Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Trinity 2019

We are given a monumental task this morning. We are describing the God of the universe.

Imagine an ant trying to understand who you are and what you do. The understanding between the ant and the human being is actually closer than that between us and God.

Sometimes we don’t take the time to realize how much God is beyond us. Imagine how unbelievably amazing a being we are talking about. This being is beyond time. He doesn’t just live forever, he is outside of time. He created time. He is beyond the physical universe. He doesn’t have a physical nature. This being created the universe. When we start looking at how massive the universe is, we get a little glimmer of the power of the being we are talking about. This being is beyond our understanding. This being is beyond our words.

Anything we say about God is like a crudely drawn picture. When my sons draw a picture of our family, I come out somewhat recognizable, but I don’t think I could use it for my passport photo. Our words about God are like that. Anything we say about God is a crudely drawn image. Anything we say is really a kind of analogy, rather than it being very descriptive. … We can never get our language beautiful enough, or accurate enough, or profound enough to really describe what we are talking about. Even using the word “God” is problematic, because it can bring to mind the Roman or Greek gods, but we are talking about a being that is beyond all that.

When Moses was introducing the people to the God that rescued them from slavery, one of the commands they were given as they learned to become God’s people, was that they were not to make an image of God to be used in worship. Any image would not be good enough, no matter what image was used. … Idolatry is confusing God with what is not God. Any image or description of God risks idolatry, or confusing God with what is not God.

This is sometimes called Apophatic Theology, which is a theology that says we are really on safer ground when we say what God is not, rather than saying what God is. In India there is a tradition where they will sometimes say in Sanskrit “Neti Neti” which means “not this, not this”. God is not this. God is not this. It is easier to say what God is not then to say positively what God is. God is so beyond us we have a very difficult time really gaining a clear understanding of God.

But then what hope do we have in knowing this being, let alone having a relationship with “Him”? … We can reach out all we want, but it is a fruitless effort ….unless….. God reaches back. … We cannot know God except through His self-revelation. God has to reveal Himself to us if we are to know him at all. Revelation is God showing us what we couldn’t possibly know any other way. Revelation is God expressing Himself through the person of Jesus Christ. Revelation is transcendence becoming immanent.

A priest I know once said it this way. It’s like being near a lake on a really sunny day and the sun is too bright to look at, but the reflection is slightly less bright so it is possible to look at the sun through the reflection on the lake. Jesus Christ is the reflection of God- the image of God. He allows us to see God in a more clear way. The God of the universe, who we can’t say much of anything about, showed us Himself in Christ. Jesus is the pinnacle experience of humanity with God. God has reached out to humanity in many ways over the thousands of years, but Christ is the clearest expression of God’s reaching out.

People have written their experiences with this revealing God and have gathered these experiences together in the Bible along with the experiences of others throughout thousands of years. … That doesn’t mean God doesn’t continue to speak to people. The Holy Spirit is present with us and communicates to us, but the Bible allows us to measure our experiences against the experience of the community that has been having encounters with God for thousands of years. So, through those pages we see God reaching out to us across history and we can start to know this God when we read through the pages… especially when we have Jesus in mind as we read.

If the only way we can know God is if He reaches out to us, and if the Bible is a record (in some way) of God reaching out to us as a community, and Jesus is the most clear image of God reaching out to us that we have, then the Bible (read through the lens of Christ) is the best chance we have of knowing about God.

One of the things we learn about God as we read through peoples’ experiences with God, especially experiences with Jesus, is that there is a threeness and a oneness about God.

The idea of the Trinity is this- God is one in nature (being), but three in persons. … If you ask what God is, we say “God”. If you ask who God is, we say “Father, Son, Spirit”. That’s the basic idea. Three persons. One God. … The doctrine of the Trinity is trying to draw some boundaries for how we talk about God so that we hold together how the Bible describes God.

We see this threeness all over the New Testament. 
Jesus tells us to go out and make disciples, baptizing them in a threefold way- in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Paul blesses the churches in a threefold way, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). In Genesis 18 three visitors come to Abraham. We read that the Lord appeared to him and then it says there were three men. In Colossians 2:8 we read that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”. In John 14:9 Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. In John 15:26 Jesus says, “When the Advocate [Holy Spirit] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me”. … We could even look at some of the less obvious passages like in Genesis 1:26 where we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Bible scholars scratch their heads, unsure about what to do with that. Is it like the queen speaking- “we are not amused”? Or maybe God is speaking collectively for a heavenly counsel of angels. … There are plenty more passages we could look at, but I think you get the point. The way we hold all this together is the Church’s teaching about the Trinity. 

As the saints and theologians poured over the Bible they arrived at what we now know as the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that they didn’t have it before, it’s just that it became more polished. It’s really just direction to help us speak rightly about God. It is advice to show us where the boundary markers are in our language and thought about God. … The doctrine doesn’t remove the mystery of God. The teaching on the Trinity describes the mystery.

Our experiences with Jesus are like a tightly packed rosebud and the church over time unpacked her experience with Christ. The more time we take over the centuries to reflect on the church’s experiences with God the more we learn to speak about God- hopefully we learn to speak in ways that are led by the Holy Spirit.
No doubt our sin gets in the way at times. Sometimes we get it wrong, sure, but I think we sometimes get it right too. And that is the Holy Spirit working to bring us into truth. After Jesus ascended, he didn’t leave us on our own to figure all this out. He said that the Holy Spirit would be left with us to help guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

We are speaking about something that is beyond our thought and language. But, we boldly trust that God has reached out to us and that the Holy Spirit has helped us to see this, especially through our reading the Bible. And especially as we get to know Jesus who is the clearest image of God reaching out to us. We have to trust in his reaching towards us or we are hopeless to know anything about Him. The good news in all this is that God has made himself knowable.

And that dusty Bible sitting on most people’s book shelves is the primary way to know God (along with prayer, of course), but the Bible is where we learn who we are praying to, and it is what we judge our experiences against. It is not an easy book. Of course it is not an easy book to read. We are learning about the transcendent God. It is not easy, but I do believe it is worth the effort. AMEN

Pentecost- Acts 2

It seems like a major role of the Holy Spirit has to do with bridging gaps and breaking down barriers.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is working at building unity within ourselves. We sometimes live with an internal incongruity. A part of us is broken and disconnected from another part of us. It might be a childhood trauma that we have hidden and never dealt with. Or maybe it is an incongruity between what we say we believe and what we actually do. The Holy Spirit works to build integrity in our life.

But this work doesn’t stop with us (as if the rest of the world didn’t exist). The Holy Spirit also moves us towards our greatest purpose, which is to love and serve God, and to enjoy Him forever. The Holy Spirit works to bridge the gap between us and God by drawing us towards Christ. We could say the Spirit exists as the love between you and God. When you are minding your own business and your heart starts to burn within you and you have an overwhelming desire to pray, that is the Holy Spirit present in you joining you in love to God. This warmth might build in you when you sing a hymn, or it might happen while you are praying, or when you look at the sunset, and a profound gratitude builds up in you. That is the Holy Spirit joining you to God.

Just as we are joined to God by the Holy Spirit, so we are also drawn into a mysterious unity with one another by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit exists as the love between us. After his Ascension, Jesus is present to us through the Holy Spirit, and he is at work making us the body of Christ. … You may have had the overwhelming desire to call someone and then find out that they really needed someone to talk to. Maybe there is someone you need to forgive and the Spirit keeps bringing them to your mind. Or, maybe there is someone you need to ask to forgive you. Or, maybe being together on Sunday you feel a connection that goes beyond mere sociology. It goes beyond friendship. You feel a connection that runs mysterious and deep.

The Holy Spirit is a master of overcoming barriers with love. The Holy Spirit wants to destroy divisions and draw us into unity. If we look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 we see that really they don't make much sense outside of our relationship with another person- 
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.
We often think of the Holy Spirit’s actions in terms of miraculous powers. For example, we might think of healing miracles. The Holy Spirit might use these miraculous means if it means drawing people closer to God and closer to each other. Usually what is needed is not a miracle. Rather, what is often needed is the grace to be patient, and kind, when we would really rather not be.

The Holy Spirit is active outside the walls of the church. The Holy Spirit is active in our neighborhoods and where we work. The Holy Spirit wants to draw everyone into deeper relationship with God and with other people. So, wherever barriers are being broken between people, and wherever people are being brought closer together in love, you will find the Holy Spirit there. When you find division and bitterness you will likely see the absence of the Holy Spirit, or a resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit.

We had around 30 people sleeping in the church hall on Friday night. They were with the Walk for Common Ground. They are walking from Edmonton to Calgary raising awareness about issues affecting aboriginal people in our province. They are trying to draw indigenous and non-indigenous people together. They are trying to overcome barriers of prejudice and trauma. The Spirit felt present at that gathering. That is the work of the Spirit.

When we look at our reading from the Book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit bridging gaps and overcoming barriers. We read that after Jesus was crucified and then resurrected on Easter day he also ascended into Heaven. After that, God poured out his Spirit on the Disciples of Jesus. The Spirit filled the Disciples with new life, and the law of love was burned into their hearts. They became the Body of Christ as they were filled with his Spirit. The power of Christ became active in and through them. They had been hiding behind closed doors, full of fear, and then they are filled with the boldness of Christ working in them. … At Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus all received the same Spirit. They were made one by sharing in the same Spirit.

The Holy Spirit then began work knocking down the barrier that stood between them and those who did not know Jesus. When the Spirit filled them they started miraculously speaking in other languages they didn’t know. They weren't just random languages; they were the languages of those who were within earshot who were visiting from all over the known world. They were people who weren't present to hear about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. They came from all over- from Rome, and Northern Africa, and from near the Caspian Sea, and Turkey. Suddenly, the language barrier was gone. The tower of Babel was reversed and language was miraculously not a barrier. Through the disciples they hear about Jesus.

They hear it from Galileans even- uncivilized country bumpkins, not academics who might actually know the languages. It didn’t come from the Temple. It came from nobodies. The barrier between the somebodies and the nobodies was smashed.

The Spirit loves to bring people together. The Spirit's desire is to create a community full of peace, love, healing, and understanding. The Spirit wants to create a community where people learn to be like Jesus, and to treat each other as Jesus would treat them- maybe even treating them as someone who has his Spirit residing within them.

And so the disciples are brought into greater unity by sharing this one Spirit. Those who are listening to them miraculously speaking different languages are unified in understanding what is being said. The act of the Spirit working through the disciples transcends nationalities and languages. It didn't matter what nation they belonged to, or what language they spoke. .... They heard and were drawn into the community. The confusion of nationalities and languages symbolized by the Tower of Babel story is reversed.

And then Peter speaks to the crowd that has gathered to describe what they are witnessing and he points to a prophecy of Joel where God says, 
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.” (Joel 2:28-32).
 It's not just nationality and language that is removed as a barrier to community, but the age barrier is removed- Both old and young are unified in the Spirit. The gender barrier is removed- both women and men are unified in the Spirit. I will pour out my Spirit on all people, God says. The Spirit transcends the barriers that divide us as human beings.

This is work the Spirit is still interested in. In your life the Spirit wants to destroy any barrier that stands between you and God. The Spirit wants to destroy the barrier that stands between you and your fellow Christian. We are brothers and sisters because we share in the one Spirit. The Spirit also wants to remove the barrier that stands between us and those who do not know Christ. The Spirit wants to draw them and make them fellow brothers and sisters to us- and the Spirit wants to include us in that work removing the barrier that stands between people and God. That same Spirit that was in Peter and the disciples on Pentecost is in you. We are called to be a community that tears down barriers that divide people.

At Pentecost the world became less divided, it went from being a world divided by nationalities, languages, wealth, age, and gender, to a world divided only by a person's willingness to be included or excluded in the family of God. And God’s will is for us to be one, healed, and at peace. That is the desire and work of the Spirit- To work in the world, even through us, to bring wholeness where there is division. AMEN

John 17 unity

John 17:20-26 (NRSVA)
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

There was once a ship captain who saw a column of smoke rising from an island in the distance. Immediately he pulled out the binoculars and upon closer inspection he saw a man beside a huge fire waving palm branches. The captain took some sailors in a boat and traveled to the island. He and his crew got out of the boat and met the ragged man who was overjoyed to see them.

"I can't believe someone has finally come to rescue me. I've been trapped here on this island all by myself for 10 years! Thank God you've come!"

"Ten years!" the captain said "how have you survived out here for ten years all by yourself?"

"Come with me and I'll show you around."

The lone-islander showed the captain around the island and showed him how he managed to survive all this time. He finished the tour with his house which he built with bamboo and palm branches, and then he showed the captain his church built out of similar materials.

"And that's pretty much it" the man said. But, the captain saw another building off in the distance. Curious, he asked "And what is that building over there?"

"Oh that," he replied with a bit of disdain, "that's the church I used to go to".

The joke is funny because leaving a church to go to another is pretty common. There are lots of reasons to change churches that are quite valid, but sometimes it is because of a fight and the unwillingness to work through forgiveness and reconciliation. The joke wonders if we are even able to disagree with ourselves.
Our reading calls us to unity- within our churches, our denomination- and across denominations. 

We may have disagreements with people. We might think our church is completely wrong on major issues. But I have been reminded that the prophets of Israel were never called to start a separate and opposing new Israel. They stayed, even when they felt they were all alone, because these are God's people. 

The unity we are called to is for a purpose- 
"so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (17:21)
"so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (17:23)
 How many have doubted the validity of the way of Christ because of the disunity among Christians? 

The passage itself from John 17 is a tapestry. It poetically weaves phrases together. The repeated use of the words "one" and "in" in Greek are pronounced "hen" and "en". So the reading (out loud) is sort of mesmerizing with repeated sounds, words, and phrases. Creating a oneness even in the poetry of the passage that speaks about the oneness of mutual indwelling of God, Son, and the church.    
We are called to a unity with each other, as the Body of Christ, sharing that same Spirit, that is equated with the unity shared between the Father and Son. 
May God grant that unity to the church- and may we be willing to put in the effort to get there.   

Saturday, 1 June 2019

John 14- preparing for the Ascension

Next Thursday is the feast of the Ascension. Our Gospel reading today is preparing us for that event.

The Ascension is when Jesus enters into the reality of heaven. I believe that is like entering into another dimension of reality. It is like a 2 dimensional person becoming 3 dimensional. As he enters that new dimension, it seems to us that he is leaving. But, from Jesus’ perspective he is even more present with us because to be in the dimension of heaven frees him from certain earthly limitations. To remain on the earthly plain is to be present in one place at a time. When Jesus enters the heavenly he is freed from that limitation. … So, I don’t think that Ascension is about Jesus leaving us. He told us in Matthew 28:20, 
“…And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. 
But, the Ascension makes it look like leaves because he is no longer present as he had been. The Ascension has this apparent contradiction to it. As Jesus says in John 14:28, 
“I am going away, and I am coming to you.”

Jesus has three things to say to prepare his disciples.

First, Jesus encourages them to continue to follow his teachings saying, 
"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23).
 Jesus wants to encourage his disciples to continue to live as he taught them. His teachings would remain. They don’t expire with the Ascension. To claim to love Jesus and to ignore his teaching is to live in contradiction. As Gregory the Great said, 
“The proof of love is its manifestation in deeds. … One who is still wandering here and there through his unlawful desires does not really love God” (Forty Gospel Homilies 30.1).
 So, if we want to follow the teachings of Jesus more closely, our focus should actually be on how we can come to love Jesus more. Our disobedience to his teachings is a love problem.

God’s dwelling within us is connected to our following the teachings of Jesus. And perhaps that is the real point of Jesus’ teaching- to prepare us for the indwelling of God within us. God is also working to prepare a home within us- it is a cooperation. As Origin said, 
“[God] consumes evil thoughts, wicked actions and sinful desires when they find their way into the minds of believers. … After their vices and passions have been consumed, he makes them a holy temple, worthy of himself” (On First Principles 1.1.2).

The process then is that as we grow in love for Jesus, we will have a equal desire to follow his teachings. As we follow his teachings, we become a more suitable dwelling place for God.

The second thing he wants to tell them in preparation for his leaving has to do with the Holy Spirit. He says, 
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26).
 Jesus constantly says that his going into heaven is important because the disciples will gain a new relationship with the Holy Spirit, who will be their Comforter, (or Advocate, or Helper). The Holy Spirit will be with the disciples in an important way after the Ascension- In a way that wouldn’t be possible without the Ascension.

We shouldn’t think that these are the only things the Holy Spirit does, but there are two important roles that Jesus points out. The two things Jesus highlights here is that the Holy Spirit will teach and remind.

Last week we spoke about a difficult decision the church had to make regarding how non-Jewish people were going to join the church and follow the Jewish Messiah. The question was “how Jewish do you have to become to be able to be a follower of Jesus?” There were different opinions on this. Here we see the Holy Spirit teaching.

Peter receives a vision of animals on a sheet. These animals are not supposed to be eaten according to kosher laws. But the voice comes instructing Peter to not call something unclean that God has called clean. Then Peter is invited to a Gentile’s home. Gentiles were considered ritually unclean, and yet when Peter starts speaking about Jesus the Holy Spirit fills the Gentiles who are listening. … But that is not the end of the teaching.

There is also a gathering of the leaders of the church who discuss and pray about this issue. At the end of that meeting they say, 
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28)
 and they go on to give some basic guidance. … As individuals and as a community the Holy Spirit was actively teaching them. Jesus had not spoken to them about this particular issue, so the Holy Spirit was teaching them how to move forward.

The other role of the Holy Spirit that Jesus highlights has to do with reminding the disciples of the teachings of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was actively bringing the teachings of Jesus to their minds. And that would have been an incredibly important matter as the New Testament was being written, we benefit from the reminding that the Holy Spirit did as pen was being put to paper in the midst of the Early Church community. … The Holy Spirit was reminding them as they were teaching new followers who never met Jesus. …

And this is a role of the Holy Spirit that is important for disciples to this day. An experience that is very common is that when someone experiences the intimacy of the Holy Spirit they can suddenly read Scripture with a new clarity and they can also remember the teachings of Scripture in a new way. That is obviously important as we attempt to live as Jesus has taught us. … We are not alone in trying to live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is present helping us in exactly that task.

The third and final thing he wants to tell his disciples in preparation for his leaving has to do with peace. Jesus says 
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).
 There is a lot that can be said about peace, especially in its connection to the Hebrew word Shalom. Jesus speaks it over his disciples a lot- It might be among his top used words after the resurrection. …

The peace the world promises has to do with removing all that might disturb us. The world promises us peace because we have retirement savings, and good health, and good friends, and family that don’t make mistakes, and we live in a prosperous country with no war. The peace of the world has to do with the removal of problems. …

The peace Jesus gives doesn’t necessarily have to do with our outward circumstances changing to suit our desires or expectations. The peace Jesus gives is a peace in the midst of trouble. A couple chapters after our reading Jesus says, 
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
 Jesus is not promising a life without trouble. He is promising a way to have peace in the midst of the trouble. He is not promising to calm every storm, he is promising peace in the midst of the storm. … It is something Jesus has promised us as his disciples and we can claim it as our own. That doesn’t mean our troubles will go away, but it means we can have peace in the midst of our troubles.

In preparation for his Ascension Jesus leaves them (and us) with three things. First, he encourages them to match their lives with their love of him. If they love him, they will obey him. Second, he tells them that they are not alone in their task. The Holy Spirit will comfort them, actively teaching them and reminding them. And thirdly, they are given a peace they can hold onto in the midst of trouble. … These are not only for ancient disciples- These are for us as well. AMEN
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