Friday, May 20, 2016

TRINITY C - Can We Make Sense of the Trinity?

There is a standing joke around among ministers that if they ever had theological students working with them when Trinity Sunday came around they would get the student to preach the sermon.  I obviously have not lived by that rule, and I think our student might be rather glad about that.

But why is it so?
Celtic image of Trinity

We all know that the Trinity is the one central doctrine by which we judge the orthodoxy of other churches by.  Yet it is still a doctrine that most preachers find difficult to tackle.

It seems to me that the idea of the unity of Father Son and Holy Spirit as One God is something that we know to be profoundly true and yet we find it almost impossible to explain its meaning in language that is governed by sense and logic.

Last year I used a metaphor of the ancient theatre world to try and express it, but that didn’t work for some of you – and you told me so.

I had a thought recently that was affirmed in our Thursday Prayer group last week.  It involved the simplest and most accessible image for us.  We westerners use a particular idea when we speak of our human being.  We speak of having a body, soul and spirit.  We have a sense of these three as separate aspects of our selves, yet we know that each is indivisible from the others.

On Sunday last my wife and I attended the service at St John’s Anglican Church in Albany, and what a wonderful surprise the Holy Spirit had for us on that Day of Pentecost.  After some time without a minister there are now two women priests serving the congregation and the whole place felt alive in new ways.

In her sermon for Pentecost, the minister made a comment about the function of the Holy Spirit and I think this is at the heart of understanding the significance of the Trinity.  She said that the work of the Spirit was to bind the Father and the Son together in love, and that bound in this way they formed a community.

Now this is as far as I need to go in comprehending the idea of the Trinity.  It is enough for me.  I don’t think we can ever find a satisfactory logical and reasonable explanation of it.  Every attempt will have flaws in the argument or gaps in the logic and through these our arguments could be destroyed.

But we all affirm the truth behind the idea of Trinity.  As I said in the Newsletter it is easy for us to get the one-ness of the Father and the Son, and the place of the Holy Spirit can be understood in its relationship to the Father and the Son.  Paul speaks interchangeably about the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ.  We get that, and I think that is really what the creed is trying to say when it says the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Image inspired by the Icon in Rublev of the Trinity

But what does it all mean?

This question is not about making sure you believe the right doctrine.  It’s more of a “So what?” question, and maybe there will be a different answer from each of you or for each of you.

Something I want to pick up and link to some of the other readings we have had from John in this Easter Season is this idea of Community. 

Last week Jesus spoke in the John reading about his being in the Father and the Father being in him.  A couple of weeks before that Jesus is reported saying that those who love Jesus will do as he says and that the Father will love such a person and that Jesus and the Father would come and live with them.   And the week before that Jesus spoke of a new commandment that would make it so clear to the world that we belong together as Gods children.

In various ways these are calling us to live in the same kind of unity with each other and with God that we see in the idea of the Trinity.  Abiding is the other word we might use.  “Abide in me and I will abide in you.”

So we are called to live in close intimacy with Jesus and the Father.  And we are called to live as close companions with each other on the Way in the Community of faith.  It is in this Community that we should be abiding in the Father and the Son. 

This is why an important part of our life in God is that we are growing in our life of prayer and contemplation.  This feeds our relationship with the Father – our part of the abiding commandments – and empowers us as we then work out of our life in God to serve one another and those in need. 

If we do these things we will truly abide in Him and he in us.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Pentecost C - If These Walls Could Talk

This sermon was originally preached at St Matthews in Guildford on Pentecost Sunday 2013.  It is used here today because our Pastor is on leave for a few days.

I don’t suppose you have had many sermons on the Holy Spirit since Pentecost Sunday last year.  When we start talking about the Spirit, it’s not long before our words get terribly vague.  It’s hard.  But then most of the really important, undeniably real things in life are hard to talk about.

Talk about fire:

We can sit around a campfire at the end of a great day in the outdoors, or we can light the heater/fire at home on a cold evening.  It is good to be warmed by the fire.  I love the way the embers glow in a pulsating kind of way that seeps into your eyes and relaxes you.

But wait, I am talking about warmth and glowing embers, not fire.

Describe the wind:

Today, my wife and I will be in Albany and we will stand in awe at the Wind Farm as those huge vanes zoomed around making a whooshing sound like nothing I have heard before –the vane tip was travelling at 260kmh.

We will see the wind send spray cascading back from the waves on Middleton Beach or maybe even at the new Lookout at The Gap.  And love watching the bands of rain-bearing clouds travelled across the sky effortlessly and frequently.

But wait, I am talking about wind turbines turning, waves spraying and clouds travelling, not wind.

Now describe the Holy Spirit:
Well, it – wait, there’s the first problem.  “It” – the Holy Spirit is not an “it”.  The Holy Spirit is a person, but in English, Spirit has no gender so we run into a linguistic problem straight off.  In Greek and Hebrew Spirit is feminine and early Byzantine representations of the Holy Spirit did so using feminine figures.

So let’s just recall what happened on this day we call “the Birthday of the Church”.

The Disciples were all gathered together there in a house waiting for the Spirit to come, as Jesus had promised.

Sure enough, she/he – the Holy Spirit – came upon them that day, like wind, like fire.

American song-writer, Ken Medema has a song called “A crack in the wall” and two lines of it go like this:

I think I can see sunlightComin’ through a crack in the wall …And I’m gunna sing this song‘til the walls start a-tumblin’ down.

I think this give us a lead into a great metaphor for what Pentecost is all about – a whole lot a walls came tumbling down that day:

The walls that separate who could preach and who could not.

The prophet Joel’s vision was fulfilled:
All flesh was blessed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel – not just the male and the educated, but male and female, old and young, slave and free – they all became ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that day.

Walls that separate who can hear the Gospel and who could not;

Walls separating people from this country and that country;

Walls separating my language from your language;

Walls separating the generations of young and old;

Walls separating the haves and the have nots;

They all came tumblin’ down that day.  The Gospel was proclaimed for the first time across barriers of nationality and language.  And the people understood and were saved.

But I wonder if you noticed – one more set of walls went down when the Spirit came upon them that day.

The story starts out with the Disciples safely in a house.  Somehow, and the details is not there in the story, the Spirit brought down even the physical walls of that house that were separating the Disciples from the world around them.  Suddenly they are outside proclaiming the Gospel to thousands of people, and later on that day they are gathered by a great body of water baptising people left and right.

That’s the Holy Spirit.  We only know some things by their effects.  Breaking down walls is an unmistakeable sign of the Spirit at work:  just as the sounds of leaves rustling lets you know the wind is there, or the smell of smoke lets you know there’s fire, so an ever-expanding circle of believers lets you know the Spirit is here.

So, the big question is:

Is the Spirit here in this church, Holy Cross, Hamersley, today?  Can we see any of the effects of the Spirit here?  What would these walls say, if they could talk?

Do we have eyes that can see the working of the Spirit among us? 

A welcome is also offered to those who bring their children for Baptism because this can be a wonderful time for people to hear the Gospel – the Good News that we are all loved and accepted by God.

I see people in this congregation from diverse traditions of faith before they came here, people with disabilities that might in other places become barriers, people across several generations.

I think that over the years some of the walls have come tumbling down.  There are signs here of people crashing through the barriers that society or tradition have built up so that others can hear the Gospel stories that can transform their lives – and in doing that their own lives have been transformed.

There is no doubt in my mind, no hesitation in saying the Holy Spirit is upon us!  We who are gathered together in this place have been touched by the flames of fire and swept up in the winds of change.  Old and young, male and female, whatever, we have all heard the Gospel and we are all empowered by the Spirit to go and share it.

But look out!  We think it is just us gathered here in this place.  But look again – we find ourselves surrounded by thousands of neighbours – people in our neighbourhood – who want to hear about Jesus.  They have heard the Spirit speaking their language.  Will the Spirit move us beyond these walls to gossip the Gospel, to share stories about the great love we have known to the people we meet in the park or the Square or the Shopping Centre – not strangers, people we know, our neighbours.

Sure as the sound of rustling leaves lets you know the wind is there, sure as the smell of smoke lets you know there’s fire, an ever-expanding circle of believers lets us know the Spirit is here.

And the Spirit is about to take us out there!  These walls are a tumblin’ down.

Let us pray:
God most wonderful, Friend most holy, our Easter season is climaxed by this reminder of you sending us your Holy Spirit in abundant power.
You have cast down the walls that divide people and prevent them from hearing the Gospel, creating the opportunity for every race and nation on earth to hear the Good news.
Embolden us with your Spirit to take that Good News beyond these walls so that every tongue may tell and every life display the wonders of your love.
Through Christ Jesus, who lives and loves with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God to be praised forever!


Saturday, May 7, 2016

EASTER 7C - Christian Unity

Today marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost which we sometimes call the birthday of the Church.

Having been committed to the ecumenical movement for many years I am familiar with the sentiments we seek to address during this week.

On the one hand there is room for some remorse over the history of division and exclusion that we have all been part of over the centuries.  Yet, on the other hand there is much to celebrate as we have found more and more opportunities to act in unity with our Christian brothers and sisters.

But it is hard.

I was reading up a little about the history of the Christianisation of the Nubian Kingdom many centuries ago.  Some suggest that the Christianity reached the ancient Kingdom of Makuria during the first century AD and this is plausible in context of the spread of Christianity into a near neighbour – Ethiopia. 

A few centuries later during the 6th Century, however, we seem to have records of a Byzantine Queen Theodora determining to send missionaries to the Kingdom – but she got involved in a race with another group to get there first.  A missionary sent by Emperor Justinian, and representing the true Orthodox Church tried to get there first and failed.

These two competing expressions of Christianity were born out of the Credal Councils of the Church and divided over the divine nature of Jesus.  The Nicene Creed affirmed that he was fully human and fully divine, but Queen Theodora and her church friends believed that Jesus was always and only fully divine – they were called Monophytes.

Alas, a century further on the Arabs invaded and tried to force Islam on the Nubian people – some areas resisted for a thousand years but others converted – but they did not forget their Christian heritage. 

The Missionary movement of the 19th Century very largely concentrated its activities in what we now call South Sudan, but their work revived the church in the Nuba regions.

It is sad that the missionary movement replicated the denominational divisions of Europe which were largely meaningless to the Sudanese people – but there you go. 

Part of the problem for the church in South Sudan is that the dioceses are based on ethnic tribal groupings of people – which is a way of ensuring a bishop will be recognised by all in that diocese.  Culturally, they are unable to accept diversity within the church.  That might help you understand why there is still so much strife in South Sudan even though they were given their independence a few years ago.

It seems that divisiveness is almost instinctive to us – yet the prayer of Jesus in John 17 is a call to us all in the church to be really counter-cultural.  It calls us to act against our instincts.  It calls us to go against all our cultural norms.

So, how do we need to change in order to live this way?

In our study this week of Marcus’ Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, we gave some consideration to this idea.  We were talking about being Christian in a world that is pluralistic – where there are not just other religions, but many different ways of being Christian.

Some people over the years have been very cautious about the work of the World Council of Churches.  They have somehow gotten the idea that the goal of the Council is to create a single homogeneous church which, of course, might mean we have to change a bit.  What Borg and the Council of Churches seem to get is that rather than trying to find some small areas which we hold in common and work together on the basis of that, we should be so self-contained in our confidence about the faith we have that we can celebrate the different faith that others have without feeling like we are compromising our faith.  If we can confidently celebrate our diversity then we will be able to demonstrate the Unity of Spirit that Jesus is praying for. 

This is not a case of putting aside any of the things we hold dear – rather it simply involves allowing others to do the faith differently than we do.

It is a way of saying that God and Jesus are too big for any one church to say it all.  If we can grasp this then we can celebrate those other Christians we might work with because when they are added to us we might actually be getting closer to all that God wants us to be.

So often in the Church we think one of our primary tasks is guarding the doors – checking up on who gets in and does not.  That is what our Creeds and Statements of Faith are about.  We use these to decide if someone can be included in our definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Somehow, when I consider the teachings of Jesus, I think God isn’t like that nor does God want us to be like that.

Our starting point should be that everyone is IN.

When we are IN and together like that, and when we seek to explore how we should be practicing the Christian life together – the things that we should be doing in Jesus’ name – then we will find far more people on the inside than if we had tried to keep them out at the door.

Jesus says very clearly that our WORK is to live in Jesus – to abide in him – in just the same way that Jesus abides in God the Father.  As we all live in this close and intimate relationship with Jesus, even though we might do the outward practices of our faith and order in the church differently, we will become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.