Tag Archives: experience

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. What causes division in the twenty-first century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

Fired up?

What motivates you? gets you out of bed on a cold morning? The fear that somebody will come and get you? Habit and the need to get to work and pay the bills? It works better if there is something positive to look forward to, something good which can be enjoyed and shared.

Peter is looking forward to Christ’s return, (we read 2 Peter 1:16-21 ) and arguing against those who doubt it. You may remember how he started with Jesus – found by his brother, called from his fishing. It started as some sort of interest, helped by a group who lived together and became friends. But that wasn’t enough.

The key was Jesus. Even then, it was not a striking personality, nor a wonderful teaching or programme. What he talks about is the greatness he saw, especially when Jesus was Transfigured. That was quite an experience – but Peter’s faith wasn’t built on an “experience”. It was a time when everything came together, and he “saw” it, and understood – and that would motivate him through dark and difficult times.

What did he see? A glimpse of reality. A reality in which God is involved with his creation, and so everything is seen in a new light. A glimpse of holiness, of Jesus talking with 2 great leaders for God about what was truly important, about something which would have significance for ever. A glimpse of heavenly beings, in communication which had understanding and purpose.

Peter sees, and his confidence grows in the one identified as God’s Son, and he moves on. He draws attention to the message of the prophets verse 19, and the need to be guided by the Holy Spirit verse 21.

We read this passage before Lent, to remind us that it is not just a time to give up some trivial indulgence, and enjoy being miserable. It is time to think about our motivation, what feeds it and what obstructs it. Some motivations in Christian life just don’t work – and we see people give up.

Against that we set, not some subjective experience, but the greatness and glory of God revealed in Jesus. We may come to understand at different times, but we also need to know about

  • the reality
  • the holiness
  • and the communication

so that we set out on our journey to heaven with determination, and energy, and skill.

It may be that you know how to sort out your motivation; or perhaps you just need to listen to people like Peter, writing to convince you.

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.

Evangelism Masterclass

Jesus has had a hard day.  Walking in the hot sun, he is glad to sit and rest, even without a drink.  Yet, tired and thirsty, he can find the energy for a conversation. (John 4:1-42).  His disciples will be surprised to find him talking to a Samaritan woman, and one who came to the well at midday to avoid company.  Soon she finds his perception hard – these are things she didn’t want to talk about, but still does.

People coming to new faith may face up to things otherwise forgotten by choice.  Christians coming closer to God as they turn away from all that is wrong may also find the process challenging.  Though they cannot begin again, each day brings the choice of going on, or not.

Jesus didn’t want the effort, but took the opportunity.  The woman didn’t like being so well understood, and created a distraction (the proper place to worship – the Samaritan or Jewish centre), but Jesus avoids it.  The conversation continues until the woman leaves to bring others.  They begin in curiosity, but as Jesus stays, they gain a faith of their own which no longer depends on second hand reports.

Jesus has taught us three things about being changed – converted.  First, we have to face facts, even hard ones.  Second, we need to avoid distractions.  Third, the experience has to be their own for each person; second hand won’t do.  This is true for our own conversion, but also for our going on in faith day by day, year by year.  It is equally true for evangelism, as we try, with courtesy and urgency, to share faith with others around us.

Perhaps the twinning of this story with Exodus 17:1-7 (and its echo in Psalm 95) is fortunate.  We don’t easily face up to hard facts about ourselves and our faith (or lack of it).  Evangelism, and repentance, are for many a hard place.  But when we find God there, the benefits flow like water in the desert.

Faith – in a different light.

Some of the stories in the New Testament are important as they explain a sequence of events, others have a particular point to make.  And then there are some which are clearly important, but mainly because they make us see things in a new way.  You might say the impact is emotional rather than logical – as long as that is a way of explaining their impact, not diminishing their importance.

This week’s gospel, preparing for Lent, is the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9).  Three disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Testament Law and Prophets.  Jesus dazzles them, and then a heavenly voice emphasises his importance.

We can imagine the importance of this in increasing their motivation as disciples.  It may even have helped them as Jesus took the unexpected path of voluntary suffering – victory through (not avoiding) the Cross.   It may not have told them anything they had not been told, or heard, before.  But it sorted out their resolution, their emotional attachment to this way and this teaching.

This may be what we need.  Peter’s confusion, wanting to prolong an experience rather than move on taking it to illuminate the next challenge, is what so many of us do.  We would like God to give us great experiences, but are less enthusiastic about experiences which prepare us for service.  That is surely why we read this just before Lent.  Lent is not about giving up sugar in hot drinks, or other negatives, so much as thinking again of the cost and importance of discipleship.  What is it that gets in the way of our being more Christian, more full of joy and love, more ready to serve?  Probably a whole confusion of things which need clearing.  It may even be wanting a certain sort of religious experience.

Three disciples saw Jesus in a new light, literally.  We imagine it helped them resolve more firmly, even more effectively, to listen, follow, and do what they were told.  If our worship this Sunday helps us see Jesus, and be re-motivated, it will have succeeded.