Friday, 7 February 2014

The Perils of Theology

1 Corinthians 2:1-12
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Putting the cart before the horse...

As a child, as I grew up I looked up to my Dad.  Actually in many ways I still do.  He was my first inspiration for what I wanted to do with my life.  I have so many fond memories of sitting with him on a Saturday morning as he, as a scientist, patiently tried to explain to me about atoms and molecules.  I was fascinated by this and it began what I think has become a lifelong quest for me to try and understand the world and how it works.  To begin with that set me off on a career in science, a career that I adored, and then as the mysteries have deepened, now I find myself as a priest, and working with steadily deeper and deeper mysteries as my horizon is steadily widened by the Spirit.  However that initial inquisitiveness and the training that comes with science has led me over and over again to treat much of the world around me as a puzzle to be solved.  When you work in science, this is usually the model you follow.  You are faced with an observation that you don’t understand.  You work away at it until you have a theory.  Then you apply that theory by experiment to see if it will stand up to the real world.  In other words the scientific world-view is to treat the world as a puzzle, or as a problem, and then to try and understand it.  The curious thing is that I have been ordained since 2002, yet in all that time pretty much every sermon that I preach has begun with the same premise: here’s a problem or a puzzle, so how can we solve it?  I usually say to myself, 'Well if I don’t understand it, then the chances are that at least a few people in the congregation won’t either, so if I can work it out then at least a few of us will go home satisfied that we’ve learnt something new about God'.

Now I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this approach necessarily, or at least I didn’t until I read the section from 1 Corinthians 2 that we have in front of us today.  You see I recognise that my starting point is usually one of the intellect, of the mind.  I try and craft an interesting and useful sermon based on trying to figure out something in the reading.  And then my namesake, St. Paul, blunders in and tells me that he, perhaps the most widely read author of all time, did exactly the opposite.  And there’s the puzzle to be solved.  Why did he do it that way around?

Read again St. Paul’s words:
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
There are other indications elsewhere in the book of Acts that suggest that Paul was actually not the world’s most inspiring preacher.  On one occasion he had to perform a miracle on someone who had fallen asleep listening to him and fallen out of a window.  Yet over the course of his ministry he set up or aided numerous churches around the Mediterranean. 

And when I read this, what I read is not that St. Paul could preach an intellectual and wise sermon that made everyone think, and as a result of their intellectual stimulation they went out and sought out God.  In fact it was quite the reverse; he began with revealing God to them experientially.  Was his concern that if he spoke wise words of wisdom, then they would build up an intellectual model of God?  Was he worried that their belief would end up being more akin to the various philosophies of the day than the reality of God in everyday life?  I’ll answer those in a moment, but if the answer is yes then you can see the sense in what he’s saying. 

Ask yourself this question; what would have more impact on you, that I try and explain what I think the deep mysteries of God are that Paul refers to later on in the passage, or if in some way the gates are opened for you to experience God for yourself in an utterly life changing way?  Take a break from reading for a moment and think about it.  Do you want wisdom and understanding or experience?


From the perspective of trying to understand this passage about the wisdom of God we need to get inside  what I think St. Paul is saying.  To do that we need to understand the context and it’s fairly simple.  Paul is responding to a criticism from the church in Corinth that whenever he visits he is not speaking 'sophia' which is the Greek word for wisdom.  There was a strong intellectual element at Corinth and so they wanted someone to speak into that desire they had to hear words that would make them puzzle deeply over what was being said and over the mysteries being discussed.  But St. Paul felt that to do that was to simply intellectualise the truth rather than allow the truth to be being life-changing.

Don’t get me wrong - St. Paul’s letters are full of intellectual theology.  But the point he is making here is that theology is not the place to start.  God is the place to start.  He is saying that God, as experienced through the person of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit is where we should begin.  Christianity should start with the experience, not the dogma.  As a consequence this passage is all about Paul being quite critical of them for their approach to Christian belief.  They wanted to understand it; he wanted them to experience it in a life-changing way.  They wanted intellectual stimulation; he wanted them to have life-changing spiritual encounters with the Holy Spirit.

The problem, he says, with starting from the perspective of human wisdom is that human wisdom led to crucifying the Son of God.  It is therefore an inherently weak place to start. 

So where do we start? 

St. Paul is of a mind that we start with the Holy Spirit.  Ironically, given his comments about human wisdom, his argument is actually based on a Greek philosophical view of his time, that like can only be known by like.  So only a human can know another human, and likewise it is only God who can know God.  The logical argument is therefore that the only way we can know the wisdom of God is by being open to the Spirit of God, because it is only the Spirit of God who knows God.  His argument is therefore actually quite simple.  Human wisdom is flawed, and so in order to have true wisdom and understanding what we actually need is the wisdom of God, and the only way we can have the wisdom of God is to be filled with the Spirit of God since it is only the Spirit of God who can know the wisdom of God.

You may remember that Steven Hawking, when he got to the end of his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’, wrote these words:
"However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."
This is an example of human wisdom, that if we can only fathom it out we’ll know the mind of God.  But St. Paul’s answer to this would probably be, ‘No, Stephen, you won’t.  The only way to know the mind of God is through the Spirit of God'.

Now don’t get me wrong on this.  Theology is truly necessary because it is vital that we test our experiences in order to understand them and not be misled by them.  But we need first to begin with the experience of God, and then to seek the wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit in order better to understand what we have experienced.  But it is God with whom we should start, not the theology, and so often we put the proverbial cart before the horse.

Jesus says that his followers are the salt of the earth, but risk becoming useless if they lose their saltiness.  In the context of what we’ve heard here what we need to ask ourselves is, in the work that we do to deepen our intellectual understanding of Christianity, do we risk emptying the message of the power to actually change us?  The wisdom of God revolves around God allowing Jesus to be crucified.  We can only understand that wisdom through the Spirit of God.  To the rest of the world it looks like a nonsense.  Don’t get me wrong - theology is important.  Understanding God according to the revelation we receive from his word and his world helps us to grow.  My fear, though, is that we live in such a rational society that we are attempting to rationalise God, and we can’t.  Instead we need to be becoming re-enchanted by God’s nature and ways and mysteries, because it is there that our lives are changed; when we actually experience what God is like. 

Yes I can talk in interesting ways about God, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is, will knowing more about the nature of God actually draw us into the experience of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us?  Or will it make belief an intellectual exercise?  Christianity is very interesting, and we do live in interesting times.  But that is not the whole of the message, or even a part of it.  If it does not begin with the experience of God it is empty human intellect without the power to change lives. 

Baptism and Priesthood

My apologies, I realise it's a month since I posted anything up here, so here are a few of my recent thoughts to catch up on...

Matthew 3:13-end
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Baptism and Priesthood
This short account of the baptism of Jesus almost leaves us with a ‘So what?’ feeling.  It is just a handful of verses, yet its importance is vital so I want to write about what is taking place in and around not just the baptism of Jesus but also around the saying that often went with baptism and is still echoed in the modern baptism service, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  These were the words that John used when he drew people to baptism and they were also exactly the same words that Jesus began his ministry with after John was arrested.  So let’s think about this passage and try and deal with some of the questions that it throws up for us.

The first question is about the nature of the baptism that John was offering, which was clearly a Jewish cleansing ritual, except in running water rather than a static bath.  John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sins.  It was essentially a washing clean but we should ponder first of all what it means and why it didn’t apply to Jesus in one sense, whilst in another it most definitely did.  In order to understand this more fully we need to start with two key words: ‘Repent’ and ‘Sin’.  Both of these words carry huge layers of historical meaning that are tied up with guilt and shame.  Sadly I believe that in some cases both words have been misused by church leaders, in the past and in the present, to levy a degree of control over people’s lives.  This has either the effect of stunting someone’s spiritual growth by them not learning to take responsibility for their actions, or of the leader being able to take too much control from someone.  Either way is wrong.

As a preacher I can honestly say that it is very easy to make some people feel guilty from the pulpit, and it is sadly all to possible that with some people who already feel bad about themselves it is quite possible to go from a meaningful conviction of a need to change to weighing someone down to the extent that you can then exert your will over them.  This is how some cults are born.  The reality is that both words, when better examined through scripture, may not mean what we have traditionally thought.  The word ‘repent’ comes from the Greek word metanoia and can be most literally translated as ‘to change your mind’.  It implies altering how one views the world and how one conducts one’s self with a degree of regret at past conduct.  Primarily though it means to change your mind and is indeed a form of conversion.

The word ‘sin’ means literally to miss a target, rather like an inept archer.  It’s when you know the right thing but don’t manage to do it.  Can you see, therefore, that this is far more about an awareness of our actions, our motivations and our decisions than it is about being weighed down by guilt and shame?  Yes we may feel guilty about the things we have done wrong, but the word repent is far more to do with making a decision of the will to change your mind and do things differently than it is about having layers of shame weighed down on you by someone speaking from a pulpit.  It is about self-awareness of our actions and motivations, seeing where we are going wrong and choosing to do things differently.  Repentance is therefore about being set free to become more the person you were created to be.  With that in mind we can see why the people were flocking to John the Baptist to be baptised.  There was a sense of renewal, that something was coming, which indeed it was since John came to prepare the way for Christ by getting people thinking and changing.

That, then, is the first issue; the nature of John’s baptism; it was a baptism that acknowledged the need to change our minds about our behaviour and direction.  But then along comes Jesus and he demands to be baptised by John.  Not surprisingly John baulks rather at this.  John’s baptism was one of being washed free of the past having changed one’s mind about how to live in the future.  So our second question is, given the nature of the baptism that John was giving to other people, why did Jesus come to him?  Jesus, I believe, had no need of this kind of baptism.  He knew who he was, where he’d come from and where he was going, and he had never missed the mark but had done what he should.  As the Son of God and son of Mary he was uniquely different from John’s other baptismal candidates. There was no need for Jesus to receive John’s baptism of repentance.  But what if the baptism of Jesus was a different kind of baptism?  Listen to these two verses spoken by God to Moses in Exodus 29: 1 and 4
Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests... You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water.
The ordination to the Jewish priesthood was a once and for all washing, or baptism.  John’s baptism for repentance could be repeated, but this kind of baptism signified the start of a priest’s ministry.  So what I am suggesting is that the baptism that Jesus received from John was, on one level, different from the baptisms that other people received at John’s hands.  Theirs were baptisms of repentance but what Jesus received was more a baptism of ordination to the priesthood.  It is significant that straight after this the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness to be tested before he began his priestly ministry. 

It’s also important that we remember that a priest was called to be a go-between, standing between God and the people, and the High Priest was the one who could once a year approach God, entering the Holy of Holies in the middle of the Jewish Temple, to make an offering for the sins of the people.  So by being baptised by John, Jesus was also identifying with the people he would represent when he offered himself as the one who would carry the weight of the disobedience of the people.  Jesus’s baptism was therefore both different and the same as the others who came to John.  His was a baptism to being High Priest and a baptism of relating to the people he was come to save.

That then throws up a third question.  If John’s baptism was normally a baptism of repentance, but the baptism that Jesus received was a baptism into being God’s High Priest, what then is the baptism that we receive?

I think the answer that I would like to give is that it is both, but that the emphasis is actually more towards being a priestly baptism.  You might like to think of it like this: John’s baptism came from earth and was directed towards heaven, it was people repenting of their sins, changing their minds and spirits because heaven was near.  It was a baptism as a sign of a change of human will.  But the baptism of Jesus came from heaven towards earth; it was a baptism of divine will, of ordination to being the High Priest to the world, of being the Father’s go-between.  If we look at our New Testament reading we can see how St. Peter refers to this idea of all Christians together forming a royal priesthood.  You may recall that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as our true High Priest.

When you take these together you can see that when we are baptised, we are baptised into Christ and into his ministry.  It is heaven that is opened to us as it was opened to Christ because what we receive in baptism is the grace of God to become part of the royal priesthood with Christ as High Priest.  Yes some of us are called to be ordained specifically as priests, but all Christians are part of one royal priesthood which means all of us are called to share in the work of Christ in reaching out to the poor and marginalised, to those who everyone ignores and those who are trodden on by the wheels of government because no one else will speak out for them.  We are called to speak Christ’s words of invitation into the kingdom of heaven, and all of that stems from our own baptisms where it is revealed to us that each of us are also beloved of God.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not excluding the repentance of sins from baptism, but that part of being a Christian is not a once and for all aspect but is instead, or should be, an on-going part of our spiritual lives as we continually re-examine ourselves and our motives and allow ourselves to change our minds and spirits. But the baptism that comes from heaven, the baptism of ordination into Christ’s priesthood, that comes once and for all and is a means by which the grace of God can be conveyed on to anyone of any age.

What this therefore means for us is found right in the middle of verse nine of that reading.  The verse says:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Why are we baptised into the priesthood of all believers?  It is in order that our lives would be like arrows of light that point towards our God as the One who comes to us and wishes to reside with us and within us.  It means that if we are baptised, we are baptised for this ministry because we are baptised into the royal priesthood of Christ and this is what Jesus did.  John the Baptist may well have come telling people to change their minds and alter their ways, but when Jesus came, as God incarnate, he went further, not just telling people of their need to change but demonstrating the desire of God to live among the people in loving relationship, to spend time with them, and to call for justice from the oppressors, to help people live lives that were more completely in the way that God had created them to live.

Baptism is therefore the first step on a path of giving ourselves for the needs of others in accordance with the will of Christ, living as he did.