Saturday, 26 May 2018

Living the TRI-uNITY

Romans 8.12-17

This is at first sight, a strange passage for Trinity Sunday: it should really be a reading for Pentecost because it is about the Spirit – about being led by the Spirit.

But the Spirit cannot be separated from the Father or the Son.

For a start, the Spirit here is described as ‘the Spirit’, as the ‘Spirit of God’ (v14), and as the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (v9).

And we are told that the Spirit is the Spirit of adoption (v15):
If we are led by the Spirit, we are adopted into God’s family.

We are not, in our human fallen state, children of God – not children in that special way.
But when the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ, comes into our lives, when we receive the Spirit, we are born again – or ‘from above’ – by the Spirit.
And we become adopted children in the family of God.
And as people who have the Spirit, that means that we have all the privileges of being sons and daughters of God.

And now we’re beginning to speak about Trinity.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be lived.

Western theology begins with the unity of God and then tries to work out how One can be Three at the same time.
We turn it into a logical, mathematical problem and try to solve it with Venn diagrams or three leafed clovers. And that is not particularly helpful.

Eastern theology – which is becoming more mainstream in the West – begins where the bible begins with: the three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it asks how can they be one.
It begins with the TRI – and adds uNITY on.

The most well know illustration of this is Rublev’s utterly inspirational Trinity icon.

Popularised in Western literature by William Young in his book ‘The Shack’; used by someone with conservative theology like Tim Keller, in a brilliant chapter in his book: The Reason for God, called the Dance of God; and used and I think a bit abused by someone like Richard Rohr, ‘The Divine Dance’.

The point here is that we are not trying to define what is the nature, the essence that makes them one God, but we are looking at them as three persons who are in relationship with each other. And we are looking at that relationship.

So the Father is the source of life for the Son, and he loves the Son, and delights in the Son. At Jesus' baptism and transfiguration, the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my beloved in whom I delight’. And he will give the Son all things.

We’re obviously talking about a reality here that is bigger than language and our logic.

Because the Son is the Son of the Father, but there has never been a time when he was not the Son.
And the Son is the heir of the Father, even though there will never be a time when the Father is not.
But because the Father delights in the Son, he shares all that he has with the Son, and he seeks the glory of the Son. He wants everybody to know – the whole of creation – how utterly amazing and wonderful his Son is. 

And the Son loves the Father. Although he is eternally equal with the Father, when he becomes a human being he humbled himself and became obedient to the Father – so obedient that he was even prepared to be crucified. And the Son delights in the Father. Every word his Father speaks is a joy to him. And because they are so united, what he speaks and what he does is what the Father would speak and what the Father would do. You see, they have the same Spirit.

And because the Son delights in the Father, he seeks the glory of the Father. He wants everybody to know – the whole of creation – how utterly amazing and wonderful the Father is.

It is like two lovers: delighting in each other, declaring the praises of each other. And if we follow the human analogy it could appear quite exclusive.

But it is not just two – but three. And we have already spoken of the Spirit. He comes from the Father but is also in the Son. And he is sent to us by the Son. And the Spirit loves the Father and the Spirit loves the Son, and the Spirit longs to draw people to the Son.

So what we have here (and again forgive me for well oversimplifying this) is a hug – three persons in close communion – who have always been there and who will always be there, delighting in each other, seeking the glory of the other. 
And as we look at that hug, is that three or is that one?

But this is also an open hug. Because, and I’m finally getting back to our passage(!), the Spirit, who comes from the Father but is sent by the Son of God (who is now in glory), comes to us and invites each one of us to join the Son in the embrace of his Father.

And what that means is that if we are led by the Spirit, if the Spirit of the Father and of Christ lives in us, we are now living here: in this relationship.

And that has some pretty big consequences for us here and now:

1.      We will be able to begin to live like the eternal Son of God, like Jesus.
‘So then brothers and sisters we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh .. [but to live according to the Spirit]’ (v12). It is not said but it is implied.
We will want to be obedient to the Father.
We will want to read his word, because these are the Father’s words.
We will want to come to Church to meet with God’s people, to share in this communion.
And we will want to draw others into this hug.

And because we are led by the Spirit, because the Spirit of Christ is in us, we are no longer to be controlled by slavery or fear.
'For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption' (v15)
We watched Bizet's Carmen last week. The seargant is infatuated by Carmen, enslaved by his desire for her and his fear of losing her; but Carmen also is driven, enslaved by forces that are far greater than her: the desire to be loved and the fear of being trapped. 
And we are enslaved by our desires and driven by our fears: lest our love is lost, our identity becomes meaningless, our freedom becomes imprisonment, our status becames shame and our comfort turns to pain. 
But in place of that we have a new way of living: where we find identity and freedom in our relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit: we discover that this is who I was made to be. 

And yes, because we are here – in this hug – and because, together with the Son, we delight in the Father and we long to see glory come to the Father (think of the prayer we pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’), we will be prepared to suffer for his sake (v17). And if we are not prepared to suffer for his sake, not prepared to put ourselves out for him, then it does mean that we need to question whether we are actually yet part of this hug.

2.      We have intimacy with the Father.

With Jesus, we can call God, ‘Abba’, which means ‘Dear Father’ (v15).

There is so much that could be said here!
But all that I will focus on here is to say that prayer is a discipline and a duty; 
it is something that we have to force ourselves to do – because the old self-reliant, god-rebelling nature is pretty deep rooted in us – but prayer can also be an utter delight and totally liberating. 
It is about ‘saying our prayers’, but it is also about relationship.
The Cure of Ars (whoever he was) tells the story of the old man who used to sit for hours in church. They asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’m saying my prayers’. And they said to him, ‘You must have a lot to say because you are there for so long’. And he replied, ‘No. Most of the time He looks at me and I look at Him’.
I do hope that you do put aside time regularly, daily, to pray. That is a discipline and, I guess, is part of the ‘suffering with him’. But I also pray that you have begun to discover a little bit of the intimacy of being in the Trinity, and of the delight of simply being with the Son together with the Father.

3.      We have an astonishing hope

‘… if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (v17)

All that belongs to the Father – that is all things: everything in creation, every gift, everything that is a blessing, every object and every person - he has given to his Son.
And as people who, through the Spirit, share in this hug, all things belong to us.
They are part of us just as we are part of them.
We’re responsible for them and for each other, just as the manager of a company is responsible to his board and shareholders for the management of the company. The word that is often used is that we are to be good stewards of creation.
So yes, all things belong to us.

The hug of Father, Son and Spirit is the eternal hug. It is bigger than death. 
If you are part of this hug then - unless you are like Enoch and Elijah - of course you will die physically, but you will never really die.  
That is why we are told that the meek will inherit the earth, that in the kingdom we will rule this creation together with Christ.

My brothers and sisters, in Christ, in the TRI-uNITY, we really do have a glorious calling, an intimate relationship and a wonderful destiny.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Holy Spirit: our language teacher

Holy Spirit is like a language teacher – a personal language tutor.

Those of you who are language teachers, or who have had language teachers, will know that they have several tasks.

They need to teach the skills of the language: the vocabulary and the grammar
But they also need to teach their students how to live in the new language: how to see things in a new way, and how to think in a new way.

If you start to live in a new language, you start to make different connections.
For instance, one of the things I have wondered about is the difference between a language like Russian, which has gender differences deeply rooted in its language, and a language like English that is principally a-gender. And that must have an impact on how we think.
Or it could be little connections that open up new ways of thinking for you.
For example: Belgrade is the capital of Serbia. To somebody who does not know the language, it is just the name of a city. To somebody who knows Russian or Serbian it means much more.
Or Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox thinker, writes a book based on the fact that ecть means both to eat and to be. We are what we eat?

When you learn a new language, you are not just learning a new skill. You are learning -  and I don’t think this is an overstatement – a new way of thinking and of living.

So the goal of the language teacher is not only to teach the skills of the language, but it is to be a companion, a guide to their student, even a friend of their student, so that the language becomes part of their student and so that they live in the language.

That seems to be a great picture of what Jesus is saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is.

The Holy Spirit is described in our passage as ‘the Paraklete’, literally the one who comes alongside us. In the KJV that is translated as comforter; in more recent translations, it is translated as advocate.

The Holy Spirit is like a heavenly language teacher.

And I don’t think that it is complete coincidence that when the Spirit came on that first Pentecost he came with ‘tongues’ of fire, and that he equipped the first Christians to speak in tongues, in the heavenly language.

Without Holy Spirit we are mono-cultural.
We can only speak and think in the language or the languages of this world.
But when Holy Spirit comes, we discover another language, another way of speaking, thinking and living – a new world.

Holy Spirit helps us to see Jesus in a new way

People who speak the language of this world will speak of Jesus as an Israeli peasant, good or as bad, as a moral example or as someone who was seriously deluded. They will speak of him as criminal or a tragic victim or as a model of someone who is prepared to die for a principal.

But Holy Spirit shows us a very different way to see Jesus.
Jesus in John 16.9 tells us that Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin .. ‘because they do not believe in me’.

When Holy Spirit comes alongside a person they begin to see Jesus not just as a human being, but as the eternal Son of God, the one who God the Father sent into this world. We will see him as God’s king and Gods’ ruler. We will begin to realise that to come to him and to put our trust in him is to receive life, and to be without him, to reject him, is to choose death.

We think of sin as doing naughty stuff. There is a great translation in the BCP where we pray that God will deliver us from ‘a superfluity of naughtiness’.
But Jesus definition of the root cause of sin, and therefore the Holy Spirit’s definition, is that sin is the refusal to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, refusal to come to him, to receive him or to put our trust in him.

On the day of Pentecost Peter stands up and preaches a sermon. He talks about Jesus. He ends his sermon by saying to the people of Jerusalem, ‘This Jesus, who you crucified, God has made ruler and king’. And the people are convicted. They cry out and they say, ‘We’ve rejected Jesus. What must we do to be saved?’

And they say that not because Peter has persuaded them, but because the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see Jesus in a completely new way.

And Holy Spirit, we are told, helps us to see the righteousness of God (v10)

In 1 John 2.29, John speaks of righteousness as right-ness, doing what is good.
Jesus taught righteousness. He lived righteousness. So while he was with his followers, they saw righteousness

But when he was gone, Holy Spirit puts Jesus’ righteousness in their minds and their hearts, in our minds and hearts: so that the man or woman who is open to God, in a right relationship with God, will desire to do what is good. She won’t do what is good because it is written down, a law she has to obey. She will want to do what is good because it is her deepest desire
St Augustine said famously, ‘Love God and do what you desire to do’.

And Holy Spirit, helps us to see judgement (v11)

It is when we look at Jesus, and at the cross, that we see most clearly the clash between the world view of our old human languages, and the new Holy Spirit language.

The old language, the old-world view, sees Jesus’ death on the cross as defeat. It is the world’s judgement on Jesus: for being a fraud and a failure

But Holy Spirit language sees Jesus’ death on the cross not as the world’s judgement on Jesus, but as God’s judgement on the world. Holy Spirit sees Jesus’ death on the cross as the final defeat of Satan, of death.
Satan did everything he could to stop Jesus going to the cross. He tried to kill him as an infant, to tempt him with wealth and power, to persuade him through friends, and to terrify him with the fear.
But with Jesus, obedience wins and love wins.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see the world in a new way

Holy Spirit is our teacher.
‘He will guide you into all truth … He will declare to you the things to come’ (v13)

The disciples can’t take it all in.
They’re in a bad place.
Jesus has spoken clearly of how he is going to be crucified. He has made it very clear that this meal that he is eating with them now is his last meal.
But, says Jesus, there will come a time, when Holy Spirit will teach you the things that you can’t understand now.

And we see that.
The death of Jesus overwhelms them.
We are told about two disciples who are walking to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion. They were broken people. They are so crushed that they don’t realise that the person walking with them on the road is Jesus, who has risen from the dead. They say to him, ‘We believed in Jesus, we had thought, we hoped .. but it all ended in tragedy.’
And Jesus comes alongside them and teaches them.

He teaches them that his life, the Christian life is not just about suffering. Nor is it just about glory. It is about suffering and glory.
And he opens their eyes, and they suddenly realise it is him.

Holy Spirit is our personal language teacher.

But he is also our friend, a presence with us, just like the risen Jesus walking beside those two disciples.

There are times when we will be conscious of that presence.
Some people have very dramatic, explosive encounters with Holy Spirit. Not everybody, and please don’t worry if you haven’t had such an encounter. He is still with you, if you have asked him to come into your life, and to fill you. And even as we eat the bread and drink the wine today we can invite him to come into us.

And for all of us there will be times when we are not conscious of him.

One of the Puritans describes it a bit like a father walking along with his child. For a long part of the journey they will be walking together – and maybe the child will be chattering away, and the Father will be quiet. And then suddenly the Father lifts the child up, embraces her, and then places her down again and they carry on walking.

But even if we do not feel him or sense him, by faith we believe that he is with us and he will teach us – as we read God’s word

Jesus says, ‘He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. all that the Father has is mine’ (v14-15)

With Holy Spirit alongside us, we see this world as ultimately belonging to Jesus. All things: whether music, creativity, natural laws, sex and sexuality, alcohol, plants and mountain rocks.
And Holy Spirit begins to teach us how to treat these things as things that belong to Jesus. We begin to learn to use them in obedience to his Word and we use them with great thanksgiving.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see all people as belonging to Jesus: rulers, enemies, friends, family, parents and children, colleagues, customers, clients, fellow worshippers.
And we begin to learn to relate to them as people who belong to Jesus, even as they were Jesus

I guess that is what happens at Holy Communion. We take bread and wine, very ordinary things, but we look at them with new eyes, with Holy Spirit eyes, and we see how they can be used for Jesus: to bring Jesus to us, and to join us together in communion.

So Holy Spirit comes alongside us as our language teacher, and as our friend.

It will be difficult. We’ve been told it will be.

There is a clash of languages and a clash of cultures, and each one of us will feel it deep within us. There will be times when we really struggle.

And we know that it will be rough, but we also know this: that Holy Spirit is with us. We are not on our own.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The blessing of giving

2 Corinthians 9.6-15

This is our final week looking at giving. Today we are looking at the blessing of giving.

When you give, there is great blessing

There is blessing for you as an individual
There is blessing for the church
There is blessing to God

There is blessing to you as an individual

9.6: ‘The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’.
9.8: ‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’
9.11: ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generousity’.

The Old Testament comes very close to saying that if you are generous, you will – in this life - receive back more than you give.

Proverbs 11.25: ‘A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.’
Proverbs 22.9: ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.’

Or when God speaks to the people through the prophet Malachi, he accuses them of stealing from him because they are not tithing. And he goes on and says, ‘Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.’ (Malachi 3.10)

And you hear people preaching that today. They urge their congregations: ‘If you want to be become rich and prosperous now then you need to give, and you need to give to this ministry here’.

I would love to be able to say that – both because I’d love you to give to the ministry here and because I’d love you to become rich and prosperous – but I cannot.

What I can say with 100% certainty is that the more you give, the poorer you will become!
If you give away 10% of your income you will be 10% poorer!

Jesus clarifies a bit of what the Old Testament is saying.

He doesn’t contradict it, but he challenges us to think where our values lie. And he doesn’t deny that if you give, you will become richer. He simply says it will not be here or now.  
Jesus was not wealthy. That is an understatement. He was homeless (‘he had nowhere to lay his head’), dependent on the giving of others or on little miracles (like when they caught a fish with a coin in its mouth), and he ended up naked, with the soldiers gambling for his only possession worth anything – his robe.
In fact, Jesus tells us that we are to let go of riches here in order to store up riches in heaven. It is a bit as if he is saying that everything you give away here is being added to your bank balance in heaven.

But the promise of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is that if you give, you will become richer here. You will become richer as a person.

If we step out in faith and give, and sacrificially give, we will discover that God is able to provide for our needs.
Verse 8 tells us that God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, ‘So that, by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work’

And v10 speaks of how, if we give, God will increase the harvest of your righteousness

It is when we take small steps of faith that we discover that God is able to provide for us.
Alison reminded me of when we were about to leave Russia in 1995. We had $500 left. It was all we had, although I was probably going to get a job as a vicar back in the UK, and we had immensely supportive parents. And a young woman who we knew from the Orthodox seminary where we lived (she was training to become a choir director) came to us the day before we left in great distress to say that her fiancée, who was a seminarian, was being threatened because of debts owed in the past. And if he didn’t pay by a certain date, they said that they would kill him. And I don’t know if we were being taken for a ride or not, but it seemed true. So we gave her the $500. We returned to the UK, and discovered a friend had written for us a £1000 cheque.
It may be only a coincidence, but it is the sort of coincidence that makes you put your trust even more in the God who provides for us, and it is the sort of coincidence that can only happen if we are prepared to take the step of faith and give in the first place.

I would love to be able to tell you that we have continued to live our lives like that – but it would be a lie. But what I do know is that when we live our lives like that, we become richer people.

v9 tells us, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. That is not describing God. It comes from Psalm 112, and it is describing the person who fears God:

Don’t you realise? If we have real life, we will be people who give life to others. The point of having money is to give money. Generousity is not the add on to life. It is written deep into the DNA of life.

That is why greed and corruption destroy.
They destroy a society, because nobody knows who they can really trust.
But more importantly, they destroy the individua: it is about how I can try to get and not to give. And the more I grab and the more I try and keep for myself, the bigger I may become in this world – with a bigger house, and a bigger yacht, and a bigger reputation, but my true self, my soul, shrivels up. ‘What does it do to someone’, says Jesus, ‘to gain the whole world, but to lose their soul’

God gives freely to us, so that we can freely give, and share in every good work.

It does not depend on how much money you have.

Mary Ann, a member of our congregation in Bury St Edmunds, spoke of a visit to some Christians in Uganda. Materially, the people who she visited had hardly anything. Yet she was overwhelmed by how generous they were to her. They opened their lives and their homes. They shared what they did have. And the thing that made the greatest impact on her, and the thing she brought back with her, was the fact, that despite having so little, they had such a strong faith in Jesus and such a joy in him.

We were not made to keep, but to give.
Where it really matters, your life will not be rated by how much you got, but by how much you kept back for yourself.

I am preaching this as much to you as to myself.

We do tithe. I hope most of you do, too, as Christian believers. That is the easy bit, once you have decided to do it. But it is about what I do with the remaining 90% that matters. This is the challenge to me. I’m very cautious with money. And yes we need to be wise; we need to invest for the future; we need to think about what will happen when we grow older.
But our money is a gift from God. It is to be used – and not just to make my own little nest more comfortable. It is to be used to bless people. And it is to be given.

And the more we give the bigger we become

There is blessing to the Church

We’ve already seen this principal at work. The Corinthian church have been collecting money for the church in Jerusalem that is suffering from famine. They meet ‘the needs of the saints’, and in turn the saints, the believers in Jerusalem, ‘long for you and pray for you’ (v14)

Of course, as believers we need to give to ‘every good work’.
But just as you have a special responsibility for members of your own family, so as members of the Church we have a special responsibility for members of the family of the Church
That is why it is good that we can give to Syrian and Coptic Christians in need. We can be a blessing to them, and they can be a blessing to us by praying for us.

But there is also blessing to the Church because giving enables the Church to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Paul speaks here of their obedience ‘to the confession of the gospel of Christ’ (v13)
And that is why it is vital that we do regularly and sacrificially give to the work of the church. Without that, the work of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, will become so much more difficult. We are seeing that in the UK. Churches are closing because people are not paying for the ministers or the ministry of the church.
It is not just in the UK. I heard last week that one of our nearby European chaplaincies is possibly going to lose its full-time minister, because it cannot be afforded.
And we’re there yet. Don is constantly having to struggle with the figures.

So when the people of God give – then the ministry can flourish, and the good news of the love of Jesus, of his victory over death, of the gift of his Holy Spirit, of friendship with God, of the hope of heaven can be proclaimed. The church can develop new ways of reaching out to people, and new ways of helping people grow in their faith. And we can develop new works of mercy.

When God’s people give, the Church of God is blessed.

There is blessing to God
Paul speaks of how the generousity of the Corinthians will bring ‘thanksgiving to God through us’ (v11), and that their gift will not only supply the needs of the saints, but also overflow with many thanksgivings to God (v12). And Paul finishes the chapter by declaring, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift’ (v15).

There are, in fact, multiple thanksgivings

We thank God for his provision.
There is thanksgiving when we receive a gift, whether someone has given R100, R1000 or R10000.

We thank God for his work in you that you have chosen to give.
We know what is important to a person by what they give to.
If you want a simple way to measure your spiritual temperature, think about what you have put in the offering bag today. Because what we usually put in the bag (not the amount, but what it really costs us -Jesus saw a poor woman put a R50 note in the collection, and he said she had given more than the people who put in many R1000 notes because she had given everything she had), but what we normally put in the bag is one of the indicators of what God means to us.
I remember challenging one of our members in Bury St Edmunds who was quite well off. He rather proudly told me that he was putting in 50p each week. I said, ‘Thank you. That is great. I am assuming that you are also telling me that God means less to you than half of the one of the newspapers that you read each day’.
So when people do sacrificially give, we do give thanks, because it means that God is working in their life, and that he is becoming more important to them.

We thank God because we have begun to realise that everything we have is gift

So I invite you to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.

The story is told of the man who stood up in church to share his testimony. He said, ‘I came to this country with £10, and the Lord told me to give it all away. So I gave it away, and he gave me £100. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and he gave me £10000. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and that is why I am standing in front of you today as a multi-millionaire.’ And a little old lady at the back of the church stood up and said, ‘Go on. I dare you’.

I dare you – and me – to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.
I dare you to give that it might be a blessing to you, so that you will become a richer person, a more generous person, a person who discovers that God provides.
I dare you to give to bless the church, the people of God, and to enable us all in the work of declaring the good news of Jesus.
And I dare you to give so that people will turn to God and give him thanksgiving – for you, for the reality of your faith, for all that he has given us, and for Jesus.