Posts Tagged ‘Holy Spirit’

Wholly and unreservedly

June 3, 2017

Pentecost – 2017

John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens and empowers us to do God’s will on the earth. Amen.

The third person of the Trinity is, in all but Pentecostal circles, the most neglected of the three. For a start, out of 52 Sundays each year we only dedicate one to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle’s Creed mentions the Holy Spirit only by name. The Nicean Creed describes the Holy Spirit in more detail, but both creeds include the Spirit with belief in the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. It hardly seems respectful, but it does illustrate the fact that the church as a whole becomes lost for words when trying to describe and express faith in something as indescribable as the Holy Spirit. God’s creative energy and power are visible in creation. Jesus lived and breathed as a human being, but the Spirit is elusive, vague and impossible to pin down or to define.

In the New Testament the Spirit is described both as breath and as fire or violent wind. At Jesus’ baptism the spirit appears as a dove. In Corinth the Spirit was discerned in the ways in which members of the community were gifted to speak in tongues, to prophesy or to teach. According to Galatians observers will recognize the Spirit through our love, gentleness, patience and long-suffering. Apparently the Holy Spirit can be wild and unsettling or tame and enabling.

In the church’s calendar we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (the Jewish Festival of Booths) fifty days after the Passover, or in our case fifty days after Easter. The scene for such remembrance is one with which we are very familiar – the rush of wind and the tongues of fire; God’s dramatic bestowal of the Spirit from heaven.

According to John’s gospel however, the conferring of the Spirit on the disciples is very different. The Spirit is given directly to the disciples by Jesus. It is not conferred remotely, dramatically or colourfully nor is accompanied by signs such as being able to speak in a multitude of languages. In John’s gospel the bestowing of the Spirit is, as you might expect, intimate and intensely personal, indicative of the union between Jesus and the disciples that has been the theme of our readings over the past few weeks. The giving of the Spirit brings to a conclusion Jesus’ mission and it brings to fulfillment the promises Jesus has made to the disciples almost since the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus has made numerous references to the Spirit. When he visits Jesus at night Nicodemus is told that he must be born of water and the Spirit. In the same chapter readers are told that the one whom God has sent – Jesus – will give the Spirit without measure. In the alternate gospel reading for today (Chapter 7) we read that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit which will be like streams of water flowing out of the believer’s heart. At his final meal with the disciples, Jesus promises that the disciples will not be left orphaned by his going, because he will send “another Advocate” – the Spirit of truth who will continue to teach them and will remind them of everything that Jesus has said to them.

Jesus’ guarantees the Spirit as a quiet assurance that the presence of God that they have known through Jesus will not abandon them even when Jesus is not physically with them. He promises the disciples that the intimacy that they have shared with him will continue through the presence of Holy Spirit.

John’s time frame is quite different from that of the author of Luke/Acts. Whereas Luke divides the events after Jesus’ death into the resurrection (three days later), the Ascension (forty days later) and the coming of the Spirit (fifty days later), the author of John records the giving of the Spirit on the same day as the resurrection.

John provides us with a much more personal account of the conferring of the Spirit. There is no rushing wind, no tongues of fire and no terrifying, awe-inspiring visitation from heaven. Admittedly Jesus appears out of nowhere but having given the disciples proof that it is he, Jesus simply breathes on the disciples transferring his Spirit to them. In so doing Jesus is extinguishing everything that had made them distinct or separate from him. From this moment on their union with Jesus is complete. The role that God gave him to perform, Jesus now gives to them. As the Father sent him, so now he sends the disciples. Jesus does more than hand over the baton. He empowers the disciples to do everything that he has done (and more) (14:12).

These are the same disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested, denied him three times and abandoned him to face the cross alone. Weak, faithless and frightened, these are the people whom Jesus commissions to take his place. That the Spirit empowers them to rise to the challenge is demonstrated by the fact that despite being few in number, uneducated and unknown they were sufficiently effective that, two thousand years later we are here affirming the faith that they proclaimed.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives himself wholly and unreservedly to us – entrusting us to be the presence of God in the world. Jesus unites himself to us so completely that there should be no distinction between the Holy Spirit and ourselves. If there is any separation between us it is not because Jesus distances himself from us, but because we distance ourselves from him.

Jesus gives himself wholly and without reserve to us. What is it that prevents our giving ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to him?

If the Holy Spirit could inspire and enliven such a rag-tag group of people who had no resources, no education and no influence or power, imagine what the Holy Spirit could do with us!

 

 

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Entering into the gospel of Luke

January 9, 2016

The Baptism of our Lord – 2016

Luke 3:15-22

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes and sends us out to waken the world to its salvation. Amen.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany – the year of Luke has crept up on us, obscured in part by our celebration of a number of festivals that are best illustrated by readings from the other gospels. Year C, the year of Luke began on the first Sunday of Advent. This means that once again we will make our way though the third gospel. As we do we will become familiar with those themes and ideas that distinguish Luke’s account from that of Matthew and Mark and we will begin to discern what the differences tell us both about the author and about those for whom it was written.

In order to fully understand Luke, we have to place the gospel in context. There is a strong consensus that the first gospel to be written was that attributed to Mark. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own accounts but that they also had a common source. So for example, some of the parables and sayings that have been added are common to both Matthew and Luke – for example the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are absent from Mark, but used by Matthew and Luke.

At the same time, both Matthew and Luke have material that is unique to them. Matthew alone records the parables of the ten bridesmaids and the separation of the sheep and the goats. It is only Luke who records our best-loved and most well-known parables those of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  From this we conclude that Luke used Mark, a source that he had in common with Matthew and material that only he knew.

Among the gospel writers Luke has a further claim to our interest. He alone wrote two volumes – the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – the life of Jesus and the history of the early church.  The author of Luke is concerned with salvation history.  He divides time into a number of periods – the era of the promises of God, the  interim time of John the Baptist and the infancy of Jesus, the time of Jesus, the interim of the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost and the time of the Church that will end when Jesus returns.

Like the rest of the gospel writers Luke must confront the conundrum that by and large the Jews have not embraced Jesus whereas the Gentiles.  Luke deals with this in at least three ways. He writes in such a way as to develop demonstrate the continuity of Jesus with Judaism, beginning by formally introducing John as the last of the Old Testament prophets and he frames the story with Jerusalem – the Jews most sacred space. This is to illustrate his argument that salvation in the form of Jesus came to the heart of Judaism and it was there that it was rejected before being offered to the Gentiles. In comparison to Matthew whose gospel has a Jewish focus, Luke is keen to demonstrate that Jesus has relevance for the whole world. Luke’s genealogy goes back all the way to Adam – making Jesus’ humanity (rather than his Jewishness) blatantly clear.

There are a number of other things that make Luke’s gospel distinct. For a start, the gospel is addressed to a single person Theophilus.  Whether or not Theophilus is a real person or a representative figure, it would appear that Luke writes for townspeople, people who had better education and higher incomes than the Galilean disciples of Jesus. Luke changes the setting from a poor rural environment to one that is more familiar to his intended audience. He changes villages to cities, the amounts of money are bigger and the disciples are more informed, less like peasants (they own their own boats)[1].

In Luke’s gospel, the disciples are less foolish than in Mark and more aware of who Jesus is and of their own unworthiness in his presence.  The Holy Spirit has a dominant place in this gospel (and subsequently in Acts) being mentioned 28 times in the gospel[2] and a massive 83 times in Acts. The Holy Spirit moves both Elizabeth and Zechariah, they are promised that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirits overshadows Mary such that she becomes pregnant and Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit recognises Jesus when he is brought into the Temple. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism and Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who believe and warns of the sin against the Holy Spirit. (In Acts, the Holy Spirit directs the action almost entirely.)

Worship and prayer are central to the third gospel. Not only does the gospel begin and end in Jerusalem, but it begins and ends with a worshipping community. Jesus prays at all the important moments in his life (before choosing the 12, before asking who people say he is, before he predicts Peter’s denial and in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ disciples see Jesus praying and ask him to teach them how to pray and Jesus encourages them to pray and includes a parable on prayer. The Jesus of Luke scolds people for not giving thanks. All in all there are 20 references to people worshipping in Luke’s gospel.

Outsiders play a significant part in this gospel. Jesus says of the centurion that nowhere in Israel has he found such faith, the Good Samaritan challenges stereotypes of who is “good”, it is the Samaritan leper who gives thanks. Women also play a significant role. Though we can debate what Luke’s intention was, his gospel is more balanced – a woman as well as a man is healed on the Sabbath. The woman who anoints Jesus is identifies as an exemplar of hospitality. God is depicted as the shepherd who looks for the lost sheep and the woman who looks for the lost coin. The parables of growth feature a farmer who tosses mustard seeds and a woman who kneads yeast.

Luke is more concerned with money than the other writers, but his attitude towards wealth is ambivalent. On the one hand, he is anxious not to alienate his audience (patron) Theophilus, on the other, he appears to be convinced that those who are rich have a responsibility to use their wealth wisely.  Wealth is to be used by all. So we see that only Luke records the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and of the man who plans to build extra barns to store his surplus crops.

Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke is concerned to locate the gospel in history. This is evidenced by his reference to the census and to his naming of the various leaders (including differentiating between the different Herods).

We will be spending this year with Luke. Can I suggest that you make the time to read the gospel from beginning to end? Read it on its own or with a commentary. Become familiar with the content, make a note of the things that confuse you, notice the aspects that surprise and challenge you. Ask questions, challenge the text. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the gospel in depth.  Our scriptures are robust, they will withstand any amount of questioning and they have survived so long that they are not likely to be diminished or damaged by our weak attempts at exploration. It is more likely that they will reveal hitherto unexplored, unexposed depths.

Have conversations with the text, with each other, with Rodney, with me so that you will be better equipped to have conversations with others.

Text me, email me, talk to me, make comments on the sermon blog, write down your questions, your frustrations and at year’s end, we will all be better equipped to share the gospel with the world – or at least that small part of the world of which we are a part.

 

[1] There are a number of examples, but perhaps the best example of the way in which Luke re-frames the story is the account of the healing of the paralytic. If you recall, there is such a crowd around Jesus that when a group of friends arrive carrying their friend on a stretcher they find that they cannot get anywhere near Jesus. In order to get closer, they dig up the roof and lower their friend into the room. A city dweller would not understand that Palestinian houses have flat mud roofs, so Luke makes a slight change and has the friends remove tiles from the roof in order to lower the paralytic.
[2] Compared with 25 occurrences in the remaining gospels together.

Gospel Truth?

May 23, 2015

Pentecost – 2015

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who has entrusted us with God’s very word. Amen.

Occasionally I watch an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s: “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, Miss Fisher is apparently an independently wealthy woman turned private detective. Phryne (yes, that is her name) has a personal assistant named Dotty. Dotty, under Phryne’s tutelage, assists her employer in the art of detection. Both women are unusually independent and intrepid for their time and place and both take risks that even today some of us would consider foolish. One of the on-going sub-plots is a growing affection between Dotty and a junior Police Officer, Hugh. Like most men, then and now, Hugh is protective of Dotty and would prefer that she keep herself out of danger.

When I caught up with the show last week I discovered that Dotty and Hugh are engaged. Dotty is a practicing Roman Catholic so Hugh needs to adopt Catholicism before they can be married in the Catholic Church. At first, Hugh is hesitant, but his enthusiasm grows when he discovers that a Catholic wife must obey her husband. (Remember it is the 1920’s!) Having clarified with the priest that he has understood this aspect of the faith correctly, Hugh becomes much more engaged in the process. An obedient wife, he thinks, will have to take his concerns and his cautions seriously, an obedient Dotty will stop taking risks and stop engaging in amateur sleuthing.

Unfortunately for Hugh, Dotty is not to be so easily restrained. In a private conversation with the priest, she happens to mention that Protestantism has a lot to offer – implying that if the priest insists on her obedience, she will leave his congregation for another. Poor Hugh is completely nonplussed when, at their next meeting, the priest points out that of course, times have changed, and that in the modern world one needn’t take the obedience clause absolutely literally!

I don’t have to tell you that in the Anglican tradition many things that were once held to be sacrosanct have been softened or even abandoned. It is almost impossible to believe that only fifty years ago people who were divorced could not be remarried in an Anglican church, children of parents who were unmarried were refused baptism and women were not admitted to holy orders. The debates that accompanied these changes were often fierce and uncompromising because those who opposed change found support for their position in the Bible and were unable to see things any other way.

It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “gospel truth” but the reality is vastly different. What was “true” four thousand years ago for a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe cannot always be applied in a digital, technological twenty first century world. No one today would take all of the Old Testament literally. Medical science has come to the conclusion that circumcision can be detrimental rather than beneficial. The development of refrigeration means that the health risks of eating shellfish have been significantly reduced and I think that I am safe in saying that none of us believes that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.

Even Jesus did not seem to think that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were immutable. Where the Old Testament counselled: “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” Jesus taught “love your enemy”. Where teh Old Testament demanded “an eye for an eye”, Jesus said: “Do not resist an evildoer”. Where the Old Testament allowed divorce and remarriage Jesus claimed this to be adultery[1]. Just as Jesus did not feel utterly bound by the Old Testament, later New Testament writers did not feel obliged to follow absolutely the teaching of earlier writers. Colossians and Ephesians, then the Pastoral letters seriously altered Jesus’ and Paul’s inclusive view of the role of women. And over time societal values change. Both Jesus and Paul took slavery for granted, something that we find abhorrent today.

It is impossible (when human writers are concerned) to be completely dispassionate and not to allow one’s own views to permeate what is written. It is equally impossible to imagine that someone writing four or even two thousand years ago could envisage and therefore write comprehensively for a situation so far removed from their times as ours. Our scriptures – Old and New – have a great deal to say about love, forgiveness and compassion and about the care for the weak and vulnerable, but they have nothing to say about climate change, genetic modification or IVF. On many of the issues of our time, we are left to our own devices. Rightly or wrongly God expects us to work through the ethical issues of such things as stem cell research and to come up with answers that are right and just. Rightly or wrongly God has given us responsibility to determine how far we should take genetic engineering and other medical advances.

Because nothing stays the same and few things are true for all time, God has given us minds to use and hearts to feel. Far more importantly God has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. Three years were not nearly enough for Jesus to prepare the disciples and thus the church for every possible eventuality. He does not leave them/us unresourced but promises to send the Spirit who then, as now will guide them/us in all truth.

God who sent Jesus, Jesus the sent one, and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent empower us (the church) to think and act as God the Trinity would act. It is an awesome responsibility and one that requires of us a union with God – Father, Son and Spirit – such that their mind is our mind and that decisions that we make are in accord with decisions that they would have us make. In a complex and ever-changing environment, God has entrusted us not only with God’s word, but also with the power and the resources to interpret that word across time and space.

History has shown that time and again we have abused that trust, yet God has not withdrawn it. In our time and place let us demonstrate that we are worthy of God’s confidence and whatever the cost, let us give ourselves entirely to God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit so that all our decisions are wise, compassionate and just and consistent with God’s desires for us and for the world.

[1] Albeit to protect women from arbitrary abandonment.

The Trinity – heresy and orthodoxy

June 14, 2014

Trinity Sunday 2014

Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 My childhood memories of Trinity Sunday are of my Father returning from church complaining about the sermon and in particular the use of bad analogies to try to make the Trinity more accessible for the lay people. Of course, as a child, I never really understood my Father’s problem. I liked the idea of tricycles and other tri-fold objects being used to help us get inside the concept of a God who was both three and one. As I preacher, I find it tempting to use simplistic images, but I am saved by my Father’s voice in my head and – from now on – by a humorous look at the problem as presented on Youtube by TheLutheranSatire.[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw

As the clip points out, the best way to speak about the Trinity is that established as long ago as 381 in the form of the Athanasian Creed[2] that explicitly states that God is both three and one[3]. Trying to oversimplify the issue leads to misunderstanding, confusion and even “heresy”. At its heart the doctrine of the Trinity tries to come to grips with the biblical language for, and understanding of, God. It is a difficult and even dangerous exercise because as Thomas Aquinas stated: “we know that God is, but not what God is”. What we are doing in creating any doctrine is trying to find human language to describe what is utterly unknowable. As a result any attempt to describe or to capture God will always be finite and limited. In fact, if God could be captured by human thought or language, God would not be God. That said human beings, however limited and finite have, from time immemorial, experienced something completely other, something outside this physical and material world that somehow is engaged with and impacts on the created world. In the Judeo-Christian experience the relationship with and impact of the utterly other is related in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – the Bible.

It is from this record that theologians have found the raw material for the Trinitarian expression/experience of God. It is true that the Old Testament does not provide any evidence for plurality in the Godhead and would have utterly rejected any suggestion that God was other than one. The Old Testament does however use language that is later used by the New Testament writers to capture their experience of God. For example, in the Old Testament, the language of breath, or Spirit, occurs in the very first chapter when God’s spirit moves upon the waters (Genesis 1:1). In fact the spirit of God plays a large role in the Old Testament – it comes on Moses and Saul, Elijah and Elisha and on the prophets. It is never a separate entity, but always the spirit of God. Other “Trinitarian” language that is found in the Old Testament is that of God as Father (albeit as Father of the nation of Israel). Word and Wisdom are said to be present with God at creation (Proverbs) and even though they do not indicate plurality, they open the way for such language to be used of Jesus and to suggest pre-existence (John 1 for example).

Turning to the New Testament, the conclusion of 2 Corinthians provides evidence that Trinitarian language was applied to God as early as the fifth decade of the Common Era. Similar language is found in the “Great Commission” at the conclusion of Matthew, which was written probably in the 80’s. Paul regularly uses different terminology for God interchangeably. So, for example in a few verses he can speak of the law of God and the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 7:25, 8:2). Shortly afterwards he speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God who raised him from the dead (Romans 8:9-11 – God, Christ and Spirit).

Long before theologians put their mind to discussing the nature of God, the early church seems to have had an experience of one God in three persons. Long before the Council that produced the Athanasian Creed, early believers were using language that implied that they thought of God as both one and three. In those early years of the church, there appears to have been no attempt to create a doctrine or a creed to defend this understanding of God, nor is there a clear line of development of the idea. The simple fact is that the early church was convinced that Jesus was God and that the Spirit was God and that they could hold this belief without damaging their confidence that “the Lord our God is one”.

There will be those among us who will struggle to read theology and to come to terms with non-heretical ways of speaking about the Trinity. Most of us will be content to accept the unity and Trinity of God as a part of the incomprehensible mystery that is God and we will be satisfied that the God whom we know and relate to as Father, Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is both one and three –“yet there are not three Gods, but one God.”

 

[1] The fourth Lateran Council put the problem in this way: “Between God and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying greater dissimilitude.” In Hunt, Anne. Trinity. New York: Orbis Books, 2005, 3.

[2] p 487 of the Green Prayer Book

[3] Council of Constantinople

The Holy Spirit – wild and exuberant or quiet and restrained?

June 7, 2014

Pentecost – 2014

Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God whose holy Spirit energises, enlivens and empowers us. Amen.

 

We have a feast of readings today. They reveal, among other things, a variety of ways in which we can think about the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Of course, there are other readings that would shed a still further light on the subject and give us an even wider perspective. Today however, let’s just look at those we have heard this morning – Acts, John and 1 Corinthians. The first two provide us with two different accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples whereas the letter to the Corinthians gives us a glimpse into how the Spirit was experienced by at least one early community.

The descriptions in Acts and in John are so different that we could be excused from thinking that they were accounts of different events. In Acts the Spirit is explosive, uncontrollable, empowering and life changing. The Spirit appears out of nowhere and yet is visibly and audibly present to the disciples in the violent wind and tongues of fire. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples power that would enable them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, still I imagine that the actual event took them by surprise. Whether it did or not the effect was immediate – without warning and without years of study – the disciples discovered that they could speak in the variety of languages represented in a cosmopolitan Jerusalem. As a consequence of their newly acquired skill 3000 people joined the believers on that day.

In contrast to the very dramatic and public event described by Luke, is the report in John’s gospel. Here the coming (or the giving of the Spirit) is quiet, discrete, peaceful and controlled. In Acts, the disciples are depicted as a confident community – they meet together to pray and sing. They have just elected someone to replace Judas which suggests some sort of leadership structure. This more settled situation may reflect the fact that in Luke’s account the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at least forty days after the resurrection. They have had time to get used to Jesus’ risen presence and to think about the future. John’s version however, takes place on the very same day that Jesus rose from the dead.The disciples have heard the reports of the empty tomb, but they are yet to see Jesus for themselves. They are frightened and disorganized and have no apparent plan. Into this fear filled situation Jesus (not the Spirit) quietly appears. He offers them peace and breathes his Spirit on them. There is no wind or fire, just the gentle breath of the risen Christ. The event is private and personal and the consequences subtle and indeterminate. Instead of being given the ability to speak in difference tongues, John’s disciples are empowered to forgive or to retain sins. No converts are added to John’s community on that day, but the disciples have been armed with an important tool for the formation and building of a community of faith – the forgiveness of sins. The giving of the Spirit and Jesus’ resurrection appearance occur concurrently. Frightened disciples are not only assured of Jesus’ victory over death, but are powerfully reminded that, as promised, Jesus will not leave them alone.

Finally (for today) the reading from Corinthians provides us with an insight into the experience of the Spirit in one particular situation – the community in Corinth. Here the work of the Spirit does not equip the recipients for mission. Rather the Spirit endows members of the community with the gifts that will enable them to play a variety of roles within that community – the use of unintelligible language to worship God and to prophesy, the ability to utter wisdom and knowledge or to work miracles and heal. If we read further, we discover that the Spirit also empowers those who teach, lead and administer. In this fledgling community the Spirit seems to be inwardly focused rather than outwardly directed. The Spirit gives to members of the community different skills and these are to be used within the community for the building up of the church. As in Acts, the impression here is that the Spirit is exuberant and unable to be contained and that it leads it recipients to behave in ways that they would not otherwise behave.

What are we to take from all this? It seems clear that we will be able to build a coherent or accurate historical picture of the sending/receiving of the Spirit or that from today’s readings we will be able to neatly sum up the way that the Spirit is manifested in the communities that made up the early church. What we can do is to use all the information that we have to hand to help us to understand and to interpret our own experience. In so doing, it will be important for us to hold together the various biblical accounts and to allow each to inform the other, to recognise that just as the first Christian communities experienced the Spirit in different ways, so too, our experiences may differ one from the other. For some the presence of the Spirit might be wild and unrestrained and for others it might be understated and contained. Some of us will be gifted with the more extraordinary gifts and others will have to be content with those that seem to be less glamorous.

As we try to interpret our experience and to recognise our gifts it is important that we heed Paul’s caution and understand that the Spirit is of God and cannot be used or manipulated for our own ends, nor should the Spirit provide us with a means to compare ourselves favourably with others. The Holy Spirit is not something that we own or control, but a gift from God – the presence of God with and in us that prods us to take risks, that reveals skills that we did not know that we had, that gives us courage in the face of persecution, provides us with wisdom and understanding and opens us to new things, new teaching and new experiences and helps us to build and sustain Christian communities.

As we seek to recreate and renew the church both here and elsewhere, let us be alert to the Spirit in and among us, open to the Spirit’s leading and willing to be led into whatever future the Spirit has in store for us.

 

 

“People can’t talk about God from the outside”

May 18, 2013

Pentecost – 2013

John 14:8-17, Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose Spirit moves within us so that we might know God as we are known by God. Amen.

There are so many books in the world that I tend to read most books only once. However, there are some exceptions, some (to me) iconic books that I return to time and again. Sometimes I re-read them in their entirety because the story is just so imaginative or moving and sometimes I just dip in and out looking for that brilliant idea or expression that made a difficult concept much clearer to grasp. One such book is called Mister God This is Anna[1]. It is the story of an unlikely friendship between a nineteen year old boy, Fynn and a five year old girl – Anna.  Their lives collide, when late one foggy night, Fynn sees Anna sitting alone on a grating down by the docklands in the East End of London. Fynn sits beside her and offers her his hotdog. Initially hesitant, Anna gradually loosens up, laughs and plays, finally deciding that Fynn loves her.

At ten thirty, it is time to go home. Fynn asks Anna where she lives. She announces that she lives nowhere, she has run away. She flatly refuses to tell him where she lives and absolutely refuses to be taken to the cop shop. On being asked about her parents she states firmly that her mother is a cow and her father is a sop. She is, she says, going to live with Fynn. It is late and so Fynn takes her home with him. At home the whole household is awoken by their arrival and they busy themselves preparing a bath for what is – after three days on the streets – a very dirty little girl. It is only when Anna’s clothes are removed and she is sitting naked on the table that Fynn understands why she cringed in fear and whimpered piteously when she accidentally blew sausage in his face while blowing out his match. It is clear that she had expected him to thrash her for the perceived offence. She is used to being beaten – her whole little body is bruised and sore.

Despite all their efforts, Anna never tells the family where she comes from and she simply will not go to the cop shop. So it is that Anna joins this warm, welcoming family. Anna is bright, curious, unconventional and engaging and her relationship with God, which is what draws me back time and again to the book, is direct, personal and insightful. For example, when the parson asks her why she doesn’t go to church, she responds: “Because I know it all!” “What do you know?” “I know to love Mister God and to love people and cats and dogs and spiders and flowers and trees,” and the catalogue went on, “- with all of me.” (33)

Another time, Anna is pondering the nature of love, especially God’s love. She fills Fynn with despair by claiming: “Mister God doesn’t love us. I love Mister God truly, but he don’t love me!” Fynn needn’t have feared. Anna has not lost her innocent faith, she has simply taken it to a different level. “No he don’t love me, not like you do, it’s different, it’s millions of times bigger.” “People can only love outside and can only kiss outside, but Mister God can love you right inside and Mister God can kiss you right inside. Mister God can know things and people from the inside too. So you see Fynn, people can’t talk about God from the outside; you can only talk about Mister God from the inside of him.” (40-43)

It is an extraordinarily profound insight, one that – had Anna been versed in the Bible – could have come straight out of Paul’s letter to the Romans or from the gospel of John, yet stated with such simplicity and such clarity that it needs little further explanation. God’s love is incomprehensible, God can only be known through the presence of God in us and our being in God.

It seemed to me that this was a useful way to think and speak of the Holy Spirit, who to my mind is the most elusive, the most difficult member of the Trinity to describe.

Few of us have felt the Spirit as a violent, rushing wind or seen it as tongues of fire. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen the Spirit descend like a dove. We imagine that we can see God the Creator in the world around us. We can come to know about Jesus’ life and teaching through the words of the Gospels. The Holy Spirit is much harder to pin down because the Spirit has to be experienced, to be felt by us and to be known in us and in our lives. The Holy Spirit moves within and among us.  At our best, the Holy Spirit informs, inspires and directs us. It is the Holy Spirit who fills us with the knowledge and love of God and who is, in fact the presence of God dwelling within us.

In John’s gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit is expressed in this way: before he departs, Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will abide with them and in them. The in-dwelling Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to them. The Holy Spirit will teach them all things and remind them of all that Jesus has taught. The Holy Spirit, who is indistinguishable from Jesus, who in turn is indistinguishable from God will make a home within the disciples – will indeed “know them from the inside out”, and help them to know God from “the inside of God.”

Paul too claims that the Spirit of God dwells in those who believe. In Romans he says that the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies and bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God. “Those who live according to the Spirit, set their minds on the Spirit,” Paul says. (8:6) What is more, the “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints, according to the will of God.”(8:26-27)

The Holy Spirit then, is God dwelling within us, enlivening us, revealing God’s love to us, reminding us of all that Jesus taught us, enabling us to be children of God, searching our hearts and speaking to God for us. To use Anna’s insight, the Spirit who is God knows us from the inside out and the inside of God enables us to speak about God.

If we are open and willing, we will learn that the Holy Spirit fills us with the presence of God, so that we can know and talk to God from the inside, because through the Holy Spirit God is already inside us. God who has already given us everything through Jesus Christ, gives us this one thing more – God’s own self as an integral part of our being, an essential part of our lives – that is how we know the Holy Spirit, through the Holy Spirit knowing us.


[1] Fynn. Mister God this is Anna.  London:William Collins and Sons Co Ltd, 1974.

Peace the world cannot give

May 4, 2013

Easter 6  – 2013

John 14:23-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

We prepare for all kinds of things in life: weddings, holidays, the birth of a child, moving house, entertaining and so in. In many instances we don’t have to start from scratch. Instructions abound. One can download detailed wedding plans and buy any number of books on child-birth and child-raising. Some recipe books will even give you a helpful timetable so that you don’t have to be overwhelmed when catering for a big event. As a result, I suspect that most of us are not too bad at planning for the expected and preparing for something that we have chosen to do or that we expect to be enjoyable. On the other hand, most of us are not so good at planning for disasters or for the unexpected. Floods and earthquakes often find us rushing to the shops for such basics as water and batteries for our radios (that is if we have been sufficiently prepared to have battery operated radios).

Preparing ourselves and those whom we love for our eventual death is something that some of us find easy and some of us do not. There exists a kind of superstition that suggests that even writing a will or planning a funeral might in some way be an invitation or  encouragement for death to overtake us. Some people don’t like to talk about death because they find it distressing, or because those with whom they want to share their thoughts cannot bear to discuss the possibility of their absence. This can leave family and friends unprepared both for the reality of loss and for the responsibility of continuing life without their family member or friend.

Old Testament figures had no such scruples. It was not uncommon for a father, before his death to give each of his sons a blessing. At the conclusion of Genesis for example, Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons and through that blessing indicates the future he sees for each of them. He has given instructions about his burial and can leave this life confident both that he has left nothing undone and also that his children can move forward with their lives after he has gone, equipped in some way for what lies ahead. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses does something similar. He reminds the Israelites of their history and of their covenant with God and gives them instructions on how to live in the promised land. Moses himself will not lead them into Canaan, but he prepares the people as best he can for a future without his leadership

This practice of a Farewell speech is well-attested in ancient and first century writings which means it is no surprise that John uses it as a template for Jesus’ farewell speech to his disciples. Our Gospel reading today is a small part of that speech which, in John’s gospel, replaces an account of the institution of the Eucharist and extends from the fourteenth to the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus knows that he is “going away” and that his death will mean that his disciples will be left leaderless and without direction. They still do not fully understand who he is or what he is about. Without Jesus to guide and teach them there is every possibility that they will return to what they were doing before – as indeed they do – if briefly

On this, his last night with them, Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for his departure. He does this in a number of ways. He begins by telling them that he is going away and that he is going to the Father. Then he assures them that he is going to prepare a place for them and that he will come back for them. The disciples’ distress at his going can be tempered by the knowledge that they will be together again. Thirdly, he promises to send the disciples the Holy Spirit. This means that even in his absence, they will not be alone – the Holy Spirit will be with them. What is more, the Holy Spirit will continue Jesus’ teaching because there are things that they need to know, but are not yet ready to hear. The Spirit will guide them in the truth and testify on their behalf. There is no reason for the disciples to be concerned about their ignorance or failure to understand what Jesus has taught them. It is in fact to their advantage that Jesus goes away, for only if Jesus goes away will the Holy Spirit be able to come and to empower them with the truth.

Jesus not only prepares the disciples for his imminent departure, he also tries to give them some guidance for their life together once he has gone. This includes instructing them how to be a community in his name, providing an insight into what the future might hold for them, and giving them some tools for living in the world without him. Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment – to love one another. He hopes that their community will be recognisable to others by virtue of this love. He encourages the disciples and builds their confidence by telling them that not only will they continue his work but that they will do greater works than he himself has done. Aware of the hostility that he is about to experience Jesus also warns the disciples that those who have rejected him might also reject them. Finally he prays for them, asking for God’s protection for them and for those who will believe as a consequence of their work.

By preparing the disciples for his departure, Jesus gives them hope for the future, a task to complete, courage to face the difficulties that might lie ahead and the assurance that they will never be alone.

Words that are centuries old, continue to challenge and reassure us long after Jesus’ death. Thanks to Jesus’ farewell speech, we know that we are not alone. We are challenged to be a community that loves each other. We depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth and we understand that our faith in Jesus might lead to hostility from others. There is no need for us to be afraid in the present or worried about the future because we know that Jesus prayed for us and that he has a place prepared for us. This is Jesus’ gift – a gift for every age – a peace that the world cannot give, the assurance that, whatever storms surround us, we are safe and secure in God’s love, supported by the Holy Spirit and awaited by none other than Jesus Christ himself.


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