Monday, 20 May 2013

The flames of love.

One of the bystanders looking at what had happened on Pentecost in Luke’s story asks “What does this mean?” Peter’s response was to quote wholesale from the OT book of Joel about the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all people just before the end of time.  Of course, because we are all still here 2000 years later we know of course it wasn’t the end of time but the early church believed it was, and the outpouring of God’s Spirit was an expected precursor to the end.
What does it mean for us today?
Last week I spoke on what John had to say about oneness of being and indeed as he continued in this week’s gospel offering he is still waxing lyrical on this theme – a theme at once consoling and complicated when you try and express the experiential in words.
So you can see why the most soaring piece of theology in the whole New  Testament is little known and yet the vivid picture language utilised by Luke in his story of what happened on the feast of Pentecost in around 33 AD is so well known. Because a picture paints a thousand words.
Both are saying the same thing but using different tools.
Instead of “I in you and you in me and I in them” we have instead a beautiful picture of a tongue of flame representing the Spirit of the one undivided God parting and resting on each of them there. There was a strange mutual understanding, an affinity. This is one God available direct and personal to each and everyone this happened to. It is God completely unmediated by priests, sacrifices, saints, sacred texts, or holy rituals.
This was God neat, up close and personal. Available at all times in all places.
Bypassing all intermediaries we become as Paul says in Romans 8, children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We, like Jesus have the same access to God as he did; only in the level of perception and response do we differ from him.
As you may well know a Bishop’s hat – a mitre – is that shape because it is supposed to resemble a flame of God’s Spirit on his head.
The church eventually  tried to control access to God by God’s people by telling them that the Spirit could only be accessed through them, and so eventually they said that God could only be experienced through accepting the authority of the Holy catholic church, outside of which there was no true knowledge of God or salvation.  The church became God’s bouncers guarding the gates of heaven , and the whole hierarchical structure of control came into being.
That is unfortunate to say the least, and the lingering idea that the church does in fact still control access to God in weaker nowadays it still persists.
I used to get comments, especially when I used to wear a clerical collar intimating that somehow I was intrinsically closer to God than they were. (This of course was before they got to know me obviously – ha ha). Although very well meant, I still get requests to “Pray for me Father”  - very good in itself – but with an undercurrent that seems to suggest that my prayers are more potent than a lay person because I am ordained.  Nothing could be further from the truth of Pentecost.
I am that great paradox, the anti-clerical cleric. For me to wear a collar, to me I might as well put on a mask, because what people see is not a person but the mask, a role, a representative of what many still see as an elite closer to God than others.
The Spirit of God is as free and strong as the wind. Available to all. We come together on occasions like this to focus our attention on the Holy, to unveil the presence of God in creation in a special way in our services but I’d just as soon know that you experience the same Spirit and presence of God in the countryside, or when doing the washing up, or in your neighbour as well.
Because we carry that presence around with us all the time. Here in church we try and unveil the presence of God in the world and His presence with each and every one of us. The aim is to get us to see more clearly his presence in every aspect of our lives. That for me, is the message of Pentecost.

Monday, 13 May 2013

In at the deep end!

Theologically we have dived in at the deep end this morning. I’ve taken three sentences from that piece and strung them together to get the picture. I’ll not pretend that this is easy to get a handle on – but to follow where Jesus leads requires a necessary shift in consciousness. It needs repentence, the original word for which is metanoia, which means literally to “Go beyond your mind”
“As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. That they might be one as we are one, so the love with which you have loved me, may be in them and I in them.”
Those phrases taken from John 17 need to be spoken about sure, and that is what I am doing now, but ideally they need to be meditated upon and felt.
They speak of a level of perception so deep you could drown in it – yet modern Christianity is mostly so shallow we rarely even get ourselves wet.
This is talking about our fundamental oneness – a fundamental unity both with the divine and with all creation. This speaks of our beginning and our end – the Alpha and Omega. There is no “other”. We are all born of the same root
I speak of oneness of being but Christianity has another word for that and it is atonement. Breaking the word atonement down reveals its meaning:  At-one-ment.
Missing the mark completely Christianity usually goes to war with itself on how atonement is achieved instead of going back to our beginnings, our Alpha, Genesis to know that we were always at one with the divine. Perceiving it is the problem.
To know that we are at one with God and each other is a spiritual and physical and scientific fact, but because we are all individuals, all separate bodies, we cannot conceive of our innate unity, either with each other or with God because we have set up a rival divinity in ourselves – our egos. To realise it and perceive it requires a change in consciousness. A change in consciousness so profound that Jesus likened it to being born again – or born from above.
If we step outside of theology and into science this is all confirmed for us. We know intellectually facts like we are all made of the same stuff as the pews we are sitting on – atoms – just configured differently. We know that all the atoms in our bodies are changed roughly every five years so physically we are all completely different people to the ones we were five years ago and yet by some incredible energy and design every atom conforms  to the same basic pattern that it us. We know that every part of us was forged in the nuclear furnaces of the stars. One scientist says, “Some people look at the stars and it makes them feel small. I look at the stars and feel huge for I know that they are all a part of me”. We see in that statement the two levels of perception alongside each other. It is mind boggling, and while words and explanations can help get us started, only silence, contemplation and meditation get us close to an appreciation of these things.
This is why symbols are of such value to the church because a symbol can reach the parts that words can’t.
The Eucharist is a symbolic representation of oneness of being. We are united one with another because we all share in the one bread and that bread also represents the divine so in sharing bread and wine we are symbolically connected to God and each other in a mystical communion.  Communion, oneness, at-one-ment.
This is why I insist on a loaf of bread rather than silly plastic wafers. It is the symbolic value. When in the Eucharist at the breaking of the bread I say “Though we are many we are one body because we all share of one bread” this is played out in the sacramental sign.
It is Jesus’ prayer that we perceive this unity amidst our separateness. We have to recognise our separateness as well of course. We have to hold both in tension. We are one yet differentiated. A bit like the Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity. Different aspects of God held in unity.
As I say, trying to get to grips with the fundamental concepts underpinning what Jesus is praying for here is like wading out into very deep water indeed, to the point where you might feel that your feet no longer touch the bottom and we feel a bit scared and can feel a bit overwhelmed like you are going to drown.
But, no matter how scary it might feel I would still recommend to anyone to wade out there. You will eventually learn to swim. Your perspective on life and death as a part of life is altered. The themes are so big we can get tired, start to flounder and think we are going to drown. Then wade back in a bit and find the firmer ground of your given life. We have both and we need both. Like God we are one yet differentiated. Holding both truths in tandem, in a kind of balance is the most difficult thing in the world.
I am me, and yet I am a part of everything that ever existed and ever will exist. I subsist in God. So I like everything and everyone else can never be extinguished. There is no-where else to go. We already possess eternal life.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

That's the Spirit!

There is a weekly newspaper called the Church Times and occasionally there are some good articles. One such is the column written by an American professor of philosophy at the university of San Diego , Dr. Harriet Baber. I have always found that she speaks for the majority of us and speaks a lot of sense.
She noted this week how “Hinduism Lite” and “Buddhism lite” have entered American culture, and because they are so divorced  from their original religious and cultural roots they are now seen as unthreatening and inclusive, because they need no complex belief structure to make use of them. For example, things like Yoga are universally accepted merely as a fitness regime rather than a school of Hinduism, and how people from all modes of life will speculate about possible past lives, or speak casually about Karma, without having any real insight into what they are talking about.
Rather than being dismissive of this, Dr. Baber sees this as a massive advantage and strength because they are seen as inclusive and can be adhered to with very little religious conviction.
Christianity is different though. As it has developed in the USA and elsewhere, Christianity has become very rigid and hard edged to the extent that it is not seen as something you can engage with unless you have prior cast iron religious convictions. Before you can enter a church it seems you have to assent to a vast array of dogmas and beliefs as unchanging truth. 
But the truth is of course, that most of us sit very lightly to a vast array of orthodox Christian beliefs and are truly grateful that no-one ever asks us about them in case we might have to admit it. But to the rigid church, it seems that such “half hearted” Christianity is worse than no Christianity at all.
The result is that the gentle all encompassing Christianity of myths and symbols, silence and searching has all but disappeared in the minds of most Americans, many of whom now see hard core evangelicalism as normative Christianity. This brand of brutal, dogmatic, “you must believe this or else” kind of loud shouty Christianity that looks vibrant and successful from a distance, is in fact, less of a revival, but could be the death rattle of Christianity in the USA. It is an opinion I happen to share.
Why do I mention this – because it highlights the underlying sub-text of what is happening in that gospel story. The conflict between what God may be doing in a time and place that jars with and contradicts the tenets of conventional organised religion. Religions when they get too big for their boots, think they own God. They force God into their creeds and rituals and practices and try to keep him captive there – as a hostage.
The car crash in the gospel reading was not the miracle itself – it was the fact that it was performed on the Sabbath, breaking religious laws that upset the religious establishment. What upset them I think is that God was acting outside of their control. In Jesus God is freed up to act outside the gilded cages built by religious institutions. Any dogmatic adherence to mere words (or indeed rituals) is death dealing in the end rather than life giving. This was recognised well by St. Paul, who wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:6 “The letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life.” Ironic really since every word of Paul is revered by some Christians almost as the word of God itself.    
In this act and many others like it, Jesus is demonstrating that God cannot be held hostage, that God may be sought and discovered in many different ways and situations. In describing the Spirit of God Jesus describes him as being like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it is going but you can feel the wind in your face and hair. Enjoy it when it happens and be guided in that direction. Be guided by the wind like in a sailing boat.
If the wind is the Spirit then the rudder must be our intellect and will, directing ourselves and positioning ourselves, as skilfully as we are able, to best catch God’s Spirit and take us on an exhilarating journey. The two act in tandem not apart from each other.
Our life and religious practice should be able to account and react to the Spirit of God which is sometimes fierce but sometimes feels absent and our lives feel becalmed.  We should seek balance. We cannot do without the outward forms, the rituals, the myths, the symbols, and certain beliefs and words, but the message of Jesus to us all is one of the sovereign nature and action of the Divine that can dispense or circumvent any of them at any time..
The danger is that we tie God up in all those things, but if we see ourselves, and our institutions more as a sailing boat that is continually seeking the Spirit and being prepared to react to God’s Spirit and be taken along by it – a union of life, Spirit, reason, ritual, and belief in a constant balancing act we might I suggest be far closer, both personally and institutionally to being a sign of God’s presence in the world.