Saturday, 27 April 2013

Theology, dogma, doctrine, what we believe, should all be shaped by spiritual experience. No really...

Acts 11:1-18
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.’

The vitality of spiritual experience
The story before us in the book of Acts today is one of THE most important things to happen in the early church. It’s implications for us are really quite far-reaching, but it does take a little unpacking so let’s see if I can put some flesh on the bones for us.

The context is that this took place very early on in the life of the church, in the very first few years. At this point in time pretty much all of the believers would have been Jewish and there was a sense that Jesus had come to save the Jews. This story tells of how God had much bigger plans than the limitations that the Jewish believers had placed on him.

So for a Christian believer who was a Jew it was simply taken as read that as well as being a follower of Jesus they would also keep the Jewish law, the Torah, and that meant that all the men would have been circumcised. But then news comes to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem that Peter has been spending time with Gentiles, who are people like us, basically non-Jews.   They therefore summon Peter to Jerusalem to question him and to criticize him. More or less they are saying to him, ‘Peter what were you thinking? These were unclean Gentiles. What on earth were you, a Jew, doing spending time with them and sharing the news about Jesus with them?’

You can sense what is almost a spiritual arrogance in this, that the early believers felt that Jesus was only for Jews. And so Peter explains to them what had happened. He was praying and had entered a trance state. In that state he had a vision of a large sheet being set down in front of him and being told to eat. ‘Well so what?’ we might say. Big deal.

But that’s because we’re not Jews and don't understand the importance of this. Jews, like the people of many religions, have some pretty strict rules about what food they are and are not allowed to eat, and some of the food in that sheet was definitely on their list of unclean foods. In other words these were animals about whom God had said in the Old Testament that they must not eat, such as reptiles and other meat-eating animals.

Yet now God was saying something different.

It is key for us that we understand God is speaking to Peter in a metaphorical image. If we read the chapter before it tells us some more details about this incident and it is clear that before the vision Peter had gone on the roof to pray and was hungry. So God spoke to him through what was on his mind - food. It was a great use of imagery by the Holy Spirit, picking up on what was on Peter’s mind and using that to say something to him while he was in the trance.  Peter has no problem with the interpretation of his vision because of what happens next. Three men who were not Jews arrive at the house he’s staying at and it immediately becomes clear to him that the so-called unclean food that God has told him it is now alright to eat is a way of explaining to him that God was telling him to stop rejecting Gentiles as being unclean.

If food cannot be classed as unclean anymore then neither can people.

The Holy Spirit basically said, ‘You must not treat them any differently from yourselves. You must go with them.’ So Peter went with the three men, taking with him six fellow believers who he refers to as brothers.

So who were these three strangers?

Again there is more detail in the previous chapter, but basically they were members of the household of a man called Cornelius. What is significant about Cornelius is not only was he not a Jew, but he was actually a Roman Centurion, a soldier who led a hundred men. He was also a devout God-fearing man who prayed constantly.  His prayers were answered when an angel appeared to him, causing him to just stand there and stare in terror. That says something about the magnificence and power of an angel, that a Roman Centurion who would have seen a lot of action should be terrified by what he saw. The angel tells him that God has heard his prayers and that he must now send men to Joppa, to the house of Simon the tanner where a man called Simon Peter was staying.  So Cornelius sent two slaves and a devout soldier to go and fetch Peter and hear what he had to say. Now we can begin to understand why Peter took other men with him, after all it was Roman soldiers who had crucified Jesus, so you can understand his apprehension.

Yet what took place when he reached Cornelius’s house changed the church forever.

As Peter began to explain the Good News of Jesus, so the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and all the relatives and close friends he had gathered together to listen to Peter. To Peter it was all exactly the same as it had happened to the first apostles on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon them all. When Peter finishes telling his tale to the sceptical circumcised Jewish Christians about how the Holy Spirit had come down on people who were not Jews but Gentiles he completes his story with a question:

‘Who was I that I could hinder God?’

And then silence descends on the room.

It is the silence that comes when all your old beliefs get swept away by experiencing God. The Jewish Christians, though sceptical, know and trust Peter, but they are now faced with a choice. God has acted and done something that they would never have expected. Lesser people would have remained sceptical of Peter. They might even have ousted him.  But after the silence they begin to praise God as for the very first time the penny begins to drop that Jesus is not just for Jews, he’s for everyone. Now it’s important for us to realise that this is just the very first step in a long journey that the early church took with this. It was a very long time indeed before there was a complete and full acceptance that Gentiles could be Christians without first becoming Jews, but it was a long journey that led to people like us.

We are here today because the early church listened to God and they changed their mind about what they believed. The experience of God challenged their theology and so they altered their theology.

God has a habit of doing this.

But the question for us is, how does this apply to us today?

I think it says something to us about the spirituality of being a Christian and how vitally important it is to our decision making and our beliefs that we learn to listen to God. Think about it for a moment. Until the Holy Spirit gave them this new truth all that they had to go on was dogma and doctrine; basically what they knew from reading the commandments in the Old Testament.

How often do we try and make decisions based simply on the rules of our religion and what people have taught us?

In our most difficult and trying situations, do we listen to what the Holy Spirit may actually be trying to reveal to us?

In the midst of some of the most challenging times for the church today, does it not spend rather too much time endlessly debating the minutiae of texts when actually we should simply be listening?

If our religion is just about what we are told to believe, but without any actual experience of the spirituality of being a Christian with whom God communicates, in what ways is that actually Good News? All that is is a system of ethics on how to behave and you don’t need any religion to give you good ethics, although of course I would say that ethics which are informed by a belief in God are going to offer more.

Instead what we see here are people who are willing to be spoken to by God and changed by God. These are people who pray, who enter trance states in their communication with God, who see visions and have dreams and are open to the possibility that God speaks to his people.

So here, I think, is the challenge. God is saying to us:

‘If you ask, I will speak to you. But you must be willing to be changed by the experience.’

I don’t think God is in the business of giving us spiritual experiences for the sake of it. How we experience God should impact on how we live and the decisions that we make.  Christianity is not meant to be all about warm fuzzy spiritual feelings, but it is meant to include a spirituality that speaks into the very heart of who we are by the words spoken by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. So let us set aside time to learn silence.

Psalm 23. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..........

My apologies that this didn't get posted last week.  It's been a busy week with a lot of funerals taking place at the moment.  Prayers for the families involved please.

So here's what I should have posted last week.  This week's to follow.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

The implications of being referred to as a sheep in this day and age are pretty negative. Sheep have no minds of their own. Sheep are easily led. Sheep do what everyone else in the flock does. Sheep are basically bland, mindless, uncreative souls who just go unquestioningly where they are told to go.  Is that fair? And how much does that bias our understanding of Psalm 23? Just this last week there was a story in the news of a sheep that has been saved from the pot when its farmer discovered it loved to jump fences and apparently relished the challenge of being set ever higher jumps. There is more to sheep than meets the eyes.  But the issue still remains that there is an awful lot of baggage around being referred to as a sheep because it’s quite derogatory. So in order to get more at the depths of what is being said in this psalm we need to look again at the meaning of being a sheep, but this time through the eyes of the psalm’s composer.

Psalm 23 is referred to as a Psalm of David. What that means is that the compiler of the book wants us to believe that this psalm was a song written by King David. Now it’s fair to say that there is some scepticism about how many psalms David actually composed. After all it would have been considered quite an honour to have one of your own compositions ascribed to King David.  But with this one there is every reason to think that actually he may well have written it. Two of the things we know about King David are this; before he became the greatest king Israel ever had he had been a simple shepherd boy. The second thing is that he apparently played the harp.  It wouldn’t have been quite the instrument my Alison plays, but the principle would have been the same. Now the fact that this psalm begins with the words, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ suggests that the composer knew what he was talking about. He is drawing on his own life’s experiences to say something about God.  However, in order to understand it more clearly for ourselves we have to get our minds away from the images we have of sheep in this country which are pretty bland creatures that get shoved in a big green field or on a hillside where they hoover up the grass and turn it into wool. They don’t need a great deal of care as basically the grass is there for the taking.  But David was an Israelite and Israel, particularly in its southern regions, is a pretty arid country. There’s not a huge amount of grass and so if you leave sheep to their own devices they will probably starve. When I was last there we were lucky enough to see a traditional shepherd and he was leading his sheep across some arid ground looking for food, and that’s the whole point.

In Britain you can stick a flock of sheep anywhere in the country and they’ll find food. In parts of the highlands they get taken out in the spring and brought back when the weather turns for the winter, but they don’t need anyone to take them anywhere. In other words there is no bond of trust needed, so the sheep don’t have to get to know or trust a shepherd.  But in the arid Middle East it’s a totally different picture. There the sheep utterly depend on the expertise of the shepherd to find them food. There is a relationship. The sheep know the sound of the shepherd’s voice and will follow the shepherd because they trust him. Now the adage of being a sheep is no longer insulting; it’s a good thing because it is about being in a relationship where one is being accompanied.

Now for me what follows is quite important. What does the shepherd do? He makes the sheep lie down in green pastures. He leads them by still waters. He restores them. But it’s that first one that really speaks to me because of the cessation of activity that is implied.  There was a report in the papers last week that people in protestant countries suffer more psychologically when they are made redundant. The so-called protestant work ethic means that we really wish to work hard, and some people will work at levels which are to the detriment of their health and the well-being of the their families.  I know of too many occasions where overworking has broken up marriages. I know of too many people who feel guilty if they are not seen to be working ridiculously long hours, and it is just as prevalent amongst Christians, if not more so, as amongst the rest of society. And the trouble is we don’t take this psalm seriously and allow God to do what he wishes to do, which is to make us lie down in green pastures; simply to stop and take in the scenery.  I gather that it has been shown quite categorically that people who are denied access to the countryside, or who live in cities and rarely venture out, are damaged in their sense of well-being by the absence of the country. We need rest. We need the kiss of nature, and we follow a God whose desire it is to make us stop, to lead us to places of rest.

If we truly call ourselves sheep following the Good Shepherd, then actually we ought very much to listen to him. Yet we have an expectation, a business assumption, that normal people are always busy, that this is a good thing. We might even judge someone as lazy if they’re not working very long hours. Is that right? I don’t think so but I’m as guilty as the next person. 

But it’s not just the promise of rest that God brings. There is another side to the coin of being a sheep, and that is that some of the places we are led are not safe. Yet within the psalm we also find the promise to be with us in the dark places. There are valleys in Israel that are dangerous places to go, but the psalmist affirms that even there the Shepherd is present. His rod and staff are essentially weapons which he carries in to the dark places with the sheep.

This, then, is the other side of following the Shepherd. In last week’s reading about Saul on the road to Damascus you may recall that when Jesus spoke to Ananias about how the calling that Saul was given would mean that he would have to face some real difficulties because Jesus was going to ask a lot of him.

This is the other side of the coin of being a Christian. Sometimes God calls us to go into dark valleys where there is danger and difficulty. Each of us has had, at some time, to face up to some of life’s harsh realities and some of us are called deliberately to go into situations as Christians where our faith will be tested. We have been in the darkest valleys, also known as the valley of the shadow of death.  Sometimes we are called to go to those places to accompany another who is walking there; to go as the presence of Christ for them.

And the promise which is made in those places is this, ‘God is with us,’ which, incidentally, is a name given to Jesus: Emmanuel. That is not the same as saying God will always keep us physically safe. Remember that all but one of Jesus’s remaining eleven apostles died for their beliefs.  But we are promised that we will never be left alone, that whatever we are called to do or whatever life throws at us we are not left to fend for ourselves.

So the central message of this psalm is one of never being left alone, but of always knowing that God is present, wishing to lead us to places of refreshment and promising to be with us when darkness draws near.  Our role in this is simply one of learning to listen, of spending time in prayer so that we know what the Shepherd’s voice sounds like. Only as we learn to do that can we find security in being in the different places that life takes us. Only then can we know that we are not ever left alone and to our own devices.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The person and the Light, rather than religion.

I apologise that there is such a long reading to lead into this, but I felt it was important to give the whole story of how Saul became the person we know as St. Paul.


Acts 9:1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’

John 8:12-14
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.

Have you ever noticed that we don’t see light itself? We see what the light has illuminated but not the actual light itself. What I mean is we see colours and shapes either because light has reflected off them or because it has passed through them. If I were to ask you what light looks like, you wouldn’t be able to tell me, but if there was no light you could see nothing.  If you stand in a room and gradually dim the lights, so colour slowly bleeds away. Eventually, because of the way our eyes are made, in low light all we can see is detail in black and white because the colour receptors in our eyes can’t pick up colour once the light levels have dropped.  But if you begin to turn the lights back up then colour begins to become apparent to us.

Notice when you go outside on a spring day the differences in colour between when the sun is shrouded in cloud and when it shines directly. No photographer would take photos of spring flowers on a cloudy day because you need the power of the direct sunlight to make the colours dance. Everything literally seems to come alive.

But what if you keep turning the light up?

Eventually the colours all seem to fade to white as our eyes are overwhelmed. When light gets too bright we can no longer see. We become blinded. Now hold on to that thought as we turn to the readings because light has a key role to play in what I want to say.

Starting with the Gospel reading, Jesus declares that he is the Light of the World. It’s a pretty bold claim to make and I have numerous good friends in other spiritual traditions who would doubt the validity of that, citing more or less what the Pharisees say in response, which is more or less, ‘Who says?’ ‘Jesus, you say that you’re the light of the world, but shouldn’t it be other people who make that claim on your behalf?’ There are passages littered over the Bible that underline what he says though, although again they are from within the Judeo-Christian tradition, although not from Jesus himself. Some are clearly directed at Jesus whereas others of a more prophetic nature suggest someone enlightening would be coming and Jesus seems to fit the bill. For example Isaiah 49:6 reads like this:
‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’
Gentiles is a simple catch-all word for everyone who is not a Jew. Isaiah was looking forward to when the Light of the World would come. And then if we look at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 2 we see the encounter that Mary and Joseph with Jesus as a newborn baby had with the elderly man Simeon in the temple.  Simeon had received a word from God that he would not die until he had seen the one whom God was sending to bring salvation. When he sees them he picks Jesus up in his arms and refers to him as, ‘...a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Again, Jesus is the Light of the World.

And then we come to St. Paul, or as he was known at the time, Saul.

Up until this point in the story Saul thought that he was living by the light, but the light that he was using to see by was the light of his tradition, the light of his religion, and so anything which did not conform to his religious tradition had to be judged as impure. In Saul we see lived out a clash between a judgmental form of Pharisaism and the Light of God’s grace, the result of which left him so changed that he felt the need to change his name.

He was a religious righteous zealot and he felt that anyone who undermined his tradition must be destroyed as an evildoer.

...Sounds a little like a lot of fundamentalists today really.

Human nature hasn’t changed much...

And so when people began to make life-changing decisions to follow Christ as the Light he would have seen this as something that must be stopped. For Saul all that was necessary was Torah, the Jewish rules for living within which were all that was needed to live a righteous Jewish life.  He therefore embarked on a wave of religious persecution, obtaining letters of authorisation from the high priest himself that would allow him to seek out followers of Christ from the synagogues of Damascus. And then on the way he has a direct encounter with Christ, and he looks for himself right at the Light of the World.

Now if you have ever looked into the sun you will know that a really bright light leaves a temporary burn-out on your retina as the cells in your eyes are overloaded. But for St. Paul it went much further than that: looking directly at the risen Christ, at the Light of the World, blinded him completely. The powerful became the powerless.  The true Light had overwhelmed the false light of religion and fundamentalism and his blindness was a sign to him that he had never really actually seen. Those who were with him took him to his lodgings in Damascus and there he embarked on what is called a total fast, taking not even water for three days until Ananias is sent to him. When he lays hands on him the Lord restores his sight and his new journey begins.

I think it’s important that we recognise that this was not a conversion.

Paul had always served God, but he had done so through the tools of religion and tradition. Now he was being called directly by the Light himself rather than through religion. I don’t think St. Paul was trying to start a new religion. I think that he had been quite damaged enough by the religious traditions he had served.  Now he was serving the person, not the religion, and I think that’s really important for us. I think we sometimes, maybe often, have way too much religion and tradition in our lives when actually it should all be about the person, not about the religion. I have too many friends who have been damaged by religion but who still dearly wish to follow the Lord and live in his Light, and I suspect that religious trappings get in the way of the Light of the World because we quickly fall into the trap of trying to support the religion rather than follow the person.

So what is it that St. Paul did that we can learn to do too?

Well the trick with a really bright light is not to look directly into it. Instead we move where we are standing so that we are standing alongside it and look at what it is illuminating. In this way we quickly begin to see things differently because we are looking at them in the new Light.  And that is what Saul did. Once he had been healed from looking into the bright light he moved his position so that he could stand alongside the Light, to stand with and identify with Christ, and then the whole world looked different. All the trappings of religious tradition fell away. In fact it is really important that we understand what happened later in Paul’s ministry.  He went into direct battle with some of the Jewish Christians, or Judaisers as he called them. Why? Because they were insisting that new Christians who were not Jews had to keep the Jewish law if they were to be proper Christians. For example they expected the men to be circumsized.

Paul stood firm against them. He had had enough of religious tradition. He was done with religious rules and the fundamentalisms that flow from them. It’s ironic now that modern fundamentalists cite St. Paul so often when his way of living was so directly opposed to the fundamentalists of his own day. Following Christ, standing in the Light of the World and looking at the world illuminated by that Light was all that was required.

And I believe he challenges us in the same way today. Have we become too religious? Do we sometimes become too caught up in all the trappings of what we do at our gatherings? That’s what Paul was like before he looked into the Light. But once he had encountered Christ for himself he saw things differently because he was looking at them through a new Light.

Jesus didn’t want us to start a new religion with all the lawlike trappings of that.

He wants us simply to follow him and see the world as illuminated by his Light. The way we do that is by setting aside time to encounter him in prayer, in Bible study, in worship together. But we have to be cautious how we do that because religion can all too easily just get in the way. Ask St. Paul.  Religious practice can be a good thing, but only so long as what we do is flowing out of what is taking place within us. But if we are trusting just in the religion, then we will be disappointed because religion on its own doesn’t offer Light, it merely offers one way amongst several in which we can bathe in the Light.

What is needed is that we stand in the illumination provided by the Light of the World, and we gaze in wonder at a world full of colours we have never seen before.