A God of relationship

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.

A bishop was at a parish for a confirmation, and decided that he would quiz the teenagers he was supposed to be confirming.  So he asked them, “Who can tell me what the Trinity is?”
They all looked at their shoes, in that way that teenagers do.  So he called on one young man, who mumbled a reply, in that way that teenagers do.  The bishop said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”
The boy sighed, in that way that teenagers do, and replied, only slightly louder, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  The bishop, wanting the boy to speak up so everyone can hear him, said, “I’m sorry, I still didn’t understand.”
And the boy, rolling his eyes, in that way that teenagers do, said loudly and clearly, “You’re not supposed to understand it.  It’s a mystery.”

I know it’s not just teenagers in the church who kind of go along with a Trinitarian framework, without being able to articulate why that should matter.

There’s a temptation, I think, when confronted with the idea of the Trinity – especially if, like me, you don’t find it an easy thing to get your head around – a temptation to decide that what we think about the Trinity doesn’t really matter.  But it does, and I want to focus on just one aspect of that this morning.

If you think of God as being not a Trinity, but One person, there is one thing that that God does not have which the Trinity does; and that is relationship as part of God’s very nature and eternal reality.  A God which is not a Trinity must create others – the physical world, angels, human beings – with whom to experience that relationship, and those relationships are always profoundly unequal; the worshippers and the worshipped.

In contrast, if we believe in a God who is a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all uncreated, each eternal – we believe in a God who is intrinsically and eternally in God’s very nature a relational God.  In the relationships within the Trinity – says the Creed of Athanasius – “none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another.”  But these three are united in purpose and perfectly cooperative in action, each contributing their part in submission to their shared dream for creation.

And here’s the important bit about that, for us in our everyday lives.  If this is how God relates within Godself, then this is the model for ideal human relationships.  Within the home, within society, and within the church, we are given a model for relating to one another in which position and hierarchy are suspect; in which power is relativized, and in which the importance of shared vision, shared purpose, and mutuality in taking up the work involved are set forth as the highest possible example, and we are shown our opportunity to reflect and even participate in the divine glory.

What I’m suggesting is that “the Trinity” shouldn’t just be an idea, or a set of ideas, for us; but should be a template, should give our attitudes an orientation, which will be practically expressed in the way we behave.

And this Trinitarian orientation of our attitudes, this way of relating to one another, is important because people are important.  The Trinity – like the home, like society, like the church – is comprised of persons in relationship.  True healthy, Godly relationship will build one another up, creating unity which celebrates our diversity, never impoverishing us all by marginalising or reducing to silence or stillness people who are an integral part of who we are.

Here we have a stark judgement of our continuous failings; because in the light of the Trinity, we have no excuse for any domination of one human being by another, or of one group of human beings by another.  No excuse for war; no excuse for economic exploitation; no excuse for leadership structures which silence the voices of the powerless; no excuse for patriarchy; no excuse for racism; and so on.

In particular, an understanding of the Trinity as a perfect relationship of equals undermines the patriarchal view of marriage put out by some Christians, who say that in the Trinity, the Son is eternally submitting to the Father.  But when we know that Jesus’ submission was not eternal, but part of the cooperation of all the persons of the Trinity to achieve their will for creation, then we cannot use belief in the Trinity to argue that it’s God’s will that wives be doormats, but have to acknowledge that the ideal set before us is one of unity, cooperation and mutuality.

I’m not saying that there will never be leadership and authority exercised by some in the home or anywhere else (I’m a parent, after all!); but it’s about how that is exercised, with reciprocity, consensus and concord, in a spirit of humility and service.

This understanding of God also calls into judgement our individualism and our consumerism; our belief that fundamentally, we stand alone in this life, and our tendency to relate to one another for what we can get out of it, rather than who we can be to, for and with one another.   How we relate to one another shows clearly how deeply we have been shaped by the worship of a God of perfect relationship.  This vision of God as Trinity challenges directly each of us who, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuates division within ourselves, and between ourselves and others.  We all have our share in the making and the perpetuating of these wounds.  There is a need for the healing of these rifts; a healing which for us, lies in our Lord and God whose inner life of loving relationship overflows into and renews the life of the church.

All of us are here today because something about God has been attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

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The Lord, the giver of life

This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Acts 2:1-21.

Today is Pentecost. That’s a rather dry name for the fiftieth day of Easter, but the event we remember today isn’t dry at all.

You know the story. Jesus’s disciples and others were gathered in an “upper room” in Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. He had told them to go there and wait to be “endued with power from on high” that would then make them witnesses to him throughout the world. As they were gathered there, celebrating the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them “like a rushing, mighty wind” and “tongues of flame” appeared over their heads. Then they spoke in tongues—foreign languages unknown to them. Apparently people from the area—gathered from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate Pentecost–flocked to see and hear this phenomenon and heard the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached in their own languages. They thought the disciples were drunk which indicates they were very excited.

So, that’s the story in a nutshell. That event marks the beginning of the Church as a recognisable entity; as a group of people with a sense of their own identity and purpose. But how did that happen? Christians have understood that the Holy Spirit was for the first time given to people as an indwelling gift. The Holy Spirit, who before had been a somewhat elusive presence and power of God descending on prophets, suddenly came to dwell within Jesus’s followers.

Beginning on this day of Pentecost, God’s own Spirit came to indwell, unite, energize and send forth the new people of God, the church.

Who is this “Holy Spirit?”

In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is hardly distinguished from Yahweh God, the Covenant Lord of Israel. Yet, there are hints here and there, especially in the prophets, that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person of God. The Holy Spirit came and went, occasionally descending on a prophet to reveal truth or to work miracles. But no prophet before John the Baptist was “filled with the Spirit.”

The New Testament has so much to say about the Holy Spirit it’s impossible to even touch on it all in one sermon.

Jesus promised the disciples that after he left them he would send “another Comforter” or “another “Advocate” to be with them and in them—to represent himself to them and to lead them into all truth. The Holy Spirit plays a prominent role in the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul mentions the Holy Spirit often and urges God’s people to “be not drunk with wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He say that the Holy Spirit helps us pray, when we don’t know how to pray. He mentions several “gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “fruit of the Spirit.” There is no shortage of “talk” of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

And there are some key things to take away from that New Testament picture.

First, the Holy Spirit is God. On one level we know that, but lots of Christians have the habit of saying “God” and really meaning “the Father.”  But any time a Christian says “God” we have to mean the Trinity, the Father and the Son and the Spirit, working together.  Anything less than that, for us, is a deficient picture of God.  (More on that theme next week!)

Second, the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force or power like electricity. The New Testament tells us that the Holy Spirit speaks, comforts, convicts, and can be grieved. An impersonal force or power cannot do any of that.  (As an aside, the Hebrew word for spirit is feminine. So there’s no reason, really, to only say “he” when referring to the Holy Spirit).

So the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead—equal in every way with the Father and the Son but sent to us by the Father through the Son.

But, as with any sort of theology, the most important question is, so what?  The Holy Spirit is God; the Holy Spirit is a person and relates to us personally.  So what, for us, today?

First, the Holy Spirit is fulfilment of a promise. Jesus promised that his leaving the disciples, a thought that deeply discouraged them, was actually a good thing. It was a good thing because he would send someone else to be his presence within and among them carrying on his mission. In other words, his no longer being bodily present among them was not, he said, something to be dreaded. The coming of the Spirit from him would more than take his place. He even said that they would do “greater things” than he did among them because of the Holy Spirit whom he would send to be in them and with them.

 

And we remember also that the Hebrew prophet Joel promised that “in the last days” the Spirit would fill God’s people in a special way never experienced before. The apostle Peter interpreted the Day of Pentecost as the fulfillment of that promise.

And the Holy Spirit is the person of God who is most directly present to and with us. Unlike in the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit “came and went,” since the Day of Pentecostal all who truly follow Jesus, who have put their trust in him and embraced him as Lord and Saviour, have the Holy Spirit enlivening us. The Spirit is God’s personal presence within us.

And the Holy Spirit is power. Jesus promised the disciples the power they would need to be his witnesses throughout the world and they did go on to turn the world upside down, because they were enlivened by the Holy Spirit and given the Spirit’s power to witness. Although the Spirit is a person, the Spirit is also God’s power in us and among us.  Power to do what? To live Christlike lives, to show forth the grace of God, to point people to Jesus, to be the people of God.  The Holy Spirit gives us passion for the lost and dying and for peace and justice.

And that power of the Holy Spirit is productive; leading us to live in a way which makes a difference in the world. The New Testament lists two special things the Holy Spirit produces when the Spirit is present within us and among us. The first are gifts of the Spirit. The second are fruit of the Spirit.

Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control. These are the evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Wherever the Spirit is present these characteristics should be evident; and more to the point, a Christian’s growth in maturity should be visible by their growth in these virtues.

Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12: faith, prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and wisdom, etc. Like the fruit of the Spirit these are supernatural, not natural abilities. Left to ourselves, without the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, we could never have these gifts.

While Anglicans haven’t historically emphasised these gifts of the Spirit, it would be a mistake to think they should be absent from the life of our community.

So, if we want these evidences of the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives, in our church, what must we do?

The first part of the answer has to be that we must take baptism seriously.  It’s in baptism that we turn to Christ and that the Spirit comes to enliven us.

But more than that, given what we’ve said about the Spirit being a person and the Spirit’s presence in our lives being relational, we ought to realise that that relationship will develop and grow over time.  That relationship should deepen and expand the extent to which it transforms our character and our lives.

A fair reading of the New Testament pushes us to realize that, although the Holy Spirit is already within us and among us, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit always do more and take us further; transforming our lives both individually and collectively. When that happens the fruit of the Spirit grows and the gifts of the Spirit open up. The result is holiness of life, power to witness, and mutual blessing of each other and God.

American Methodist minister and poet Jan Richards wrote about this presence of the Holy Spirit in these words:

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves.

This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our own purposes,
cannot bend
to our own will.

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness,
when we gather
together,
when we turn
toward one another.

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears,

when we finally listen
into the chaos,

when we breathe together
at last.

On unity.

This reflection was given at an ecumenical Eucharist during the week of prayer for Christian unity.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:1-16.

In the reading we just heard from Ephesians, Paul called us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Unity – oneness – is a wonderful ideal; but whether it was the identity issues of Jews and gentiles in Paul’s day, or the denominational divides (or indeed divisions within denominations) in our own, it’s something with which Christians have always struggled.

And it is, if we’re honest, something which we don’t always want.  When you talk with Christians about ecumenism or unity, there are often concerns about loss of identity, about compromise, about watering down the truth.

So I wanted to reflect, for a moment, on what making every effort towards unity might mean for us.

I believe that ecumenism is important, but by that I don’t mean boiling everything down to the lowest common denominator or one (or both) sides compromising until their integrity is compromised (if you’ll pardon the pun).

It’s important to listen to one another, to try to understand one another, to impute the best possible motives to one another, and to seek to appreciate and learn from one another. What we must not do is abandon our own clear convictions in that process.

It’s important to pray with and for one another.  What we must not do is disparage the liturgical and prayerful practices of others, or to demand that they must pray just like us; nor should we abandon the treasuries of prayer in our own traditions for the sake of doing something together.

It’s important to work together for the sake of the reign of God; to support one another in proclaiming the good news, nurturing believers, responding to the needs of the vulnerable, transforming injustice and so on. We can be and do more together than we can apart, and there’s no reason why (for example) people of different denominations can’t work together to care for the vulnerable and needy in their local community. What we must not do is see that as the only important thing, and think that therefore our institutional churches are irrelevant or meaningless.

What I’m suggesting is that the quest for unity, for us, is a matter of finding the creative point between the things which divide us, and the Spirit’s pull towards an ultimate future in which we will know perfect unity.  We are not free to violate our consciences, which is why we have such disunity in the first place; but neither are we free to reject our brothers and sisters in Christ.

(You’re stuck with me, I’m afraid, whether you like it or not!  Or rather, we’re stuck with each other.)

We know that when we are gathered around the throne of God at the end of time itself, there will be no divisions between us; in the meantime, Paul reminds us that we are literally God’s gift to one another, and that if we refuse to share our lives together, all of us are diminished by that.

This is not always an easy thing; not always a comfortable thing, this challenge of unity.  Paul said it took humility, gentleness, patience, love and peace.  Fortunately those are the fruits of the Spirit at work in our lives, and so as we yield more and more to the Spirit, we should find ourselves growing closer together as well.  Thanks be to God!

Dealing with absence

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it refers to is John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15.

“I’m not single,” she said.  “I’m in a long distance relationship, because my boyfriend lives in the future.”

Well, that’s maybe an optimistic way of looking at things.  But while that’s fairly light-hearted, it reflects one of the things Christians have struggled with a great deal; Jesus was here, as a real human person who walked and talked and shared life with his disciples.  And Jesus will return at the end of the world as we know it, and at that time we’ll again know his presence in that very direct way.

But in the meantime, the time in-between, here’s not here in the same way.  We have the somewhat paradoxical situation of claiming ongoing relationship with a Lord who is absent.

And – we might note – in struggling with that reality, Christians have sometimes tried to substitute something else for Jesus, and that inevitably ends badly.

Here are some examples of what I mean.  One classic way of doing this is to try to substitute the Bible for Jesus.  To look at the collection of texts here, and insist on reading them as if every line in them is Jesus present to and speaking to us, personally, right now.  To treat every opinion or idea in the text – no matter who said it, or to whom it was said – as if it’s a direct command to be uncritically obeyed by us today.

The word for this kind of take on Scripture is bibliolatry – the worship of the book – and all of us have seen the kind of trouble we can get into with that kind of approach.

Another search for a substitute looks different but has the same sort of underlying impulse, and that is to try to substitute a church leader or church institution for Jesus.  In this kind of approach you end up with saying that the church is infallible in what it teaches, or that church members must submit to their pastors because they’re the ones who are anointed to stand in the place of Christ.

That’s clericalism – or one kind of clericalism, anyway – and it can be just as destructive in its own way.

The attempt to solve the problem of Jesus’ ongoing absence by trying to shove something else into the Jesus-shaped hole really just doesn’t work.

So what do we do, to deal with the tension of Jesus’ absence?

The gospel reading we had this morning is part of a much larger section of John’s gospel – all of chapters 13 through 17 – which wrestles with the implications, and the practicalities, of that absence.  It’s the night of the last supper, Jesus knows he’s going to die, and he spends this time letting his disciples know that he knows what’s coming, and sharing with them what they need to know for the time to come.  The time while he’ll be gone.  Not just the time of his arrest, crucifixion and burial; but also looking forward to the time after his ascension, the time we’re still in now.

There are four things to notice about that from what we read today.

First is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the advocate who – from the perspective of the point in time when Jesus was speaking – will be sent to us.  The word here translated for us as “advocate” is notoriously difficult to bring across into English, but it would literally be something like “one called alongside.”  The Spirit is the one who is called alongside the believers in Jesus’ absence, to be for us a source of guidance, comfort, and strength.  The Spirit is able to be present to us, active and personally relating to us, even in Jesus’ absence.

This is a very difficult thing to describe in the abstract, and really needs to be experienced to be understood.  But we believe that every person who turns to Christ has the Spirit available to him or her in that way, making ongoing intimate relationship with God possible.  (And if you look at today’s reading from Acts, we see some of that action of the Holy Spirit playing out in Paul’s vision and in Lydia and her household’s response to Paul’s teaching).

The second thing to notice from today’s reading is the emphasis on our love of Jesus.  “Those who love me will keep my word,” “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words,” “If you loved me, you would rejoice.”

However we deal with Jesus’ absence, continuing to love him is an essential element of it.  And while there are lots of things that might be said about that, I want to make just two points about it this morning.  One is that love is not static.  Love – in our giving of ourselves to someone else, and our responding to their needs, their desires, and their giving of themselves – is something which develops over time.  It matures as we get to know the object of our love better, and as we come to know ourselves better and to deepen our own capacity for love.

The other point about love is that it is not an abstract thing.  What I mean by that is that love always is directed at a real person, in the real circumstances of your lives and theirs.  There is no perfect abstract ideal way to “love Jesus,” which every believer should aspire to; there is only the response of your heart, your will and your desire, from who you are, and from your particular set of life circumstances and experience.  In that sense, love is a deeply personal opening of yourself to the other; in this case, to Christ.

On the one hand, that can leave us feeling very vulnerable; but on the other hand, it can be deeply encouraging; because it means every single one of us has the capacity to love authentically and meaningfully.  This relationship is not open only to the especially spiritual or holy, but to every single one of us.

And – finally – notice what Jesus tells his disciples will flow from this kind of love; joy and peace.  We can have joy because greater things are on their way, having been lovingly prepared by the Father.  And Jesus’ peace is given to us, over against our propensity to be troubled and afraid.

Jesus is not here, standing in the flesh the way you and I are here in the flesh.  Often we might find things easier if he were, and if we could expect him to miraculously intervene in all the things which grieve us or make us anxious.

But instead, today’s passage points us towards the resources we do have; towards the presence of the Holy Spirit alongside us as guide and comforter.  Towards love of Christ as an orientation which will sustain us.  And towards the joy and peace which flow from those realities and change the quality of how we experience the ups and downs of life.

Those are the resources we have until our long-distance relationship with Christ finds its fulfilment, and in nurturing and developing them, we’ll find ourselves sustained for the long haul.

New creation

This is a sermon for Easter day.  It reflects on the resurrection in light of the creation narrative in the beginning chapters of Genesis.

In the beginning, a spark.  A word.  Light in the darkness, and speech in the silence.

Life.

It’s a day to celebrate beginnings, and new beginnings; creation, and re-creation, because these are very deeply connected realities.

If you were here on Friday, as we remembered Christ’s death, I talked about how this death – the death of God himself, willingly chosen for our sake – could absorb the catastrophic potential, and break the cycle, of all human destructiveness and evil.

And that’s good; wonderful; liberating.  But in itself it’s not enough.

What I mean is, you can’t just come along and remove from human lives and human hearts all the power of destruction and corruption, and thinks that solves the problem; because what you’d be left with would be only partial and incomplete.  Sin is so very much a part of our nature, so deeply embedded in our minds and hearts, that it can’t be removed while still leaving us whole.  It certainly wouldn’t be humanity as it was meant to be.

Think of it like this; you can pull all of the weeds out of an overgrown garden bed, but there’s a lot more to growing a lush and beautiful garden of fruits and flowers than that.  You also have to pay attention to what you plant and how you cultivate it.

Or, to make another analogy, it’s like when a building is burning. It’s one thing to put out the fire, it’s another thing to restore the safety, functionality and beauty of the building.

What we need is not just a kind of forensic removal of sin, but to be created afresh; remade; “born again,” as Jesus so memorably put it.

So this explains why resurrection is so important.  It’s not just that Jesus’ death dealt with our sin – although it did – but that his resurrection shows us that a fully restored humanity is possible, and what that looks like.  With Jesus’ death we see our destructive fires put out; but it’s with resurrection that we see ourselves remade.  In the resurrection of Jesus we see our own future and hope.

If Good Friday was about recognising that we are not what we should be, then Easter day is about God showing us what we should – and can – be.

Now I need to be careful not to speak about this as if everything is already resolved, because you and I both know that it isn’t.  We live in a time of already-but-not-yet; Christ has already made it possible, but we haven’t yet reached the point where everything is fulfilled.

But while we’re not there yet, the resurrection shows us where we’re going.  It shows us God’s freedom to be at work in the world, bringing life.  It’s the same power and love which first created light in the darkness; which first created life in whatever primordial soup; which can bring life back to a dead body in a tomb.

The point for today is that even for all of us who have never literally encountered Jesus in the flesh, the work of God in Jesus can be real and make a difference.  Because the resurrection shows us that it doesn’t matter what our life circumstances are, God has an open door into them, to bring light and life, to re-create and to make everything new (and better).

This is why our first reading (at the vigil) this morning was the story of creation; because it shows us the pattern for what is happening, mysterious, unseen, in the tomb.  As life is restored, God the creator is still at work.

And this is why, for centuries, Eastern Christians have often pictured the resurrection not just in terms of Jesus rising from the tomb, but as Jesus breaking down the doors of a prison; the prison which held Adam and Eve and all humanity up until that point; but the prison which holds each of us, too.

Whether that prison is a sense of worthlessness because of the way you’ve been treated, or whether it’s one of crippling anxiety, or whether it’s one of chasing wealth or status in the world’s terms (something that keeps you caught up on the hamster wheel of corporate striving); whatever that is for you and for me, the resurrection shows us that even in that place, God has the freedom and the power to break in and create  something new.

And so every place is has changed, at least in its potential.  Not just Jesus but the whole cosmos is made new, as God’s freedom and power are made real for us.  That’s what resurrection means, in all its glory.  There is new light, new life, new hope.  That God continues to create, bringing light to darkness and order to chaos.

And, crucially, bringing love and joy to human relationships.  In the light of the resurrection, as we experience something of God’s re-creation of ourselves and our realities, we are inspired and equipped to live as God would have us live.  To do what Jesus does and speak as Jesus speaks; to God, to one another, and to the world.

So here we are.  In the beginning; the new beginning, where we can encounter God very intimately and personally as our creator, the one who brings fresh possibilities and hope into every moment.  That’s something to hold onto, as we go home and to whatever the rest of the day and the week and the year hold for you.

Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

Breaking the cycle

This is a sermon for Good Friday.  The Scripture it references is John 18 and 19.

In one sense, what we remember today, in Jesus’ suffering and death, is not very remarkable.  Humans have been brutal to one another – in all sorts of inventive ways, and on a scale the mind reels at imagining – for as far back as we have any sense of our history.

But we also have a deeper memory, or a deeper dream, of a humanity that wasn’t supposed to be like this.  That was created for peace and mutually loving relationships and delight.  Yet somehow that purpose for our existence is consistently thwarted, despite the best efforts of good people.

There is a deep gulf of suffering between where we are, in terms of the reality of human society and culture, and where we should be, if we look at human potential.  When we talk about sin, this reality of willingly inflicted suffering, of our best impulses gone askew, of selfishness or cowardice in the face of challenging circumstances; this is what we mean; a reality in which all of us have learned, before we’re old enough to even realise we’re learning, all the dysfunctional habits of those who’ve trod the way before us.

The remarkable, the extraordinary claim we make about Jesus’ death, then, isn’t in the scale of his suffering; it’s in the claim that somehow, this man can break the cycle.  This death can break the cycle.

On the face of it, it’s an outrageous claim.  To pile the weight and momentum of every instance of human evil and inhumanity on this one person; this one moment in history; and say that we can see all of its meaning summed up in his beaten, broken body.  That we can see all of its poison absorbed into his pain.  That somehow, from this point on, we can start over, without any baggage, and recover something of our original innocence, because this happened a long time ago, somewhere most of us have never been.

The only reason we can make that claim is because of who Jesus is.  Not just a human; not even a good or a wise or a heroic one; but God.  We believe that the one who created everything that exists, and sustains it in every moment of its existence, put himself at the mercy of its brokenness.

Of course God can break the cycle.  If God is big enough to have created everything in the first place, then God is big enough to hold its dysfunction without being broken by it.  Only God can create possibilities for new goodness out of our tangled mess.  Only God can offer the opportunity to set our relationships back in order.  We couldn’t do it for ourselves, but in this moment we see God’s ultimate intervention, to say, “I’m bigger than your evil, your sin, your brokenness, your trauma.  I can hold all of it, and set it to rights, and we can start again.”  God isn’t bound by our limitations but can, with complete freedom, open up new possibilities.

It’s that freedom, that mastery over all that exists, that we’ll come back to celebrate to the full on Sunday.

But today we’re here.  At the moment the cycle is broken.

So when we come to the foot of the cross, we can come confidently.  We can come carrying our hurts and shames and griefs, ready to hand them over.  Because here, the power that inflicted those wounds is stopped in its tracks, and here, we can find new beginnings.

The cycle is broken.  It is finished.  And we may come.

The best is yet to come

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it refers to is Philippians 3:3-14.

When I was about 16, I was pretty unhappy.  In hindsight, I probably had undiagnosed depression (it was diagnosed years later); but what I knew at the time was that I felt pretty worthless.  Not smart enough, not pretty enough, and definitely not sporty enough to have any area where I felt I had value as a person.

That was a difficult time, because when you’re 16, you don’t have the life experience or perspective to know that how you feel right now isn’t how things are going to be forever.  But I have a distinct memory of sitting on the beach one evening and deciding that I didn’t have to be worth something right now; as long as I could see that I was working on improving myself, that was good enough.  It was good enough to be on the way, rather than having already arrived at a destination marked “fabulous.”

And while that didn’t fix my depression – or my low assessment of myself – I think that was a turning point in how I learned to live with those things.  It was about openness to the future, rather than being defined by the past, or even the present.  I think in terms of today’s educational buzzwords they’d talk about me having developed a “growth mindset.”

And in a way, in today’s epistle reading, Paul is also encouraging the development of a growth mindset.  He draws a careful contrast between the things from his past – or his people’s past – which might be seen to define him; and the things held in trust for his future.

Here’s what I mean.  He describes what he has been; an Israelite, a Torah-keeper, a Hebrew-speaker, a pharisee, a zealot.  And he doesn’t say that any of those things are, in themselves, bad or wrong.  But then he contrasts that with gaining Christ and being found in Christ, knowing Christ’s power and resurrection and becoming like Christ and – finally – sharing in the resurrection from the dead.  These are the attributes he holds up as preferable, as being a much more sound basis for his identity, life purpose and so on.

But the thing to notice about this is that these are not things which he yet possesses (or at least, which he does not yet possess to the full) when he writes.  His sense of what’s important in his life has shifted from past accomplishments to future promises.

You might remember that a few weeks ago I preached on another passage from this letter and explained that it is a “letter of consolation;” that Paul through this letter is arguing that the Philippians need a change of attitude and to become more joyful.  This part of the letter is one plank in that argument; he’s telling them that if they’re unhappy with where they’re at now, they can rejoice in knowing that this isn’t how it’s going to be forever.  God’s got better things in store.  The best is yet to come.

I wonder if sometimes, our churches need to make a similar mental shift?

Where do we root our sense of identity?  Is it in what we have been?  Are the things which are important to us here that we are church members, Anglicans, progressive catholics, take up particular ways to serve, and so on?  Note that I’m not saying any of those things are bad or wrong.  But are they the point, or are they markers on the way to what it’s really all about; being Christ’s body, experiencing Christ’s power, being oriented to the reign of God and making that real and known in the world around us?

What I’m asking is where we focus our attention, and how we choose the priorities for our energy and efforts.

It seems to me that all too often, churches get caught up in focussing on the wrong things; pour their time and energy and money (and, let’s face it, angst) into parts of their life which will never make one shred of difference in mission.  (I think, for example, of one parish I was in where epic battle raged for months over the question of how to serve morning tea).   But this is fruitless, just as focussing on keeping Torah or speaking in Hebrew would have distracted Paul from any effective ministry in the Greco-Roman cities to which he travelled.  And what we see from the letter to the Philippians is that’s a problem not just because it makes us ineffective Christians (although that’s bad), and not just because it tends to lead to conflict (also bad), but because it robs us of our joy.

When our sense of identity, our sense of purpose, and our priorities all align with a clear, Scriptural understanding of what God is doing in the world, and what the end result of all of that is going to be… that’s when we find the true joy of being Christians.

It does take work.  It means actually knowing the Scriptures well enough to have a very clear sense of what the reign of God is all about.  It might sound obvious, but we can’t know what it means to be found in Christ, unless we really know Christ.

It also means, not just knowing Christ, but having the ability to translate what we know about Christ, in the abstract, to recognise and participate in what Christ is doing in the world, in real and concrete ways.  It means that if, for example, we talk about “justice,” we have a very clear sense of what justice means in the playground and the workplace and on the street.  What it means in terms of policies for institutions, and priorities for individuals.  How a sense of justice might inform our interactions with everyone from our local politicians to the folks seeking emergency relief at the vicarage door.  And not only justice, but hope and faith and peace and all the fruits of the Spirit.

Because when we have that clear in our own heads, we can make our way through the world, confident that we are being who we are meant to be; more than that, growing into who God calls us to be!   And that we are participating in bringing the future God intends into being.

And that’s where we draw our joy from.  Anything else that we do, without doing that, is going to be a drain and a distraction, rather than a wellspring of joy and of life.

The good news for us here is that this is something already begun, in which we can continue to grow, and which will find its fulfilment.  The future is open, and taking Paul’s growth mindset to it, we can more and more be part of the reign of God as it grows.  We are not only the sum of what we have been or are right now; God has so much more, and so much that is better, for us to press into.

Paul told the Philippians that “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  What will straining forward to what lies ahead look like, for you, this week?