Saturday, 30 May 2015

Trinity: Experience is everything.

Just one reading to introduce this:

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.' Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Ah the joys of Trinity Sunday. We say that we believe in one God who is three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet for many western Christians we are really only paying the belief lip service. I've become quite fond of a saying that my doctrine lecturer, Jeremy Begbie, made when trying to describe the Trinity. He explained that in western thought, 'God is one, but unfortunately three.'  And that more or less describes where most of us are at. So I might as well say, 'Today I am going to explain the Trinity, and tomorrow I shall nail some jelly to the ceiling.' Nevertheless this is a vital part of Christian belief, so I am going to try and do this justice for us, but maybe explanation shouldn't be the whole story. What I mean by that is that anything that I write is going to fall short of the truth. Jesus makes that quite clear when he speaks to Nicodemus who represents us with our human questions. He speaks for the Jewish leaders at this point, and many times when Jesus says 'you' in this passage we should understand that the word he uses is plural, so Jesus' answer is to all his earthly questioners.

So we learn that the leaders have recognised very early on that there is something about Jesus that indicates he is from God. This is a part of the story that John, the Gospel writer, tells right from his opening words, 'In the beginning was the Word.' Jesus doesn't deny this, but adds into the mix his own comment about the Spirit of God that blows where it wills.  Jesus then tells Nicodemus quite blatantly that he is not going to understand this because he is trying to think rationally as a teacher, but what he needs to do is experience the reality by being born from above, by being born a second time.  This, then, is the rider that I'm going to put on this: all Christian doctrine is an attempt to explain or describe what we have experienced in a logical way, but what Jesus seems to say is that we should not be overly concerned with understanding because this is a spiritual thing which we will struggle to understand in earthly terms because we have no frame of reference. 

 Instead we have to experience the reality of Father, Son and Spirit.

That is, therefore, my main priority, to encourage us to engage with the Trinity rather than trying to understand it first. We're only human and so there will be a limit on what we can understand. Having said that, there is still merit in having some understanding in order to avoid what we believe are some of the pitfalls of getting it wrong, so it's worth spending a moment on why we believe in the Trinity and what we do actually believe.

So first of all, where does the belief in the Trinity come from? It may come as a shock to hear that the word 'Trinity' does not come from the Bible. On the very rare occasions where the phrase 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' does occur, it is usually thought of as a later addition and not something present in the original text as written by the author.

How, then, did we get to it? Basically it all comes down to combining experience with revelation. The first Christians were all Jewish and Judaism, by the first century, had become a monotheistic religion believing that there is only one God. So all early Christians held this belief. It comes from something called the Shema, a Jewish saying from Deuteronomy 6:4 which says:
'Hear, O Israel, YHWH is your God, YHWH is one.'
As an aside, the word used for 'one' is the Hebrew word echad. Almost everywhere in the Old Testament that word literally and numerically means 'one'. But there are some interesting places where it means something that is one yet also more than one. The one most often quoted is from Genesis 2:24:
'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one (echad) flesh.'
I mention this not because the Shema is hiding a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It isn't. But it is interesting that the concept of oneness can have a mystical nature to it in the same way that a married couple know they are connected in a way that they can't really describe.

Anyway, going back to the first Christians, their belief was that there is one God. Yet their experience of that one God, as described in both our Gospel and New Testament readings, meant that the description didn't go far enough. Over the course of more than three hundred years, debates echoed loudly across Christianity as theologians wrestled with with the belief in one indivisible God, whilst noting the experiences and references to Christ as being divine, especially as found in the John's Gospel, and the numerous references to the Holy Spirit of God.

A simple argument about the divinity of Jesus is this: We say that only God can forgive, yet we say that it is through Christ that we are forgiven. Therefore Christ must be divine otherwise he could not forgive. Of course it can be a lot more complex than that, but in a nutshell that is at the heart of many of our beliefs.

So the first Christians knew God was one, yet they experienced and, therefore, wrote about three different persons, and so from that combination emerged a belief in the Trinity which is essentially that there is only one God, but within that one God there are three separate persons who have revealed themselves as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It's important that we don't think of them as three different modes of expression of God. Trinitarian belief is not that there is one God who sometimes expresses himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. They are all separate and different persons, but nevertheless they are one God.  Think of it like this. The Father is God, but the Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit. The Son is God but is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is God but is not the Son nor the Father. The Father is one person, the Son is another person and the Holy Spirit is the third person. Yet all are also one God.

How can we possibly understand that?  

As I said, Jesus made it quite clear that earthly logic is not going to help us understand spiritual things because rational descriptions fall short of the reality. That is not to say that spirituality should be full of impossible paradoxes, but we shouldn't worry too much if we can't fully describe something we're experiencing; that's par for the course. But in terms of how we can have three persons in one God, ask yourself the question, what is a person? I think that the answer is that a person is one who is conscious of themselves as being distinct from someone else. So the Father is distinct in who he is from the Spirit and the Son. However they are also all of one essence; they are all one God.

What does this tell us about God? 

 At its simplest level we know that God is a community based on love. Each person is equal to the other but out of choice they defer to the Father. When Jesus prayed that the church would be one as he and the Father were one, see John's Gospel, this is what he was inferring, that we would be a community based on love, united by the Spirit of God.  What this doesn't tell us about God, though, is that the Trinity is not a formula that explains the Godhead. It is merely the closest description that we can come up with in language to describe something that goes beyond what we can understand. Think of it along these lines. No matter how much a mother tries to explain it to me, I will never know what it is like to be pregnant.  But that doesn't stop me puzzling over the mystery of what it must be like to carry another human being within one's self, and being caught up in the marvel of it.

I think the same thing applies with the Trinity. It has withstood nigh on 1,700 years as an 'official' and defining belief of the church, but I cannot believe that it is a complete and total definition of how God is, purely because I don't think it's possible for humans to fully comprehend the nature of God like that, and that's something that Jesus made clear in his words to Nicodemus.  I don't think that it's necessary that we understand it. Rationalism has influenced our culture in ways that make us think everything can be, or should be, describable given enough research. But the doctrine of the Trinity is something that we celebrate as a mystery which can remind us of the incomprehensibility of God.

Nicodemus, the rational teacher, appears three times in John's Gospel. He becomes steadily more sympathetic to Jesus each time, and I would venture to suggest that this is not because he understands, but because he has seen the evidence of his eyes and has become willing to go beyond his need to understand.  So let me encourage us to do the same thing. The things of the Spirit transcend our rational understanding, and to not accept something unless we can understand it will be to limit what can be accomplished simply by engagement. Don't be put off by mystery, but instead celebrate it and engage with it.

The Father sent the Son, and the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. We need little more than to say, 'Come Holy Spirit'. The mysteries will take care of themselves, but the proof is in the changes that take place within us.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

More of infinity? Pentecost.

Acts 2:1-11
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

"Infinity and beyooooond..."
I used to have a problem with Pentecost, but it wasn't the most obvious one. For some people they have worries about people speaking in tongues. For others it's the whole thing about signs and wonders, of people being healed or having visions that went with the experience. But for me it was a more straightforward problem: 

How can you have any more of what is already infinite?
It was actually my next door neighbour and godfather who posed the question to me, so godparents take note; your godchildren can be really screwed up if you ask the wrong spiritual question at the wrong time...  But if I'm honest it actually became more or an issue for me as I began to encounter the more Celtic way of understanding God's presence.  In that tradition we encounter God's Spirit as being present in all things. Some of you will have heard me use the word, 'panentheism', which is a Greek compound word made up of 'pan' meaning 'all things', 'en' meaning 'in' and 'theism', referring to God. So it means all things in God and God in all things.  Indeed this is what we find in various scriptures such as, 'In him we live and move and have our being' from St. Paul's speech on Mars Hill in Acts. It's a known and accepted mystical side of Christian belief, that the Spirit of God pervades all things and that without the Spirit nothing could exist.

Now factor that back into my belief equation. 

The Spirit of God is infinite. She is in all things and is everywhere. How, then, can the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost? How can the Holy Spirit not already be there? This philosophical difficulty only resolved itself for me recently.

Think of it like this. Since you started reading this you've taken probably a dozen or so breaths. I would wager that you weren't aware of having done so, yet if you hadn't been breathing you'd be in a poor state by now. The air is around you and it fills your lungs, and yet you have not been aware of it until now, until I mention it.  Now all of you are suddenly becoming very aware of breathing. You might also be becoming aware of the smells around you. Maybe you've noticed your chest rising and falling. If so, then you might wish to consider that what you are experiencing now is akin to a mystical appreciation of panentheism, which to me is rather like sitting outside and becoming aware of the presence of God's Spirit moving through all things.  It is becoming consciously aware of that which is taking place around you the whole time. The air is everywhere on the surface of this planet and the Spirit of God is everywhere present throughout creation. We don't usually take the time to be aware of her but when we make it a part of our spiritual discipline then it can be life-transforming.

Let's go back, then, to my philosophical problem. So how then can you have more of what is already wholly present? How can you have any more of that which is infinite? You can't have infinity plus one. That's still infinity.

Have you been out for a walk on a really windy day? Have you noticed that somehow it seemed as if there was more of the air than usual? Of course there wasn't, but the air was moving as if with a purpose. It had a power about it. Things were moved as a result of it. Trees were reshaped. Birds flew faster and further (and in surprising directions) because of it. It was just air, air which is always there, but now it was air that was really moving.

Or think about a church organ. Before it's switched on it's quiet, yet still full of air. But turn it on and the same air will start to move and generate a melodious sound. There isn't any more air than there was before. We haven't increased the amount of air. It's just that it's moving.

And that, I think, is what we can think of about Pentecost. The infinite Spirit of God is still pervading all of creation. But at Pentecost the Spirit is moving. And look at what is achieved. Prior to this you have a bunch of disciples locked away in an upstairs room, scared of what will happen next and in fear of their lives.  It's a group who have been emboldened by being visited several times by the risen Jesus, but nevertheless they're hardly changing lives. But as soon as the Spirit comes they burst out on to the streets and, filled with the Spirit, they proclaim the good news about Jesus. The next section of the book of Acts is filled with stories about the miracles that took place and the radical lifestyle they lived in which all things were held in common and no one went without. There was a genuine transformation.

So what does it mean for us some two thousand years later? Well I think the reaction of the onlookers is really rather important in this. Exactly the same phenomenon had been observed by everyone present, people who have come to Jerusalem from countries right across the Roman empire, but they respond to it in totally different ways.

Some of the group marvel at it. 'How can this be?' they ask. They have seen something miraculous and it has raised a question for them. They are looking for an answer and many of them find it by turning to Christ. When we look for answers it indicates a willingness within us to be changed by whatever it is that we are encountering. There is a sense of, 'I am perceiving something new for the first time, something which I cannot explain. So I need to be prepared for my understanding to be changed by what I'm seeing, and recognise that this may have an impact on me.' So that's one group.

But then there are the cool kids. The ones who stand around trying to be important with that sense of, 'Yeah, right, nothing's going to rock my world.' Actually to me this seems like a position of astonishing laziness. They are looking at exactly the same thing. They are hearing a group of people who are basically uneducated country bumpkins, as far as the city sophisticates are concerned, who are nevertheless shouting about the glory of God in languages they could never have learned.  This second group hear the same thing as the first group, but they do not want to be changed by it. That's really what it comes down to. They do not want to be changed by this awesome and puzzling encounter, and so they allow themselves to write it off as a bunch of drunks who started on the booze rather early today. And the weird world of our consciousness allows us to do that. If I were to start speaking in tongues in front of a congregation I know that there would be a whole bunch of different reactions. Some would be amazed and want to know more. Some would be disturbed and some would write it off as the vicar making funny noises and squibbling his words together.

And that is what the story of Pentecost does; it forces us to ask ourselves which of the various different camps would we find ourselves in. Would we be the ones who say, 'Awesome. What's going on?' Or would we say, 'Nope, I don't believe it happened then and I don't think we should dabble with it now.' Or maybe, 'Perhaps they really were drunk.'

For me this is a story of what happens when the infinite Spirit of God moves within us to energise us and propel us forwards, like feathers caught up in the wind, or like the notes being sounded by an organ at full tilt. The question is whether I want to be caught up in that, and the answer I give to that will be dependent on whether I am looking for change.

There's an interesting cartoon doing the rounds at the moment. In the first picture the speaker is addressing his audience and says, 'Who wants change?' Everyone puts their hand up. Then he asks the second question, 'So who wants to change?' And this time no hands go up.

So, do we want to risk saying, 'Come Holy Spirit'?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Being in 'The World'

 So often Christians are criticised for their attitude to the world.  So it got me thinking...  Maybe we got it wrong.  When we say 'We're not of this world', we're not denying we are a part of creation.  Nor are we denying its value.  But in order to know what Christ does mean, we need to do a little digging.  First, what does he say about the matter?

John 17:6-19
'I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

So... Not of the world then?
What are some of the things that make life worth living for you? Is it the company of good friends for a meal? Or maybe a quiet sunny afternoon, free of responsibilities, sat under a tree with a good book and a cold beer? Maybe it's being stood on a railway platform as a huge steam engine pulls in, or perhaps walking through a wooded glade with the person you most love?  I might have just given away some of my preferences for a nice day off, but you get the picture. Each of us has things that we really enjoy doing. These are what make life really worth living. But when we turn to that reading from John's Gospel it can cause us to feel guilty. In the space of just fourteen sentences Jesus mentions the world thirteen times, and none of those is positive.

He is praying for the disciples and, as we would find out were we to read one more verse, he is also praying for disciples who are yet to come, so these words are directly applicable to us, not just by inference.  What we learn from it is that God has given us to Jesus from out of the world. We note that Jesus says he is not of the world, but while he was physically present he protected and guarded the disciples, and we might want to question from what?

He makes it clear that he is leaving the world and he is not asking the Father to take them or us out of the world, but he is recognising that we do not belong to the world, to the extent that the world has hated them, and therefore we should expect the world to hate us too.

All of this seems to me to be extremely negative. I mean should my list of things I have to do have at the top of it, 'Spending three hours a day in prayer because that's my absolute favourite thing to do'?
My mother told me that when she was a child there was a very strict code of practice on what to do on Sundays if they were visiting very religious grandparents, and it was basically do not do anything that is remotely enjoyable. I seem to remember a story about her getting in trouble for climbing a tree in her Sunday best...

But this is exactly the picture that 21st century culture has of Christians, when they can be bothered to think about us. We're viewed as hypocrites who are utter killjoys because we disapprove of everything that's fun and enjoyable, apparently, and when we look at texts like this we can see that those observations seem not to be without foundation.  Is that how it's meant to be? Are we not supposed to enjoy anything of the world? Are supposed to feel guilty about liking a party, having sex, swimming in the sea and so on? I know some Christians who do actually struggle with those things exactly because they have been taught that Jesus disapproves. But does he?

What about the criticisms that Jesus receives for being a glutton and a drunkard? We can only assume that those comments were levelled at him by the Pharisees because he enjoyed partying with those who the ruling elite thought were 'the wrong kind of people.'  So if Jesus enjoyed a party, and if Jesus liked taking his disciples off for a break from time to time to beautiful lush places like Caesarea Philippi, (think the Lake District with sunshine), either he was a hypocrite in the comments he made about the world, or we're not understanding what he really meant. I would venture to suggest that it is probably the latter, and we have misunderstood.

So let's go back to the text again and think about what this word, 'world', must mean, because it strikes me that this is the key to the whole thing.

Now what I had hoped to be able to do was to tell you that the Greek word for 'world', which is 'kosmos', that John uses to describe Jesus' intent would make it clear for us. Unfortunately that is not the case, and it's one of those words whose meaning changes dependent on context and who is using it.  So, for example, in classical Greek use it sometimes had a meaning that was to describe how things were ordered, and the beauty contained by that order. There is something similar to that in the way it appears to have been used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.  But by the time we arrive at the New Testament, that meaning has changed. Writers such as John seem to mainly use it in terms of marking the distinction between heaven and earth, where heaven is the realm of God's presence and earth, kosmos, is that which is estranged from God.

That, then, gives credence to this view of the world as something to be avoided at all costs; that those things which we enjoy should be feared as worldly. No more dancing. No more parties. No more alcohol. No more of anything that we enjoy.  :-(

That is until we remember what is perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted verse from John's Gospel; John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world (kosmos), that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.'

That puts a different slant on it. That describes the world as something that God loves absolutely and with all the love that he has, so much so that he sent Jesus, in the full knowledge of what it would cost him, to make it right between God and the world. In other words God is seeking an end to this estrangement between heaven and earth, and that end comes through Christ.

So let's bring that word 'estrangement' back in to the passage and re-frame it with that understanding. Now that makes it far more clear for us. Let me re-read some parts of the passage with that understanding:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from those who were estranged.”

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of those who are estranged, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

I am no longer amongst those who are estranged from you, but they are...., please protect them.”

I have given them your word, and those who are estranged from you have hated them because they do not belong to the estranged, just as I do not belong to the estranged..”

Now to me that makes far more sense of the passage. God called people out from being estranged in order that we might live in fellowship with God, as residents of a universe that will one day be reunited with heaven.

So, in fact, this is not about us not enjoying the things of this world. Instead it is about enjoying them in a sanctified way. I can enjoy a good party with friends, so long as we are inclusive. I can have a drink on the lawn on a warm summers day because it helps me appreciate the marvellous world that God has created.  In fact I would go so far as to suggest that we can behave in such a way in the world as to redeem some of these things, to take away their estrangement, to live as if earth is already reunited with heaven. We, as citizens of God's kingdom, can live in a way that reveals God's purposes and God's nature.

The whole thrust of this passage seems to me about actually living 'In' the world, not trying to separate ourselves from it and look down our noses disapprovingly at it. So let us set aside any latent guilt we have about enjoying life, and instead learn how to be like Christ in the world, loving it and revealing God's purposes here.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ascension Day: Transcendence and Immanence

I know I usually restrict the readings I'm working from to just one, but actually, just for once, I refer to both of them in this.  So here goes...

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke 24:44-end
Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

God 'over there' or 'over here'?
My Dad is a great traditionalist. He understands the need for new forms of worship such as Messy Church, All-Age non-Eucharistic services and the like, but they don't help him to worship. He's very happy for them to be taking place, just so long as he doesn't have to be there! When we've talked about this we recognise that the real conversation that we're having here is about the different ways in which we approach God.

Essentially there are two different cultures at work. In his, somewhat more traditional model, he would say that there is greater emphasis on reverence for Almighty God. He finds that the language of the prayer book is helpful for him precisely because it is not the language of everyday. It is a special prayer language, reserved only for conversing with God.  Now I have no problem with this per se. However, as a member of a different generation, I find that an over-emphasis on reverence also has a tendency to put a distance between God and me. God is Almighty, so he's somewhere 'over there', dwelling in a place of unapproachable light. Yet within that reverence I don't want God just to be 'over there', I want him to be fully present 'over here'.  I want to know him as a friend and mentor too; as the One who is at my side, present in all things, all places and all times. So for me, too much of a concentration on traditional language reinforces God's distance, not his presence.

It is the difference between those two positions that Ascension Day challenges us to consider.

The reason for that is that Christ's ascension poses us with a theological conundrum. Throughout Old Testament Biblical history we have had a sense of God that is more in tune with the more traditional model I've just outlined, that God is somehow 'over there'. He is not quite 'here', he is elsewhere. The technical word for this is 'transcendent'.  What it means is that here is the creation that God made, but God is outside his creation. God is more than this creation. God is greater than this. God, somehow, is elsewhere; 'beyond'. Now for reverence purposes this suits our traditional language. When we say, 'thee' and 'thou' from a position of kneeling it is to someone far greater than us who is separate from us. God is great, and God is somewhere else.

But there is a negative side to this. 

It is not just about reverence, it is also about absence, and in religious terms absence does not make the heart grow fonder. If God is 'there' and not 'here', then somehow 'here' feels like a safer place to conduct our business. He can't see what we're getting up to...

The perceived distance between us and God allows us to feel more at ease with saying and doing what we like when we're not at prayer. It also allows us more freedom with our philosophy of God because if he's 'there' and not 'here', then how can anyone know any real truth about him?

But then, according to the Christian tradition, God changed the rules. 

 The one who was separate, outside, above and beyond creation said, 'I will empty myself and step into creation', in the nativity story that we enjoy with all ages at Christmas. He says, 'To the people of earth I will no longer seem separate. They will know that I am present.' The technical word for this is 'immanent'. And so God, who was over 'there', became instead the God who is over 'here', God-with-us; 'Emmanuel'. And so, for thirty or so years, Transcendent God, God the Father, gave us Immanent God, God the Son, and he was 'here' not 'there', a part of us, not above and beyond us.

But now I want to let you into a secret. God didn't really change the rules, it's just that he showed us the reality in Christ. God has always been 'here' as well as 'there'. Acts 17:28, St Paul declares, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  And in his letter to the Colossians St. Paul writes in 1:16-17, 'For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.'

So God has always been 'here' as well as 'there'. God has always been immanent as well as transcendent. It's just that we felt we could ignore him because we couldn't see him. So instead of being immanently present in his Spirit, indwelling all things, in Christ he became immanently visible, touchable, holdable. God would no longer allow us to ignore him and pretend he was somewhere else.  God showed his hand. In Christ, God says, “This is what I am actually like.” 

So we stopped ignoring him. 

Instead we killed him to make him all transcendent again. 

...and we can go back to worshipping him at a distance again, pretending he's not present in creation, making him according to our image and no longer being challenged by his true nature any more. Only God didn't stay dead. He rose from the dead. God with us again. Except it didn't last very long. Just forty days, and then comes the ascension, the event we celebrate today, and God-with-us becomes God-not-with-us. He's returned to heaven, leaving creation. Now he's transcendent God again. 

So does that mean we can go back to worshipping God from afar? 
Is it safe to come out now? 
Has he gone?

No. Creation still has its being in God, and we can still choose to ignore God. However, aside from the story of Pentecost, which we'll come to in ten days time, the Ascension actually accomplished something very profound.

In Jesus we have God-with-us. He was fully divine in every sense but he was also fully human in every sense. I know that's hard to get our heads around, but it is vital we take it on board. Jesus got tired. Jesus became irritable. When someone told a joke, Jesus laughed. When one of his closest friends died, Jesus wept. And when they crucified him he suffered pain, and he did all of those things as human and as divine. When he died, God experienced death. Jesus, God and human, died. And on the third day, Jesus, God and human, was raised from the dead.From the moment of his conception we have a unique being, one whose nature is an inseparable, intertwining of divine and human. 

And here is the key point around which all of this turns; that dual nature did not change when he ascended into heaven.

Jesus did not shed his humanity and leave it in a little heap, surplus to requirements. He took his whole integrated, enmeshed, intertwined being into the presence of God the Father. And that means that a rather interesting exchange has taken place.

Jesus was 'God-with-us.' But now he is 'Us-with-God.' 

Our shared human nature has been treated to transcendence. And because, as St. Paul says, 'All things hold together in him', so you can argue that he has carried all of creation into the presence of the Father in himself. The created has been incorporated into the divine.

So what then does that mean for us? How does that translate into everyday life? I think theology is pointless unless it accomplishes something in our lives that makes better sense of how to live them, and to me it seems like an intertwined presence, a reality that holds in two locations, here and heaven, where they are joined by Christ, the Son of God who has lived in both.  We need, however, to learn the stillness in our spirits to sense this. We often say in our liturgies that we are 'In Christ', so if Christ, with out humanity, is in the Father, then 'in Christ', so are we. Our prayers, made in the name of Christ, are spoken in the presence of the Father through him because of the ascension.

And we need never again doubt whether God understands our pain when we pray because in the midst of the Godhead stands Jesus, the One who we know understands what it's like to be human, to undergo treachery, to experience joy, simply to walk in flesh and blood.  There is a bond between earth and heaven, with both held side-by-side in Jesus, preparing for their final union and remaking.

The ascension of Christ is not a stand-alone part of the Christian faith. Instead it is but one essential movement in the great symphony of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, leading to the second act which was ushered in by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It is in this second act which we currently reside. We have been made present to God, and God to us through the events of the first act. But this act, too, will draw to a close. Christ's ascension has made this possible, and so we can look forward to the reunion of heaven and earth. Remember these words from the angels:
...why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”.

Monday, 4 May 2015

5th Sunday of Easter: Abiding

Bear with me on this one.  I want to tell a story about how I came to a new understanding of this passage from John's Gospel

John 15:1-8
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

All clergy are expected to take a retreat each year as a way of stepping back from ministry for a time that is more concentrated on prayer and listening, and so towards the end of April I was on retreat in Norfolk. I tended to divide my time up between walking and sitting by a river bank in the same spot each day, just reading, pausing, listening, musing and writing.

I find that places have an ability to be the means through which God shows me new truths or helps me rediscover old ones, and so it was with my spot by the river. I was struck by the attitude taken by those motoring by on their boats. They were visitors, like me, yet most seemed strangely detached from it all. Just passing through, with either binoculars, a glass of wine or a radio at hand, watching the entertainment.  But by stopping in the one place, so my own experience of what felt like a sacred space seemed to deepen. Initially it was clearly a sense of being a visitor, but as the time progressed I felt like I was being drawn into being first a deep observer, and finally a participant.

What became so clear to me was the community of that part of the river and the different characters of its residents. I watched a playful crow come out of nowhere and fly up in between a pair of terns as they hunted, seemingly being deliberate in a moment of trickster mischief. I watched the same pair of terns flying up and down that stretch of the river, day after day, with their highly successful skills of getting a fish at almost every dive. I watched a duck plaintively call out out for company as the night fell, and heard the change in its quack to a sound of relief as other ducks returned to roost with it. Even the very trees bent their branches towards the water as if in concentration on this, the main focus of their existence. It all seemed so different from our attitude.

We humans have a tendency to walk through nature rather than dwelling within it as a part of it. We seem to think of nature as something other than us, when actually we are also a part of it, and for those few days I felt drawn to dwell in that place with as much of myself as I could muster. Or in other words I felt called to abide there.

And the thing that most came through was the dependency of the different species primarily on the river, but also on each other. This was a community. An odd one by human standards I grant you, but they needed each other and primarily they needed the river. It was a fully formed ecosystem. It worked because all the residents abided there, and so the fruit which one bore was enjoyed by the others who depended upon it.

It is this concept of abiding, and of the dependency that comes with that, which Jesus speaks of in this Gospel reading. That word, 'abide', is repeated over and over again. 'Abide in me, and I will abide in you'. The whole passage is about this abiding. Yet apart from when we sing 'Abide with me', abide is not a word we use much in common language. So what does it mean?

It has a sense of place about it, and a sense of the dedication of energy and effort to being in that place to the extent that the place gets under your skin and becomes a part of you just as you become a part of it. There is a sense of belonging there, of being utterly connected to it in a way that transcends description to someone else who doesn't understand.

All of these models seem to tie in to what Jesus is saying here about the vine and branches. We are to dwell with him and within him in such a way that he feels utterly a part of who we are, and that we feel utterly a part of who he is. We become dependent upon him.  And this is one of those places where the message of the Gospel is completely counter-cultural, because dependency is not something that is valued in 21st century Britain. Our education, our government policies, the ways in which we bring up our children, are all geared up to making people completely resilient and independent. But Jesus says something different. He tells us that if we are going to bear fruit, then we must depend upon him. Who we are to be, and what we are to do can only take place within a dependent relationship. The tern depends on the river for fish. Stick it in a high rise block and it will die. We depend on Christ and without him we can do nothing.

For me there are two things which grow out of this teaching that we should abide in Christ. The first one is a question. Jesus talks about the necessity of abiding in him in order to grow fruit, but what does he mean by fruit? A large part of the answer to that comes from Galatians 5:22 which says this:
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Do please take note that the word St. Paul uses for fruit is singular. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control together form one fruit, and as we grow in the Spirit so this collective fruit should grow. So in part this is what Jesus means, but I say in part because those are all qualities that we hope to see grow within us as individuals.

The other side of this is to do with the fruit you grow with the gifts and talents you have been given, maybe your organisation skills, or your ability to befriend and care, or an eye for detail, or whatever. But once again let me draw your attention to the model which Jesus portrays which is that we can only bear fruit in him, with he in us. What I mean by that is that we have to put our gifts at his disposal to be used in service to others.

But sometimes it goes wrong...

I have been taking part in an on-line discussion about abuses of power within the church. It is something that I look very carefully for in terms of people offering their talents in church as to whether they are being offered in Christ or as a means to further their own plans.  Show me a church where there have been abuses of power and I'll show you a church where there are prominent people who are doing what they want for their own reasons. We would all do well to remember the warning that Jesus makes; “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Sometimes we need to take his warnings very seriously and ask ourselves if our motivations match up to his calling for us to serve. This is a hard but necessary teaching.

The one other part of this teaching which I think we sometimes miss is the community of a vine. Going back to the river, all of the species resident were there because of the river, but they were also there because of each other. The same is true of us, just as it is of the branches on the vine; we are a community. We depend on the vine grower, but we grow together, not separately.  This is one of the reasons why I try to encourage people to stick with it when church becomes difficult. We need each other to grow because we are all part of the vine. I have seen friends who have left churches for various reasons, often very good ones, always saying that they will continue in their faith on their own, only to gradually watch the vibrancy of that faith dissipate.  Branches grow together, all attached to the one true vine. We need the vine, the vine grower and each other. I am because he is and we are.

Thoughts about the election this week.

View from the Vicarage

On the odd occasion when I have mentioned politics in sermons I know that it is quite likely that someone will come up to me after the service and tell me that church and politics shouldn't mix.

I don't agree...

In fact I would go so far as to say that it was the politically challenging things that Jesus said and did which contributed to his crucifixion, and if we are his hands, feet and mouthpieces now, then we need to be prepared to follow suit. And in terms of determining who we choose to vote for, it strikes me that we need to consider which party most seems to have his values. It will never be a perfect fit, but we need to ask the difficult questions.

For example Jesus treated women as equals, making friends with them and speaking with them, treating them as disciples and going so far as to ensure that it was a woman who was the first witness to the resurrection and was tasked with taking the message to the other apostles, thus earning our patron saint the title, 'Apostle to the Apostles.' The authorities constantly frowned upon him for these actions. Which party do you think most stands up for the rights of the excluded, of those at the bottom of everyone's priority list?

He treated the law with contempt too if he felt it meant that the downtrodden were kept excluded. Many times we read about Jesus breaking the strict legal code about the sabbath, that one should never do any work, and yet time after time he healed people when they came and asked for help, regardless of what day of the week it was. He was criticised by the powerful for this too. Which party do you think will change laws in favour of the downtrodden and those who need help and healthcare?

Jesus made the outsiders and the immigrants a priority. In every Gospel we find an account of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. What is so significant about this is that they had set up their tables in the outer part of the Temple known as The Court of the Gentiles. This was supposed to be a place where people who were not Jewish by birth could nevertheless come and take their place amongst the people of God. But of course they couldn't find peace to pray there because of the cacophony created by the buying and selling going on there. Jesus was on the side of the outsiders when the legal system had been twisted in favour of the ruling classes. Which party do you feel is on the side of the outsiders?

I am not going to tell you who to vote for. That is not in my remit as vicar and would be counterproductive. But it is definitely in my job description to remind you of what Jesus was and is like, and that his priorities haven't changed.

Jesus seemed to go out of his way to do whatever he could to reconnect people into the web of society. For example, when he healed lepers he told them to go and show themselves to the priest. Why? So that the priest could pronounce them clean and allow them to rejoin their home community. When he cast the demons out of the man who had named himself Legion he would not permit the man to come with him on his travels but sent him home, clothed and in his right mind, to rejoin his community. When he healed the little girl he gave her back to her parents for the same reason. Healing and the subsequent restoration of people to their communities was and is a priority to Jesus. Which party do you think is making the restoration of community a genuine priority?

This was brought into a sharp focus for me on a recent occasion when three of us tried to help a homeless man into 'the system' only to discover how inherently difficult it is for those who have hit hard times through no fault of their own to get help. The multitude of forms to be filled and boxes to be ticked makes it almost impossible for anyone without a masters degree to figure out how they can even access help. So it appears they fall out of the system, disappear from the numbers, with the result being that the statistics seem to indicate a fall in number accessing 'the system'. It sounds like good news to those uncritically reading the newspapers, but the reality on the ground may tell a different story and goes hand in hand with the growth in foodbanks. Which party do you think will deliver a country free from the need for foodbanks and where the down-at-heels can be helped without a bureaucratic nightmare?

So how are you going to vote? I'm merely posing some questions and each of us will have different ideas about which party is most likely to be able to solve these issues. In the kingdom of God the last will be first and many who are first will be last, so which party do you think most closely follows the priorities of heaven's kingdom? Please don't just tick the same old box without thinking about it. Vote after consideration of what you think Christ would do because we are his hands and feet on the ground. Read all the different papers this week, not just your own favoured one, even if doing so makes you grind your teeth. Once I started doing this I found it remarkable how much I learned of the other sides to any story. I don't consider myself to be a member of any political party but have tried to vote according to which party seems to have the same agenda as Christ. No single party can make that claim but we can make conscious choices about who, at this point in time, seems to have priorities which are closest to those of Christ.

So we might wish to ask ourselves, who are the lowest of the low in our society? Who are the dispossessed? Who are the poor? Who are the immigrants? Then instead of judging them for how they got to be into their predicament it strikes me that we should do as Christ did; to look for ways of helping them out of it, and ask which party genuinely seems to us to be making their needs the top priority.

For more thoughts on this I strongly suggest reading the letter written by the House of Bishops which you can find at Don't worry if it loads up as 50+ pages; the typeface is very large!! You may not agree with it but it will help you question where best to cast your vote.