Friday, May 28, 2010

Trinity Sunday

One life skill that I definitely don’t have - as my wife will gladly attest - is the ability to dance.  Alison’s had her feet trodden on often enough to know not to bother trying to educate me in that department.  But I remember in primary school dancing was a big thing.  We seemed to have folk dancing once a week or so, and the main thing I remember about that was the Durham Reel.  I couldn’t get the hang of the Durham Reel, though I could see that if it did work out as the teacher insisted it was supposed to, it would be kind of fun.  So when I came across this description of the Holy Trinity as sort of cosmic folk dance with three people - well, I can admire it, but can’t quite see myself doing it.

The main thing about the Trinity is that all the technical terms are in Greek, which you might think makes sense.  Technical terms like homoousius which sounds like something you might eat and indeed means “one substance”, and hypostasis which sounds like something from Dr Who but means a distinct “Person”.  So forget all that except perichoresis, which means to dance, specifically, partners who dance around each other, because this is the word the serious-minded Greek theologians of the 4th and 5th centuries settled on to describe how the divine Persons of the Trinity relate to each other.  A big, complicated, Durham Reel with three partners swirling around each other, holding hands, twirling each other around, releasing hands, weaving in and out, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go without anybody getting confused.  Moving so fast that to the onlooker you can’t see where one partner begins and the other ends, the important thing is the dance, never standing still, the same pattern repeated in a new variation, the dance itself is the life and the partners live for the dance and for each other.  One dance of infinite creativity, shared purpose, three partners whose attention is focussed on the dance and on each other.  It’s a beautiful image that helps to make sense of the three-in-one thing, but maybe it raises more questions than it answers.  Where are we while the dance is going on?  What do we do when the divine partners link up for an eternity of perichoresis - are we supposed to join in?  What’s it got to do with us?

Or to phrase the questions more theologically: what sort of God does the metaphor of the Trinity reveal?  What sort of human life grows out of baptism into the life of the triune God, the Three-in-One perichoretic God?  What does this image of God tell us about how our own lives are meant to be?

We meet in our first reading from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs a remarkable, mysterious and attractive figure called Wisdom.  Stepping out of the pages of the fiercely monotheistic Hebrew Bible, Wisdom resists theological classification except that she is definitely and powerfully female.  Wisdom, the Bible tells us, is the first of God’s works, God’s right hand girl in the drama of creation, and the word the Hebrew text uses, amon, is delightfully ambiguous, meaning both a skilled worker and a darling child.  Scholars argue over whether Lady Wisdom might contain some echo of an ancient goddess figure, seeing her in different lights as perhaps the principle of order in creation, the personification of Torah, the divine law, or of an aspect of God.  Christian scholars point out the ways Wisdom is associated in the New Testament with both Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  But first we need to get to know her on her own terms.

This girl is no shrinking violet.  Lady Wisdom takes the microphone and introduces herself, standing in the most public place of ancient city life, in the town gates where men and women met to conduct business deals and argue legal cases.  The central business district, a congested place where everyone entering or leaving the city converges.  And she says, ‘I’m talking to all of you’.  Not just church-goers, not just the initiated, Wisdom is interested in real life.  And then she introduces herself, the one present with God from the very beginning, helping as a master worker or architect in the very act of creation itself, in on the rightness and the elegance and purpose of all God’s works.

The fact that Wisdom is female leads us into a rare and wonderful reflection, as the Hebrew poet uses words that describe the creation of the world in terms that suggest childbirth, like ‘bringing forth’.  Wisdom gives us some inclusive imagery of God as both Father and Mother - but there’s also a downside, as in the next chapter of Proverbs we meet the shadowy figure contrasted with Lady Wisdom, the seductive and dangerous figure of Lady Folly.  You might think of this one as Lady Wisdom’s evil twin.  Where Wisdom beckons us with her hospitality, Lady Folly lures us with our own desires.  Biblical scholar Carole Fontaine points out that where Woman Wisdom represents all the positive roles played by wives and mothers in ancient society, Woman Folly personifies male fears of female temptation.  In terms of our own spirituality, we might reflect that our own desires, properly acknowledged and appropriately expressed, lead us into relationship with God in loving community - our own desires, allowed to become an object in themselves, can also make us inappropriately self-centred, using other people as objects and obsessed with the ownership of things.

So Wisdom calls to us, spreading a banquet and inviting all who are hungry and thirsty to refresh themselves and live.  Wisdom also represents herself as the prize for those who seek her earnestly, the prize of self-discipline and learning.  Here we start to see the relationship between Wisdom and human life - because the capacity to desire wisdom or, as the Hebrew Bible puts it, to enter into lifelong relationship with her, is ultimately what makes us human.  Wisdom represents the aim of human life to orient ourselves to what is worthwhile, to turn away from morally vacuous consumerism and self-pampering.  Wisdom also orients us towards the life lived in community, in the market-place of ideas and human traffic, and in the Hebrew Bible Wisdom is also concerned with non-human life, finding food for hungry ravens and badgers, delighting in the flight of eagles.

But ultimately Wisdom is God’s messenger, the one who delights in the goodness of creation and is present to all that live, urging us to participate in her divine life.  In the Book of Sirach, we see Wisdom living in the highest heaven but desiring to live among human beings.  She travels throughout the heavens and the earth until God instructs her to pitch a tent in Jerusalem.  There she makes her home, and she invites the passers-by to come and eat of her fruit.  This is the basic idea of Wisdom spirituality - Wisdom revealed in creation makes her home among human beings and transforms human life by connecting us to God’s own life.  In Sirach, Wisdom is also associated with the Word of God, both the Torah and the Word by which God speaks creation into being.

So you can see why New Testament writers wrote about Jesus as the Wisdom and Word of God, you can see also why Lady Wisdom also underlies reflection on the Holy Spirit, who leads us into right relationship with God and with one another.  You can see perhaps how the figure of Wisdom underlies Christian reflection on God as a community of Persons in loving relation, the God not confined to heaven who pitches a tent, as the Gospel of John reminds us, in our midst.

But how does that help us to dance?  How does that invite us into the perichoresis of God’s own life?  Firstly and quite simply, because Wisdom invites us into a spirituality that is joyful and even playful.  Wisdom wants a relationship with human beings that reflects her own relationship with the Creator, as Proverbs puts it, Wisdom is God’s daily delight and she plays before God and in creation, she delights in human life and she invites human beings into relationships of blessedness and happiness.  This is not a pale, dutiful, love but an active, exuberant delight, a perichoresis in which God’s own life is interwoven with our own, in which we are invited to reflect in our own relationships, in our own love for what is good and life-giving, the goodness of God who is the source of all life.  Secondly, because Wisdom reflects the basic orientation of God’s life which is not inward-looking and self-centred, but outward-looking and seeks the good for others.  The perichoresis of God draws our attention because in the mutual love between the Father, Word and Spirit, we see the underlying character of God to be poured out in love that doesn’t stop there but spills over into the life of creation.  The Durham Reel of perichoresis draws us in because we actually are made in God’s image so deep down we desire also to live like that, not just as spectators but as participants.  Like God’s life, our own lives are intended to be relational, oriented towards others, delighting in the dance, laughing it off when we occasionally tread on one another’s toes.  The metaphor of God as a divine dance reminds us that our lives are complete only when they are lived in the context of relationship.

Lastly, because Wisdom is universal.  Wisdom reveals a God not of the sanctuary but of the market-place, a God who is active in the commerce and the hustle and bustle of everyday life and a God who calls to all that live.  It’s a dance that takes us all the way down the aisle of the church and out into the streets, into our homes and places of work, and demands that we live as a blessing to others.  Wisdom tells us the mission of the Church is to be out there, not stuck in here, concerned with the structures of society, with asylum seekers and all who suffer disadvantage, with justice and climate change and the welfare of God’s creation.

Let’s dance!


Saturday, May 22, 2010


I wonder if you’ve been following the political kerfuffle about the BER programme?  That’s BER for ‘Building the Education Revolution’, which was rolled out as part of the governments stimulus package - the kerfuffle of course isn’t over how effective the BER has been as a way of keeping the country out of recession, it’s over the rorting and rip-offs that inevitably attach themselves to any program that involves spending absolutely enormous amounts of money just for the heck of it.  And so we’ve been hearing stories about shade sail structures worth $600,000, tuckshops worth over $1m that you can’t fit a fridge or a pie warmer into, and the basic allegation is that as soon as the bureaucracy gets involved money gets siphoned off for contingencies and architects and unspecified site works.  The latest revelation is that Catholic school tuckshops only cost half as much as identical State school ones - because private schools got to manage the projects themselves and keep costs down.

Of course, I got thinking about the complexities of building school tuckshops because of the Tower of Babel.  The Bible is maddeningly short on detail, but by any stretch of the imagination this would have been an astounding achievement - both technically, for Bronze Age architects and builders, but even more so in terms of administration.  By all accounts everyone works together seamlessly, there are no strikes, no-one rorts the funding by quoting for vague contingencies and site fees, the brickmakers and stone masons work together harmoniously, everyone follows the architect’s vision of a city fit to rival heaven itself. 

Everyone works together, sharing a common language, a common vision of how things should be.  Everyone, that is, except God, who doesn’t like it one little bit.  So why’s that?  In the Book of Genesis, in the stories of creation, God’s way of going about things is not so much to create something out of nothing as to work order out of chaos -scientists studying the earliest moments of the physical universe prefer to suggest in fact that God creates order through chaos - that chaos and energy are the basic creative engines of the universe that throw up new possibilities, including the possibility of life itself.  Chaos, they suggest, is the churning of the Spirit.

At Babel, human beings have achieved a high degree of order and cooperation, but God still prefers chaos.  The highly tuned bureaucracy is smashed, the common vision and purpose is frustrated - and along with their systems the people are physically scattered, forced to work out new ways of building community and running their lives in small groups - often in competition, always communicating with difficulty, dreaming new and puzzling dreams.  Why would God prefer that?

Right back in the 2nd century, the theologians of the early Church had already noticed the connection between the Genesis story of Babel and St Luke’s vivid pyrotechnic description of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  And what they realised was that Pentecost undoes Babel, Pentecost reverses the tragedy of Babel.  The miracle of incomprehensibility, the scattering and dispiriting that is Babel is reversed by the miracle of comprehensibility, the gathering and encouraging and strengthening that is Pentecost.  The Church Fathers realised, also, that Luke’s language in this story is highly symbolic, and they worked out connections between Luke’s Pentecost and the coming of the Torah which in Jewish mythology is accompanied by tongues of fire.  And I’ve preached on some of these connections before but now I’ve noticed something new, which is that Pentecost doesn’t entirely reverse the miracle of chaos that is Babel - because after Pentecost things get even messier.  More chaotic, more creative, more uncontrollable.  What sort of God doesn’t like things to be orderly and predictable and unsurprising?  Well, our God, actually.

By the time of Pentecost, 40 days after the very unpredictable and upsetting surprise of the resurrection, the apostles were a textbook case of total lack of organisation.  Never particularly noted for being organised in any case, but 40 days after the resurrection they have no vision, no direction, no unity of purpose except for following Jesus’ instruction to hang around in Jerusalem.

And that’s when it gets messy.  Whatever the experience of being descended on by the Spirit of God was like, the immediate effect was chaos.  Is the house on fire?  Are they drunk?  Some of them might have wished they were.  And then confusion starts to turn to amazement as the confused crowd start hearing themselves addressed in languages they are surprised to be able to understand.  These are Jews who have gathered from all over the known world for the great festival, the great and sophisticated and well-travelled, and they arrive in Jerusalem only to hear this unprepossessing gang of apostles addressing them in their own native language.  Peter’s unscripted but electrifying sermon immediately pole-vaults him into a position of leadership - but Luke tells us that the Spirit is absolutely indiscriminate - everybody gets a dose and before the end of the chapter 3,000 are baptised and on fire with the Spirit.

What happens next is baffling and yet historically beyond question, a wildfire fuelled by collaboration and opposition, growth and transformation.  The Church goes viral, it doesn’t just get off to a good beginning, it explodes.  It can no longer be contained within Jerusalem, or even within Judaism.  As it learns new languages and new cultures, enriched and challenged by converts from across the known world within the space of a few years, Christianity picks up and adapts new ideas, new social, political and religious traditions, and finds itself in new partnerships, facing new and unpredictable challenges, new enemies.  The only constants are surprise and change and adaptation.  But why?  What sort of God prefers to work through disorder and innovation and challenge rather than certainty and unchangeability and tradition?  Actually, our God.

The difference between Babel and Pentecost is about control.  At Babel the illusion of control, the persistent human dream that if we can only get the right program, the right team, the right technology, we can get on top of this stuff and create order out of chaos.  Babel is the founding mythology of management systems and efficiency experts and quality control gurus, and sometimes - quite often in fact - we get the idea that we can have a Christianity like that.  That we can impose some certainty on the Bible, there should be just one right way to interpret it.  That being Christian means to fit in with some identifiable social characteristics.  There should be no surprises when we get to church - the music, the prayers, the decorations, the pews should never be shifted.  There are different sorts of Babel-churches but the common theme is that the mission is human and the right way of doing things is defined by our own experience and our own need for security.  Babel-churches are safe, they affirm the opinions we already have, including our opinions of ourselves.  But the creative spirit of God is absent.

It seems to me that Pentecost isn’t just an event for the early Church, it’s a repeating challenge and a defining event for the Church - if we dare to really listen, if we’re prepared not just to listen to the story but to enter into it.  At Pentecost we lose control, Pentecost tunes us into a common language but it turns out not to be any of our own languages, but God’s language that we briefly and startlingly comprehend.  At Pentecost we hear ourselves personally addressed in a language we think we understand - but it turns out we don’t really have a clue.  We hear the whisper of God’s own voice, and it resonates with our deepest sense of who we are, it transforms and re-creates us, but we haven’t got a clue how far it’s going to drive us.  We get a dose of the constantly mutating, creative, wild and challenging spirit of God - in hindsight it turns out we don’t have a clue what we’ve let ourselves in for, any more than the startled apostles did.  But first you’ve got to want it, the Holy Spirit of God, you’ve got to take the risk of being set on fire, of being driven by your hopes, not restrained by your fears.

A colleague suggests that of all the metaphors for the Holy Spirit - tongue of flame, wind moving over the water, breath of life, descending dove or even the sound of utter silence - the event that kickstarts the Church at Pentecost is best captured by an image that isn’t even in the Bible.  The ancient Irish symbol for the Holy Spirit isn’t a gentle, fluffy-white dove, but a wild goose - geese, of course, being bossy, uncontrollable creatures that honk boisterously, resist any attempt to contain them and have a nasty habit of chasing unwary intruders and biting the hand that feeds them.  They also fly faster in a flock than they can on their own.

The point, I guess, is that the Spirit of God, like a wild goose, is not sweet and calming but strong and challenging.  The honking wild goose of Pentecost rounds people up and demands that they support each other and travel together. Men and women who get a dose of the wild goose spirit become noisy, passionate and courageous and sometimes off-putting advocates of the kingdom of God. Forget the quiet cooing of the dove. Pentecost's Spirit honks, demanding we pay attention to God’s agenda, demanding we pay attention to the cultures and values and different languages of the world we live in, demanding we pay attention to poverty and injustice and demanding that we get out of our comfort zones.  The wild goose spirit of Pentecost is the spirit of mission, demanding that we find new ways of talking about and putting into practice Jesus’ life-giving agenda of compassion and forgiveness.  Demanding that we fly in formation, that we support and encourage and inspire and love each other. 

Today, Vivian has brought her family and friends along to bear witness to her baptism, to celebrate with her and to pray with us that God’s Holy Spirit will fill her and inspire her and work through her.  Vivian’s name, of course, means ‘lively’ - I wonder if her mum and dad really thought through the implications of that?  Today she becomes a child of Pentecost, attuned to the lively Spirit of God, and we pray that she will listen and respond whenever she hears it honk.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Easter 7C

I watched a TV interview the other day with David Cameron, the new Conservative Party British Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, his Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister.  It’s an unlikely coalition between the ultra conservative Tories and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats but the two men - both of them young, cheerful-looking men with attractive families - were standing side by side outside no. 10 Downing Street, trying to assure the country it can work.  ‘Nick’, one cheeky reporter called out, ‘how do you feel about the fact that during the campaign David was asked what was his favourite joke, and he said “Nick Clegg”?’  The two of them spun around and stared at each other in mock horror as if to say ‘what have I got myself into?’ - laughing it off rather well, I thought - but at the same time the cheeky question and the vaudeville response seemed totally serious.

How are they going to make this work?  The gloomiest political commentators are saying the Brits will be back to the polls within a year, the most cynical are saying the Lib Democrats have sold out their principles for a taste of power, but realistically probably everyone knows that what the country really needs is stability, constructive compromise and a focus on the common good.  Political rivals need to learn to trust each other, to work together despite differences or even to use their differences creatively to come to a deeper sense of what unites them.  It’s a big ask.

‘Be one’, Jesus tells us.  ‘Just as I and my Father are one’.  This, also, is a big ask. Interestingly enough John, the writer of the gospel, is putting this prayer for unity onto Jesus lips in order to talk some sense into his own community, a Jewish Christian community late in the first century or perhaps early in the second that is going through some intense conflicts.  These early Christians were in the process of going through a painful divorce from Judaism, finding themselves separated from the worship of their fellow Jews in the synagogues and also torn apart by internal arguments.  Christianity at the end of the first century is in a state of flux, without a clear sense of identity, torn apart by doctrinal differences and competing leaders.  And in the gospel John writes for his community he emphasises Jesus’ prayer for unity.  And so it is appropriate that we read this and reflect on it in the week that all the major churches set aside as the week of prayer for Christian unity.

It’s always seemed to me that the community John is writing for is in a similar situation to the Church in our present day, having lost a clear sense of direction and purpose, degenerated into competing groups and disconnected from a wider culture that follows the gods of individualism and consumerism.  We hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and we are saddened by it, if we are sensitive, because we know how fragmented and competitive we really are.

And yet I wonder, also, if we also miss the full force of the demands that Christian unity makes on us.

The first problem arises, I think, when we mistake unity for the end, or outcome, of Christian life, rather than its starting point.  We understand, in other words, that if we love and forgive and follow Jesus’ commandments then the outcome will be unity.  We’ll all see eye to eye if we keep at this long enough.  But the reality is the other way around.  The oneness Jesus prayed for isn’t just a matter of human beings learning to be nice to one another, it is a matter of human beings learning to live out of the centre of God’s own life which is the unity of Father, Son and Spirit.

The point is that the unity that exists from before the creation of the universe between the Father and the Son, which is expressed in their mutual self-giving in the Spirit, is the same love by which the Church exists.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realise [achieve]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

The second point is that the unity of the Church must be visible and material, not just a quiet agreement on matters of doctrine or a shared but largely private faith, but the shared witness of lives lived in accordance with Jesus’ example of forgiveness and love, a coherent proclamation of the gospel both in words and in actions that point to the same reality of God’s love.  What unity doesn’t mean is that we will all think the same or that we will never argue, what it means is that our shared life comes out of the community of love that is the heart of God, which means that above all we are committed to remaining in life-giving relationship. 

The Church lives in the out-of focus double-vision of a world in which the restoration accomplished by the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord is both a present reality and a future promise.  In the same way the unity for which Jesus prays is both the ground of who we are and the indictment of what are not.  The Church is both the promise of a healed and fulfilled cosmos which, as St Paul remarks, is groaning as if in labour as it waits for the children of God to realise their true being - and at the same time a microcosm of a divided and hurting world.  We mistake our defensiveness, our self-preoccupation and our lack of engagement with the world around us, for the unity Jesus is praying for.  We mistake narrow-mindedness and judgmental attitudes for unity.  We settle for being a community of the like-minded, rather than a community that recognises the Holy Spirit in diversity, and encourages those with different perspectives, different gifts and different dreams.

Our readings from the Bible this morning actually show this in action.  When we read the story of Paul and Silas’s encounter with a slave girl who makes a tidy profit for her masters by being able to tell the future and perceive realities most of us miss, it is easy to interpret this simply on the level of the clash between superstition and truth, or to focus on the miraculous jail-break that enables the apostles to continue spreading the word.  But theologian Kate Huey asks us to slow down a bit, to notice, firstly, that this girl is not only possessed, but a possession, not free on any level.  Far from challenging the powers that keep the girl in subjection, far from reacting compassionately to her situation, Paul reacts simply because he is annoyed at being heckled.  That’s what Acts tells us.  He's focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn't seem to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, even if she is proclaiming the truth.  Huey points out that after Paul performs his off-the-cuff exorcism, the story moves on to how much trouble he and Silas find themselves in.  But we never find out what happens to the girl.  Does she remain a slave?  What sort of life will she have now that she is no longer profitable?  Paul and Silas never do invite her into the freedom of faith that he earlier offered to Lydia or will later to the jailer.  It’s a minor irritation in the text but it gets us thinking - what slave girls do we encounter in our everyday lives - what distractions do we react to with annoyance when we are on a mission?  Because it might actually be the annoyances and the distractions that are drawing us back into the heart of the compassion that Jesus prays might define us.  What needs to be changed about us, so that we might be driven not by our own agendas, but by the self-giving love that is at the heart of the Trinity?

In the reading from Revelation we stumble over a verse or two that is such an irritation to lectionary writers that they routinely leave it out of the Sunday readings.  ‘Outside are the dogs, and the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters’.  Right at the heart of John of Patmos’s inspired vision of the City of God, the transformed creation that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible, is the rhetoric of exclusion.  Bible scholar Bill Loader points out the word ‘dogs’ - a standard put-down for Gentiles and Samaritans who lived outside the Jewish Law - a word that we also come across in Mark’s gospel when Jesus encounters a Syropheonician woman and, at first reluctantly, reaches out to include and feed ‘the dogs’ as well as the children of Israel.  In the Revelation text the sense of comfort and triumph for those inside the city of God seems, however, to be at the expense of those who are excluded and dehumanised.  No doubt in the transformed creation there will be no violence or immorality - creation will be free to flourish as God intended - but the point is the unity at the heart of the Trinity is not closed or inward looking but pours itself out in love for the whole of creation.  The unity at the heart of the Church makes us, not a closed and self-serving community of the like-minded, but a community of inclusion, a community of welcome and hospitality, a community not withdrawn from but engaged with the needs of a world broken and divided by sin.

What needs to be changed about us, so that we can be that sort of community?


Saturday, May 08, 2010

There’s an old story about a company that advertised a job for a telegraph operator - the fact of course that there’s no such thing as a telegraph operator any more tells you exactly how old this story is - and because the pay was rather good the waiting room soon filled up with eager hopefuls.  Most of them had brought along their licence books and copies of their qualifications - for young people used to just pulling out your mobile phone and whipping off a text message it might not be entirely obvious, but this was a highly skilled job and you had to study hard for the qualification.  Each of these young men had his head full of theory, each one waited nervously for the chance to tell the interviewers just how smart and quick he was.  Somebody somewhere must have been especially nervous, the sound of fingernails drumming was just audible.  But the door stayed firmly shut, nobody was getting the chance to tell anybody anything.

After what seemed an age one of the young men simply stood up and walked over to the closed door, opened it without knocking and walked straight in.  The cheek of him, everyone else thought.  Queue jumper.  A minute later he walked out again, cleared his throat and told them they could all go home.  ‘I’ve got the job’, he said.

Because of course it wasn’t nervous fingers drumming, it was Morse code.  ‘Come straight in’, was the message.  ‘The job’s yours.’

The point is, sometimes it’s not enough to have your head full of theory.  You also have to be paying attention to what’s happening around you so you get the chance to put it into practice.  The job didn’t go to the one with the best marks, or the fastest key-strokes, it went to the one who was bright enough to realise he was hearing Morse code, that it was a message for him personally, and that he needed to respond.  The one who heard, understood, and did something about it got the job.  Life actually is like that rather often.

The Morse code is the Holy Spirit.  We tie ourselves in knots a bit about trying to explain the Trinity.  But it’s simple, actually.  The Holy Spirit is Morse code, the annoying background noise of our lives that’s God trying to get our attention, addressing us personally, telling us ‘ yes, I mean you’.  The Holy Spirit is where the practice of resurrection gets personal, where all this theoretical stuff about love and forgiveness gets some traction in our lives.  And its the message that ties together all three of our readings this morning.  To be the Church, to be followers of Christ means to have a mission.  The Holy Spirit is the key.

In Christian tradition the Holy Spirit gets imagined or represented in various different ways - as a dove, as a flame, as wind - all images from the Bible but not in any of today’s readings which instead talk about the Holy Spirit in imperative terms - the one who sends, the one who calls, the one who blocks off some options and allows others.  This is a bossy Holy Spirit.  It’s also the Spirit of visions, of imagining how the Church might be different, even disturbingly different, and daring men and women to chart new directions.

The reading from Acts is one that is a favourite for churches trying to reflect on what mission is all about.  Actually this is not an easy question to answer, especially since as soon as we give it the name, ‘mission’, it already sounds as though it’s a job for somebody else, somewhere else.  But the one thing mission is for sure about is being sent, about the Church going to other people rather than waiting for other people to come to the Church.  So Paul has a vision, a dream in which a man from Macedonia is pleading with him to bring the good news.  And so he wakes up, and goes.  This is the most basic thing of all.  One - be perceptive enough to know when you’re being spoken to.  Two - do something about it.  And of course when he gets to Philippi he finds not a man but a woman, Lydia, a wealthy and influential woman who uses her resources to support the beginnings of the Christian Church in Asia Minor.  So this is the second basic thing - be flexible enough to cope with changes of plan.  We see how far Paul the respectable Pharisee has come, chatting with women and accepting their hospitality would have been more than a little scandalous.  We also incidentally see how crucial the leadership of women was in the very early Church.

So this is what it teaches us about mission - that it’s about openness, about having minds that are open rather than closed.  Being sensitive enough to know when and how we are being addressed by the Holy Spirit, being humble enough to follow and flexible enough to adapt to new realities.  But above all, to trust that God’s Holy Spirit is already there ahead of us, that there are already signs of what God’s Spirit is doing.  So mission crucially is about joining in the conversation that is already happening, being prepared to talk about how God’s Holy Spirit is leading us, prepared also to listen to how God’s Holy Spirit is already active in ways we might not have anticipated. 

In John’s gospel we are continuing to read Jesus’ rather long farewell instructions to his disciples.  Maybe you’ve got to this point - in the sermon at least - feeling that the Morse code is not intended for you, that you at least are not being personally addressed by all this talk about mission.  That’s what we’ve got ABM for, you might be thinking.  Unfortunately, Jesus makes it very personal indeed.  If you love me, he says, keep my commandments.  And then he turns it around a bit, makes it into an acid test.  Those who don’t love me, don’t keep my commandments.  Or even - those who don’t keep my commandments don’t really love me.  We are personally addressed, and it’s not theoretical.  Jesus’ commandments are quite specific: loving God, loving one’s neighbour - who as the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us is anyone who needs our compassion and care.  Our religion is designed not to keep us holy and separate from others, not to insulate us from the seductive and self-serving attractions of the world around us but to draw us deeper in, to make us perceptive enough and caring enough to actually notice the needs of others, to actually notice when somebody needs help and to act on it.  To know that the one who is being addressed is us.  The point of our religion is to get us into the habit of noticing the demands on our humanity that are actually there all around us, all the time.  And Jesus in today’s reading draws out the connection between the response that love demands of us, and the action of the Holy Spirit.

Too often in reading John’s gospel at this point we focus straight in on the wonderful, warm and fuzzy word, Comforter.  Or Helper.  The Holy Spirit is a great big eiderdown.  Actually Comforter is what the Holy Spirit is called in the 16th century King James version.  In the New Revised Standard Version that we read in church the Greek word parakletos is more accurately translated as Advocate, one who encourages or intercedes or exhorts.  So this is the first thing about the Holy Spirit, not fuzzy but  empowering, powerful, and demanding, not quieting and stilling but stirring and disturbing.  Not an eiderdown but a job description.  And the second thing is this, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, teaching us and sending us just as Jesus teaches and sends us.  In fact the Holy Spirit is the coming true of Jesus promise that if we demonstrate our love for Jesus by doing what he commands us then the Father and the Son will make their home in us.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus in us that is made possible when we actually put the love that Jesus commands into action.  That, of course is mission, and it is the vocation not just of ABM but of you and me.

You know, it’s perfectly possible to talk all Easter long, all through the Sundays of Easter, about unity and love and forgiveness and for it all to be theoretical.  To still be people who don’t practise those things, to be self-centred and ungenerous and to keep a ledger of how other people let us down.  The love that Jesus commands doesn’t happen automatically and we have to work at it.  A good place to start is here, in our own church community, in noticing one another’s needs, in performing the little everyday tasks of love like sweeping a floor or asking about somebody else’s life, in being more concerned with giving of ourselves than being catered to.  Here is a good place to start.

The New Jerusalem doesn’t get beamed down around us just if we wait long enough, the City of God that John of Patmos sees is the new creation made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. But it’s the new creation that needs us to live into it by choosing to listen to the Morse code that’s all around us, which is to say, by paying attention to the Holy Spirit, by recognising that it’s a message for us personally, and by doing something about it. The City of God is us, just as soon as we get up and walk through the door.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Easter 5C

A little while ago I saw a documentary on TV about the detective work done by art historians.  In this case there was a very old painting - I think by Caravaggio - and at first the challenge was to establish that it was genuine, that it was actually by Caravaggio and not the work of an ancient forger.  And the art historian - more of a scientist than a historian - analysed the themes and moods and the use of light and dark, the direction of the brush-strokes and so on, comparing them to undisputed works by Caravaggio.  And then they turned to the real forensic stuff, X-Rays, spectrographic analysis, and we entered a whole new dimension.  Because clearly revealed under the richly painted surface of the canvas was a trail of tentative beginnings, sketches, erasures, false starts painted over, in short - as the art historian painstakingly unravelled and explained it, what we were seeing was the whole creative process laid bare.  The groundwork of establishing the basic perspective and balance, quick sketches - an arm might be drawn twice, three times until the artist gets it in exactly the right balance to everything else.  Experimentation with colour and light and perspective to add depth and create a sense of psychological tension.  The fascinating thing - for me especially, since I can’t draw for nuts - was the insight into how a painter paints, the fact that a masterpiece doesn’t just happen but needs to grow and gradually achieve the shape that its creator intended from the beginning, and the fact that the process of creation is incremental, continuous, built up as the artist interacts with and transforms what is already in existence.

Because this, you see, is the picture of creation that we get this morning from both our Johns, the gospel-writer, and John of Patmos, the writer of the Book of Revelation.  You might not think our Gospel reading was even about creation but Bible scholars tell us one of the keys to reading John is to recognise that what he is doing is reflecting on the Book of Genesis.  We see it really clearly in the Prologue, the first 14 verses of the first chapter that starts, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God, all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What came into being in him was life.’  And immediately as we hear these words, if we are steeped in the Torah, if we have grown up with the words of the Hebrew Bible ringing in our ears, we also hear the echo from Genesis: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters’.  The Gospel writer takes us all the way back to the big picture, the primal creative work of God, the primal commandments of creation: - let there be light.  Let there be order and life and fertility - and connects us with the reality that the whole of creation came into being through the Word and breath of God.  And this key to understanding the Gospel of John - of course there are other keys, other prisms to look through, but this key is to recognise John making a huge claim - that the human person Jesus of Nazareth in some mysterious sense is a force of the universe itself, that Jesus is in fact none other than the creative Word of God that brings creation into being - and that in taking on human flesh, becoming embedded so to speak in his own creation, the Word of God is continuing to transform and complete and bring creation to life.  Like the Caravaggio painting, we suddenly see the depth dimension of creation, we glimpse the ancient foundations beneath the stunning new layers of depth and colour that reveal the meaning of what was there all along.

John drops us another hint in his story of the evening of the first day - in the Genesis creation story it is in the evening, you remember, when God comes strolling in the garden.  For the Evangelist it is in the evening on the first day of resurrection when the risen Christ appears amongst his disciples.  Like the breath of God that warms and infuses life into the first human beings, Jesus breathes on his disciples to fill them with the life of the Holy Spirit.  The point is pretty clear - resurrection is re-creation, new creation, the completion of what creation was always intended to be.

The 13th century Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, tells us that creation itself is an expression of the character of God, an outpouring from the Word of God as the creative template of everything that can possibly be, and he claims the world around us is nothing less than a book of life, a book which - if we could only read it - would reveal its creator.  Because, he says, it is the character of love to communicate and to give of itself, and so in the act of creation the divine goodness is poured out into the world.  But there is a problem, because we are so bent over by self-obsessiveness, by the sin of putting ourselves in the middle of our own moral universe, that we have forgotten how to read the Word of God that is all around us in creation.  We can’t do it unless we are reminded, unless our human-ness is transformed and made holy - which God does by becoming human, by inhabiting the whole spectrum of human sin and failure and suffering and death, and by turning us back toward our true origin in resurrection, recreating us and revealing what human existence was always intended to be.

So in today’s reading what we are hearing, the new commandment, is not just good advice.  Not just, ‘children, I’m going away for a bit.  Play nicely.’  It’s a creational commandment, one of the primal creative words by which God brings us and all things into existence.  In the light of the key we have to reading John’s Gospel, Jesus’ command for a new kind of love, a love which connects us centre to centre by connecting us to what is at the heart of the Trinity itself, the command to love needs to be understood as the completion of the creational commandments.  Why?  Because the command to love is the command to be co-creative partners with God, the command to recognise and live towards transformation.  We are being urged to move beyond our self-interest and self-obsession, beyond our tribal loyalties, to live out of the true centre of who we are as creatures made in the image of our creator.  As God is love, so we are commanded to love.  As God’s love is revealed in the act of creation, so our love needs to find expression in activities that break through the cultural, ethnic, political and religious limitations of our lives.  We are being commanded to think outwards, beyond ourselves, to think forwards, to the future in which God continues to create and re-create us.

We see the same picture in our reading from Revelation, the same message that links the personal to the cosmic.  In the resurrection of Jesus everything gets made new, everything is re-created, including us.  Including the earth itself.  These are not small, timid claims from a tentative, timid disciple, are they?  I wonder what it would take for us to talk like this, for us to be so convinced of the power of the resurrection to reshape the whole of reality.  We need to ask ourselves, quite seriously, whether we believe it.  Whether we mightn’t be better off doing something else on a Sunday morning.  Or whether in fact we believe that there is nothing else that’s even a fraction as earth-shatteringly important and life-changing as resurrection.  And if that is what we believe, what are we doing about it? 

John of Patmos announces a new heaven and a new earth.  The old ones have passed away, the old metaphors of creation, who we are and what we think we are about, are no longer adequate.  Creation itself is transformed.

The Anglican Bishop of Durham, Bishop Tom Wright, makes a fundamentally important point about this.  He says the new earth, the transformed earth, isn’t somewhere else.  For John of Patmos, the new heaven and new earth doesn’t have a new address, what’s made new is what is already here, including us.  New heaven and new earth doesn’t mean the old heaven and old earth are destroyed, it means that what is, is transformed.  Jesus’ resurrection body - though different to be sure, as St Paul insists, from what was before - startlingly, even at times unrecognisably different, because transformed - is still to be identified with the body that was crucified.  The wounds are still there.  He still eats and talks with his friends.  It’s the same with the new Jerusalem, the transformed earth.  It still bears the wounds of our neglect, and it is still identifiable as the ecology which sustains our human lives and within which they find their true meaning.  The wounds of human injustice, of disease and pain are still there.  But fundamentally the meaning of this vision is that to be Christian is to be committed to a world in which suffering and injustice are remembered through tears of joy.

Bill Loader, my New Testament professor, cautions us not to get too carried away with literal interpretations.  Ancient peoples, for example, saw a new earth without any oceans as a very good thing indeed - nothing to drown in, no place for monsters or fearsome storms.  Our 21st century perspective understands the oceans more in terms of depth and mystery and beauty, more of a good thing.  We can relate more easily to the poetic image of a new Jerusalem - after all it’s the city not the bush that is the true context of our lives - but the point is that what we hope for in our human environments only God can bring us.  The point is that creation isn’t done and dusted.  To be Christian is to believe that God is still creating us.

Resurrection recreates and transforms not only us but the world we live in.  Resurrection transforms the boundaries of what is possible, it makes us co-creative partners with God, oriented toward the future, powered by the Holy Spirit of love.  We forget this, and we need to be reminded.  The new creation needs us to live into it, to hope for it, to dare to act as though it were already the reality of our lives.  What would it take to believe this?  How might our world change if we did?