with Andrew, met Jesus, and was renamed Peter, and that very act of receiving a new name was a sign of a divine encounter. If you remember your Old Testament, then you’ll remember that Jacob was renamed Israel, the one who wrestles with God, after his divine encounter.

So before we even get to today’s passage, in the space of just a few short verses we have had three encounters with Christ, all of which were life-changing. And then we come to today’s passage, and to be honest it’s a little disappointing in the way it starts. Jesus goes up to Philip and says, ‘Follow me’, and Philip does. That’s all that we’re told, and yet it speaks volumes because once again it is based on a simple encounter.

One person meets Jesus and immediately follows him. Just like that. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes. This is important; don’t forget it because we’ll come back to it in a little while.

And then we move on to Nathanael, and it’s a whole different story. You see I think Nathanael is much more like a twenty first century westerner. He’s looking for truth but is full of cynicism. We have no idea of the relationship between Philip and Nathanael, but I think they must have been important to each other.

I’m a fan of an American speaker and writer called Rob Bell. I don’t agree with everything he writes, or everything he says, but he is in tune with people, he understands modern culture, and so when I first heard him my immediate inclination was to say to some friends, ‘You’ve got to hear this man, or read one of his books.’ That’s what we do, and so I think Nathanael was probably pretty close to Philip because he was the first person that Philip goes to after his encounter with Jesus.

But Nathanael starts off pretty cool about Jesus. What he says may well have been a local proverb, and perhaps Nazareth was famous locally for having never produced anyone of any decency. Perhaps they thought of Nazareth in the same way that some people feel about some of the estates; with an invalid assumption that nothing good ever came from there.

Nevertheless, he obviously trusts Philip enough to go with him, and when he meets Jesus; when he encounters him, everything changes. The first thing that Jesus does is recognise Nathanael. The thing is, as far as Nathanael is concerned, they’d never met before. He might be rather chuffed to be called a real Israelite in whom there was no deceit, after all, who wouldn’t be! But as far as he’s concerned, he’s never seen Jesus before, so he asks, ‘How do you know me?’

Jesus’s answer is telling, and this is one of those places where the writer John’s skill shows up, because it appears that Nathanael was under a fig tree when Philip found him, and that’s where Jesus saw him. It’s important that he was under a fig tree because that is probably a literary device by John to show us something about Nathanael. Listen to this from Micah 4:4:
Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

A similar sentiment is expressed in Zechariah 3, and both these prophetic passages concern the coming of the Messiah. Therefore it is quite possible that John was trying to suggest that Nathanael was sitting under the fig tree contemplating the coming of the messiah, and Jesus saw him there.

That was when the penny dropped, and this is what I mean about Nathanael being like us. He was searching for truth, and wishing and hoping for its arrival, but at the same time he had a cynical spirit about him. In this I believe he is very like modern Western culture. So many people that I have met seem to be searching for something, yet are deeply cynical about any group that proclaims they have the truth.

I think that’s why organised religion is having such a troubled time, and why a more do-it-yourself approach to spirituality, and the growth of new spiritualities based on experience rather than doctrine are where people are turning to.

And what we see in this instance is that someone like Nathanael, who is just like us in so many ways, was changed, was transformed, simply through encountering Jesus for himself. It wouldn’t have mattered how much Philip has waxed lyrical about Jesus; if Nathanael didn’t meet him for himself then nothing would have changed.

This, therefore, rather turns the spotlight on to us. What is it, specifically, that is going to bring people to become regular attenders here at Church? Is it the variety of services that we have? That may bring some for a time, but they’ll eventually get bored with that approach? Is it the choral tradition we have? The same thing applies. Some will come because of that, for a while, until something new comes along.

What about the silences, or the noisy services? Yet again these will attract some people for a while, but they may not stay if something bright and shiny and new elsewhere attracts their attention. No, none of these things in themselves are what really counts. What changes people’s lives is when they have an encounter with Jesus himself.

I have seen so many lives changed, not by what people have said, not by amazing worship or mystical quiet spaces, but because in those places they have encountered Jesus for themselves. The reason we do all of these different things is not because they will keep people interested, but because we have a diverse community who react in different ways to different types of worship.

But it is not the vehicle of worship that matters; what ultimately matters is whether, in the type of service that people come to, do they encounter Jesus? Do we? Because if that is not what church is about, then it is a social club for the bored looking for spiritual amusement.

Do we encounter Jesus? If not, what should we do about that? It is he who changes lives, not us, not our services, not our songs or hymns or communions. So our responsibility is to have our own lives changed by encountering him for ourselves so that we can say to others simply this, ‘Come and see. Come and meet him for yourself’. Amen.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The baptism of Christ: water from below, water from above

Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


So, with another Christmas season passing, we can all open our wallets and see how much lighter they seem than a few weeks ago. We’ve all bought presents for people, and we’ve all probably looked longingly at the sales prices and wished we’d waited. But have you ever thought about the kind of relationship we have with the shopkeeper? All commerce is based on a principle of exchange. If I give the shopkeeper money, he will give me goods which are equal in value to the amount that I’ve spent.

But I don’t think that kind of principle of exchange is limited just to commerce. I think it holds good when we move beyond commerce to other sorts of relationship. For example look at how democracy is supposed to work. A government sets out their manifesto, and if enough of us like it then we vote them in. If we don’t think they’ve done what they promised then we vote them out again. It’s an exchange: give us what we want and we’ll give you the power to govern.

And between governments the same kind of principle goes on in the hammering out of treaties, witness all of the hullabaloo about the latest international climate treaty, as one country offers one thing in exchange for being let off something else that they don’t think they can manage or don’t want to give up.

This principle of exchange seems to work further down the ladder as well. I can well remember having a favourite toy taken away when I was a child for bad behaviour. When I learned to stop doing whatever it was, so the toy was returned. Even with the animals we share our homes there is some form of exchange, although we might question how well understood it is by both parties.

I remember with our dog that my parents were the food providers. In exchange for food she clearly thought of herself as the protector of the family, and we three children were often below her in her view of the family pecking order. We give and we receive. Relationships seem to be based on this.

And if you turn your mind to the old testament covenants, even there you can see how God cemented his relationship with Israel by offering them his protection if they would live according to his commandments. But there we begin to see something new. With God, contrary to most of our human relationships, what we have is an unequal exchange. The Lord offered Israel the most amazing protection, and all they had to do was live according to his ethical commandments.

This generosity of God goes way beyond just the old testament, as we can see in the two readings we have today, because they contrast for us the baptism offered by John and the baptism offered by God. They may well look the same but actually they convey totally different things because they come from two different directions.

John’s baptism was from below, from the things of earth pointing heavenwards, whereas the baptism of God comes from above and points downwards to us, and what is offered is unimaginably more than John’s baptism. In the new covenant with God through Christ, the exchange is more unequal than ever before. Let me see if I can explain that from the readings.

When we look at the Acts reading what we see is St. Paul a long way from home, from Judea, all the way off in Ephesus. And even there he finds some disciples, but it looks like there has been some confusion. From the way in which he refers to them as disciples we assume that they were those following the way of Jesus.

Yet when he presses them a little he discovers that it is only John’s baptism that they have received, and this clearly wasn’t sufficient. Why is that? It’s because John’s baptism is a baptism from below. It is a baptism where people declare to those watching that they are turning their back on their old ways, and instead are going to live better lives. It comes from us and declares to God and to the onlookers our intent.

The baptism proclaims that the believer is exchanging their old life for a new one, but that’s as far as exchange goes. But the baptism that comes from God does something else. It comes from above and it conveys the grace of God and God’s Holy Spirit, and so when St. Paul baptised them into Christ, so the Holy Spirit came upon them, a very unequal exchange. They offered themselves to God and God came and dwelt within them.

They offered sinful lives that meant very little, and they received the very life of God dwelling within them. How’s that for an unequal exchange?!

And this is precisely what John the Baptizer had said was going to happen, that he baptised with water, he baptised from below with the things of below. John’s baptism was a baptism of looking upwards and using water, material from the earth, to gaze heavenwards. But one would come who baptised with the Holy Spirit.

So when Jesus was baptised we see the first ever baptism from the other direction. Whilst water was being used, from below looking upwards, heaven was opened and Jesus was baptised with the Holy Spirit. Now he didn’t need God’s grace, and having himself been conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit was not exactly in short supply, but this goes to show yet one more part of this principle of unequal exchange that we receive from God.

Jesus was God come to us, as one of us, to lead the way back to God. And so he went first where we were to tread later. God didn’t expect us to find our own way, because as people of the earth we were only ever going to be able to gaze heavenwards; we could never attain it, we could never get there on our own.

But this all begs the question, what is this baptism with the Holy Spirit that John tells us to expect from Jesus? This is the ultimate unequal exchange: we give ourselves to God, coming as we are with all of our baggage and all of the rubbish we carry around inside us, and God pours his perfect self into us in a baptism with the Holy Spirit. So what actually should we expect?

This is where it becomes a lot more difficult because whatever we think it is will fall short of the reality. If you remember that at Christmas I spoke about mystery and the need to embrace it, and in the baptism with the Holy Spirit we have a classic example of that. With respect to anything that God does we are foolish to put it in a box, but I think this is even more the case with the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Some of us have had experiences with the some of the charismatic churches, what some people unfortunately caricature as the ‘Happy Clappys’, but it has left many people in the mainstream British churches believing that churches where the baptism in the Holy Spirit has been sought are all full of crazy people with theirs hands in the air lost in some kind of ecstasy.

But is that really what baptism in the Holy Spirit looks like? I don’t think so, and one of my primary reasons for that is it doesn’t sound like that was how Jesus behaved. In fact the first thing that happened after he was baptised with the Holy Spirit was that the Spirit drove him out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. That’s hardly ‘happy-clappy’!

Then think about the disciples and their experiences at Pentecost. What happened after that? We don’t get stories about how they danced around with their arms in the air, although that may or may not have been a part of what happened. But what we do know is this:Peter was emboldened by the Spirit and preached to several thousand people that very same day. What’s more, with the sole exception of John, all of the apostles were martyred, as was St. Paul, who himself proclaimed that he prayed in tongues more than anyone else.
So what is this ultimate unequal exchange? Baptism in the Holy Spirit fills us with the fire of God which is incompatible with the kindling of the world. We receive in a new and deeper way the very fullness of the Holy Spirit of God, and I believe that it is something that we should first ask God for the courage to request, knowing that in receiving it we will be receiving power from on high to live out the mystery of our beliefs in the real world.

Over the last few weeks we have thought a great deal about what it might mean to live as God is asking us, and what it may be that God requires each of us to do. In receiving the baptism of God, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, so we receive the power to live out the callings that God places on us.

It is not to convert us into a particular Christian counter-culture where we wave our arms in the air and smile at everything, and have no apparent connection with the real world. In fact it is quite the opposite of that: it is to help us to live as God intended, and to have the strength of God to become the people he is asking us to be, and to do the things he is asking us to do.

So we come, as we are, simply to say to God, ‘Send your Holy Spirit to drench me, that I may live more fully, and more completely, the life which you intend for me to live.’ Amen.