Monday, 18 June 2012

For thine is the Kingdom

To understand these two parables we need to transport ourselves back to first century Palestine and into the minds and experience of Jesus’ early followers.
It was pretty clear to all his followers that Jesus’ had some earth shattering and life changing to impart. Nothing less than a change of perception of what the world was really like, who God was and how we could best relate to God.
It was the kind of message that was presented as being universally valid to all people at all times – a change of consciousness so profound it would feel as if we had been born again to a new way.
Yet when they looked at themselves, a rag tag, unremarkable, powerless and small group of people,   a subject people in an occupied country, in a dusty outpost of the Roman empire I can imagine  their confidence draining out of them. If they didn’t ask the question directly, Jesus must have intuitively understood what was in their hearts.
Hence the parable of the mustard seed. Something so very small, a mere speck is sown, yet it has the potential to grow to become an enormous great plant. That speck is the Spirit of God, an idea sown into people’s hearts that has the potential to grow into something huge if sown and cultivated in the right way. And that doesn’t always happen of course and there is an even more famous parable about that as well  - the parable of the sower..
The second question leading on from that was, well OK we’re going to be huge but when? How long does it take to grow because nothing much seems to be happening.  Hence the parable of the seed growing secretly.
It can take a long long time to grow and it develops secretly and silently so we have no real way of knowing how it is doing in the meantime so don’t be so anxious about it.
But what is the nature of that seed, what does the seed consist of, what is that germ of an idea?
Well  Jesus didn’t go around saying he was the messiah – that wasn’t a part of his preaching, so if you were in a crowd 2000 years ago listening to Jesus what would you have heard?
Well his opening gambit and main premise was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. And you will find that every other parable in the New Testament is a commentary on that Kingdom and its qualities.  To go beyond your mind and perceive the presence of God within yourself and act accordingly in relation to that presence of the Spirit is the root of the message of Jesus. That is what you would have heard. That is the mustard seed that Jesus wanted to plant in us.
We need to provide the space and time to cultivate that seed so that over time it grows into this magnificent tree.  Sitting in God’s presence, we eventually become a tree big enough to shelter and give support to others.
For the seed to grow in and through our lives it needs to be both sown and received.  So here is the seed being sown. “Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you”.
Open your mind and heart to this message and let the seed be sown within you.
Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you. As Jesus says elsewhere “Those who have ears to hear. Let them hear”.
Go beyond your mind. The kingdom of God is within you.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Maxwell's house

“For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18)
In May’s  edition of the parish magazine I wrote an article on impermanence entitled “Nothing lasts forever”. I think I have had more people positively comment to me about that article than any other article I’ve ever written.
Then when Ingleton parish also asked me to start writing for them as well, instead of producing something new I sent them that article. I have been thanked for it personally and last week Sue Edwards who prints the sheet phoned me and said that she had never had such a response to the vicar’s article.
It is such a simple truth yet that is the point. It is true! Everything and everyone will die. In a hundred and thirty years from now everyone now in this church will be gone – everyone – because everything material is finite – everything dies – and one day even the earth itself will die burnt to a crisp by our Sun which will itself be in the midst of its death throws. Humanity will be gone and everything we ever built and strived after will be extinct along with us.
No-one can contest this. It is just an undeniable truth. One of the first goals of the spiritual life is to align ourselves with truth.
You may now be all thoroughly depressed, but really there is no need to be frightened of the truth. Especially there is no need to be frightened of that truth if we also perceive that beyond or rather within the physical created universe there is a mysterious depth to the universe – another truth more difficult to name and pin down – a mystery that we can intuitively and intellectually relate to – a depth to life we have named God,  or you may want to call it the universe itself or the pure being that indwells all creation.
It is to that mysterious depth to life that we commune with when we will share bread and wine together later.  What that means when we do that is that we are all of  connected, connected with each other and with God.  We are held together in the palm of God’s hand. In this case we really are all in this together. We all live and we will all die – but we say that we are also all held and there is no need to fear death.
Likewise when we baptise Maxwell in a minute we are saying much the same thing. Maxwell has just been born, and he shares the same fate as all human beings but today we are saying and demonstrating that Maxwell need never fear because God is always with him. We use various signs to demonstrate this – I anoint with oil, I  ill pour water over his head, I will give a candle to his parents – but this is all basically saying the same thing. He is held in the palm of God’s hand, God loves Maxwell and looks kindly upon him. Now Maxwell may never return that love. For all I know Maxwell may grow up to be an atheist. But though I believe that would be a shame, it won’t alter the fact that God loves and holds Maxwell, now, and for the rest of his earthly life and beyond, no matter whether he believes in God or not.
God’s love is free, constant and not in the slightest bit dependent on whether you ever return that love or not. If that sounds too good to be true – well that is what we call GRACE.
That love, that being held, that Grace, is not just for Maxwell, or me, or any select bunch of people it is for all of us, no matter who you are. Everything we do in church today is an affirmation of God’s Grace, which extends as Buzz Lightyear would say – to infinity and beyond.
We all of us have a deep well of fear inside us which manifests itself in many and various ways in our lives but the root of this fear is the fear of death.  But there is no need to be afraid because as Paul writes in another place – perfect love casts out fear. And as we say, God is Love.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

If only I knew

For me I think that the biggest problem of having a day called Trinity Sunday is this;
It encourages us to try and define intellectually what is essentially the divine mystery in which we live and move and have our being and the danger is that God is then  reduced to being a conundrum to be solved or pinned down instead of a mystery to rest in and relate to.
The older I get, the more I read and learn, it is becoming more and more apparent to me just how little I know.  The more I read the less I know. Over the years I have been increasingly drawn to another way of doing theology, much more prevalent in Eastern Orthodoxy than here in the West called apophatic theology. In the west it is called, in Latin, the via negativa. This way is allied to Christian mysticism and it maintains that you can only ever actually say what God is not.
This way focuses on either a spontaneous or a cultivated individual experience of God  who lies beyond our ordinary perception and defies all labels and concepts including those that try to label God as three. This is nowadays my default position regarding God but in deference to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar I will try and address the idea of God as Trinity.
And although the doctrine of the Trinity in the church came about from a felt need to prove Jesus’ divinity it is a mistake to think that the eternal being of God is entirely dependent on that.  If God is three God would still be three even if you don’t believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God’s wisdom. And  I am quite happy to conceptualise God that as being defined as having three different constituent parts of course so long as we also remember that God is ONE and is the principle of universal unity.
Paradoxically the most important lesson I’d like everyone to take from Trinity Sunday is that God is ONE.  Interestingly though, other religions, also intuitively see a threefold nature in God. In Hebrew numerology the number for God is three not one, and although hotly disputed, the word Elohim, the first word used for God in the Bible as in “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is a plural form of the singular El. Also the Hindus have a word describing the oneness of God as having three core aspects which I love called saccidananda – Being, Wisdom and creative joy.  It is that second one, wisdom, (or Logos in Greek) that Christians sensed that Jesus manifested on earth.
The account of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus we heard today, Jesus is clearly pointing to the deficiencies of a purely intellectual understanding of God and encouraging Nicodemus to find the mystical experiential way that lies beyond intellectual understanding
Becauset there is another kind of knowing other than just intellectual knowing. It’s an intuition, a deeper knowing beyond words that leads us to direct communion. I think that is just what Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus in the gospel.
Nicodemus wasn’t a religious novice. He was a man of some stature and learning, a very religious man who would have known the scriptures inside out – a Pharisee – a devout strict religious Jew.  Intellectual debate and Biblical interpretation would have been meat and drink to him.
Yet it didn’t satisfy him. Something was missing and he knew it, which is why under cover of darkness to avoid his friends seeing him he went to see Jesus. Jesus told him what he needed – exactly what he was looking for - a true experience of the Spirit of God, independent of all his vast religious knowledge he had. An experience that would prove to be such a revelation to him that it would alter his consciousness so much that it would feel as if he had been born again.
He needed to know God in a different way – a way that a lifetime of intellectual wrangling could never approach. It was the same experience that Jesus had when he was baptised in the river Jordan when his apprehension of God’s Spirit led him to his profound intuitive knowing that he was a child of God.  It was an experience of enlightenment that propelled him into his short earthly ministry.
I don’t want to deride an intellectual appreciation of God – I’ve spent a dozen years doing little else – but without that deeper knowing, head knowledge is not enough to sustain a personal faith in my lived experience. 
 “What, you are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know about these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus.
As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans “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.”
We are one with Christ our friend and brother when we perceive and experience our direct relationship with God, the one in whom all things live and move and have our being.
In the final analysis, as Jesus himself is saying to Nicodemus, knowing about God is no substitute for knowing  God.