Freshness and delight.

This is a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Rumi wrote a poem on “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” and it runs thus:

There are two kinds of intelligence; one acquired,
as a child in school memorises facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information.  You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox.  A freshness
in the centre of the chest.  This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate.  It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

 

It seems to me that with different imagery, both Rumi and the author of today’s Psalm were reflecting on some of the same sorts of experience, especially when we come to the Psalmist’s comments about delight in the law, on which they meditate day and night.

Both Rumi and the Psalmist are describing a positive experience; an experience of a relationship with God which was affirming and satisfying; a source of confidence rather than anxiety as they navigate life.

And in the Psalm particularly the key idea underpinning that confidence is that God is reliable and trustworthy.  That reliability and trustworthiness of God is known and experienced in a well-ordered world, deliberately crafted by a good and loving God, in which we have a secure place.

So creation – everything that exists – is purposeful, well-ordered, reliable and life-giving.  In this sense, creation isn’t something God did in the past, but it’s about our ongoing experience of God’s dependability and generosity, lavished on us.  Life – our frail and vulnerable life – exists under God’s protection.

So under that sacred canopy of God’s protection, we can live our lives in freedom and delight.  We don’t have to achieve everything in our own strength, we don’t have to build our own world; but we can contribute our efforts to the goodness of the world knowing that our efforts find their results within the work that God has already done, and that our work finds its meaning and purpose by being aligned with the creative and meaningful purposes and work of God.

And – the Psalmist said – they delight in the law – the Torah – of God.  Torah here is part of God’s good creation; in some ways the pinnacle of God’s good creation, because through Torah God works with the people of Israel to create a good and well-ordered society, in which people can flourish like trees planted by streams of water.

And here’s where Rumi’s idea about two kinds of intelligence is useful; because what the Psalmist does not have in mind here is memorising a set of rules.  “Do this; don’t do that; wear this; don’t eat that.”  That’s not the point of the Torah.  The Torah is meant to be a wellspring of life, something provided by God which bubbles up inside you and overflows into your relationships and social context and constructs a coherent and peaceful society which functions for the good of all its members.  Hence the delight!

And while Christians don’t keep Torah in the same way as Jews, we can still have that wellspring of life within us which overflows from us to those around; in our case, rather than law-keeping, it ends up being expressed in mission; in sharing good news, teaching, nurturing and serving.

Now of course, we can’t read a psalm like this naïvely.   This is a psalm which reflects the goodness of creation, and the goodness of the Creator; but we know that there are other experiences in human life which also need to be taken into account.  This isn’t a psalm for a time of disaster!  Not that disaster makes this psalm untrue, but this truth isn’t the whole story.

And in particular, given the way that this psalm links prosperity with goodness, we do need to be careful that we don’t read it in a way which justifies an unjust status quo.  The purpose of the psalm is not to denigrate those who are not currently experiencing prosperity, or demean those we might like to think of as “wicked.”  Those judgements belong to God, not us.

Even more than that, when we remember that ancient Israelite faith was very much a communal faith; not individualistic as we tend to be, but looking at the welfare of the group before the individual, then there can be implied judgement of a society which allows some of its members to suffer a lack while others have much.  It is the role of the community to ensure God’s goodness is reflected to, and experienced by, all members of the faithful community, and not just some.

No, for those who are faithful but not currently experiencing prosperity, psalms like this can be an expression of hope; a statement that how things are now is not God’s good purpose, and that God will continue to be at work to bring those good purposes to fulfilment.  All of us can appreciate this note of transformation and new creation; our experience isn’t static, even when God’s goodness is taken as a given.

Or to put that another way, the psalm can help us to see that God’s good purpose for the world is resilient.  It won’t yield or be thwarted in the face of evil, but creation will be brought to the fulness of what God intended it to be.  And this is ultimately because creation isn’t independent from, or cut off from, its Creator; but we exist in ongoing and dynamic relationship which has the flourishing of the good creation as its aim.

And the relationship is the point; and it’s the point of the poem I started with too.  You can’t experience the fulness of life by knowing about it, just as you can’t experience being in love by being able to list the hormones involved; you have to live within it, have it flowing within you, take your place within something larger and let it shape your identity… like the tree beside a flowing stream, or what Rumi calls the “freshness in the centre of the chest.”  That’s the wellspring of our delight in God, which inspired this psalm, and should be part of our life together too.

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Whom you know

This reflection was given at the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 3:21-4:6.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

That saying might be true in all kinds of ways in human societies, but it’s also the same point being made in our reading from John’s first letter.

You see, already there were teachers getting Christianity mixed up with other ideas; saying that the gospel itself wasn’t enough, that what would really enlighten or save you was secret knowledge, imparted to initiates of the mysteries, about good vs. evil, and spiritual vs. material, and light vs. darkness, and so on.  And that this secret knowledge would bring you closer to God.

But what John emphasises, over against that sort of thinking, is that you don’t need secret esoteric knowledge; you just need to know God.  And that’s open to everyone, because any one of us can go to God in prayer, in our own hearts at any time.  “If our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…”

Abiding is about relationship; it’s about personal connection with and intimate knowledge of God.  It’s not just intellectual assent to a statement, it’s about being bonded together, so that your identity is now bound up in God’s own identity.

We have everything we need for a flourishing Christian life, in our abiding in God.

And anyone who says that we don’t, that we need something more or something else, particular experience or status, is not from God (what John calls the antichrist, the one opposed to Christ; although he’s quick to point out that the antichrist has already been conquered, and therefore is not to be feared).

Believe that Christ truly came in the flesh for our salvation, love one another, and in this way you know God and abide in God, and God’s Spirit abides in you.  It is enough.  You are enough, because you abide in God.

In the beginning, relationship.

This is a sermon for the morning service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is John 1:1-14.

In the beginning.  In the darkness, the nothingness, the timelessness before there was light or time or energy or matter… there was relationship.

John tells us about this relationship: there was the Word, and the Word was with (or slightly more accurately, if awkward in English, the Word was “towards”) God.  Later on John’s language will shift to describing Word and God as Son and Father, but already, he’s portraying an intimate relationship.  There is unity here (the Word “was” God), and yet also distinction.  In being “towards” God, the Word is oriented to God, sharing a sense of purpose, sharing what in human terms we might call attitudes and outlook, and… sharing love.  Before anything else existed there was love between Father and Son (and Spirit, although John doesn’t spell that out for us here; but don’t forget that the Spirit too is part of creation and recreation).

John taking us back to the beginning is meant to remind us of that other narrative of beginnings; what we read in Genesis, when God creates light and land and life; man and woman; and declares them to be good.  And John fleshes out what we already understand about our own creation.  We know from Genesis that we’re made in the image of God; now John tells us that God is relational.  That loving relationships are an intrinsic part of God’s own being.  In being created in God’s image, we, too, are created for relationship.  We have, to some extent, blurred that image.  Call it sin, call it lovelessness, call it brokenness; but humanity has clearly failed to fulfil our potential for relationships in which we thrive and adequately love one another.  In John’s gospel sin is always about rejecting life and relationships, and turning to darkness.

And after we’ve messed it up, pushing that God away, refusing to listen to God’s words or to be “towards” God in the way that the Son is… God still pursues relationship with us.  And that image of God in us is renewed as that God takes on our very human nature.  This is the Word of God resonating in the darkness of the world, entrapped in death and alienation, calling all that exists to new life and re-creation.

Paul described the incarnation this way:

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Christ “emptied himself.”  Laid aside the power, the knowledge, the wisdom of being God, and entered into human life; was born helpless, dependent, frail, vulnerable.  Why?  Because God is relational.  God exists as a network of relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit; and the whole point of creation is to expand that network of relationship to include us, too.  And when we don’t get it, when we’re lost in the darkness, confused, blind to the purpose of our own existence… God will not give up on us, but will pursue us, staying faithful, committed and open to us, even when it’s costly.

Even when it means entering our own broken, lost and confused world; building connections across the divide between us, by accepting all of our limitations and burdens; taking on human flesh.  “Flesh” here is not just about having a body of bone and blood and tissue; it’s about the whole human life of Jesus; body, mind, identity.  Everything the Hebrew Scriptures told us about the Word of God – sparking creation, the origin of the Law and wisdom, the inspiration of the prophets – that’s the awesome, unfathomable Word that has entered the material world and human life; building those most intimate relationships of a child to its parents; of a brother to siblings; of human connection in shared life and touch and speech.

Speech is particularly important to us, of course.  We don’t have the privilege of knowing Jesus as an infant, a child, a young adult, of seeing him in person; holding his hand or hearing the resonance of his voice.  But his words have been remembered, handed on, written down so that his invitation to relationship remains open to us as well.

All through John’s gospel, Jesus – the very Word of God – invites us to hear, keep, remember, and even abide in his words.  Invites us into a relationship where we can be nurtured, refreshed and renewed.  Where we can come into intimate contact with the one who is the source of all life, and draw our own life and identity and strength from Him; life that ultimately isn’t limited even by death.

That’s the invitation to us as we come to the manger.  Not to a moment in the past, but to a relationship in the present; and into the future.  A relationship in which we wait for, receive and listen to God; in which we allow the depths of our being to resonate to the voice of our creator.  And then we respond; in loving and personal and intimate reply, but also in speaking to others, bearing witness to God’s love offered to us, and inviting others into that relationship for which they were created.  Not just in words, but also in actions; because it’s when the meaning of the words is made real in people’s experience – is incarnated, you could say – that the gulf is bridged and relationship is built.

This is why, centuries later, a bishop could tell his flock that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”  If you can’t live out the meaning of Christ’s presence to us in how you respond to and treat the people around you, then that meaning will be lost on you in even the most sacred context.

This is how we come to know reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; how we come to be, like the Son, “towards” the Father in our fundamental identity, and thus to share in God’s purposes, attitudes, and outlook.  And it is outlook, or looking outwards, always seeking deeper and richer relationship, and doing whatever is necessary to make that possible.

No wonder our reading this morning finishes with glory, grace and truth.  Light, restored identity as the image of God, and restored relationships are what Christ came to offer us.  Let’s make sure we take up the offer.

Consider Christ

This is a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Hebrews 9:19-28.

I wonder what you do to build your own resilience?  Is it something you do consciously and deliberately, or is it fairly instinctive (like, in my case, reaching for the chocolate)?

There are, of course, as many different ways of building resilience as there are individual people, but one which is very commonly used now is imaginative visualisation.  So there are no end of resources out there helping people to imagine, say, a peaceful place, a place of complete safety, to calm anxiety; or warmth to ease pain; or a comforting touch to allow you to have compassion for yourself.   These are incredibly powerful techniques, and widely used across various caring and healing professions.

But what brought them to mind for me today is the way the author of Hebrews is doing a very similar thing.  He (or she, perhaps, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews; but he for convenience) is using words to describe something none of his readers or listeners have ever seen, inviting them to explore and interpret that reality in relation to their own lives.

What I mean is this; the part of Hebrews we read this morning compares the system of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, with which the people who received this letter would have been familiar, with what Christ has accomplished in heaven; which these people would, of course, not have seen; but can imagine as the author builds a picture out of elements familiar to them.

So the author here compares Christ’s ascension to heaven to a priest going into the sanctuary of the temple; and says that Christ has accomplished everything the priests accomplished, only more perfectly, more fully, more completely, and more powerfully, than any merely human priest ever could.

The overcoming of sin?  Christ did it.  All enemies defeated?  Christ did it.  Emptying death of its power and terror?  Christ did it.  Destroying the powers of destruction?  Christ did it.  Human beings made holy and acceptable to God, able to enter into intimate and loving relationship with God?  Christ did it.  Allowing us to experience freedom, confidence, flourishing and hope?  Christ did it.  Christ has done what is needed, to stand in the place which makes all these things possible for us.

This is the image the author of Hebrews wants us to come back to: Christ eternally in heaven, in the very presence of the depths of God’s being, on our behalf.  Whenever we’re anxious or overwhelmed or feel defeated or worthless, this is what we’re supposed to hold onto as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  Christ is in heaven, and his presence there is sovereign and effective in our circumstances here and now.  Holding onto that, reminding ourselves of that, helps us keep all our struggles and concerns in the perspective of eternity.

Part of the interesting thing about the images here is that it seems the author has kind of mashed up different events to do with the Exodus and the giving of the law, and says that what Jesus has done expresses the ultimate meaning of all those things.  Because there’s no time in the Old Testament where Moses is described doing exactly what is described here; but there are lots of references to Moses and blood and hyssop and sprinkling, which each separately contribute something to our understanding of how God was present to and active in the ancient Israelite community.

From Moses escaping Pharoah’s edict to kill all the baby boys, to the river Nile being turned to blood, to the calves sacrificed for sin, to the goats sacrificed for protection from death at Passover, to the waters of the Red Sea parting, to the scarlet wool and hyssop that the law required for cleansing a leper… all of this incredibly rich imagery from Exodus and the law drives home one point: God is absolutely in control of the forces of life and death.

(As an aside, there are worse things you can do than to read over Exodus again, looking for how it connects with the gospel).

But the image of the tent – the primitive sanctuary – is central. To put it in really blunt terms, for ancient Israel, God was in the tent.  That was the place where people could know God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s glory.  And the author here says that that tent was not the real deal!  God was present there, but it was only like a shadow or a copy of being in God’s utter presence in heaven.  That’s where Jesus has gone.  Not to the pale imitation but to the place where God is utterly God, unveiled by anything created or human.

And it’s from that place that grace and mercy then flow to us.

So it’s one natural consequence of this that we don’t need the pale imitation any more, because anything it might have pointed to or accomplished is fulfilled in Christ.  But I don’t think the point is just to tell people they don’t need to go through the motions any more.  Deeper than that, the point is to give people a clear vision of how everything they could ever possibly need from God is freely available to them now.  Even the law, which governed all the sanctuary rituals (as well as so many other details of everyday life) wasn’t needed in the same way now that Christ had fulfilled the purposes for which it was given.

This is why, later in the letter, the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  None of the people to whom he is writing have seen Jesus enthroned in heaven.  But they live by the assurance that that event is real, and that the consequences of that event have meaning for their lives.  In fact, that event is the source of eternal life for them!

“Consider Christ,” the author writes, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”  Remember who Christ is, and where Christ is, and on whose behalf Christ acts, as a way of resourcing yourself for life in a disheartened world.

The author of Hebrews has deliberately given his readers and hearers a mental picture of Christ in heaven, intended to deepen their resilience as they faced persecution and difficulty.  It’s well worth us taking that same reality, with all of its consequences, on board for our own lives, in our own difficulties, moments of hopelessness and grief.  There’s a great deal there to offer us strength.

Spoilers

This is a sermon for All Saints’ Day. The Scripture it references is Revelation 21:1-6a.  (Apologies that this is posted a week late, it’s been… rather busy with one thing and another here!)

I may not know what the future holds, but I do know – and trust – the One who holds the future.

This holds true on a number of levels; the future as in what will happen to me in my life; the future as in what I will experience after death, and the future as in what the ultimate end of everything will be like.  I may not be able to anticipate any of my experiences in that, but I can know that I am safe with the God who will hold all of those circumstances under his sovereignty.

But, sometimes, God gives us spoilers.  And God did just that in our reading from Revelation this morning.

Now I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.

So I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a genre which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  In particular, by this bit of Revelation – when we’re getting very close to the end of the book – John is sharing with us his vision of the ultimate future; the reality towards which everything we know now is progressing.

And it’s important, because this vision of the ultimate future is shared with us, to give us hope.  It’s shared with us to encourage us to live now in accordance with the vision of how things will ultimately be.  It’s shared with us so that we will press on towards bringing a foretaste of that future into the here and now.  We don’t just get spoilers, we’re meant to let them shape our lives and decisions so that through us, everyone else also gets a glimpse

So what do we see?

New creation.  The end of all that currently exists is not the end; not a descent into darkness, silence, and absolute zero.  It’s a new beginning!  A new heavens, a new earth, and a new city.  This is a vision of reality as we know it reimagined; remade to be whole and perfect and without any flaw or blemish.

The people who first received the book of Revelation were all city dwellers.  And they weren’t powerful or privileged within those cities; they were excluded, illegal, persecuted.  The power and wealth and culture of those cities was all brought to bear to oppress them.  The city they might once have looked to, to be something different – Jerusalem, God’s holy city – lay in ruins; temple and palaces and all that it was, torn to rubble.  But in this text, those earliest Christians – and we – are   promised a different kind of city.  A city of inclusiveness.  A city of human flourishing.  A city where power is only ever used to uplift and uphold each person, never to advance one person at another person’s expense.

And this city comes down out of heaven.  This is important.  The city of the future is not our doing; not something we will build of our good intentions (in fact, Scripture is full of stories where we tried to build perfection of our good intentions, and none of those stories ended well…).  But this new city is God’s creation.  It is beyond us to conceive or build; it comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.

It’s worth noting that some things are absent from this new, perfect creation.

There’s no sea, for example.  This isn’t literally about large bodies of salty water, because Revelation’s not that kind of book.  Rather, as with other places in Scripture, the sea represents the forces of chaos and destruction.  The fact that the new creation has no sea means that it is safe; there is nothing threatening to suck the land back under the water, drowning us in overwhelming waves.  There’s nothing here to threaten or harm or destroy.

There are also no tears, death, mourning, crying or pain.  I don’t know, to be honest, that I can really imagine what that will be like.  These are so much a part of what it means to be human as we know it, that to have a new creation where nothing will make you cry, nothing will make you hurt, nothing will rob us of life… it’s life, but as they say, not as we know it.  Life radically re-imagined in its very depths.

So those are things which are not there, in the new city.  But then, there are things which are there.  More important than anything else, God is there!  “The home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them.”  This is the ultimate fulfilment of the promise made to us over and over again in Scripture; God will make his home among us.  Later in this chapter John tells us that he sees no temple in this city, and that’s because the whole city is itself the temple; the whole city is the place where God dwells among God’s people.  The saints no longer gather before God, but God totally encompasses every aspect of their existence.  In every moment they are engulfed in God’s splendour and holiness and healing and love.

And who else is there?  The peoples of God.  Not people; not only one group or tribe or ethnicity.  But peoples.  This is a very cosmopolitan city, where people different races and cultures and languages all dwell with God and with one another.  Becoming a citizen of this city doesn’t eradicate our diversity; rather the citizens of this city are a riotous celebration of everything good in humanity.

There’s a lot more packed into this and the next chapter of Revelation, and I do encourage you to read over it for yourselves.

But for now, let me just reiterate that this isn’t some sort of fantasy of John’s.  This is the glimpse God gives John of what is to come.  God’s spoiler, if you like, on eternity.  “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”  God holds this future in trust for us.  God holds this future out to us to inspire us to hope and courage.  God lifts the curtain to show us what’s in store for all the saints, and to invite us into that unimaginable new, recreated, perfect creation.

We know and trust God as the one who holds the future; so let us take hold of the future he offers us, and let it seep into our present in ways which create hope and joy through our lives.

Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.

Trinity

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.  The Scripture quote it begins with comes from Romans 8:12-17.

Paul wrote: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Did you catch it?  In that short quote we heard references to all three persons of the Trinity; the Father – Abba – the Son – Christ – and God’s very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

And yet it took another four centuries or so for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

So we talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Last week for Pentecost I talked about spiritual gifts, but more than that, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is there to be seen in other ways.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply 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.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.