The Experience of God

[There is a comment on John 16:12-15, gospel reading for Trinity Sunday year c, to be found if you click here]

Descriptions can be less than helpful! “Sheets of a naturally derived, cellulose based material, joined and pivoted at one edge, usually of a light colour marked on one or both sides with a darker pigment.” tells you nothing very useful about a book. In much the same way, attempts to describe and analyse God, who is beyond human description and definition, may not be of great value.

Yet reading Romans 5:1-5, we learn something of the Christian experience of God, and how that may be remembered and shared. Jesus, we are told, has sorted out our relationship with God. Now we may find peace and grace, if only we have faith. Having peace does not mean a problem-free life. Yet even troubles lead on to hope – hope which, because of the Holy Spirit, is well earthed and not just hopefulness.

Almost without realising it, we have spoken of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The point is not to define or “pin them down”, but to welcome what they are doing in and around us. Paul is keen to tell the Roman Christians that the events of Jesus life and death apply to and for them. He also wants their lives to be transformed by that good news. As he speaks of God, he talks about the triple activity quite naturally. [We could look at John 16:12-15, today’s gospel reading, and find the same sort of reference to the three, working closely together].

On Trinity Sunday, we think of God. Let it be of the awesome and wonderful God, who has astounded and delighted greater minds than ours, and never of some dry theory. We shall not be examined on theory, whether in the philosophical terms of the early centuries, or of our own time. But we shall be judged on whether we have taken the opportunities to know God in practice. If our prayer, action and reflection have brought us to some understanding of what God is doing and wanting, it will show. If our experience makes us want to be more like God, that too will be plain. A difficult test? But a glorious transformation of human life and relationships.

Only two possibilities?

Christians are sometimes accused of trying to make a simple – even a simplistic – choice out of life’s endless moral dilemmas. It is complained that preachers unfairly make the spectrum of goodness and evil into a false two way split. But scripture does this too. There are many different metaphors which have in common a refusal to allow the hearer to sit on the fence. Think for example of Jesus parable about the two men, one building his house on sand, and one on rock. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy several times urges a choice of direction: blessing and curse 11:26f, compare 30:15. Psalm 1 pictures two trees, one by the waterside, not a forest or even a copse. In today’s reading of Romans 8:14-17, Paul offers some explanation.

Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, named for its 50 day interval after Passover (Easter), we tend to focus on the dramatic story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, told in Acts 2. But for us who live a long time after those events, how does the Spirit make a difference?

Paul has spoken in Romans 7:14-23 of the way good intentions are not enough to overcome sin, experienced as selfishness, desire, addiction and many other things. In Romans 8 he explains that it is the Holy Spirit that breaks the monopoly of human sin. It is not that the Christian becomes perfect, or even loses the many temptations to fall back into a self-centred, desire directed, life. But the Christian can be “led by the Spirit of God” – directed by a greater force, though always responsible, never coerced. This is a life that pleases God, and is seen as good and constructive by those around. This is the way to become the person God intended, filling the place in the community (both the Christian congregation and the wider local community) that is properly theirs.

It is a strange balance. We do not lose control of our lives, yet what is good in them is given, not achieved. The choice has to be made each day, and even more often, yet going the way of God’s Spirit we have confidence in our direction, even when it is not obvious. We still sin, and need repentance and forgiveness, but the stranglehold of a sin-dominated life is broken, and wonderful opportunities are glimpsed.

Christians do believe in a division into two. Only God is able to give a final, accurate judgement, but scripture again and again speaks of a two way choice, not a range of assessments of good and bad.

This is reinforced by the role of the Holy Spirit in making us God’s adopted children and heirs. Again, the division – those who receive the inheritance, and those who do not. Adoption is a gift, yet a gift in which we may have confidence, and for which we may always be grateful.

The story of the birth of the church that Pentecost is striking, and still of great importance. The Holy Spirit, working in Christian believers, leads them to the life God intends, and gives a new position as adopted children.

The Importance of Heaven

[There is a comment on Acts 16:16-34 under the title “Waiting” ]

After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to various groups of people, then after 40 days, ascended back into heaven. We celebrated that last Thursday, and today read of heaven in Revelation 22:12-21. (I prefer not to omit some verses – see later). People have some funny ideas about heaven. I can’t remember anything said in scripture about family reunions, about endless rest, furry animals, golf, or styles of music.

What is said describes a beautiful and safe place; safe partly because among those excluded are those who would cause harm or bring deceit. Revelation 22:14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. 15 But outside the city are the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murderers, those who worship idols and those who are liars both in words and deeds.”

That helps to make sense of the story of Paul in Philippi, Acts 16:16-34. He delivers a slave girl from an evil spirit, but is persecuted for her owners loss of income – with lies, and official malpractice. He wins through, with the power of the Holy Spirit bringing faith to the jailer and his family – but the division which will be made in heaven is already developing. That division is NOT between “good” and “bad” people, – the key is not “performance”, but the acceptance of forgiveness. Verse 14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. ” Indeed, even as Revelation 22 tells us of heaven and those left out, it urges verse 17 Come! Come, whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.

The question is not only: “Do we want it?” (important though that is), but also do we want to share something so important, wonderful – and free? If so, we not only find ourselves praying for the gifts, fruit and power of the Holy Spirit to direct our Mission, but we also see why this is a time to think about Vocation. Vocation is not about bullying people into being ordained. It is about what God calls us to do, or put it another way, how we use the gifts he gives us. Some are leaders & organisers, some teachers, others are good with people, others can lead them to faith . . There are many different gifts, but we need them all. Do you know yours, and help others to discover theirs? Have you spotted people who should be encouraged to take particular responsibilities in the Christian family? (If not, why not?)

“Come, whoever is thirsty.” The gates of heaven are still open to us for a time. Now is the moment to repent, accept forgiveness, and work through what that means. I find it ironic that as we read vv18,19, warnings against adding or taking away from the book, it is suggested we leave out v18,19 – the warnings themselves, and v15, about the excluded. But until Jesus comes again, there is the opportunity to join those qualified to enter and eat the fruit of the tree of life. – Unless you know something more important to be thinking about today?

It’s so good!

What will heaven be like? John’s vision (today we read Revelation 21:10 and 21:22 – 22:5) has some interesting things, which ring true. We read of the centering of everything on God, Father and Son, and the way they provide light. Although strange at first, it is something significant. It is the light of God that has shown us the way, and will do so in future. It is light that makes possible free movement, and comfort, and recognition of people and places. As we fumble in a power cut, and shiver in an eclipse, we enjoy a sunny day. How much more joyful the light of God, which is more than physical.

We sometimes speak of “security lights” – those annoying lamps with sensors to turn them on, usually not quite when you want them. In heaven, the illumination is effective; there is no need to shut the city gates (usually a night-time security measure). Similarly it is a good place, where there is no “bad behaviour” or attempt to deceive. There is, not just a negative safety, but a positive thriving.

The opening verses of chapter 22 speak of the river, recalling Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12), bringing life to dry places. Here too the tree of life gives life and healing – for the goodness and holiness of God seems to be almost infectious. On earth we are used to the way viruses and evil spread. We sometimes forget that love, joy, hope and many Christian fruit are seen, and that witness will also spread on earth.

The reign that continues for ever is not one of conquest or colonisation, but the good order, transparent justice, and continuing healing of all in the city. It is no wonder that God is worshipped, and we are encouraged to join in, even in anticipation from where we are now.

Heaven is . .

Where we get our own way, where we are proved to be right, whatever we want it to be . . . ? I don’t think so, but we need to look further into John’s vision for some basis beyond opinion and hopefulness. (Revelation 21:1-6)

It’s clear that heaven is wonderful, and like the new earth, untarnished and unspoiled. It is where God will be with his people, which takes away stress, pain, and all that is wrong. On the one hand there will be re-creation, making things right, and restoring people. (That is what recreation is meant to do for us, though the version we know is more imperfect!).

But heaven will not be without challenge, at least initially. To be in the presence of God means that truth will prevail – no arguments over who did what, or deserved better. That truth will include our living with ourselves, and with others, without excuse or secrets. Perhaps that will only be possible because we shall live with God, who knows all, and loves. But it may suggest just how different, how much beyond our imagining, let alone our experience, heaven will be.

Of course God will be our focus. He is the Beginning and the End (Alpha and Omega – first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). So, rather than be “the religious bit” of our lives, to be given its place (among others), God becomes the centre – of a renewed existence, in love, and truth, and wonder. Like cool fresh water to the thirsty, God gives what is missing, what is so much needed.

It is beyond imagining – and so we need to be a little careful about letting wishful thinking replace the glimpse scripture gives us. But it is a magnificent glimpse!

Journey’s End – and God’s victory

The picture in the second part of Revelation 7 (Revelation 7:9-17) is pretty crowded, but it gives a welcome sight of the Victory of God, and of our journey’s end.

Christians can be rather inclined to self-pity, which for those of us in western countries today is rather odd – life in the first century was much harder for the faithful! Remember that Revelation is the vision given to a man living in exile. Earlier in this chapter (Revelation 7:2-4) we are told of destructive powers held back for “sealing” of 144,000. These are not the total number of Christians, but represent the martyrs. The seal does not prevent their death, but protects against “accidental” death, so that their witness (martyrdom) may be accomplished.

If that is rather sombre, we quickly move on to the multitude who are celebrating victory, their triumphant passage through persecution. They wear white robes

  • which , reinforced by their holding palm branches, are symbols of victory
  • and also symbols of purity (they are “washed . . in the blood of the Lamb”. All Saints are sinners, pure because of forgiveness and grace, gained from the sacrifice Jesus made of himself)

And who are this joyful crowd? They are the ones who have come through the “great tribulation” (“terrible persecution” in GNB) – not just hardship and death, but conflicts of loyalties: faith and family / social position / demands of the state / self interest. They have come through, and kept the faith, and their reward is appropriate, magnificent and eternal (verses 15-17). They are not only the famous figures of Christian history, but all the faithful, and as in this vision we see them in heaven, so we have the encouragement of seeing where we are going, and what will get us there.

Messiah and Good Shepherd?

[There is a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday at “The Lord is – my tour guide?“, and there follows one for the gospel for Easter 4c]

The Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah, at Christmastime, remembered the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus after he threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem (John 10:22-30, especially verse 22). A time when thoughts of freedom, and God’s Messiah, came up. So – Was Jesus the Messiah – and why wouldn’t he say so?

I think you know. He was the Messiah, all that he had done pointed to it. But if he said so, it would just start an argument. People needed, not to argue, but to think for themselves – and follow up their conclusions by action.

That’s still true. Preachers tend not to shout at you much. Why? It doesn’t do anything useful. The stories are told, connections and suggestions offered. You have to take responsibility for weighing it up – and taking action. Is Jesus the Messiah, or something else? I think he’s the Messiah, and that’s the basis of my following Him. Make your own mind up – and act on the conclusion!

Then there is the difficult verse John 10:26 “but you will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

Difficult because:

  • It divides the flock (who believe – with much more than a correct opinion) from those who do not; – a critical division. Seen clearly in the story of Jesus, we still fail to apply it in our own time. Are you part of the flock of God, or not? “Independent sheepishness” is not on offer.
  • It reminds us that faith is a gift. On the one hand, no one is prevented from following Jesus / joining the flock. On the other, faith is a gift. There is an undeniable truth in the doctrine of Predestination. There is a paradox, difficult to hold together logically. Faith is a gift, yet those who lack it are held responsible for the actions of their faithless life.

The benefits of being in the flock are real, but not always romantic. The sheep who know the shepherd are themselves known. Those who follow the shepherd are led to food, water, and safe rest. That does not mean a selfish life – everything you want and nothing else; nor does it avoid the robust realities of getting on with the other sheep. But the difference between that, and life outside, without guidance and protection, or even hope of forgiveness and escaping the consequences of failure, are breathtaking.

The image of the Good Shepherd may be romanticised by some, but not by Jesus. He understands the division between the flock and those not included as key to the future.

Music, and dangerous things.

(There is a comment on John 21:1-19, Easter 3c gospel, in the next blog.)

Your choice of music says more about you than you might think! Whether you listen or perform, is it loud and angry, romantic fantasy, something you don’t pay attention to, or just old fashioned? Would you admit to it, or insist on it?

Much the same is true of groups of Christians. Their choice of music says a lot. Is it so loud you drown everything else? Is it so old that only people in the “in group” can sing it? Perhaps more important, can there be new songs, but also the learning of old ones? Can one set of instruments to accompany give place to another? And, do the words matter? Do they say anything significant?

Lots of questions there, and you might begin to work our my preferences – which are not really the important thing. They do, however, give us a way in to that glimpse of heaven we have in Revelation 5:11-14. The picture is of vast numbers, singing praise to the Lamb who was slain – Jesus. He is at the centre, and is worshipped for his sacrifice. There is no doubt here what matters. We don’t know the music – it is not even clear if words are said or sung – but the content is significant.

Jesus is worthy to receive a number of very dangerous things:

  • Power. We say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are cynical about politicians, the rich and the famous because of the power they hold. Yet Jesus is worthy to receive power – because he has shown how he will use it, truly in love for humanity, even his enemies.
  • Wealth. Wealth brings power and freedom. Jesus has shown a new way of using both power and freedom. Not only is all wealth his by virtue of creation and redemption. He deserves it!
  • Wisdom. His life choices were indeed strange to our eyes. A simple life, voluntary suffering, setting aside many ordinary pleasures and indeed things we would call rights. His wisdom is proved by its effects, and he is indeed worthy to receive more.
  • Strength. How many people would you put in a position of control over you? There is one you can rely on never to abuse that, and more, to be worth serving and obeying always.
  • Honour, glory and praise. Let’s take three together. Each is deserved by Jesus for his service to each and to all, yet in each case, more should be given. The Lord of Calvary should be honoured, as God should always be honoured – not with pious words, but with heartfelt respect. Glory is not “glitz”, or celebrity “spin”; it is the wonder and admiration due to self-giving love. Praise is more than a condescending “well done”. It is the use of words which remind us of just what has been achieved, and help us to live in thankfulness, and imitation, and deliberate response.

Revelation 5:10 is quite an anthem! But the next verse brings an echo to the heavenly chorus from all creation. Now the figure on the throne and the Lamb are linked, and we understand God the Father and God the Son (one of those Biblical references which will be later rationalised in the doctrine of the Trinity). And they are to receive: praise and honour and glory and power. That is the last three, and the first, of those dangerous things offered to Jesus.

That response asks us if we are ready to join in. Have we taken note of the sacrifice of Good Friday and the power of the Resurrection? Are we now ready to give “praise and honour and glory and power” – not words, but actions, priorities worked out in practice day by day? It makes sense, and although these are dangerous things to hand over, there is no-one better to hold and use them.

The four living creatures said, “Amen”. They didn’t mean “Worship over, what’s next?”, but “We agree, count us in, we’re all for it”. Are we?

Can we go back now?

(for some reason, Easter 3c gospel was missed three years ago, so here is:

“Can we go back now?” You’ve just started a long walk, or you’re 10 minutes into a day’s shopping, when a little voice asks: “Can we go back now?”. But it’s not only children. Grown ups get nostalgic: we long for the “good old days”, for the time when we were young, for school or student friends, above all, for the time when the world sang our tune.

So (in John 21:1-19) – the disciples go fishing. They don’t like sitting around, they don’t like not knowing, they like fishing. It’s what they know, it’ll get them out of the house, they can do something useful … But it’s not the same, and when Jesus meets them early in the morning, there’s nothing to show for a night’s work. They’d forgotten that other time that Luke told in his gospel [chapter 5], when they fished all night, caught nothing, and Jesus showed them where to find the fish – which they caught in such numbers that they nearly sank! That had been when Peter really started with Jesus.

This time again, Jesus shows he knows what he’s talking about. Once again they share a meal with him; many of those shared meals had been important – not just the Last Supper in Jerusalem. After the meal, Jesus calls Peter again – but it’s a different Peter now. This isn’t the “grown up” swaggering, boastful Peter. He’s grown down, deflated, with less mouth and more ear. It’s not an easy chat they have, walking along the beach. But now Peter knows there’s no going back – and its not just fishing that he’s giving up, the old Peter is gone, whatever replaces him.

So what about your attitude to faith and Church? Be clear it is not for a reminder of the “good old days”, a nostalgic trip to when we were young, and things were proper. As Peter and John discovered, there’s no going back, things are different now. No, this is no trip down memory lane. We go forward with the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, and his commission to evangelise and serve. We are all committed to a new life, and to living it with joy and thanksgiving.

It’s a Revelation!

There is also a comment on Exodus 14 and 15 here, and four on John 20:19-31 as Good Doubt, Constructive Doubt, John 20:24-, and Why.

For some people, Revelation is a book of horrors and nightmares, but I want to convince you otherwise. We have 6 readings from Revelation in the next 6 weeks, and they have some positive things to say. So Revelation 1:4-8 starts off with the offer of free gifts. Not a bad strategy, but are they worth having? – you judge:

grace and peace be yours from God” verse 4

Not just God being nice to us, although we don’t deserve it (good!), but also we are given grace. I wonder if we take that seriously enough. Peace – again, not only are we no longer in rebellion against God, but we are given peace, not to worry about everything ?! not bad, and not finished:

“by his sacrificial death he has freed us

free gifts in 8 verses – its enough to get you in the habit of Bible-Reading! But there’s more. There is a good deal here about Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus the preacher and teacher, but this is later:

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness “

to God’s ways and nature, which we need to know about;

“first to be raised from death”

The first, not only one who will be resurrected.

“ruler of the kings”

Now in power, exercising great power, in a way we still need to learn about.

“first and last”

Alpha and Omega, the A-Z of the Greek alphabet. We might say something like “Pioneer and Last Word”.

Was . . Is . . is to come.

This is a different picture, and an important one – the Lord of power, who won the highest place by obedience in accepting the lowest.

Free Gifts, from a Lord with power and honour, and then there’s us:

“He loves us “

You can’t truly say that of many in power, but Jesus has demonstrated the point, and still does!

“made us a kingdom of priests” ?

We are all to bring people to God, and God to people; here we are told it is what we are for.

Why? “to serve his God and Father” can you think of anyone better to serve? even yourself? (do you live up to his standard?). So here we are, in Revelation, blessed with Free Gifts, given by a Risen and Powerful Lord, so that we may not live selfishly and idly, but be equipped and ready to serve God in a ministry to all the world. Surely that is worth paying attention to?