Wednesday 10 July 2024

Embraced by Love, Becoming More: A Journey of Transformation

 A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14 July 2024

1 John 3.1-7
Have you ever felt like you just can't measure up?
Maybe it's the constant barrage of curated perfection on social media,
            the relentless drive for achievement at work,
or even the nagging voice inside our heads
            that whispers doubts about our worth.
In today's world, it's easy to feel like we're constantly swimming upstream,
            desperately trying to keep our heads above water
            in a sea of shoulds, coulds, and never-ending comparisons.
We chase an ever-shifting image of success,
            defined by external validation and fleeting trends.
This is the world many of us inhabit,
            and it’s a world of low self esteem, poor mental health,
            and stress related illness.
The question I want us to begin with this morning, though,
            as we return to our summer series looking at the first letter of John,
is whether there is another way to live,
            a way rooted not in the fickle judgments of the world,
            but in unconditional love that surpasses all understanding.
Certainly, the author of the epistle seems to think so,
            and he invites his readers to discover a transformative love
that doesn't wait for us to achieve a certain level of performance
            or force us to fit a specific mould.
Instead, he describes a love that embraces us exactly as we are,
            flaws and all,
and offers us a path towards becoming the best versions of ourselves.
Today’s passage from 1 John offers a powerful antidote
            to the anxieties and pressures of the world.
It's a message filled with hope,
            reminding us of our true identity,
and calling us to action as we take our next tentative steps
            on the lifelong journey of becoming more like Christ.
I. Beloved Children: Redefining Our Identity in God's Love (1 John 3:1-2)
Imagine with me for a moment
            a world where worth isn't measured
by the number of likes on your latest post,
            the size of your bank account,
                        or the prestige of your job title.
A world where your value isn't determined by the latest trends
            or the fleeting opinions of others.
The first epistle of John invites us to step into such a reality.
In the opening two verses we are offered a radical redefinition of our identity,
            one rooted not in external validation
            but in the extravagant love of God.
The passage opens with an exclamation
            that resonates with both awe and tenderness:
"See what love the Father has given us,
            that we should be called children of God;
            and that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1).
The author doesn't use passive language here,
            rather he uses the imperative "see!"
            “See what love the Father has given us!”
He is urging his readers to actively contemplate the magnitude of God's love;
            a love so profound, so all-encompassing,
that they learn to see themselves not merely as the recipients of God’s love,
            but beneficiaries of a transformative gift:
a new identity as children of God.
This isn't simply a metaphor or a sentimental title.
            It's a declaration that carries immense weight.
In the ancient world, being a child of a deity held significant meaning.
            It spoke of a special relationship, one of privilege and inheritance.
But John goes even further.
            He emphasizes the present reality:  declaring, "and that is what we are!"
In John’s theology, we are not children of God in some future, contingent sense.
            Rather, we are God's children right now, in this very moment.
This truth, properly understood, has the capacity
            to revolutionise the way we see ourselves.
Think about the implications.
As children of God, we share a deep and irrevocable connection
            with the fundamental force of love in creation.
As children of God, we are part of a divine family,
            embraced by a love that transcends human understanding.
And our belonging in this family, our status as dearly loved children of God
            isn't based on our achievements, our social status,
            or the ever-changing whims of our culture.
Rather, it's a love that sees us for who we truly are,
            flaws and all, and chooses to love us anyway.
Now, we might well ask,
            "But what about my mistakes? What about the times I fall short?"
Well, the truth is, we all stumble.
            We all make choices that don't reflect the best versions of ourselves.
Our reading last week from the first chapter of this letter made that clear,
            ‘If we say that we have no sin,
            we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1.8)
What John is describing here isn't offering a conditional love
            based on our performance.
Rather he's offering a transformative love
            that empowers us to become more like the children we truly are.
This love doesn't deny our struggles
            or minimize the importance of confession, repentance and personal growth.
Instead, it provides a foundation,
            a safe space where we can acknowledge our shortcomings without shame.
It's a love that whispers to us in our darkest moments that we are loved,
            not because of what we do, but because of who we are:
            we are God’s deeply loved children.
This unwavering acceptance then becomes the fertile ground
            where genuine transformation can take root.
Perhaps like so many of us,
            you've been carrying the weight of unmet expectations
            or feeling lost in a sea of comparisons.
Maybe you've struggled to see your own worth
            through the distorting lens of the world.
Well, today, the first epistle of John invites you to lay down those burdens
            and step into a new reality.
You are a beloved child of God,
            and that is what defines you.
This truth, embraced and lived out,
            has the power to transform not just our own lives,
            but the world around us.
II. Hope for Transformation: Becoming More Like God (1 John 3:2-3)
Imagine gazing into a blurry mirror
            that only offers a distorted reflection of yourself.
You know there's a clearer image waiting to be revealed,
            but you lack the means to achieve it.
This is a good image for what the epistle does next,
            as it offers a glimpse into a future where the fog clears,
revealing the full potential of who we are as children of God.
The letter offers a transformative vision for what it means to be human,
            and this can serve as a powerful motivator for us
            as we continue our journey of becoming more like Christ.
We are given a tantalizing hint:
            “Beloved, we are God’s children now;
                        what we will be has not yet been revealed.
            What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him,
                        for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)
The author here acknowledges the limitations of our current understanding.
            We are children of God, yes,
                        but the full scope of what that means remains veiled.
It's like a bud on the verge of blooming
            – we see the potential, but the final form hasn't yet been revealed.
However, John doesn't leave his readers hanging in uncertainty.
            He offers a promise that fuels hope:
            declaring "when he is revealed we shall be like him."
Like a child growing into their full adulthood,
            so those who are declared children of God have much growing still to do,
and just as a child only has a limited understanding of their parents,
            so there is more revelation of God to come
            for those who enter into their status as adopted and beloved children of God
This future hope serves as a powerful motivator in the present.
John doesn't ask us to passively wait for the future.
            Instead, verse 3 urges us to action:
"And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure." (1 Jn 3.3)
The Greek word translated here as "purify"
            carries the idea of ongoing consecration.
It's not a one-time event,
            but a continuous process of aligning ourselves with God's will.
Some might interpret this as a call
            to achieve some unattainable standard of perfection.
But John isn't advocating for self-flagellation
            or a performance-based relationship with God.
The "hope set on him" provides the context.
            We "purify ourselves" because we are motivated
            by the transformative love and the future hope that God offers.
Here's where the concept gets particularly interesting,
            especially for those of us engaged in social justice issues
            and progressive movements.
Traditionally, "purifying ourselves" might be interpreted
            as a call to personal piety or individual morality.
But consider this: God's love isn't a solitary experience.
            It's meant to overflow and touch the world around us.
Imagine God's love as a radiant light.
            As we move closer to that light,
                        we are not only transformed ourselves,
            but we also become instruments of transformation in the world.
John's call to "purify ourselves" can be seen
            as a call to align our actions with God's character,
and we know that his is a character defined by love,
            by compassion, and by a commitment to justice.
This reframes our efforts towards social change.
It's not just about fighting for a better world
            – it's about embodying the love and justice of God in the here and now.
When we advocate for the marginalized, fight for equality,
            and work to repair a broken world,
we are actively participating in the process
            of becoming more like Christ.
Our journey of transformation therefore isn't about earning God's love,
            but rather is about expressing it.
As we move closer to the light of God's love,
            we are empowered to become agents of positive change,
reflecting God’s compassion and justice in the world around us.
This ongoing process of purification,
            fuelled by hope and motivated by love,
is the path towards becoming the best versions of ourselves,
            the versions that truly mirror the image of God within us.
III. Sin and Forgiveness: The Journey, Not the Destination (1 John 3:4-7)
And then we come to the problem of sin.
            The first letter of John is not some overly-idealistic call
            for love and justice in the name of God.
It takes seriously what it means to be human,
            and that means it takes seriously what it means to be sinful.
Imagine embarking on a breath-taking hike,
            a journey towards a magnificent mountain peak.
The path is challenging, with moments of doubt and fatigue.
            But the breath-taking vista that awaits fuels your determination.
In verses 4-7 of our reading this morning,
            the author addresses the inevitable stumbles we encounter
            on our journey of becoming more like God.
And in doing so he offers a message of hope and forgiveness,
            reminding us that even on the path of transformation, we will make mistakes.
The passage opens with a seemingly harsh statement:
            "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4).
John doesn't shy away from the reality of sin.
            We all fall short at times,
            making choices that don't reflect the love and compassion we aspire to embody.
But here's the key distinction John makes:
            he differentiates between occasional failings
            and a persistent pattern of rebellion against God's will.
The Greek word translated as "commits", as in ‘everyone who commits sin’
            suggests a deliberate, ongoing choice
            to live outside of God's loving embrace.
This distinction is crucial for those of us
            who struggle with guilt and shame.
We are not defined by our occasional missteps.
As John reminds us later in the passage,
            echoing the language of abiding in Christ from John’s gospel:
            "No one who abides in him sins." (1 John 3:6).
True transformation doesn't mean achieving some state of sinlessness,
            but rather aligning our hearts with God's will
            and actively turning away from choices that lead us astray.
Now, some might wonder,
            "Doesn't this contradict the message of God's unconditional love?"
Absolutely not.
The beauty of John's message
            is that it holds both truths in tension.
God's love is unconditional,
            meaning it's not based on our performance.
However, that love motivates us
            to live in a way that reflects his character.
Here's where the concept of forgiveness comes in.
John writes: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just
            and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
This verse from the first chapter is crucial
            in helping us grasp what John is doing here in chapter 3.
We don't have to carry the burden of guilt and shame alone.
            When we acknowledge our shortcomings and turn back towards God,
            we encounter forgiveness and a continuation of the process of our purification.
But this process isn't about earning forgiveness
            or making deals with God.
Rather, it's about acknowledging the truth of our situation
            and embracing the ongoing transformation offered by his grace.
It's a reminder that the journey
            towards becoming more like God is just that – a journey.
There will be bumps along the road, moments of weakness,
            and times when we stumble.
But God's love remains constant,
            a guiding light illuminating our path forward into the darkness of the future.
The passage concludes with a powerful statement of confidence:
            "Little children, let no one deceive you.
                        Everyone who does what is right is righteous,
                        just as he is righteous. " (1 John 3:7).
John reminds us that as we live in accordance with God's love and compassion,
            we gradually become more like him.
It's not a one-time event, but a continuous process of growth
            fuelled by God's love and forgiveness.
This message offers us genuine hope.
            We don't have to be perfect to be loved by God.
Instead, we are invited to embrace the journey,
            with all its stumbles and triumphs.
As we move closer to the light of God's love, we are empowered
            to become instruments of compassion and justice in the world.
So let us walk this path together,
            acknowledging our shortcomings,
            celebrating our progress,
and holding fast to the incredible promise of transformation
            offered by God's unconditional love.
So as we reflect on these verses from 1 John 3,
            I hope we’re hearing a message of hope, forgiveness, and motivation.
The world may bombard us with expectations and comparisons,
            leaving us feeling like we never quite measure up.
But today, we've explored a different reality.
            We are not defined by the fleeting judgments of others,
                        but by the extravagant love of God.
            We are God’s beloved children, embraced exactly as we are, flaws and all.
However, this truth should never be a source of complacency.
            Instead, it should ignite a fire within us,
                        a desire to become the best versions of ourselves,
                        reflections of God's love in the world.
As we are ourselves purified by God’s love,
            so we too become the agents of God’s love in the world,
embodying through our actions and our community
            what it means to bring justice, peace, and righteousness to others,
            so that they too can encounter God’s love in ways that are meaningful to their lives.
And yes, our journey of transformation will have its challenges.
            We will stumble, we will make mistakes.
But John reminds us that God's love is constant,
            a guiding light that illuminates the path forward.
So the call is for us to move closer to that light,
            not through self-flagellation, but through compassion and action.
As we fight for justice, advocate for the marginalized,
            and embody God's love in our daily lives,
we actively participate in this transformative process.
Remember, this is a journey, not a destination.
            The call is for us to embrace the growth, celebrate the victories,
                        and find comfort in the forgiveness
            offered by a God who loves each one of us unconditionally.
So, friends, go into this week, not burdened by expectations,
            but empowered by love.
And may the light of God shine through you,
            transforming your own life and the world around you.

Thursday 4 July 2024

Living Life in the Light of the Resurrection

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
7th July 2024

Genesis 22.1-13   
1 John 1.1 – 2.2

This week is the first sermon in our summer series
            looking at the first epistle of John, or ‘1 John’ as it’s often known.
You can find it hiding towards the back of the New Testament,
            along with 2 and 3 John, just before the Book of Revelation.
Though often described as a letter,
            1 John is, in many ways, better understood as a sermon,
written to encourage and teach a group of Jesus’ followers
            who find their community in danger of fracturing.
It’s actually an anonymous text,
            but by the end of the second century it became identified
            as having been written by someone called ‘John’;
and over the next hundred and fifty years or so,
            people came to assume that this was the same person
                        who wrote the other two shorter letters that follow it,
                        and the Fourth Gospel (another anonymous text),
                        and the Book of Revelation.
They also assume that this ‘John’ who may, or may not,
            have written all of these documents,
was the same ‘John’ the apostle,
            who we meet in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke,
            the brother of James and the son of Zebedee.
This association with one of the apostles,
            even if it was only based on assumptions and sharing a common name
was helpful in these documents becoming accepted as holy scripture,
            when other texts were falling by the wayside.
But the reality, I’m afraid, is probably much less romantic.
            Most scholars accept that it is very unlikely
                        that an Aramaic-speaking fisherman from Galilee
            could have written the Classical Greek of the Fourth Gospel,
                        and that it’s unlikely that the gospel, the letters, and the apocalypse,
                        even share a common author.
But they do all share some common themes,
            such as light, life, and truth; mystery and revelation.
So there is some connection between these documents,
            between them they make up what is probably best described
            as a ‘Johannine tradition’.
These texts associated with the name ‘John’
            were probably written over a period of about 40 years,
and the people who wrote the later ones
            knew and were inspired by the earlier ones.
For what it’s worth, my best guess is that the Book of Revelation is the earliest,
            written in the early 70s, so about 15-20 years after Paul’s letters,
            and contemporary with Matthew’s gospel.
Then the Fourth Gospel was written somewhere around the year 90,
            as a version of the Jesus story told by a community
            whose theology had been shaped by their knowledge of the Book of Revelation.
And then the letters were written somewhere around the turn of the century,
            by someone who knew, not only the Book of Revelation,
                        but also the Fourth Gospel.
Readers and hearers encountering the first letter of John for the first time
            may do so with a sense of déjà vu.
Numerous phrases from the Gospel of John occur in the letter,
            though often with slightly different wording.
In addition, those familiar with mid-twentieth century liturgical worship
            will also hear echoes of the confession and communion liturgies.
So now, let’s turn to the first letter,
            and then over the next few weeks as we journey through the rest of it,
we’ll see if we can hear this ancient text speaking to us.
In The Sound of Music, when Julie Andrews teaches the children to sing,
            she says to them:
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
And similarly in Wonderland, the King advises the White Rabbit,
            that the beginning is always a good place to begin.
Well, it’s as if the author of the first letter of John
            has been heeding their advice,
because this letter begins at the very beginning.
We declare to you what was from the beginning,
            what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
            what we have looked at and touched with our hands,
                        concerning the word of life.
            This life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it,
                        and declare to you the eternal life
                        that was with the father and was revealed to us.’
In other words, the letter starts
            with the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.
And in true Johannine style, a sort of code-word is used for Jesus:
            in language reminiscent of the prologue to John’s gospel,
                        Jesus is referred to as ‘the word’,
                        or the ‘logos’, as it is put in the original Greek.
But whereas in the Gospel,
            the ‘logos’ is presented as the pre-existent word of creation,
            the ‘word’ that was ‘in the beginning’,
in the first letter of John
            Jesus is presented as the ‘word of life’.
For the author of this letter, Jesus is first and foremost a revelation of ‘life’,
            and this ‘life’, it seems, has an eternal quality to it:
                        life originating with the Father,
                        life revealed to humans in and through the life of Jesus.
Or, to put it another way,
            life in all its fullness can be found and experienced
            through an encounter with the life of Jesus.
And this new life that has come us,
            and which has caused us to be ‘born again’,
            (to use another of the Gospel’s phrases),
has been made known to us through our encounter
            with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
whose life speaks words of life to us.
This is the gospel that is ours to inhabit and to share,
            it is the good news that God has been made known to all people
            in and through the life of Jesus.
And here we come to one of the key questions,
            that today’s passage raises for us.
And the question is this:
            ‘What God will we believe in?’
            ‘What God will you believe in?’
The thing is, there are, as there always have been, plenty of options.
            Which God you believe in and worship is not a foregone conclusion!
In the ancient world of the first century,
            the original context for the first letter of John,
the decision as to which God you would worship,
            was a very real choice.
Many of the early recipients of this letter would have been Jewish people,
            worshipping faithfully the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And in fact, the author of the letter, whoever he was,
            was himself a Jew, who had come to worship Jesus as the messiah.
But some of the other recipients of his letter
            would have been what became known as pagans,
those who had grown up worshipping the gods
            of the Greek and Roman pantheons,
and possibly also worshipping the emperor as another divine being.
You see, there were numerous competing gods
            available for you to worship in the first century;
and these different gods were encountered in a variety of different ways.
The God of the Jews was known through the stories of the Jewish faith,
            preserved in the words of the Hebrew Bible,
            through the worship practices of the synagogues,
            and in the cultic practices of the Temple in Jerusalem
                        until its destruction in the year 70,
                        just a few decades before this letter was written.
While the gods of the Greeks and the Romans were known
            through their stories, idols, images, and temples,
and the worship of them formed the backbone to the structure of society:
            to decline to worship these gods
            was an act of rebellion, of civil disobedience.
The Jews had negotiated a kind of uneasy truce,
            by which they had some protection under the Roman law
                        to allow them to worship their God,
            but there were strict regulations
                        preventing them from seeking to convert others to their faith,
            and they were often an easy target for scapegoating within the ancient world.
The long and terrible history of European antisemitism
            has its origins in the way the Roman empire
            treated and mistreated its Jewish citizens.
And into all of this, early Christians like the author of our letter for this morning,
            were trying to say something new.
They claimed that if you want to know God,
            you don’t look primarily to the Jewish scriptures,
                        or to the worship practices of the synagogues;
            or to the idols, images, and stories of the pagan pantheon;
                        or even to the emperor in Rome himself.
Rather, you look to the life of Jesus.
And what you discover if you do this, says our letter, is a new vision of God,
            a new understanding of who God is and how God can be known.
Verse 5: ‘This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,
            that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’.
After this point in the letter, the word ‘life’ drops out of use for a bit,
            and is replaced with the word ‘light’, another typically Johannine concept.
The word that has been heard, seen, and encountered is the word of life,
            but what comes into the world through that word of life
                        is a vision of a God who is pure light.
            ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all’.
This kind of understanding of God
            stood in stark contrast with the competing visions of the ancient gods
            that would have been familiar to the early recipients of this letter.
The ancient pagans believed that some gods were angry, and some were capricious,
            some were gluttonous, and some were lustful,
            some were unfaithful, and some were violent.
To say that the gods had ‘no darkness’
            would have been as nonsensical to many of those receiving this letter,
            as would saying that humans had ‘no darkness’ in them.
And this is because the ancient gods had come into being to reflect human nature;
            they took all our glories and all of our failures,
                        all of our light and all of our darkness,
            and wrote them across the heavens.
The reason there were so many gods
            was because humans are so complicated.
Indeed, the Jewish understanding of one God
            had emerged against a similar context of many gods;
not the Roman or Greek gods of the first century,
            but the multiple tribal gods of the Ancient Near East a millennia or more before.
And the Jewish belief that God is one, rather than many,
            was a radical departure from the beliefs of the nations surrounding them.
One way of reading the Old Testament is to see it as a testimony
            to the Jewish attempt to understand their conviction that God is one.
The different stories of the Hebrew Scriptures
            are a series of thought experiments concerning the nature of God,
            as they explore different ways of articulating their unique perspective on faith.
Is the ‘one God’ of the Jews a consistent, faithful God, or is he capricious and needy?
            Is God a God of war, or of peace?
            Does God demand sacrifice, or offer mercy?
The story we heard earlier from Genesis,
            of God testing Abraham by asking him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice,
is just such an example
            of ancient Jewish exploration into the nature of their God.
The question being asked here was whether God is the kind of God
            who demands a sacrifice from his most faithful follower?
At the beginning of the story, in an echo of the story of Job,
            God decides to test the faithfulness of Abraham
            by asking something of him that is surely too costly.
But nontheless Abraham and Isaac set off up the hill,
            with Isaac carrying his cross, so to speak, on his shoulders.
It’s only at the last moment,
            once Abraham has proved himself willing to sacrifice his own dearly beloved son,
that an angel directs him to an alternative sacrifice,
            and the ram caught in the thicket is offered in place of the boy.
The temptations to allegorise this story onto the crucifixion of Jesus are strong,
            resonating as it does with the gospel stories
                        of Jesus carrying his own cross to Golgotha,
                        and dying as a substitute for sinful humans.
But whilst this story of Abraham and Isaac
            was clearly in the minds of the gospel writers
            as they reflected on the nature of the Easter story,
there is no straightforward allegory to be found here.
Because at the heart of the Abraham and Isaac story
            is still a God who demands a sacrifice.
It might not be Isaac in the end,
            but the ram still has to die in Isaac’s place
            in order that he might live.
And if we simply substitute Jesus for the ram caught in the thicket,
            and take this as our understanding of what happens on the cross,
            we still end up with a God who demands a sacrifice unto death.
And a God who demands death to satisfy his wrath at human sin
            doesn’t sound much like a God who is light,
            and in whom there is no darkness at all.
This would be a God of anger, vengeance, and violence,
            not a God of life, love, and reconciliation.
The conviction that God is life and light,
            articulated so clearly in the first letter of John,
            challenges us to reconsider our theology of the cross.
If our view of the cross is dominated by death and darkness,
            something profound has gone astray.
If the cross is about God demanding a blood sacrifice
            getting what he requires from an innocent victim,
then we have a view of God which is predicated on death and darkness.
Saying that God substitutes Jesus for us,
            in the same way that Abraham substituted the ram for Isaac,
does not solve this problem.
What we need is another way of seeing the cross,
            and the story of Jesus gives us exactly this.
The revelation of God in Jesus
            is a radical departure from all other views of God
            that are predicated on transactional substitutionary atonement.
If the story ended at the cross,
            we would be left with a violent God, killing his innocent son,
            to satisfy some universal law that sin must be paid for by death.
But the resurrection gives the lie to this theology.
            The empty tomb challenges all understandings of God
            which are predicated on darkness and violence.
The events of Easter Sunday tell us that God is about life, not death.
            Death is a human thing, not a divine thing.
As frail mortal beings, we live our lives in the shadow of death.
            We can postpone it, we can fear it,
            we can deny it, but we cannot avoid it.
But God is not about death, God is about life.
            And this means that God is not about violence.
When we find ourselves worshipping a God of violence,
            I would suggest that we have invented God, once again, in our own image.
If we believe that God demands a sacrifice,
            and then offers his son to be that sacrifice,
we are making our thing to be God’s thing,
            and that is surely a grave error.
You see, the truth is that violence, suffering, and death
            are our experience, not God’s.
Murder is a human action, not a divine one.
            Jealously, envy, wrath and rage are human, not godly, emotions.
And the message of the cross is not that God has become like us,
            demanding of us a blood sacrifice to atone for our sins.
But rather, the message of the cross is that God has become one of us,
            entering into our darkness of suffering and death
            to bring light and life, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The cross is God’s sacrifice offered to us,
            not the other way around.
The death of Jesus at the hands of sinners
            unmasks the depths of human depravity;
it shines the fierce light of God
            into the darkest corner of the human psyche;
it reveals the murderous intent that lies deep in each human soul,
            and meets that desire for death with an overwhelming gift of life.
The worst thing one human can do to another
            is taken by Jesus into his own body on the cross,
and still it is not enough to extinguish the life
            that breaks through the darkness of death,
            to leave the tomb empty and the darkness defeated.
And so we are called to reassess our view of God,
            to lay aside our conceptions of God as angry, violent, and vengeful.
We need to learn the difficult lesson that darkness lies not within the heart of God,
            but within our own hearts.
As the author of 1 John puts it,
            ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
            and the truth is not in us.’ (v.8)
‘If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins
            and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (v.9)
This is the good news of God’s love, revealed in the life of Jesus,
            it is a story of life and light,
                        of forgiveness and reconciliation,
                        of peace and overwhelming love.
The cross is the ultimate demonstration of God’s commitment to life;
            to my life, to your life, to our life together.
The challenge for us, as we gather in the presence of God,
            is to learn what it is to be born again into the love of God,
to set aside our addictions to violence,
            our compulsions to revenge,
and our captivity to malice, guile,
            insincerity, envy, and slander. (1 Pet. 2.1)
And let us not deceive ourselves
            that these are not part of us,
because darkness lies in all our hearts.
And let us not deceive ourselves
            that these are part of God’s nature,
because God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
Rather, let us find in the story of Christ,
            a new way of meeting God,
                        who comes to us with the gift of light and life,
            bringing a new way of seeing ourselves,
                        where finally we see ourselves as God sees us.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Spiritual Disciplines for Extroverts

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 16th June 2024

Revelation 8.1-6

This morning, as we come to the third sermon in our short series on prayer,
            I want us to think for a few minutes about spiritual disciplines.
The Baptist Minister John Colwell has rightly suggested,
            if a rhythm of prayer doesn’t give shape to our life and service,
            then something else surely will. [1]
And whilst a carefully prepared and well-structured hour
            on a Sunday morning each week,
                        reflecting on who we are before God,
            is certainly a good place to start;
the question that haunts me,
            both personally and for us as a congregation,
is that of what is shaping us
            as we go through each week from Sunday to Sunday?
And so I’m interested in what the Spiritual Disciplines might be
            that form a person throughout their lives, day by day,
and what these might look like
            at both a personal and congregational level.
I want to start today by turning our attention
            to the classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian tradition,
which many people of faith down the centuries
            have found to be places of solace and growth.
The ancient practice of Lectio Divina
            is based on silent contemplative reflection upon the text of scripture.
It originates in the early Christian monastic tradition
            and was popularised in the 6th Century
            by St Benedict ‘the Father of Western Monasticism’.
In Lectio Divina, a deeper understanding and connection with God’s word
            is achieved through the slow and prayerful reading of the Bible,
leading to spiritual growth and transformation.
It’s a beautiful way to engage with the written word of scripture,
            and to deepen our faith,
and we’ve been exploring this with great benefit
            in one of our small groups here at Bloomsbury.
A thousand years after St Benedict,
            Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross,
            two prominent mystics and Carmelite reformers from 16th-century Spain,
were similarly focused on the inner journey undertaken in solitude,
            writing extensively about the practice of contemplation.
They both emphasised the importance
            of solitude and silence in the spiritual life,
as well as the need for deep prayer and union with God.
A third 16th-century Spanish priest, St. Ignatius of Loyola
            promoted the concept of retreat.
And one of the key features of so-called ‘Ignatian spirituality’,
            is to go on retreats that are silent, guided experiences
            lasting anywhere from a few days to a full month.
Well, fast forward with me to the early 1980s,
            when I was growing up in a Baptist Chapel in Sevenoaks in Kent.
In my youth group I was taught the importance
            of prioritising my Quiet Time,
            a daily silent place to reflect on scripture and meet God in solitude;
little realising that this daily discipline
            came from the ancient practices of the church,
                        mediated via Puritanism,
            and popularised by the American evangelical revivalism
                        of the late nineteenth century.
In my adult life, I've done a fair bit of reading on Christian spirituality;
            but truth be told, I’ve frequently been left feeling rather inadequate.
Let me explain.
I've done the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator a few times over the years,
            and I consistently report as a strong 'E' -
            that is, I am an Extrovert, rather than an Introvert.
This means I am energised by being with people,
            but I am drained when I spend time alone.
And having been on many ‘retreats’ and ‘quiet days’ over the years,
            my experience has been that of finding them either draining or challenging,
            but never really refreshing.
A friend of mine, the Baptist Minister Ian Green,
            has suggested that we ‘tailor make our retreats for introverts’,
and he provocatively wondered
            what a ‘retreat for extroverts’ might look like?
And I think he might be onto something,
            because the question I have frequently found myself asking
is whether a person with a more ‘Extroverted’ nature
            means that they are inherently somehow less 'spiritual'
            than those who report as strong 'Introverted' types?
Another friend commented to me recently
            that in their opinion, spiritual disciplines
            are an introverted conspiracy against extroverts!
I think we need to acknowledge something important here,
            which is that church culture is often extroverted,
            and often dominated by a particularly annoying kind of extrovert!
But the culture of Christian spirituality is usually, in my experience, the opposite,
            and is dominated by those who are more introverted.
In their book 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (SPCK, 2003),
            Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton comment that:
'Extraverts... often feel that they are unable to pray,
            and they feel uneasy when prayer is being discussed...
and they probably need help in realizing
            that their thinking and action might well be a form of prayer...
Retreats and Quiet Days can leave them feeling 'outsider',
            and somehow 'second class' when it comes to spirituality.' (p.158)
This is compounded because those to whom the church typically looks
            as 'spiritual' people, the great 'spiritual' writers of the past and present,
so often seem to advocate pathways to God
            which are predominantly Introverted, rather than Extroverted.
And all of this is fine, up to a point.
And the point is this:
            For some of us, this is all a lot of hard work.
I'm not denying its value:
            I do indeed take quiet days, engage in silent reflection and meditation,
            and spend time alone in prayer.
But, and it's a big but,
            this is not my naturally preferred place to be.
For me, and I suspect for other extroverts as well,
            it is tiring, draining, hard work.
And it's not that I'm afraid of a bit of hard work from time to time:
            we all have to work hard at things.
But I'm not sure I want to locate my primary place of divine encounter
            in that place which also drains and exhausts me.
Because if I do, when I am tired and stressed from the rest of my life,
            the last thing I'll want to do is go and meet God.
The tradition of personal and individual spiritual disciplines
            tends to draw its biblical examples
            by focussing on the stories of Jesus spending time alone.
But my question, in the context of extroverted spirituality,
            is what does Jesus look like when he is with others?
After all, the Gospels depict Jesus spending time
            with a wide variety of people throughout his ministry,
            both in large crowds and intimate settings.
So, we see Jesus spending time with his close friends,
            with the twelve disciples and in family settings.
Here we find Jesus teaching, but also sharing meals, and travelling together.
            For instance, in Mark 4:34-41, Jesus is out in a boat with his friends
            when he calms the storm.
We also find Jesus spending time with the marginalized,
            interacting with people on the fringes of society,
            and showing compassion and acceptance.
So in Luke 19:1-10, Jesus visits the home of Zacchaeus,
            a tax collector ostracized by many.
Jesus also spends time with women,
            including them in his teachings and healings,
            in contravention of the customs of the time.
For example, in John 4:7-42 he has a profound conversation
            with a Samaritan woman at a well.
And Jesus spends time with mourners,
            showing empathy and care for those in grief,
such as Mary and Martha
            mourning their brother’s death in John 11:1-44.
In all of these examples, and I could have given many more,
            there is something deeply spiritual
                        about each moment of encounter
            between Jesus and the other person.
These are not chance interactions,
            they are intentional moments;
and whilst we must give due credit to the gospel authors
            for the way they frame these stories,
I think there is an authentic Jesus-tradition coming through here,
            of the extroverted spiritual moment
            of divine-human encounter.
And so I'm starting to wonder,
            what an Extroverted Spirituality might look like?
I’m starting to wonder what spiritual disciplines could look like
            that offer a sustainable and nourishing challenge for extroverts,
in the same way that more introverted disciplines
            function for more naturally introverted people.
And I also wonder whether an exploration of extroverted disciplines
            might pose a helpful challenge
            to those among us of a more introverted disposition,
in an analogous manner to how the introverted disciplines
            can helpfully challenge the extroverts?
Are extroverts any less 'spiritual'?
            I think not.
But the spirituality they embody is different.
In today's world, we are bombarded with a cacophony of distractions,
            from the relentless stream of news and social media
            to the confusion of fake news and misinformation.
This constant noise can make it difficult for us
            to find clarity, discern truth, and connect with God.
Sometimes it takes collective effort
            to hear the beat of God’s heart
            among the competing rhythms of our lives.
And while Christians often seek solace in the "still small voice of calm,"
            I think it's important to recognize that God's presence can be found
                        amidst the chaos as well.
So instead of always searching for peace and quiet,
            my conviction is that we must also learn to hear God's voice
                        and experience the divine presence
            even in the middle of life's turmoil.

You may not have noticed this, but the book of Revelation 
is one of the noisiest books in the Bible. 

As well as being filled with vivid imagery and symbolic language, 
the descriptions it gives of various forms of noise 
all contribute to the apocalyptic vision presented in the text. 

So if we read through we are greeted by the sound of Trumpets (Revelation 8-9) 
as a series of seven trumpets are sounded by angels, 
each heralding a specific judgement or event, 
bringing loud noises that signify impending doom. 

These are set against the Shouts and acclamations (Revelation 5:12; 7:10) 
of a multitude of angels and people 
who are heard shouting and praising God with loud voices. 

Then from the heavens we get Thunder and lightning (Revelation 4:5; 8:5) 
heralding the throne of God, 
emphasizing the awe-inspiring power of the divine. 

The opening of the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8) 
is accompanied by the loud roars and rumblings of the four living creatures, 
further amplifying the dramatic events unfolding in the vision, 

and against these we get the heavenly choir singing a new song 
before the throne of God, (Revelation 14:2-3) 
representing the joyful worship of the redeemed; 

while the voices of martyrs cry out to God for justice and vindication (Revelation 6:9-10), 
as their suffering and prayers reach for the divine presence.

These noisy elements in the book of Revelation 
contribute to the overall sense of urgency and intensity 
as the narrative builds towards its climactic end 
and the loud proclamation of God's kingdom on earth.

So it is something of a surprise, and an encouragement, 
to read in Revelation 8:1 
that ‘when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, 
there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’ 

And I say this only partially tongue-in cheek,
but I think, as an extrovert, that that’s about right. 
Half an hour of silence is fine. 
Not a quiet morning, or a quiet day, or a week, or a month…

I’m not trying to be trivial here, 
rather I want to make the point 
that in the midst of the noise and bustle of our lives, 
so vividly evoked in the text of the apocalypse, 
the call to silence and introversion can legitimately, for some of us at least, 
be the exception rather than the rule. 
My challenge here is that the divine presence
            is often to be found as much in the earthquake, wind, and fire,
                        in the thunder and the whirlwind,
            as it is in the sound of sheer silence,
                        or the still small voice of calm. (cf. 1 Kings 19.11-12)
The rhythm of energy and stillness,
            of individuality and community,
                        of introversion and extroversion,
is not a rhythm of entering and leaving the presence of God.
The question, I think, is how do we discern God’s presence,
            how do we encounter the resurrected Christ,
in the loudness as well as the quietness,
            in the other as well as in the solitude?
Many times, holiness is viewed
            as maintaining a separation from the impurities of the world,
            including the often murky realm of politics.
But I’d rather we asked the question
            of how Christians can engage spiritually with the world of politics
interacting with holiness and with discipline
            alongside those who navigate its complexities?
A crucial point here, I think, is to recognize the connection
            between holiness and the pursuit of justice.
When people of faith actively engage in works of justice,
            they cultivate a profound spirituality
            that extends into the public sphere.
This active pursuit of justice shapes individuals
            and their relationship with the world,
            fostering spiritual growth and transformation.
Engaging in justice work is, in essence,
            spiritual formation on the front line of societal challenge and change.
This is why as a church we often find ourselves involved in acts of public politics,
            whether through our involvement
                        in the Community Organising network of Citizens UK,
            or through the partnerships with have with, for example,
                        the Racial Justice Advocacy Forum.
At a personal level, the times I am most often moved to tears
            are when I see people of faith taking action
            to bring justice and equity to the lives of those
                        who are excluded and oppressed.
These are deeply spiritual acts.
A few weeks ago we hosted an event
            entitled ‘Unapologetically Faithful in the Public Sphere’,
and this was co-led by people
            from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.
At this event, we shared how our diverse faith traditions
            led us to the common ground of taking action, as people of faith,
            for the betterment of the common good.
This is public spirituality in action, in community,
            and as such it is deeply rooted in the traditions of our faith.
So, as we draw towards a close, I have a few parting thoughts
            on what spiritual disciplines for extroverts might look like.
At the heart of these is the question of where you get your energy.
            Where can the extroverted person go
                        to encounter the Spirit of Christ
            in ways that nurture and challenge,
                        but are also sustainable?
And how can these challenge each of us,
            whether we are ourselves Extroverted or Introverted,
            to meet God in new ways in our daily living?
My first suggestion is that we:
1.     Intentionally seek to encounter God through interaction with others.
When acknowledge that God is not only found in solitude
                        or quiet contemplation
            but also in the rich tapestry of human connections and relationships,
we rediscover that each person we encounter is a unique creation,
            bearing the image of God,
and that through authentic engagement with them, whoever they are,
            we experience the incarnation of God's love and grace
            in new and profound ways.
2.     Listen for the voice of Christ when talking with others.
What would it do for the quality of our relationships, I wonder,
            if we intentionally went into each conversation, each encounter,
expecting to hear words from Christ,
            spoken through the words of the other?
3.     Seek the counsel of others when engaging in discernment.
Both at a personal and communal level,
            we need each other in our decision-making.
One rather challenging example is issued Stuart Murray Williams,
            in his book ‘Beyond Tithing’,
where he encourages people to create communities of financial accountability,
            where decisions about what we do with our money
            are taken in dialogue with trusted fellow-disciples. 
As we seek counsel from friends, mentors, or spiritual leaders,
            we open ourselves to new perspectives and opportunities for growth
that may not have been apparent
            when considering our situation in isolation.
4.     Believe that it is as we gather that we discern the mind of Christ.
Rooted in the conviction
            that the collective wisdom and experience of the body of Christ
            can serve as a conduit for divine insight,
this practice calls us to prioritize the fellowship we belong to
            as an essential component of our spiritual journey.
The Baptist congregationalist conviction
            is that the discernment of the mind of Christ happens in community.
Our practice of the Church Meeting as the place of spiritual encounter,
            is one which locates the ultimate authority for decision making for a congregation,
            in the realm of interpersonal interaction.
Such a meeting might well include, in fact should certainly include,
            space for prayer and silence;
but as the Quakers have discovered,
            silence held in community is of a different quality to silence held individually.
There is something profoundly and appropriately extroverted
            about the Baptist spiritual practice of the church meeting.
5.     Practice accountability with others.
I’ve already mentioned the idea of financial accountability groups,
            as part of the discipline of seeking the counsel of others in discernment,
but by inviting trusted companions to hold us accountable more generally,
            in our intentions, commitments, and spiritual practices,
we embrace vulnerability and acknowledge our need
            for support and guidance along our faith journey.
For me, regular sessions with my Spiritual Director, and my Pastoral Supervisor,
            are crucial in helping maintain a rhythm of accountability in my spiritual life.
6.     Engage in introverted spiritual disciplines, but not daily.
For extroverts who thrive on social interaction,
            and may find energy in the company of others,
intentionally setting aside time to engage in introverted spiritual practices
            can build personal growth and spiritual maturity.
By embracing solitude and silence,
            extroverts can connect with their inner selves
and discern the voice of God in a more intimate and profound way.
However, it is important for extroverts to strike a balance
            between introverted and extroverted spiritual disciplines.
Engaging in introverted practices daily
            might prove overwhelming or draining
for those who draw energy from external sources.
By incorporating these practices periodically, rather than daily,
            extroverts can benefit from the rich insights gained through introspection
while maintaining a healthy balance in their spiritual journey.
7.     When Christ is encountered, tell someone about it.
I’m one of those people who often doesn’t realise something
            until I’ve told someone else about it.
And so the practice of sharing our testimonies and moments of divine connection
            helps to create a vibrant and supportive faith community
where individuals can learn from one another
            and grow in their relationship with God.
8.     Seek the forgiveness of others, because it is often there that our own forgiveness by Christ will be encountered.
When we take the courageous step
            of acknowledging our wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness,
we not only repair relationships
            but also open ourselves to experience the healing power of forgiveness
            in a more profound and tangible way.
This discipline encourages us to be vulnerable and honest,
            recognizing that our actions have the potential to cause harm
and that genuine reconciliation requires humility
            and a willingness to change.
9.     Pay attention to what is encountered in the other,
because it is often there that we find our inner self.
By truly listening to and learning from
            the stories, perspectives, and emotions of others,
we gain insights into our own thoughts, emotions, and motivations,
            ultimately enriching our spiritual growth and self-discovery.
As we connect with others on a deeper level,
            we begin to understand that our individual journeys
            are part of a larger tapestry of human experience,
and we discover that our inner selves
            are often reflected in the lives of those around us.
10.Recognise that works of justice are a form of prayer.
By actively working to address systemic injustices
            and to promote equity, inclusion, and compassion,
we are engaging in a powerful form of prayer
            that seeks to align our actions with the values and teachings of our faith.
Prayer is not limited
            to quiet contemplation or spoken words
but can also be expressed through a shared commitment
            to creating a more just and loving world.
My hope is that I’ve stimulated some thought,
            and maybe challenged some preconceptions,
but I’m very aware that what I’ve offered today
            is the beginnings of a journey of discovery.
It is, in essence, my own spiritual journey writ large,
            and that journey is far from complete.
We’ll be discussing all this the Online Group
            at the end of July,
and I’d love to invite you to come and be part of that
            to share your thoughts, your insights,
            your challenges, and your contributions,
as I continue trying to work out what it means
            to be intentionally spiritual
            in an extroverted personality.

[1] John Colwell, The Rhythm of Doctrine: A Liturgical Sketch of Christian Faith and Faithfulness.