Saturday, May 30, 2015

Holy Trinity - the Faces of God

Sundays after Pentecost - Trinity Sunday

It is good to welcome here today the friends and family of little Eve Paterson.  You have come to church on an especially good day – for two very significant reasons. 

Firstly, its Eve’s Baptismal Day which is a bit like another birthday for her – more presents, especially from the God Parents (I’m not sure if I wrote that in the fine print for you).

Secondly, it’s the Sunday in the year on which the Church celebrates something it thinks is very important – the Trinity.  Has anyone got any idea what we mean when we use that word?

One God – Three Persons

This idea really tests our brain, doesn’t it?  How can the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – each of whom we say is divine – constitute One God, as we affirm so often in church?

At the heart of this conundrum that has troubled Christians for all of the 2000 years the church has been around is how was this man, Jesus of Nazareth, also the divine Son of God.

The first big attempt the church took to sort this out was the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed and shortly after the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century.  Both of these are set out in three parts:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty …
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son …
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

The words about Jesus are the most numerous, and I am not sure about you, but I find myself really struggling with what they mean.  When we say in the creed that Jesus is:

The only son of God
Eternally begotten of the Father
God from God
Light from light
True God from true God
Begotten not made
Of one Being (or substance) with the Father

What do those things mean to us today?  In fact why are they so meaningless to us?

Well, the answer is simple enough really.  The creeds were written 1600 years ago and in many ways they were examples of Christians using the metaphysical language of their day to try and make sense of a conundrum.  This means they used words in ways that we are not familiar with.  Jesus was said to be of one BEING or substance with the Father – meaning he was exactly the same as God (yet he was human).  And when they went on to speak of the TRINITY they spoke of ONE GOD in THREE PERSONS.  This is an important idea because so many things we do in Church is in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – most notably today, we will baptise Eve in those three names.

How do we make sense of all that today?  Let me offer a few clues – they might help, they probably won’t resolve all your questions.

Firstly, this idea of the Trinity affirms what Christian experience and devotion knows: that the Jesus we know after Easter – the risen living Christ as we would call him – is a divine reality.  Knowing this is not demonstrable or provable, but Christians still “know” it.

Secondly, this idea of the Trinity resolves that conundrum I mentioned before – of Christianity being monotheistic yet proclaiming Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three persons of that Godhead.  But to help you understand that we need to set aside some unhelpful language.  The Latin and Greek words behind the English rendition of “Persons” in the creeds does not mean what you and I mean when we talk about a person.  For us “persons” are separate individuals – even identical triplets are three different persons.

To understand the meaning you have to think about how ancient Greek and Roman plays were very often conducted – and much later on Shakespeare as well.  Invariably there were fewer actors in the troupe than there were roles in the play, so when an actor wanted to change roles he would simply put on a different mask.  One actor might have three masks for each of the roles he played.  Those masks represented a persona – but there was one actor behind each.  We use similar language in modern psychology, too, about people putting on a persona or wearing masks to hide their true identity.

This creates a helpful way for us as modern people to give meaning to that old concept.  To speak of God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different “masks” – or in three different roles.  Thus in our experience, God is one and known to us in thee ways – as Source and Creator of all things; as Jesus of Nazareth, the man of God who showed us the face of God; and as Spirit, the here and now experience of God that people will tell you about in different ways.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to something that the Creed does really well for us in regard to Jesus.  While it seems like it is very much focussed on staking the claim that Jesus was Divine, it claims very firmly that Jesus was also human – in fact fully human.  

The easiest way for our modern minds to resolve this is to refer to the one as the pre-Easter Jesus, and the other the post-Easter Jesus.  Before Easter Jesus was fully human – like you and me – yet he understood some amazing things about God and the way we should live.  One of the Christmas stories gives Jesus a name – Emanuel, meaning God with us, and the church has come to understand this to mean this man was the embodiment of the Divine Spirit – God.  After Easter, the Disciples and Christians ever since experience him as divine. 

I hope you find that helpful.  Essentially, the Christian life is something we experience, but some things we have to talk through so that we can make sense of it in a kind of rational way – and I think this idea of the Trinity is one of them.

The Day of Pentecost

The festival of Pentecost in the Hebrew traditions and calendar was about two things – a celebration of the giving of the law and the covenant that it established as well as an annual celebration of the beginning of the harvesting.

It is in this context that the Christian church celebrates the Holy Spirit.  A time of harvest and a time of covenant renewal.

Bruce Prewer drew attention to this idea by speaking about the fruitful dimensions of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church as being prolific – extravagant, even – and we get a sense of this in the three New Testament readings set for today.

In our reading from Acts, we see the working of the Holy Spirit breaking down the barriers of language that kept people apart.  Whichever way the miracle happened, everyone was able to hear and understand the gospel proclamation of those first disciples.  It is also worth noting that this story culminates with a huge harvest of souls, as we might call it – thousands of people were drawn by these events into the community of faith.

But the reading from Romans has a different take on the work of the Holy Spirit.  In this short passage we are reminded by Paul that the Spirit is able to step in and pray for us when words fail us – when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit steps in and intercedes for us.

Then, in the Gospel passage we read, the work of the Spirit is compared to a helper or Advocate who enables us to speak on Jesus’ behalf.

These are three very different kinds of fruit in the life of the church – fruit that all have their source in the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

When we think of the Holy Spirit in these terms, then, it is not surprising that the story telling puts these events in the context of the festival of Pentecost – a celebration of first fruits.

But what are we in our time to make of these things?

There are perhaps a couple of ideas we can develop from Luke’s words in The Acts.

If you look at this event as one of the momentous moments in the Gospel stories then it stands apart a little from some that have gone before.  In that story we call The Transfiguration – when Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah – there were a select few witnesses (Peter, James and John). 

But in this story no one is excluded.  The tongues of fire rested on each and every disciple gathered there – not just the select Apostles – and moments later the crowd surged forward because each and every one of them is able to hear what the Disciples are saying in their native tongue.  The extent of the inclusiveness of this image is emphasised by that long list of places from which they came basically covering the known world of the day.

So this Pentecost thing is not an inner mystical experience.  Rather it is an outpouring of God’s energy or power in a way that touches every life present.

The second thing to note in this story is that not everyone was impressed.  Indeed, some people could only understand what was happening by describing them as drunk.  That makes me think of that little story way back in the stories of Israel when Samuel’s mother was so fervently praying to God to have a baby, that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. 

It seems hard to imagine that people did not recognise this as an amazing expression of the Spirit’s presence, because that is what it was, and we are left to hope that those who mocked the disciples would soon, on hearing Peter’s sermon, realise what it really was that they were witnessing.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to that long quotation of the prophet Joel in Peter’s sermon.  We are so used to the interpreting this text in the context of the Day of Pentecost that we have forgotten that when Joel uttered or scribed these words he was forecasting the death and destruction of the nation.  For Joel the signs of the outpouring of the Spirit are a prelude of disaster.

Peter, however, takes these words and transforms them from portents of death and destruction into powerful declarations of new life.  These signs scream out to us that the Spirit of God has invaded human life in ways that shatter old expectations.  It is not death that is the aim of the Spirit’s visitation, but new life – sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life!

And this, of course, becomes the heart of the Gospel message for those disciples.  It is the work of the Spirit to draw us all together into the family of God, and through that same Spirit we are empowered to live that new life that God calls us all into through Jesus.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ordinary people being called by an extraordinary God.

This sermon was preached by Oliver Yangi, a theological student in our Parish

In our passage in Acts verse 15: “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about 120 people).  And, as we might expect, there is something significant in the fact that there were 120 people present because, in Jewish Law at that time, 120 men gathered together was the requisite number to form and formalise a new community with its own council and leadership structures.  So theres something very intentional about Peters actions here: he recognises the need for order and structure amongst the people of God and he waits until the time is right and then begins to formalise the community of the church.

Peters opening word is “Friends” but actually, the correct translation is “Brothers”. And I think this is a significant point because the word ‘Brothersconveys a significant truth to us; that if we are all brothers together we can only hold that relationship because we are children of the same Father.  It is our relationship with God that binds us together as a church: and it is that which differentiates us from a social club or any other organisation and if we lose a sense of that, we will definitely lose a sense of our purpose as a community of God.

“Brothers (and sisters), it was necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled as was told beforehand  by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David concerning Judas…” So what had David prophesied concerning this event.  The reading omits verses 18 and 19, which give us quotes from second is from Psalm 109:8, which suggests that, for those who have opposed God, “let someone else take over his office”.  It is sometimes thought that Judas was replaced purely because he had died but that is not really the case.  When the apostle James was martyred in Acts 12:2, he wasn’t replaced, so it was not about filling a vacancy caused by death that was important. Instead, Judas was replaced because he had fallen away from the ways of God and it was important that all the leaders were known for their faithfulness to the cause of Christ.

And so, in the light of that, Peter proposes a qualification for finding a new apostle in verses 21 and 22: “So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

The qualification was that the new apostle must have spent time with Jesus and been a personal witness to his glory.  When we think about the great heroes of the faith, we might think about those people whose names are written large in the history books: the Wesley brothers, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, Richard Baxter and so on – people who had an extraordinary call on their lives and achieved extraordinary things.

But if we thought a little more personally about that question, we should ask ourselves who are the heroes of the faith to us.  We may come up with a very different answer. For me, the heroes are those people who nurtured me in the faith when I was an arrogant and annoying teenager: local church people who never gave up on me. The heroes of the faith are some elderly people I have known in my life; people who have had a quiet faith but been faithful churchgoers, faithful lovers of Jesus for 40, 50, 60, 70 even 80 years, faithfully praying for the work of the local church.

These, to me, are the true heroes of the faith. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, doing ordinary things and yet, in their ordinariness, there was exhibited to me an extraordinary faith. And the reason for their extraordinary witness was because they had met with Jesus in the ordinariness of life and had found him in the mundane of daily living: they had spent time with Jesus and were witnesses to his glory. And this seems to me to be what lays behind the call of the replacement apostle: someone who had found the extraordinary God in the ordinary of life.

Two names were recommended: Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus. So the disciples prayed together: “Lord, you know everyones heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship…” And, knowing the tradition of Scripture, we might have expected a calling on God to perform a supernatural miracle, to show everyone who the next Apostle to be chosen. Writing on the wall or a thunderstorm or a voice from heaven: anything like that would have happened. Both had been with Jesus since his baptism in the Jordan. But they needed some way to find out which one God wanted to serve. To do this they did two things, they prayed and they consulted scripture.

But what happens? This reading says: “They cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles”. How ordinary can you get? The apostles cast lots – a bit like flipping a coin - and that was that. We might have expected something more dramatic! But I think there is something for us to learn in the ordinariness of how Matthias was chosen.

Matthias was an ordinary man. We dont hear anything extraordinary he ever did, before or after his call. Matthias was an ordinary man, chosen to be an apostle in a most ordinary way. Casting lots – a roll of the dice. An ordinary man, ordinary apostles, using an ordinary system of decision-making to bear witness to an extraordinary God.

And that, fundamentally, is what the church is all about. Here we are, ordinary people living in church community in an ordinary way. And yet, by doing so, we are bearing witness to the power of an extraordinary God. Because the qualification of discipleship, as we mentioned earlier is that we ordinary people spend time in the presence of an extraordinary God.

You and I have spent years living in the presence of God.
You and I have spent years knowing what it is to have Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
You and I – ordinary people - know what it is to love and be loved by an extraordinary God.

And so the beautiful things about this story from Acts, the calling of Matthias, is that, actually, it is a story about our calling.  Ordinary people being called by an extraordinary God. And that is why Paul was able to write in his letters that he could never boast in himself and his own achievements but that he could always boast in the awesome power of God. And so it is with us: we dont boast in ourselves but we can boast in the extraordinary love and the extraordinary power of God whom we have had the privilege to call our Lord for so many years.

And the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes is, of course, the ultimate symbol of what we celebrate today; the ordinariness of bread and wine symbolising for us the extraordinary sacrificial love of God made manifest in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharistic meal, we share the ordinary and the extraordinary come together in one moment, in one time, in one place. The bread and the wine. The body and blood of Christ. And so it is we celebrate our relationship with the 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Scandal in Palestine

Have any of you had someone do a surprise birthday or anniversary thing for you?  Eira and I did a marvellous surprise party for my Mum and Dad’s 40th Wedding Anniversary which they celebrated in Melbourne away from other members of the family. 

We don’t do these things anymore because we have learned that for most people there is as much joy, sometimes even more, in the anticipation of a special event.  Getting ready and imagining what will happen and who will be there has its own dimension of pleasure.

We all know that the Day of Pentecost is a couple of weeks ahead of us and the Lectionary is trying to get us ready for it in the selected readings we have.

Today we have a story that comes at the end of that famous story of Peter and Cornelius.  Let me remind you of it.

Cornelius was a Roman soldier – captain of “The Italian Regiment”.  Not all Roman Soldiers were Italian; they were drawn from the locals of the many countries incorporated into the Roman Empire.  Who knows, a couple of centuries later there may well have been a “British Regiment” controlling the barbarians of some place or another.

The Jews hated the Romans, especially the Italian ones.  One wouldn’t be caught fraternising with such people.

Anyway, Cornelius was having his usual siesta nap after lunch and had a dream – a vision in which an Angel of God told him to send some men to nearby Joppa and find a Jewish man there, named Simon Peter.

The next day, Peter, visiting friends in Joppa, was having his own siesta nap after lunch and he has a dream, too – a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven in which there were a host of animals generally considered by Jewish people as “unclean” or unfit for human consumption.  He hears a voice commanding to kill something and eat it, which he refuses to do, thinking he was thus passing the test.  The voice then tells him that if God says something is “clean” then it is no longer to be shunned.

He had this vision three times – a powerful symbolic number – and then, of course, the men from Cornelius knock on his door.  When they tell their master’s story to Peter, he suddenly understands what God was trying to tell him, so he agrees to go with them the next day to meet Cornelius.

Peter then tells Cornelius what he has just understood himself about the Gospel – that the Good News Jesus brings is for the gentiles as well as the Jews.  This is where our reading of the story began.  All of a sudden this despicable Roman person was clearly filled with the Holy Spirit in just the same way as they, the Apostles and Jews were on the Day of Pentecost – they started speaking in tongues.

I don’t think we can comprehend the “Wow!! factor” of that event.  But this story is at the heart of a game-changing moment in the history of the church.

In this story, Luke is making it clear that it is the nature of the Holy Spirit to remain unbridled – it cannot be controlled by any one of us let alone the Church.  He is bringing to light the intentionality of God in the most astonishing and unexpected ways.

This moment is leading the way towards a new understanding of the family of God.  The family of God in the old dispensation was Israel – the sons and daughters of Jacob.  But Jesus, who was one of these sons, breaks that container and welcomes all people into the family.  We can no longer look on one group of people and say “They are clean!” and declare another group of people “unclean”.  We never know where the Spirit of God is going to pop up next.

This is why, for a little while now, there has been a little sign at the entry of the church that says we are an inclusive church.  Back in 2003 the Social Responsibilities Commission reminded the Diocese that we, as Anglicans, really do believe in an inclusive Church.  We live in a world that thrives on categorising people into one group or another.  Indeed, the church throughout its history has been especially good at determining who is in and who is out – who is clean and who is unclean.

This story of Cornelius is scandalous.  It is scandalous because in it the Holy Spirit lays hold of the most despised or hated person in the eyes of a Jewish person (early Christian) and declares in no uncertain terms that he is one of us – he is welcome.

So, what I want you to do this morning is to think of a person or a group of people who you think is most unlikely to ever grace the chairs of this little church – a person you think is most unlikely to be welcome in such a place.  I suspect we all have an idea of such a person in our mind – and I am not going to suggest one person or group in particular.  Now, I want you to visualise that person or such a group of people coming very tentatively into the back of church here one Sunday.  How easy it would be for us to be cautious, or judgemental and make such a person feel unwelcome. 

But the Gospel expects the opposite from us – for two reasons. 

Firstly, because the Holy Spirit is so completely unpredictable that we had better be on the lookout.

Secondly, because we don’t know the end of this person’s story, and we have an obligation to do as much positively as we can to draw that person towards God, rather than pushing them away. 

It is so easy to push them away with all our little rules – our requirements and rewards for those who are “good enough”!!  None of us is “good enough”!!  So who are we to shun another fellow traveller?