St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Notes for Reflection

June 29                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                        

Texts: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Theme:  Nothing strikes me as obvious this week.  However, as we are now in the second half of our liturgical year when the emphasis is on discipleship, perhaps something like "The Proof of the Pudding" might be a good way to start.  More hazardous, but just as catchy, would be "Doing Is Believing", but on the feast day of St Peter and St Paul that might be going too far.  (Perhaps file it away for the feast day of St James, whenever that is.)  What we need to highlight is that, Christ having done all that is necessary for our salvation, it is time for us to show the fruits of his work in our lives.

Introduction.  In the brief but rather subversive little passage from St Matthew this week Jesus assures those who welcome a prophet will receive a prophet's reward.  Just in case that sounds warm and encouraging, our first lesson is from the Book of Jeremiah.  Are you with me?  The reward for welcoming a Jeremiah into your home is to receive what Jeremiah received?  And it doesn't get any better if we run from Jeremiah to St Paul.  He demands of us a righteous life, which again sounds okay until we go back to the gospel.  The reward for welcoming a righteous person is to receive the reward of the righteous.  Well, Peter and Paul were righteous, and today we remember them as martyrs.  Do you see how modern the idea of providing the right incentives really is!  In short, once again we are offered an opportunity to reflect on the difference between worldly and spiritual values.

Background.  Over the last two or three weeks I have been reading a remarkable book with a remarkable title by a man with a remarkable name: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Telden Lane.  It was recommended to me several years ago by my then spiritual director, but at that time it was only available in hardback at a remarkable price.  Now, Kindle has come to my rescue.  I was about to note that I'm not making much progress in reading the book, before it suddenly dawned on me that such a comment would perfectly illustrate the theme I am trying to work with this week.  What I had in mind, of course, was that, after two or three weeks, I am still well short of half-way through.  It has been slow going.  That is not because of any defect in the writing: the author writes very well.  It is because the book has so many profound insights into subjects such as suffering and loss, silence and withdrawal, and the presence and absence of God, that I am constantly stopped in my tracks by a need to pause, ponder and reflect.

And that means that in the truly important sense I am making progress.  I am learning things about my faith, my understanding, and above all about my own lack of deep seeing that I have not managed to learn on the journey so far.  For instance, I am a coastal person.  I was born and bred on the wild northern coast of Cornwall, and I do not thrive if I do not have ready access to a beach.  Particularly, I need to walk on the beach when things have gone wrong: it's not simply that physical exercise helps me to unwind – a walk anywhere else does not have the same effect.  It has to be the beach, but why?  What is it about a beach that I find so healing?

Thanks to this book I am beginning to discover the answer to that question.  The author refers to a short quote that he picked up from someone else (whose name I have forgotten): We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.  For some reason that simple little phrase has become one of my most important eureka moments.  When we go out into the desert, or up in a mountain range, or in my case, down on the beach, we are in the presence of indifference on a huge scale.  The desert neither welcomes us nor objects to our intrusion: it simply doesn't notice us.  The mountains have been there for eons before our unheralded arrival and will be there for aeons after our departure.  The sea's tides will continue their ebb and flow, with no sign that our presence on the beach has the slightest effect on their coming and going.  We simply don't matter a jot.

And that is the beginning of the healing process.  Gradually we realise that our focus has been far too much on ourselves and our petty problems.  We have been living in a world of our own creation.  Because we are troubled we believe that the world is a hostile one, hostile, that is, to us.  And when we stand up and recite the creed on a Sunday morning, talking about a God who created all things, and about his Son through whom all things were created, those words crash upon the rocks of our real belief that this world is one of hostility and grief.  Why, then, should we praise the God who created it?

The first stage of the healing is to rid ourselves of the belief that "all the world's agin us" by recognising that it is no such thing.  All the world is indifferent to us.  We are just not that important.  And curiously, once we have gone through that deflationary process, it frees us to focus on God the Creator: it frees us to marvel at the creation, and to recognise that to be alive in such a wonderful world is an enormous privilege, a gift beyond price.  And it does something more: it gives us a desire to know this God, this Creator, who is the source of all there is, seen and unseen.  It allows us to read the wonderful closing chapters of the Book of Job and understand them; and to grasp at new depth what the author of Psalm 8 was saying, particularly in verses 3 and 4.

It gives new meaning to the theme of dying to self, and to the related one of humbling ourselves and being exalted.  If "repentance" really is about a change of mindset, then it is no wonder that it was from a desert that John the Baptist emerged with his call.  "Fierce landscapes" strip away all falsity, and confront us with searing truth – about ourselves and about God.  Jeremiah was in constant battle against false prophets, prophets who told the people (and their leaders) what they wanted to hear.  False prophets were always politically correct.  Jeremiah told them God's truth.  He received, no doubt, a prophet's reward – eventually.   In such landscapes we learn what it truly means to be a creature, wholly dependent on the Creator of all.  St Paul writes this week about slavery: we recall that it was in fierce landscapes of wilderness and mountains that God's people learned what it meant to be truly free.

Jeremiah.  Give yourself a treat – start reading at verse 1.  Suddenly we have before us a sort of Oxford Union debate – we can almost see the participants wearing dinner suits and black bow-ties..  Hananiah speaks first.  Wrapped up in prophetic language he predicts the come-uppance of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, with the consequential release of all the exiles and the return of the treasures looted from the Temple.  Cries of "hear, hear" (rather than Alleluia or Amen) ring out from the appreciative audience, and then all eyes turn to Jeremiah, eager to see how he will go against such a wonderful debater.  Jeremiah shows his mastery of such debate.  Tempted though he must have been to lean toward Hananiah and exclaim, "I can smell falsity on your breath", he restrained himself.  How wonderful it would be, he proclaimed if Hananiah's prediction should come to pass, but history cautions us not to bet the camels on it.  In the past, most prophets have forecast war, famine and pestilence rather than peace.  That doesn't mean only such prophecies can be genuine – but the odds are against it.  Let's wait and see: only if peace breaks out as predicted will we know that God has truly sent the prophet who predicted it.

Taking It Personally.

  • Put yourself in the audience.  Who would you have voted for?  Are you more inclined to listen to people who tell you what you want to hear and believe?
  • Ask yourself that question in the context of issues facing New Zealand and the world today.  How do you react to forecasts about climate change, the creation of an underclass, or an obesity epidemic?  Are those sounding warnings speaking the truth to us, or are they prophets of doom seeking a headline?
  • Do you form your own view on such issues, or do you seek guidance from the Holy Spirit?  What role is there (if any) for spiritual discernment in deciding how you will vote in this year's general election?
  • Does the Church have a prophetic call?  Is there any evidence that it is exercising that call?  Who should speak for the Church on such issues of the day?  Should we rely on motions from Synod, or should we seek those with a prophetic gift?
  • In ordinary social situations do you attempt to contribute to discussions from a faith-perspective, or are you inclined to bite your tongue?  If someone says something that is unfair, or disparaging, or otherwise ungodly, how do you react?


Romans.  Again, it would be helpful to start reading at the beginning of chapter 6, although verse 15 captures much the same point as verse 1; and both show human nature as it really is!  Can't you just hear someone saying, ah, well, if God loves us anyway, and if Christ died for me while I was yet a sinner, I can do whatever I like and I still get the same deal, regardless!  That's really the problem with what I tend to think of as forensic Christianity.  A sin has been committed, the culprit must be identified and held to account, and the punishment will be applied unless the culprit pleads "no contest" and plays the "get-out-of-hell-free" card which comes with membership of the Church.  That approach fails to recognise that we are called to follow the way of spiritual growth, pioneered and made possible for us by Christ.  Sin is not so much a particular act or omission that offends God, but a step backwards that slows or even reverses our spiritual progress, or perhaps a symptom of such spiritual regression.  For St Paul, the essence of Christ's work is that he has set us free from the compulsion of sin: how we use that freedom – to progress or regress – is now our choice to make.


Taking It Personally.


  • Start by reading the passage through slowly.  How do you feel about it?  How do you feel about Paul?  Be honest with yourself.  Do you find yourself switching off, or challenged, or something else?
  • Focus on verse 17.  To what extent have you "become obedient from the heart" to Christ's teaching?
  • How do you feel about verse 19a?  Does it strike you as understanding or condescending?
  • Are you seeking ever greater "sanctification"?  What does that mean for you?
  • Paul writes often about "righteousness".  How do you feel about that term?  Is there a better way of putting it without using that word?


Matthew.  This is getting monotonous, but you really do need to go back to verse 1, even if you can't bring yourself to read the whole chapter.  This teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple in the real world.  Jesus wants his disciples to be under no illusion: it has echoes of the great debate in our first lesson.  (It also reminds me of the nonsense the US authorities told their troops as they prepared to invade Iraq: "you will be greeted as liberators!")  In this short passage Jesus prepares them for a variety of "welcomes".  In effect he is saying, give your time and attention to those who welcome you, who recognise that you come bearing the word of God, and who offer you hospitality, not out of general cultural practice, but precisely because you are my disciple.  Those are the ones who are on the way, and will receive their (spiritual) rewards.  But what about the others?  He does not tell us what to do about the mockers, the violent, or even the plain apathetic.  We are to look for those who are receptive to the gospel.


Taking It Personally.


  • What lessons might there be here for the outreach of your local faith community?
  • Is there a distinction between social work, and Christian social outreach?  When you offer help to another, do you do it "as a disciple"?  What does that mean for you?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

June 22 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Te Pouhere Sunday

June 22                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Te Pouhere Sunday

Texts:  Isaiah 42:10-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Matthew 7:24-29*

[*The Lectionary offers four possible gospel readings for this Sunday, none of which seem to me to give grounds for celebrating the Constitution.  But to be fair, I can't think of any alternatives: it's almost as if theCconstitution has no biblical basis at all.]

Theme:  Fortunately I'm not preaching this Sunday.  If I were I would be tempted to choose as a theme something like "This is the Good News?" or "So St Paul Got It Wrong?" or "The Church's One (New) Foundation".  Privately, just between you and me, I'm going to follow Fiona Bruce's example and go for "Basic, Better, Best".  (If you don't watch the Antiques Roadshow ask someone who does.)  The safest option, of course, is to toe the party line and simply go for "Te Pouhere Sunday".

Introduction.  I noted last week that when The Lectionary has difficulty in finding relevant readings we know we're heading into troubled waters.  I was then referring to Trinity Sunday, of course, but the comment is even more apposite this week.  We begin with a typically brilliant passage from Isaiah which comments, among other things, on the unmatched blindness of Israel's leadership, which, given that Israel was what today would be called a theocracy, means its religious leaders.  So as we are commanded by General Synod (our religious leaders) to celebrate their masterpiece, we can only wonder if the choice of this lesson has its roots in humility or irony.  The second lesson seems a little more on theme:  Te Pouhere is a new creation, and was intended as a way of reconciliation with Maori who had every right to feel aggrieved by much that was done and practised by what was to all intents and purposes The Settler Church.  We finish with a gospel passage, the choice of which for this "celebration" must border on the blasphemous if the inference is that Te Pouhere is the rock on which our church is built.  Hopefully this Sunday in many congregations we will be singing Samuel John Stone's great hymn "The Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord".  May we sing it loudly and defiantly on this occasion!

Background.  Yes, I'm feeling very grumpy this week, but it's not just my annual outbreak of PTPT (Pre-Te-Pouhere-Tension): there has surely been a great deal to be grumpy about this week.  If the brief media reports of the findings of the Glenn Inquiry are in any way accurate, we have in this country a horrendous amount of violence towards women and children, highlighted, sadly, by yet another infant dying from head injuries inflicted by an adult male living at the same address in Hamilton.  This follows on from a murder of a dairy owner by a 13-year-old boy and his even younger accomplice.  Meanwhile Iraq falls apart with ever greater atrocities committed by young men shouting "Allah is Great" as they massacre their prisoners and, far from trying to hide their crimes, boast about them on the internet.  Brief publicity is given to the scourge of elder abuse, and yet another of our fellow Kiwis is imprisoned for child pornography.

So, about three months out from an election, what are our politicians, and their playmates in the media, focused on?  A letter written by an electorate MP on behalf of a constituent 11 years ago!  I wonder how those brave women and men who told their stories to the Glenn Inquiry feel about that?

After such an appalling week we need as people of faith somewhere to go and be healed, to have our hope renewed, to be strengthened to carry on, to be empowered, to be recalled to our mission of reconciliation – above all to re-learn the fundamental truth that flows from our faith in the one true God, the one we in our national anthem address as "God of Nations", but whose greatest apostle insists calls us in his Son to transcend all supposed differences of gender and ethnicity.  There is only one God and only one human species.  All wars are civil wars and equally repugnant to the God of us all: all violence is domestic violence for we all belong in the one household of God.  Is that truth revealed in or contradicted by Te Pouhere?  After such a tough week as this, is there anything in that document that even remotely sounds like the Good News we so desperately need to hear?

This year General Synod met in Waitangi.  On the same day that I read our Bishop's blog on the subject I heard an item on the radio about the dissension and division among Nga Puhi over their long-awaited negotiations with the Crown seeking a Treaty settlement.  Was General Synod a beacon of light in that dark and troubled land, or was it a meeting of the blind and the deaf completely unaware of the pain and suffering of the people all around them desperate for some really good news?

So what do we celebrate today?  A constitution that is better than the one it replaced?  In theory, certainly, but in practice?  One of the people who made a strong impression on me years ago was a South African priest who was asked if Apartheid was wrong in principle, or only in practice.  If each "racial group" had been treated fairly, would it still be wrong to enforce separation?  He was very clear.  It was wrong in principle because it constituted "otherdom".  What he meant was that to stick any label on someone – whether that label was about colour, or ethnicity, or faith, or whatever – was to designate that person as "other" than the people who wore any other label.  Worse, he said, to do that was blasphemous, for God alone is Other.

 Perhaps that's why those who worked on the new Constitution for South Africa did not adopt a three-tikanga model – Tikanga White, Tikanga Black, and Tikanga Coloured.  That would have been better than the old constitution; but it wouldn't have been the best.  So they gave their people instead a one-Tikanga model, which we might term Tikanga Rainbow.  One advantage of that is that it sounds and is so much more biblical.  I can already think of an Old Testament lesson that would be spot on!

So perhaps 1-2 cheers for Te Pouhere today, recognising, in the words of that great modern seer, S. Hansen, "we're getting there but there's still a lot we can improve on".  We will reserve the third cheer for the next constitution that recognises that in Christ there is no longer Maori or Pakeha or Pacifika.

Isaiah.  The passage opens with a call to worship by all creation, coupled with an image of God that is as far removed from that of a sort of divine constitutional lawyer as it's possible to imagine.   This is an active God who psyches himself up with load cries not usually heard today outside of sporting contests.  It is an eclectic image, to put it mildly, embracing both a mighty warrior and a woman in labour.  Perhaps there is something there about fighting to bring new life, the very opposite of complacency or indifference.  This is a God who's had enough: he's through with patience and understanding.  His people have let him down; very well, he will take action himself.  In a world of deafness and blindness what good are leaders who are also deaf and blind?  Israel, the Lord's chosen servant, is as blind and deaf as everyone else.  And it is a spiritual blindness, perhaps even a wilful blindness, as verse 20 makes clear.

Taking It Personally.

  • Is it too late for the Church, the new Israel?  Has God lost patience with it?  Is there any evidence that God is still working through the Church, or do you think it is much more likely that God is now working around the Church?
  • What new song should we sing to the Lord?  Is worship the most important thing we can do, or is it a form of escapism by which we avoid dealing with real issues?
  • Meditate on verses 12 and 13.  How do you feel about the images of God in these verses?  Are they attractive to you, or off-putting?
  • What do you know about Te Pouhere?  Is it really modelled on the Trinity?  Were you ever consulted before the adoption of Te Pouhere?  Do you feel free to criticise it or is it now "official doctrine" to be accepted without question?  Does it owe more to the Treaty or to the Bible?  Is it essentially a political or a religious document?
  • Ponder verse 20.  Does it speak to you?  Is it challenging you in some specific way?  What might you change to meet that challenge?


Corinthians.  This lesson, too, raises difficulties if we try to read Te Pouhere in its light.   What should motivate us in all we do is not social justice, or a desire to implement the Treaty, or any other worthy but secular goal; what should urge us on is the love of Christ, an ambiguous phrase perhaps because it could mean his love of us or our love of him – or both.  But Paul is quite clear about one thing: it all starts at Golgotha, not Waitangi.  Because Christ has died for us all, all have died, he says.  What does that mean?  It means we have died to ourselves, to our own agendas, our own individual egos, our own wishes, desires, wants and whims.  We now live only for him.  We no longer look upon Christ in human terms, as male, or Jewish, or tall or dark.  Now all is made new in him.  In him God has reconciled us to him.  That is the message and the ministry which are now entrusted to us.  We are now ambassadors for Christ, proclaiming his message to others so that they too might be reconciled to God.  The whole focus is to be on God, not on Synods, and Constitutions, and other purely human concerns.


Taking It Personally.


  • Are you at peace with God?  How would you describe the present state of your relationship with God?
  • How are you fulfilling your role as an Ambassador for Christ?
  • How do you regard Christ?  Is your predominant image of him pre-Crucifixion or post- Ascension?
  • Do you live your life primarily for Christ, for yourself or for your family?


Matthew.  Surely one of our Lord's clearest and most graphic pieces of teaching.  One of the saddest aspects of the terrible slaughter that took place some years ago in Burundi was the fact that it followed so soon after a great spiritual revival when millions of people embraced the Christian faith.  Their new-found faith proved so fragile that in the face of ethnic tension it collapsed entirely, and even priests and people in religious orders joined in the slaughter.  As followers of Grand Designs can attest, the most important work often goes on below ground level.  If our faith is all about looking good and impressing the neighbours it will not stand very long.  Only if it is connected at the deepest level to Christ our rock does it have a secure future.


Taking It Personally.


  • What sort of foundations is the house of your faith built on?  Are they well embedded in solid rock, or high on stilts to get a better view?
  • Can you recall a time when you felt the storms of life might bring your faith crashing down around you?  What happened?
  • Are you a doer as well as a hearer of the word?  Can you recall an occasion when you heard something read to you from the Bible that challenged you to go and do something?  Did you do it?
  • Take time to review the foundations of your faith.  Do they require strengthening?  How might you do that?

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trinity Sunday

June 15                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Trinity Sunday

Texts:  Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Theme:  By far the safest option this week is to go for the title of the Feast, "Trinity Sunday", or some variation on that theme, such as "The Holy Trinity", "Unity in Trinity", or the slightly more sazzy "The Community of Love".  If you're tired of playing things straight, try something like "It's Just the Way it Is – Get Over It!"  The middle option might be "Speaking of the Unspeakable".  Or if you intend to follow the evasive approach I used when I had to preach on this Feast and use it to summarise the first half of the liturgical year, something fairly innocuous (that is, bland) like "The Story So Far".  A final suggestion worth considering might be "The Divinity of Christ", which is, after all, at the heart of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Introduction.  We know we're entering difficult waters when The Lectionary struggles to find relevant readings.  The original "Grace" from the end of Paul's Corinthian correspondence, and the traditional baptismal formula from the end of Matthew's gospel, short and sweet though they are, fit the bill pretty well, particularly as it's hard to think of any alternatives.  But we start with the long and beautiful creation hymn from Genesis, which to me anyway is a bit of a stretch if we are claiming it as essentially Trinitarian.   The blunt truth surely is that no one had ever, or could ever have, thought of God as triune before the Incarnation; or, to put it another way, God did not fully reveal his Trinitarian nature before the Incarnation.

Background.  I try not to rush off to what other people have preached when I'm preparing a sermon.  I prefer to just sit with the readings and wait for something to stir within me.  But I must confess that over the years, faced with yet another Trinity Sunday looming on my horizon (does it really only come round once a year?), I have been known to seek someone else's inspiration – when there's nothing new on offer we might as well try Trade Me.  I do remember a wonderfully funny story by Adrian Plaas about a preacher resorting to the somewhat corny idea of ice, water, and steam, with a Monty Python-like outcome!  But visual aids (not to mention exploding test-tubes) are not really my thing – are they really any more able to convey spiritual truths than the spoken language, despite all its inadequacies?

I do remember reading in something a little more high-brow that the Western Church started with a complete conviction that God is One, and struggled with the intellectual problem of how then to explain the divinity of Christ, whereas the Eastern Church started with the experience of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and struggled with the intellectual problem of how to explain the oneness of God.  But I have three problems with that.  First, I have no idea whether or not other scholars agree with that view.  Secondly, even if it is widely accepted, I'm not sure where it gets us.  Thirdly, it reminds me of the only thing I remember learning in my first year of law studies in 1963.  The lecturer was introducing us to the danger of generalisations, which he described as "shameless hussies ever likely to lead unprepared lawyers into fatal error".  The only sure protection against such temptresses, he assured us, was always to remember this simple truth: "All generalisations are more untrue than they are true – (long dramatic pause) – including this one!"

Which in a strange sort of way gets me to a sermon I have read in the last few days by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her book Home By Another Way is a collection of her sermons following the liturgical year; and in her sermon for Trinity Sunday she refers to the use of koans by Buddhist masters to teach their students how to break out of logical thinking.  One of the most famous, of course, is to ask "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"  (Incidentally, she closes her sermon with a variant of that question: "what is the sound of three hands clapping?")  She also has a lovely little story from her own days in parish ministry.  One Trinity Sunday after the service she went out to her car and found "a lumpy envelope" on the bonnet.  "Inside was a Three Musketeers candy bar with a note that read, 'All for one and one for three!  Happy Trinity!'"  It's hard to know what to say about that really, isn't it?

But I take from all this two key points.  First, we believe in the triune nature of God because of our human experience, not because of our human genius for philosophy.  Secondly, our attempts to "explain" the Trinity, or (more correctly) to explain our doctrine of the Trinity, suffer from the same difficulty we encounter with an attempt to explain or describe any experience.  Those of us who believe that the epitome of sophistication is to drink cider instead of beer love to laugh at wine connoisseurs with their strange descriptions of the taste of individual wines – "a cheeky little wine with just a hint of black-currant that lacks the strength to completely mask the undertone of silage".  But one of the few sermons on the Trinity that I remember hearing began: "I am small, round and bright orange, covered in peel with an inner lining of pith enclosing my evenly segmented flesh.  Yes, I am an orange, and I have just told you enough to recognise me when you see me.  But as to my taste, there are no words to describe it.  Only by tasting me can you know my taste, and then you will know how impossible it is to describe it to someone else.  That, my friends, is true of an orange, and is equally true of the Holy Trinity."  Or words to that effect.  And the strange thing is, 23 years later I can remember very clearly who preached that sermon and where, but I have never been able to recall anything the preacher said after that opening paragraph.  It may even be possible that she simply added "Amen" and left it at that.  What else was there to say?

Back to Barbara Brown Taylor.  In her sermon on the Trinity she talks of some of the various ways we experience God – as comforter, as encourager, as helper, as judge, and so on.  But that seems to me to raise more questions than it answers.  If we believe in God as Three Persons because of our experience of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, why don't we believe in God the Many More, including all those different "identities" just mentioned?

And what is the sound of three hands clapping?

Genesis.  I'm beginning to think that perhaps this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday precisely to challenge us to abandon our obsession with rational analysis; because that approach trips up right away.  Just stick with the first two verses for a moment and try to analyse what they are telling us.  Does verse 2 describe how things were before God started to create, or did he start by creating things as they are described in that verse?  Secondly, what purpose was achieved by the Spirit/Wind of God sweeping over the face of the waters?  Thirdly, what was the origin of those waters?  Shall we give up now and accept that we are never going to get anywhere with a rational approach to this passage?  Now to the issue of whether or not this passage is Trinitarian – at least with the benefit of hindsight.  The key insight here, of course, is that God created all things by speaking them into existence.  While we might have a childhood vision of God in his shed knocking up wonderful creations, or shaping things on a potter's wheel, the Hebrew genius was to see creation as being brought into existence by language.  And, of course, that opened the door for Christian interpretation – Christ the Word is the medium through which all things were created.  However, as has so often been the case, the Holy Spirit has been left to hover around the edges.  Apart from sweeping over the face of the waters, what else did the Spirit contribute to the creation of the heavens and the earth?

Perhaps we should ponder the origin of this passage.  We are so used to this passage being at the beginning of the Scriptures that we might forget that the idea of God as the Creator of all thing came quite late to the people of Israel.  After all, monotheism came quite late to the people of Israel.  For centuries they worshipped the god of Israel, accepting that other nations worshipped their own gods.  Only when it dawned on them that there is only one God was it possible to recognise that all thing had their source in that one God.  And when they realised that they expressed that new belief, not in a scientific monograph, but in this glorious hymn of praise to God the Creator.  It is as a great piece of doxology that we should approach it, rather than a somewhat over-stretched basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Taking It Personally.

  • Notice the recurring "creative formula" beginning with the word "Let", as if creation is effected by granting permission.  See, for example, verse 24: "Let the earth bring forth..."  Could it be said that creation occurs by divine permission to fulfil inherent potential?  What do you make of that?
  • Contrast that with the creation of humankind in verse 26: God seems to grant permission to himself.  What do you think?
  • God created humankind in his own likeness/image.  What does that tell us about ourselves, given that God is triune?
  • In what sense might we see God's gradual self-revelation as a parallel to evolution?  Could we understand human beings as evolving from the purely physical, through the psycho-physical, towards the spiritual?  Is our triune nature best described as physical, psychological and spiritual?

Corinthians.  Paul brings his long and sometimes acrimonious correspondence with the church at Corinth to an end with a plea for unity: "agree with one another, live in peace".  He even seems to imply that only as they manage that will the God of love and peace be with them, which doesn't sound quite right, does it?  Perhaps we should put it down to tiredness.  What is most important for us is the very last verse.  It is sometimes argued that the Doctrine of the Trinity has no biblical basis.  On the contrary, this verse shows that the concept was already present in the early Church by the time of this letter.


Taking It Personally.


  • Remember that this correspondence is very much addressed to the local church, rather than to any individual believer.  What things need to be put in order (verse 11) in your local church?
  • To what extent do members of your local church agree with one another and live in peace?
  • Meditate on the Grace/Blessing in verse 13.
  • Pray for your local church using this lesson as a guide.


Matthew.  This is Matthew's version of the Ascension without any actual ascension.  But that's not the important thing about it.  Its real interest is threefold.  First, of the eleven disciples (the original 12 minus Judas) present, "some doubted" (verse 17).  Secondly, Jesus uses the words 9in verse 18) associated with the vision of the one like a Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14.  And thirdly, and most importantly for present purposes, we have the baptismal formula already firmly in place by the date of this gospel, again showing that the Doctrine of the Trinity is already in gestation.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly and prayerfully through the passage.  How do you feel about some of those disciples "still doubting"?
  • Notice that, despite that, all of them are commissioned for ministry to the world.  Certainty of conviction is not a pre-requisite for discipleship and mission.  How do you feel about that?
  • Reflect on your own baptism, recalling that the words used by the priest on that occasion have been used from the very beginning of the Christian Church.  How do you feel about that?
  • Remember that Christ is with us to the end of the age and give him thanks and praise today!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Day of Pentecost

June 8                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

Theme:  It picks itself really, doesn't it?  Of course, there are a number of variations on the general theme that might tempt you.  I seem to recall that early on in my ministry I went for "A Tale of Two Pentecosts" (one from Luke and one from John) which certainly got the (somewhat unloving) attention of the more charismatic members of the parish.  With my inability to keep up with the speed of the Easter Season this year, I'm still about a week from being ready for Pentecost: I'm still on Christ's instruction to wait.  So I'm going with "Life on Hold".

Introduction.   We begin this week with Luke's classic account of that first Pentecost experience, and we end with John's very different account of the giving of the Holy Spirit.  (More about that later.)  Sandwiched in-between is part of St Paul's careful instruction to the Corinthians on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a teaching often misunderstood or even ignored in our churches today.

Background.  We often hear people quoted in the media saying something like, "Until this is over my life's on hold".  The "this" being referred to may take many forms.  Think for instance of long-running court trials.  In South Africa Oscar Pistorius, in London Rolf Harris and Rebecca Brook and her co-accused, and in New Zealand the directors of South Canterbury Finance may well feel that until the outcome of their trials their lives are on hold.  (I was going to include Kim Dotcom in that list but it's hard to see any evidence that he has put his life on hold!)

People facing serious threats to their health – awaiting tests or treatment – may feel that until they know where they are – until the results are in, decisions made, chances assessed, and treatment undergone, their lives are on hold.  Less traumatic but often equally dramatic are students awaiting the results of important exams.  Have they passed – have they got the all-important qualification that would enable them to move on to the next stage of their lives?

Others may be stuck in the world of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones, like the families and friends of the passengers and crew of the missing aircraft; while others know only too well what happened but cannot move on until they know why it happened, who was responsible, and how those responsible are to be held to account.

And among all those who, for whatever reason, have put their lives on hold there will be some who are praying, waiting, hoping to receive power from above.  Waiting for their own personal Pentecost experience that will bring them new life where none seems possible.

At least people facing awful circumstances like those know what it is they are waiting for, know why they have put their lives on hold.  But as Harold Pinter, Ionesco, and other dramatists of a few decades ago so brilliantly illustrated, there is a sense in which we can all live our lives as if they are permanently on hold – as if we are waiting for our own "Godots".  I have often commented on that fascinating word "pastimes", which are things we do to pass the time – between what and what, we don't always know.  Those things we will do one day may simply grow old with us because we have never quite got around to doing them before it is too late.  Someone said recently that there is one thing we can say for pessimists – they are far more likely to actually do the things on their bucket lists – optimists always believe there's plenty of time for all that!

As I have continued to reflect on Christ's instruction to wait until you have received power from above, it has struck me that there is a much broader sense in which we as a society (in fact, as a world) seem to be in a holding pattern on so many fronts.  Individually and collectively we know what we should do but often seem powerless to do it.   Just this week we had another contribution from Professor Jim Mann, a modern-day prophet if ever there was one, urging better eating habits for our own good; yet another group is pushing us to face up to the problems associated with the over-consumption of alcohol; and the ongoing issues surrounding environmental degradation and climate-change continue to be debated endlessly.  We are aware of the problems we face; we agree that something needs to be done; yet as individuals we continue to eat the wrong stuff and in the wrong quantities, and we continue be too busy for exercise, let alone for such time-consuming practices as prayer and meditation; and as a society we continue with policies and practices that are contrary to our own long-term interests, and even threaten the lives of our grandchildren and succeeding generations.

Are we all on hold?  Are we waiting for something?  Could it be that the prophets and mystics of the past were right – that at base all our problems are rooted in our spiritual malaise and are curable only by the power of love – the power that we are instructed to wait for until we have received it from above?

Which is a very roundabout way that has led me to think about the nature of the "power" that Christ told his disciples to await.  Perhaps that's where we need to start our Pentecost ponderings.  Too often it seems that we focus on the "miraculous" manifestations of the Spirit, the things that the Spirit enables us to do, the spectacular and exciting things.  I once had a doctor who was widely esteemed as a brilliant diagnostician, but with the worst 'bedside manner' imaginable.  I mean, we are talking Doc Martin in real life here.  One of his other patients said to me one day, 'I don't care if he hates me, as long as he gets me well'.  Would we think the same about the Holy Spirit?  So long as I'm healed, that's all I ask of God?

No!  and for a very good reason, as St Paul's teaching makes clear.  Healing is not contagious.  The man born blind could not "pass on his healing" and cure others born blind.  But what he could do is love others with the love he had himself received.  And ultimately that power to love is the one we need to transform the world.

Here's a little example of this I heard on the radio last Sunday.  A black South African man was responsible for ordering the bombing of a pub even though Nelson Mandela had been released and genuine elections had been announced, and a truce was supposed to be in force.  The reason for ordering the attack was an attack on a house three days earlier by South African security police in which some schoolchildren had been killed.  One day this black South African was speaking at a public meeting when he was challenged by a white woman whose daughter had been killed in the attack on the pub.  He asked if she would meet with him after the meeting, and she agreed.  She told him her story and he told her his.  Since then they have campaigned together for peace and reconciliation.  She said it was her Christian faith that enabled her to forgive him – not out of obedience to Christ's teaching but out of love that she had received from Christ and was now able to pass on to him.

Think of Syria, or the Holy Land, or of any other land devastated by war, ethnic violence, and a history of hatred.  Is there are any other remedy?  Don't they all need that power from on high?

Acts.  For all those present the waiting was over – they received power from above.  Verses 1-4 show the inadequacy of human language to describe the actual spiritual experience they had at that time.  Nor should verses 5-11 be treated as an invitation to geography buffs to play smart games.  The key idea is that of understanding: somehow those that never quite "got" Jesus when they travelled with him for three years are suddenly able, not only to understand what he was on about all that time, but also to explain it to others despite all possible language barriers.  Unity is the first fruit of the Spirit – the unity that was at the heart of the last prayer Jesus prayed on the night before he died, according to St John.

And even Peter, who so often got things spectacularly wrong, is now able to explain from the Scriptures (the same Scriptures that the Risen Christ explained to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus) what exactly is going on.  God is beginning to fulfil his promise to pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Taking It Personally.

·        Is there any sense in which your life is on hold?  What are you waiting for?

·        Do you agree or disagree that the "power" of the Holy Spirit is the power to love others?

·        Are you more likely to pray for the Holy Spirit to come down to heal you (or others), or to empower you to love others more?

·        Would you like the Holy Spirit to come in power on your local faith community in some sort of spectacular manifestation?  Have you prayed for that?  What do you think might happen to your community in the wake of such a manifestation?

·        Does the whole idea of the Holy Spirit make you rather nervous?  Is the Holy Spirit scarier to you than the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity?  Why?

Corinthians.  It is clear that the church at Corinth has experienced all sorts of manifestations of the Spirit, so much so that the members of that church have lost sight of its all-embracing mandate to build them up in unity and mutual love into one body.  For me there are three main points that we need to grasp clearly in this passage.  First, it is through the Spirit that we know and proclaim authentically that Jesus is Lord.  Secondly, that there are different gifts, and they are distributed to various members of the congregation as the Spirit determines.  Any attempt to assert that all Christians should have this or that gift (a heresy most often associated for some reason with the gift of tongues) clearly contravenes this Scripture.  Thirdly, all such gifts are given for the common good, so that within the local manifestation of the Body of Christ all such gifts may be present.

Taking It Personally.

  • A passage to work through slowly.  Start with verses 1-3.  Make "Jesus is Lord" your mantra for the next 7 days.  What does it mean for you?  In what way is Jesus Lord of your life?
  • Now move on to verses 4-11.  Which gifts has the Spirit given you?  How do you use them?  What gifts do you discern in other members of your faith community?
  • Meditate on verses 12-13.  Do you experience their truth at a deep level?  When you gather with others in your local faith community do you feel the unity of the Body of Christ?


John.  It is good to have just these few verses today.  So often we scuttle past them in our haste to renew our acquaintanceship with Thomas.  Once again John shows his mastery, as he has Jesus breathe the Spirit into the disciples as God breathed that same Spirit into Adam.  Without ever using the words, he tells us that the new creation, like the old one, is born through the life-giving breath of God.  Notice, too, that the gift of the Spirit brings with it the power to forgive, as in the "South African parable", above.  Talking of Thomas, did he miss out on receiving the Holy Spirit?  Verse 28 (read in the light of 1 Corinthians 12:3) surely shows otherwise.


Taking It Personally.


  • A good passage to pray with the imagination.  Put yourself in this scene, and see what happens.
  • Does it concern you that this seems to be an alternative, and even contradictory, account of the coming of the Holy Spirit?
  • In what way have you been sent by Christ?  How would you describe your mission?  How is it going so far?
  • Are you aware of Christ's peace in your life?  Are you at peace with him?  Are you at peace with the other members of your faith community?