Monday, 27 August 2018

God's hidden hand and the war within!

Sunday, 26th August, Trinity 13: Proper 16

Joshua 24: 1-2, 14-18. Joshua assembles all the Israelites at Shechem (modern day Nablus) and challenges their loyalty. Loyalty can quickly fade if it loses touch with God's loyalty to us, not as a set of facts to shame us into temporary commitment, but as the framework within which we live our lives.
Ephesians 6: 10-20. The armour of God is not a popular metaphor in the modern church because it is deemed militaristic. However stupid that may be, it must be noted that all the armour is purely defensive save one, the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God!
John 6: 56-69. Last week we emphasised the humanity of Jesus which is absolutely central to any Christian theology of human salvation and this week the stress is on the spiritual dimension. "It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh is useless"(verse 63) 

The twin themes running through our readings today are loyalty to God and the spiritual dimension of our faith and life.

What you find again and again both in the old and the new testaments are lists of all the good things that God has done for us, as a spur to us to respond with a similar loyalty to God.

Joshua gathers all the Israelites together and they are challenged to renew their loyalty to God and in so doing they are reminded of all the wonderful help they have received from God, starting back with the exodus from Egypt all the way through to God clearing their path to take control of the promised land which ends with the desired result;
“Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (verse 18)

How can we learn from this? Because we so quickly forget.

Let me use an example from Louise and I’s recent history. In September last year we decided that Louise really had to pursue the call that she had received to become a professor at Exeter university.

But that was a mammoth undertaking.

Although she had been headhunted she still had to go through the whole official selection process.

I needed to find and secure a post near to Exeter within commuting distance.

We had to move 300 miles changing job, house, part of the country, friends.

We had a house in Newcastle we had to sell to all the other stresses.

It was one of the most stressful moves we could have dreamed up and our prayers were for our path to be made straight – that God would smooth out any bumps in the road. And those prayers were more fervent than usual.

What we experienced was truly amazing.

The finding of two new jobs a new house and re-locating from the North East to the South West was achieved just one week apart from each other.

All the bumps, and there have been some, like being stranded in a snow storm in East Budleigh for three days, the vicarage being on a six month let, were all smoothed.

And we were delivered to this wonderful part of the world where we are thriving.

God’s help, God’s loyalty to us was palpable, and the only repayment that God requires is that we stay loyal and true to him in all our doings.

Now each one of us in this church this morning will have your own personal story to tell.

Because God is faithful. In just a couple of moments think about how God has been experienced in your life, about his faithfulness to you.
It could be in a series of little things or in big things for God is Lord of all.

God has been faithful and loyal to us corporately as a church as well.  He doesn’t want to see us fail. He asks for our loyalty and renewed commitment to him.

When we do that we lay ourselves open to spiritual warfare. That sounds grandiose, but the devil won’t come at you with a pitchfork, breathing fire.

He comes at us in the niggling doubts and fears in the small hours, uses arguments with our loved ones or grievances in the church to ferment discord, to throw us off beam. He works through cynicism and defeatism, using our worst traits against us. The battles are being fought in our hearts and minds and souls.

They are spiritual battles, and we need spiritual protection against the wiles of our enemies.

God’s Holy Spirit is available to offer all of us that protection. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the word of God.

These are protections offered to us by God himself and it is up to each one of us to put on this armour – to utilise them for our own benefit.

The alternative is that we face the father of lies, undefended and unarmed, and he is far more experienced in spiritual warfare than any of us will ever be.

In this battle it is exactly as Jesus characterised it. “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63)

The final exchange in our gospel reading today brings together those two strands of loyalty and the life of the Spirit in which many people had deserted Jesus.

 John 6:66-69 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Monday, 20 August 2018

Food glorious food!

Next Sunday 19th August: Trinity 12: Proper 15

Proverbs 9: 1-6. Wisdom in the Bible is a divine quality and so gaining even a little wisdom is much prized. Wisdom is also closely associated with the Logos (the word) so we can say that Jesus Christ is the wisdom made flesh!
Ephesians 5: 15-20. Paul also extols people to gain wisdom. Part of this wisdom is to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit rather than wine. Jesus liked a drop of wine himself so is a warning against excess obviously.
John 6: 51-58. "Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man". We are used in Christian circles to talk of the "body" of Christ but using the word "flesh" adds a more carnal dimension. John starts his gospel by stating that the word became flesh, so flesh is the physical reality of Jesus, and "eating his flesh is communion with the humanity of Jesus.

There are lots of different genres of literature in the Bible, such as history, prophesy, apocalyptic writings such as Daniel or Revelation but there is one kind of writing that at first sight seems to be a strange category; Wisdom literature.

Wisdom is the voice of reflection and experience, which instead of a list of commands, persuades us, almost teases us into seeing the connection between God’s order in the world and his orders to humanity and tries to show us how absurd it is to go against the grain of his creation.

So we have in books like Job or Ecclesiastes or pre-eminently today in Proverbs we have a literature that wrestles with problems of suffering or the meaning of existence mixed together with down to earth advice about more prosaic problems about how we should live, react, or deal with everyday problems of life.

The starting point for all true wisdom is “the fear of the Lord” and the book of proverbs gives advice on all aspects of life which has its source in God.

Remember in our gospel reading last week Jesus said, “They shall all be taught by God”.

How? Through the word of God in the Bible.

God’s wisdom is revealed in these books for the living of a good life.

But more than that, wisdom is a quality of God who appears to emanate from God the Father himself.

Wisdom appears personified as a woman and according to the text in another part of Proverbs (chapter 8: 22 on) she was there at the dawn of creation and in that same chapter in verse 31 she delighted in the human race.

It is inevitable that wisdom and the word (Jesus) became forever entangled to the extent that it is entirely orthodox to equate the word made flesh with the wisdom made flesh.

God’s wisdom, his way of life made concrete in the enfleshed Jesus of Nazareth is he who shines from the pages of the Bible.

And when we speak of the word made flesh, we are bound to emphasise the humanity of Jesus.

We commune today not just with his divinity, but with his humanity.

We have a dignity in being human because God chose to become incarnate in his son.
There is no room in Christianity for a theology that downplays our very human needs and wants. Those needs and wants must be channelled in the right way if we are to please God – that is the purpose of wisdom literature – but those needs and wants – are wholesome in and of themselves.

When Paul writes today that instead of getting drunk on wine we should aim to get drunk in the Spirit, this is wisdom.

He is not saying “don’t ever drink”, that would be absurd. Jesus, wisdom made flesh himself enjoyed wine and parties, and the central sacrament of the Christian church involves drinking wine. But there is a big difference between enjoying a few glasses of wine and debauchery.

The wisdom lies in knowing and recognising the difference. 

Returning to John’s gospel, the thrust of it is in knowing that we recognise that Jesus was a fully functioning human being and we commune with that humanity as well as his divinity that we have life.

The Hesychast (Charismatic) tradition of the Eastern church has a saying;

That God became man so that man could become God.

The goal for humanity is deification, becoming one with God – sanctification as it is called in the west – but that starts by knowing in our hearts that God first became human in Jesus. 

This is the bread that came down from heaven. You eat of it (commune with it) and you have LIFE.

Eternal life – that quality of life I talked about last week – our present possession. We all already have eternal life.

Our response to that fact can only be one of joyous celebration.

Filled with the Spirit of God we respond by

“singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
Singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts,
Giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Monday, 13 August 2018

An infinite horizon

Sunday 12th August: proper 14: Trinity 11
1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

In the story of Elijah, where we started this morning we have charted some of the extraordinary contradictions of being human. How frail and fickle and psychologically weak we can be.
A great victory can be a hard cross to bear, especially if everything is then expected to turn out just as the successful person desires, and even a slight disappointment can bring the whole house of cards crashing down and lead to judgements wholly unrealistic in their negativity.
I know myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that twenty positive comments can be totally undone by one slightly critical one and lead to a dark and pessimistic mood totally at odds with reality.
The context for this piece is just after Elijah had demonstrated that the God of Israel was more powerful than Baal and had all the prophets of Baal killed.
Whatever you think about that, it was nevertheless a great victory, but Queen Jezebel’s threats against him sworn by these same worthless idols causes him to flee into the desert.
It seems that he no longer trusts the God in whose name he won the contest, he rushes into the desert and he wants to die.
But though he loses his faith and trust in God, God still looks after him and provides sustenance for his journey to Mount Sinai.
We have been exploring the idea of both physical and spiritual sustenance for the journey for a couple of weeks now and it will continue for a couple more so we turn to the ongoing treatise in John’s gospel and I want to draw out just one aspect of John’s theology which is very important to understand
Now if we substitute Elijah’s physical journey to Mount Sinai with our own life journey, what do we substitute for the cakes and water that God provided for Elijah in the desert?
What spiritually makes you get up out of bed in the morning, expands your vision, gives you insight, gives you peace and hope for the future, feeds you  until you want no more?
Eternal life can be seen simply “pie in the sky when you die”.
But eternal life, is not something that you hope might be given to you after death.
Eternal life is a present possession. We have eternal life. Eternal life is a quality of life, enriching our present.
It is not something we are grasping for just out of reach – it is the very ground on which we stand.
It enriches our life now.
We know that our lives are not lived between the perimeters of our physical birth and death. We live our lives against an infinite horizon, of which our current physical life is but a part of the whole.
Jesus said “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life”.
It is this quality of our lives that is changed when we realise fully in our very being that we are children of God.
The change in outlook is so earth shattering that Jesus called it being “born again”. Born again to a living hope that enriches our life.
Once we realise that we have an intrinsic worth, not gained by how much we earn, or what we do for a living, or where we went to school; that our worth is given by God, because we believe that God sent his son to die for us to release us from the bondage to death and decay into the fulness of eternal life.
This huge about turn in our orientation in regards to God, life and each other has moral and ethical implications of course, the whole basis of which emanates from the belief that Jesus died for us.
Moral teaching that Paul articulates in his letter to Ephesians today,

But rather on dwell on the teaching itself I think it more important to understand where these teachings come from.    
They did not come from a vacuum.
They did not emanate from clever human beings.
They are a response to what God has done for us in Christ and has the seal of God’s authority stamped on it.
As Jesus said in verse 45 today “They shall all be taught by God”.
I'll end with Paul's summing up of the nature of Christian life and action and the source of that life. 
As Paul ends this extract from Ephesians today he says.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.