Sunday, 27 May 2012

A heart made of flesh

What does it all mean – this giving of the Spirit?
Well it marks a new chapter in what was then of course, for Jesus’ followers, still the “Jewish “ religion. The followers of Jesus  didn’t understand themselves as being separate from Judaism – they saw the Jesus way as being  the next step, a new and profound development in the Jewish understanding of God.
Until then in the Jewish religion as it had developed, God was located and could be apprhended in two main ways. There was the word of God – the law – the written word revealed and written in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and also the Temple  - in the holy of holies - where God was thought to be especially present.
Both centres of Judaism – Temple and law - were though outside of the individual. Word and divine presence were separate from the individual.
In my understanding, the true meaning of Pentecost is that these two centres of Judaism were combined and the locus of God was changed from outside the person to within the person.
The location of God was removed from the boundaries of a Temple made of stone and re-located to the human heart. Using the picture symbolism of the Gospel the curtain of the Holy of Holies, the place where God especially dwelt at the centre of the Temple was ripped from top to bottom.
The words of the law written in a book or rather on scrolls at that time: (Cue old joke...Has he got the scrolls? No he always walks like that.) That was replaced by God’s law being written on our hearts. And what is God’s law? Well God’s law was summed up by Jesus and we repeat it every Sunday and it is that we love God and love our neighbour as ourself – that is the whole law and the prophets.
Christianity then can be seen as a distilling of the core message of Judaism down to the one pure essential of Love and this Love who is named God is internalised. Pentecost is a picture of people being overwhelmed by love.
Love does make you giddy. It consumes all your thoughts, makes you do silly things, makes you happy and  can turn your life upside down and you go around with a silly grin on your face. Love for another human being does that to us – how much more giddy would  God’s love make us? No wonder people who perceived and experienced and were consumed by this love were derided as being drunk by those who didn’t get it.
It would have been like being the only sober person at a drunken party.
This experience of love is not bound by race or language – love is universal. We can each hear and experience the words of love in a way beyond language. Words can’t really express it but that doesn’t stop us trying and the biblical writers gave it their best shot but the whole point of Pentecost is to forget about all those exterior loci of Love and to feel Love within and then express it in our being, in our ways, in our words yes, but also in our deeds.
If the location of God is now not in a distant temple but now in your heart, knowing that and responding to that love in your words and actions you can bring God to other people, most of whom do not perceive that divine love within. By how you treat and speak to people we can help bring an authentic experience of Love and give it to others. This is what Christians mean by being Christ to one another. We become more fully human.
As Ezekiel put flesh on the dry bones in the valley we are asked to put flesh on the bones of these words in Ezekiel;
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. “

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Get some exercise!

With all the hundreds of words we hear on a Sunday morning we can end up drowning in them rather than them lifting us up. And it doesn’t help when a lot of the words used are not used in normal English usage but are only ever heard in church.
In the gospel reading Jesus is said to have prayed that his disciples are sanctified – “Sanctified in the truth” in point of fact.
Priests “sanctify” or “consecrate” themselves for drawing near to God in rituals. It speaks of separating oneself off the ordinary concerns and preoccupations of life so as to give oneself wholly to God.
In the same way we talk of a church being a Holy or sacred space “separated off” for a specific purpose and we talk also of consecrated ground. Ground separated off from other land for a specific purpose – usually burials.
In terms of our lives sanctification implies freeing ourselves from certain things in order to concentrate on something else. When you relate that back to what Jesus had been saying about us being in the world but not of the world, I see quite clearly that Jesus is talking about freeing yourself from attachment to transient and impermanent things in order to concentrate on nurturing our relationship with God.
That for me is a good working definition of being in the world but not of the world.
In a way, just coming to church is a form of sanctification, of freeing oneself, or putting some distance between ourselves and our everyday lives and all our preoccupations to concentrate on our relationship with God.
To do this, to engage in this weekly communal practice, just as we engage in prayer and meditation, we need a certain amount of self-discipline. Discipline is not a fashionable word nowadays, but coming to church, or setting aside a time each day to pray and meditate, requires a certain self-discipline, a discipline that tells us that we will practice and exercise our spiritual lives.
Just as we might exercise our bodies in a gym to build up our stamina and muscle or tone our bodies, exercising our spiritual life also takes self-discipline as we seek to tone, grow and transform our spiritual lives. Incidentally those two are linked. Because mind body and spirit are all linked together they interact, and impinge on each other. The old adage, healthy body healthy mind, whilst grossly oversimplified, the central premise of a profound interaction between the two still holds true.
So the act of sitting and freeing oneself form the distractions of the mind to concentrate on your inner life and relationship to the divine will be a daily discipline if it is to bear much fruit.
Like going to the gym it isn’t easy and often you’d rather be doing something else and results can be slow in coming. But if you stick at it, over a period of time, you will notice results. What do spiritual results look like? A greater sense of contentedness, a greater ability to deal with life’s challenges and problems, more compassion, a greater sense of the peace and depth at the centre of life, more acceptance and less bitterness, a greater openness to life. Tangible benefits for a fuller happier life. And who doesn’t want a fuller and happier life?

Monday, 14 May 2012

You gotta have friends

In Christian circles friendship is  continually underrated in my view.  Friendship isn’t often a subject deemed worthy of much discussion. For theologians and great figures in the church it seems that the idea of friendship seems too trivial and lightweight to waste our time on when put up against great ideas and theories like original sin, atonement, sacrifice, worship and discipleship.
Friendship, what has that got to do with anything?
Well as I’ve discovered since Alex died, friendship is real, concrete and absolutely necessary to stop you going insane. So on a purely practical and human level, now living on my own, I’ve found that friendship is possibly the most life enhancing thing I know. It is vital and life affirming. It is easy and comfortable when you can be relaxed in each other’s company. You share things and very importantly it is a relationship of equals.
Jesus knew that. A master and servant cannot be friends. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father”
We become a friend of Jesus when we realise what God is really all about, suggesting that the way the Jews (and us) habitually think about God was wrong and Jesus had something new and vital to impart. Never forget that Jesus’ preaching was not about himself, it was about the indwelling of the divine.
“Repent, (meaning literally, go beyond or beneath your mind), the Kingdom of God is near”. That was the content of Jesus’ preaching.
Find out what he means by that phrase and you become his friend. And remember that friend ship is a relationship between equals. Jesus was a human being, with an intimate relationship with God, realised by an experience of God’s spirit  at the river Jordan and that’s exactly what he wants for us, his friends. A revelation, and encounter, with the divine that dwells within all things.
Critics may say of me that I am Theocentric – God centred – rather than Jesus centred. I don’t disagree, in fact as I get older I get more and more God centred in my theology, my practice, in my life. Just like Jesus himself in fact. He was God centred too – not Jesus centred!
 Who did Jesus teach us to pray to but “Our Father”. Our Father, note, not just his or my Father. If you really want to follow Jesus, then find God within yourself and that way you’ll become his friend. That is how, in my understanding you follow Jesus.
You will not find in the New Testament anywhere Jesus asking for worship. He always points away from himself and towards the Father. What he does ask for is that we follow him on that path, on the way – his way that he modelled for us.
In following the way of Jesus, we encounter the God he encountered and we realise that the character of God is one of Love. There are a lot of layers to that little four letter word, that concept. Mostly we think of love in Romantic or erotic terms and it is those things too but in the context of the New Testament, love is primarily about self-giving, giving yourself, without counting the cost or expecting anything in return. It means giving of yourself, even your very life in Jesus’ case, for your friends.
Jesus following the way of the cross then becomes the ultimate act of love for his friends. “ No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”
Giving without expecting anything in return. That is love, as well as all the other things we associate with that word. That is both the ground and the fruit we are expected to bear. Finding God within, and finding that this God is love, acceptance and forgiveness - that is the narrow path that as Jesus himself said very few people find. We can follow Jesus by finding that the kingdom of God is within you and one of the foundation stones of this kingdom is love.  We follow Jesus by becoming God centred just as he was.


Sunday, 6 May 2012

Born from above

There were some very appropriate readings for today bearing in mind that we have an adult baptism in the service.
In the reading from Acts we have the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. For me this is an outward representation of the prophetic statement by Luke at the start of his gospel that the good news would travel to “the ends of the earth”. This exotic foreigner from the heart of Africa represents this very well.
“What is to prevent me from being baptised?” the foreigner asks Philip. The answer of course is always absolutely nothing.
Now Luke didn’t mean this I’m sure when he wrote the gospel , because he wrote in Greek but prevent in English (from the Latin)means to “go before” and it is the established churches belief in prevenient grace – that is, God always makes the first move before any response forthcoming from the person that actually forms the basis and rationale of infant baptism. God is already there before any response to his presence – a response that may never come - but the belief holds true under any circumstances.
God and his grace are present in all people before any response is made. God’s grace has been present and working and nudging Christian towards this public declaration of trust that  is “baptism”.
Baptism speaks of a change of heart or perspective. The visual sacrament using water is stark because the baptism represents a symbolic drowning – dying to one perspective and gaining another – drowning the old self and rising to a new life lived in God.
It is an awakening of the Spirit within and a person responding to the prompting of that same Spirit. This awakening can happen suddenly or gradually but however it happens baptism does not signify an end to the process but an acknowledgement of the beginning of a new life of discovering what our lives mean in relation to a God who is love.
In today’s offering from  John’s first letter he talks of God as Love, pure unmerited life giving love. And the Christian life can be characterised as responding to this love and incorporating it into our own lives, both individually and as a corporate body.
Turning finally to John’s gospel the image describes God being the vine and us the branches is a lovely picture of mutual indwelling – of oneness – God, Christ, you, me, nature, all part of the same thing that is alive and growing. I AM the true vine.
Conversion means the same as becoming enlightened – I AM the light of the world – and is a response to God’s presence and love – which is the only true security we will ever know – and finding peace and unity and living out of this loving presence we can start to really grow and flourish. The New Testament calls this flourishing “bearing fruit”. That is the goal of the Christian life – to flourish, to bear good fruit.
Like all tender young plants we need careful nurture and deep roots and warmth and light. We need watering or our lives can start to wither on the vine. This is why the Christian community is not an optional extra but an integral and important part of the nurture. It is within the community that tender young plants will hear the words of love and acceptance – but not only hear them but experience them within the nurturing community itself.
Which is why the nurturing community – the local church congregation needs to be open, welcoming, accepting, loving and forgiving, while also offering a true and meaningful encounter with the divine that dwells within all things.
That’s a big ask – and we know it sometimes doesn’t feel like that, which is why as a community we must gain strength for this task in a constant return to the well, to commune and encounter God, both individually and corporately, to rest in his presence, to drink of his Spirit, to re-charge our batteries, to deepen our roots, in prayer and meditation, and as we are doing this morning, in communion with God and each other.