Saturday, 31 January 2015

Resolving dissonance through encounter - the conversion of St Paul

Apologies for such a long reading to start with, but we need the whole story to make sense of what I think this means for us...

Acts 9:1-22

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.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.


I'm learning a new musical instrument.... 
If you follow the link you can see that it's a kind of drum but it's made of metal and has tongues cut into the surface of different lengths to produce different tones, so it's actually more tuned percussion than drum. In my experience the only way to learn an instrument is to practice and practice, and slowly, gradually, a new skill begins to take shape (hopefully!). It's an incremental process.

But when I was younger I found something quite different with mathematics when it came to learning something new. I recall, as a teenager, sitting in the classroom as the teacher, for the first time, tried to explain quadratic equations to us. I puzzled and puzzled over what he was saying, looking again and again at what was on the blackboard (yes it was that long ago!) And then suddenly it all clicked into place. I understood. And it was like 'scales fell from my eyes', which is a wonderful piece of English vernacular, born in this story and intended to convey a sense of sudden understanding. 

The narrative from today's reading in Acts gives the story behind the saying; a literal experience of St. Paul, then going by his Jewish name of Saul, receiving back the sight which had been taken from him by his encounter with the risen Christ. The way we use the phrase now is as a way of explaining that we understand something, and that the understanding has dawned on us suddenly.  What I want to suggest is that for Saul this was not just a physical experience, but also a moment of extreme clarity, after which Saul was changed forever.  But to understand this we need first to go back to getting a picture of where St. Paul was from his perspective as Saul the Pharisee...  

At this point in its history it seems that Judaism was very focussed on the Torah, the Jewish law for how a Jew lived. You may recall that many times Jesus criticised the religious leaders for focussing on the outside appearance, not the inside.  There is a good reason behind this.  Some five hundred years earlier the people had been delivered from captivity in Babylon. On returning to their land they were intent on not repeating the mistakes of the past, and being wholly and completely faithful to God. And so the Torah took on a very important place in society. And in many ways it worked. The Jews preserved their allegiance to God in the midst of the surrounding polytheistic nations with whom they went on to do business. It kept them together in the midst of persecution. The emergence of the Pharisees was perhaps as a result of this commitment to maintain Jewish purity and enforce a separation from unclean Gentiles. However, the downside of this was the way in which their religion appears to have become more concerned with a legalistic approach to purity by focussing on the outward nature of belief.

I've been reading a book by Francis Spufford recently called 'Unapologetic' which I wholeheartedly recommend, and in which he talks frankly and honestly about why Christianity makes good emotional sense. One of the points that he makes is to do with this outward show of religion.  You see here's the rub. If you are someone who wants to be religious, who has a natural bias in that direction, then a system of rules that you can keep will serve to assuage your concerns over whether you are good enough for God. If we think of the Judaism of the time of Jesus, they had numerous rules and regulations, of fast days and festivals, of when you should pray, how you should pray and so on.
And if you were really dedicated, as Saul the Pharisee was, it was actually possible to keep all of those rules. Yes it was difficult. It demanded huge amounts of dedication and discipline, but it was possible to do this. That would mean that a person could look at themselves and say, 'I am a righteous person because I keep all of the rules of my religion.'  And of course this is not an attribute that's unique to Judaism.  Other religions, such as Islam, have rules which must be kept in order to be thought of as truly following the tenets of your beliefs.

In all of these instances a dedicated follower can count themselves as righteous if they keep the law of their religion, and it seems likely to me that this is where St. Paul was coming from as Saul the Pharisee. But Christianity was different, and even though we have our struggles with rules and regulations in the present period, there is at the heart of the Christian faith something that is rather different: It looks at the heart first as the originator of righteous actions, not at the actions themselves.
In fact I would go so far as to say that you can get all the actions completely right and yet not be remotely righteous because your heart is in the wrong place. Spufford actually goes even further, and I think he's quite correct in this. In the Christian faith the commandments are actually incredibly severe and utterly impossible to keep, and that is probably the whole point!

Think about it for a moment. We often say that there are only two commandments in Christianity; Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, will and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That's it. So how are you getting on with that... today?  

That's all there is to it, and you know what, if we're honest, we can't keep them. No one can. I know I certainly can't. But I can try...

And that's the point. Christ says to us, 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect', with the understanding that we can't. And that is precisely why the Gospel writer John begins his Gospel by saying that we have all received from Jesus grace upon grace upon grace upon grace...  In other words Christianity is a religion in which it is the heart of the person that must be changed, and in which the outward religious practice is of no value whatsoever unless it flows from our heart, and because our hearts need to be changed we live in the grace and forgiveness of God during that process.

As this change develops over our lifespans, so gradually we naturally become focussed on worshipping God and helping others. But without a change of heart those things on their own are useless.

Now can you imagine what it must have been like for young Saul, to have dedicated his life to serving as a Pharisee, of becoming a Rabbi who had studied at the feet of the famous Rabbi, Gamaliel, and along come this bunch of people whose lives are so very different, yet who attribute their changed lives to following an obscure rabbi about whom they make astonishing claims, as opposed to a strict adherence to Torah. Can you imagine the anger and frustration?

Saul has worked so very hard to get it right, and then he watches Stephen being willing to lay down his life as the first martyr; someone who has nothing like the zeal he has for the law who nevertheless has something about him that is so much better.  It strikes me that somewhere deep inside Saul something probably snapped.  He became at war within himself, what psychologists might call cognitive dissonance, where the beliefs of his mind and the evidence of his eyes are in such complete disagreement as to throw him into a very dark and confused place, and the casualties were the followers of this new sect, the Christians.

What stops his bloodthirsty anger is when he encounters Christ for himself. When Paul later recounts the story to King Agrippa in Acts 26 he adds an additional phrase that Jesus said to him, 'Saul it is hard for you to kick against the goads.' A goad was a pointed stick which was used to guide an Ox.
In other words Jesus was saying to him, 'Believe the evidence of your eyes, not your theology of ritual purity. Following me is the right way, not a sect that needs to be destroyed.' And that was what Saul needed, a divine encounter which would resolve the dissonance within him.

Let's turn the clock forward a few years because the repercussions of this new understanding for Saul reverberated throughout much of his ministry. Saul takes on the Romanised version of his name, Paul. And then gradually he sets about dismantling all of the Jewish legalisms that have made their way into early Christianity. You see, at the beginning of our faith, we were a Jewish sect. All Christians also kept Torah, the Jewish Law, because all Christians were also Jewish.  But then something new happened, and people who had never been Jewish began to come to faith. And so began a battle between the conservative Jewish Christians and the liberal non-Jewish Christians, with the Jewish Christians insisting that all new converts must also keep Torah. And yet Paul, formerly the arch-conservative Jewish Pharisee, sides with Gentile Christians, adopting their more liberal stance. He insists that new Christians should be permitted to lay aside all the outward purity rules basis of religion and depend instead on grace. And he's right. If we depend on the outward signs as being indicators of righteousness, what we end up with is self-righteousness, the deluded belief that we're actually keeping the rules and so we're good people. If we're like that then the only people we're fooling are ourselves. Everyone else can see through us. This, I think, is one of the reasons why the church has fallen into such disfavour in modern society.  They look at us pretending to be righteous when scandal after scandal hits the news. The reality is that Christianity is about the grace we receive from God through Christ. This is not to say we shouldn't try. Paul's letters were exhortations to Godly living and James wrote that it is by our works that we demonstrate our faith.

So it's not that Christianity doesn't have rules, it is purely that we have the grace to still be accepted by God because it is impossible actually to keep even those two simple commandments all of the time. But the trouble is our old humanity keeps getting in the way and we think we ought at least to look righteous, not realising that by concentrating on outward forms we just alienate ourselves and fool ourselves.  Keeping the rules doesn't define us as being a good Christian. Making an outward show of faith is meaningless without an inwardly changed heart. Everything that we do as a church and in our collective worship absolutely must have this as its basis, that we live under the grace of God through Christ and are changed by the actions of the Holy Spirit within us. The more we give ourselves over to the working of the Spirit, the more we will naturally become like Christ. Yes we have to work at it, but let us not work at merely looking like we mean it. Let's not just try and be pious so people think we're good. We should genuinely try and be loving, and filled with grace for each other, mirroring how Christ is with us, and being patient, because none of us are finished works yet.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Spiritual landscaping -

In the previous post we considered the baptism of Christ and how the waters of baptism are not simply the sacrament of being saved from something; they are also the sacrament of being saved for something. As to how that happens we need to consider the imagery Jesus used about the Holy Spirit within us.  What follows is intended as a meditation, so give yourself time to think about each section:

John 4:13-15
Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

There is something special about water. Whichever way we look at it, it is essential for life. We all average out at being made up of about 65% water. But what I'm interested in, in spiritual terms, is how that living water that Jesus refers to affects us. And if water in the real world can affect the landscape, then what can living water do to our internal landscape as it bubbles up?

So let's consider some water landscaping.

Consider a canyon – maybe the Grand Canyon. Most people believe that it was shaped by millennia of carving by the Colorado River, leading to this most immense scar across the earth's surface. At face value we could be tempted to liken this to the action of the Spirit of God within us across our lives, and maybe even across the generations of a family, shaping and moulding us.

But there is another way of considering this. The arid nature of the land means that the plants that exist there have shallow roots, able to grasp surface water across a wide area when it arrives, but deep roots would be pointless because of the way in which the water never penetrates. The consequence of this is that the plants don't hold the land together very tightly.

This means that when it rains, there is a potential for rapid re-shaping of the landscape because there is little holding it in place. It's ready for change.

Consider whether this may be you. It may feel as if your spiritual landscape has been arid for some time. Those things which keep you going come sparsely, so perhaps your internal landscape is ready for change, for the water which bubbles up within to carry away the dross and rubble and reshape those parts which are parched.

This is a way in which the bubbling water of the Spirit can effect a very rapid change in who a person is. I'll suggest two other ways in which water affects the landscape in a moment, but first take a minute or two of silent imagination. Is this how you feel?  Is your internal landscape ready for a rapid change?


But sometime the landscaping takes far longer and is far more extensive and long lasting.

Imagine the shape of a mountain, but I'm not thinking of any old mountain. Instead I am thinking of the highlands of Scotland, and perhaps specifically of the Ben Nevis range. These mountains are not like our classical Walt Disney style, but instead resemble great chunks of land that have been pushed up from one side.

That means they have a sheer drop on the side they were pushed up but more gentle slopes on the opposite sides. And what makes them is once again water, but this time water as ice; water as a glacier. Here the water has moved slowly but with great power, gradually effecting a colossal change in the landscape by simply pushing hard and in a sustained way.

And maybe this is how you can see the Spirit within you; gradually, maybe imperceptibly pushing you and reshaping you. Who you are now is as a result of having been moved by a lengthy and sustained process.

And maybe you're happy with that, but maybe you aren't. Maybe the pushing and pushing has been uncomfortable and the shape that you feel you now adopt simply feels strange and misshapen, not because you are but because when you look back at who you used to be, you're not sure how you moved from that person to who you are now.

Maybe that work of the Spirit within you needs another work, of helping you to accept as someone who has been transformed by God's Spirit, but now needs to be accepted and loved as who you have become.

Keep silence again to consider the implications of long term pushing and shoving by the Spirit.


A third type of landscaping by the Spirit is the one where we get involved as soon as we see changes coming, and because we're scared of the changes we do something rather curious. As the water of life bubbles up and starts to change us, so we get cold feet. And so we build some pipes to contain the flow of water and to direct it so that it goes where we want it to go and does what we want it to do.

And so the landscape remains rather unchanged. Rather than the water of life bubbling over us and making everything different and messy, we have tried to take control and channel the Spirit into the places where we feel safe, just into the services on Sunday and the one or two things we feel most at ease with doing.

But maybe here the effect has been that our spiritual temperature is dropping. We don't feel like we're going anywhere, and there is a good reason for that; our desire for control. But then maybe we need the drop in spiritual temperature, because we all know that water pipes don't do so well when the temperature drops.

They freeze and then they fracture, and then the water goes where it wants rather than where we want it, and we are reshaped in a way outside of our control. So maybe that's you; the one who wants too much control over the Water of Life when maybe She's saying to you, 'Let me flow where I will flow and landscape what I must landscape.'

So again, keep some imaginative silence to consider what may be spiritual reticence on your part to be swamped by the water of life.


There are many possible ways in which we can respond to the Spirit bubbling up within, but these are three of them; the arid landscape waiting to be reshaped; the internal landscape that has been pushed and pulled by the Spirit leaving you unsure of how you got here; and there's the controlled lifestyle that needs frozen pipes to burst so that you can be flooded with holy bubbling water.

You may wish to let your imagination run riot and think of some other ways that water reshapes a landscape and how that may be mirrored within.  This is a place of honesty.  The Living Water that bubbles up within brings change.  In some Christian traditions we are pressured into being overjoyed by this, and maybe (hopefully) sometimes we are.  But also there can be times when actually we struggle with what She does within us.  It's important for the sake of the journey, the reshaping, that we communicate with God how we actually feel about this. 

The Baptism of Christ: What does it mean for Christians today?

Time for some theology?  
Many people in our culture are either baptized themselves or have had their children baptized.  Yet how often do we think about what this water ritual means and what it accomplishes?  The best place to start is with the baptism of Christ himself.  His baptism is the forerunner of all Christian baptism.  But first, two readings to frame the discussion:

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.’


It started with an unexpected greeting...

'Hello Mum', I said. The look of surprise and then joy on her face was priceless as this was all a little unexpected. Perhaps I should explain. My parents had gone on holiday to Cornwall, little knowing that the rest of the family knew this, and knew exactly what beach they would go to and when, and so we made our own 'cunning plans' to travel down separately and surprise them.  And so my parents were sat innocently on the rocks overlooking the beach, enjoying as our family always has, the glorious life of the north Cornish Atlantic rollers, as one by one their children and grandchildren all showed up. It was one of those wonderful occasions where someone goes expecting one thing, only to be surprised by something far better happening.

And that merry surprise, I think, is what happened to John the Baptist when Jesus came to see him. Now perhaps the clearest thing to come out of the two readings is that the baptism that John the Baptist gave to everyone else was not the same as the baptism that Jesus actually received from John, and it was this, I think, that was the big surprise for John.  Usually when people came to him it would all have been about repentance and a new start. Perhaps there would have been tears and sorrow as new arrivals in the wilderness laid aside their old lives to start afresh, marking this with being baptized by John. But what happened next when he baptized Jesus, well that was markedly different.

But let's back up a step and think first about why we think the baptism given to Jesus, and to all Christians afterwards, was different from the baptism John usually gave. We know that there was a difference because when St. Paul met Christian believers at Ephesus, apparently they were ignorant regarding the baptism of Jesus, and had only received the baptism of repentance that John was doing to prepare the way for Jesus.

What, then, must have been different about Jesus' baptism?  If we can answer this question then we can understand more about what our baptisms mean today.

So first of all, John's baptism of repentance. In some Churches I kind of feel that actually, although the baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it seems more like John's baptism. That's because in some cases churches will only baptize Christians who are old enough to profess their own faith. There is a bit of a sense of needing to say that you repent, and understand what that means, but it strikes me that is more to do with the way John baptized.

That's why if we looked at the account in Matthew's Gospel we would see that John is recorded as being very reticent about baptizing Jesus, telling him that surely it should be the other way around and that Jesus should be baptizing him! John felt that way because he knew that he was giving a baptism of repentance, and Jesus had no need of repentance. But Jesus urged him to go ahead anyway, and then we see why.  Mark is quite explicit in his language about what took place next: heaven was literally torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. This was new. This hadn't happened before. Jesus' baptism was somehow different from all the other baptisms that John had done.

Jesus' baptism had a deeply mystical and spiritual component to it, with the explicit revelation from Heaven of God declaring Jesus to be his beloved Son. This was far more than any previous baptism, and far more than any that would come in the future, and yet also it was a forerunner of all our baptisms.  That's why St. Paul questioned the believers at Ephesus, because apparently their baptism, being John's baptism, had not had this side to it. 

So what are the implications for us of Jesus' baptism? 

 To better understand that let's think a little about the roots of baptism.  For two thousand years baptism, or Christening as some people call it, has been the mark of identifying with Christ. In the earliest days of the church most of the people who were baptised were adults who had come to faith at some point in their life.  Slowly, however, as the church grew, so Christian parents would bring their newborn babies and children to be baptised with the promise that they would be brought up in the Christian faith.  But when Jesus was baptised there were no Christians, and that tells us that actually it wasn’t the Christians who came up with the idea of baptism. John the Baptist was a Jew and he was baptising like a Jew. The Jews had baptism long before Christians did, but unlike Christians who have only one baptism, first century Jews had several different types and I think that understanding the one that Jesus received is key to us understanding our own baptisms.  We can consider three different types.

The first type was the baptism of repentance, and this is the baptism that John was offering. This is the one where you realize that you need to change your ways. Repentance means literally to choose to turn around and go in another direction. By baptizing in this manner John was preparing the hearts and minds of the people for Christ.  But if Jesus was the Son of God, then he had no need of this baptism. Even though he chose to come to John to be baptised, he didn't need to repent because he'd done nothing wrong. 

So maybe it was the second type of baptism?

But when we look at it, it seems rather unlikely. The second kind of Jewish baptism we could consider was a baptism of conversion. These were done when someone who wasn’t a Jew wanted to become a Jew. Their baptism was treated like it was a birth. They went down into the water as a Gentile and came up as someone new, someone who was now Jewish.  However Jesus was already Jewish, so it wasn’t this one. 

The third type was far less common. When a person became a priest and began their ministry amongst the people, this was marked by them being baptized. And when we look at Jesus we can see that his baptism by John marked the beginning of his ministry. It was after this that he began to preach and to heal.

So I want to suggest to you that I think the baptism that Jesus received was a priestly baptism, and yet it was clearly more even than this because of the way in which he received the Holy Spirit. But that, I believe, is what makes Christian baptism so special, because it is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live out our calling. And what is that calling?

Think of it like this: A Priest, pretty much in any tradition, is someone who works to bring the light of God into the lives of people. They are a go-between. Jesus is the High Priest for the Church. He was the first to receive this baptism, but I believe that everyone who is baptized in his name is baptized with the same priestly baptism.

I know that in the Church of England we make much of an ordained priesthood; those of us who wear dog collars, but we need also to remember that the church is referred to in the New Testament as 'The priesthood of all believers.' Some of us may be ordained as priests to perform a specific role, but all of us, acting in concert, are intended to be a priesthood, to be a go-between for humanity and God.  In other words if a believer has been baptised then they have a role to perform of bringing the light and love of Christ into the lives of people around them.  And like Jesus, at baptism they should receive the Holy Spirit to empower them to do all of these things.

This, then, is at the heart of baptism - it is the beginning of a life dedicated to bringing the love of God into the lives of the people around us. In other words, if we are baptized then we are baptized into the mission and ministry of God to the world. And all those things  we might have read about Jesus doing, Christians are called to do them as well.  That's a little scary really, but that is precisely why God sends his Holy Spirit, not just to alight on Jesus as with the appearance of a dove, but also to live within, to provide us with the means to fulfill the work to which we're called.  And that is why St. Paul found it so necessary to give the believers in Ephesus a Christian baptism.

A baptism of repentance is insufficient, lacking that mystical, spiritual, divine edge.  Christians often say that Jesus saves us, but what we usually mean is that Jesus saves us from our sins. But this is only half of the story. Jesus doesn't just save us from something; he also saves us for something, and that something will inevitably require the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to achieve.

So the question is, to what are each of us, as individuals, saved for?  And are we on the path to doing it?

But of course, receiving the Holy Spirit is not always the easiest thing.  The next post will be about the difficulties we might experience within our deepest selves.