Monthly Archives: June 2019

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?