Sunday, 25 May 2014

All of Life's a Trial

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
25th May 2014, 11.00

John 14.15-21   "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  18 ¶ "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

Acts 17.22-31   Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'  29 ¶ Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Today's reading from John's Gospel
            offers us an account of the imparting of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
Which is fine, except...
            I continue to find the whole language, and indeed concept, of 'Holy Spirit'
            to be the point at which Christianity starts to get a bit ‘weird’.

I mean, my oh-so-rational, post-enlightenment mind-set
            can cope with the concept of God as love,
            the one in whom there is no darkness at all.
It can even cope with the concept of Jesus as God made flesh;
            a human being in whom is embodied all the fullness of divine love.

But when we get to the third person of the Trinity,
            and start talking in terms of the Holy Spirit as present with, and indeed within,
                        the faithful followers of Jesus,
            it all starts to get a bit close to home,
                        a bit upfront and personal.
A bit, as I have said, ‘weird’!

‘Who’, I find myself asking, or ‘what’, is this 'Spirit '.
            Is the Holy Spirit an idea?
                        Is it a concept? Is it a ghost?
                                    Is it a he, or a she? 

There seems to me to be no two ways about it:
            the language of God as Spirit,
                        this idea of God as being in some way present with his people,
                        and being so in a way that is tangible,
            is, well, a bit ‘weird’!

Now don't get me wrong here;
            I'm not wanting to express any great or profound doubts
                        about the existence or presence of the Holy Spirit.
However, I am admitting to the fact
            that I find it quite hard to understand.

John's Gospel offers us two related images for the Holy Spirit,
            which may help to shed some light
on how we might understand what Jesus is doing,
            when he gives the gift of his Spirit to his disciples.

Firstly, John's Gospel speaks of the Spirit
            as the 'Spirit of truth' (14.17; 15.26; 16.13; cf. 1 Jn 4.6).
But the gospel also uses another word to describe the Holy Spirit,
            and this is the word best translated into English as ‘advocate’
                        (14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7; cf. 1 Jn 2.1).

The Greek word in view here is one which crops up from time to time in sermons,
            so I'm afraid you're going to get it again briefly this morning.
                        It is the word Paraclete.

When preparing this sermon, I did take a moment to chuckle to myself
            about the fact that my spellchecker insisted
            on automatically replacing the word Paraclete with parakeet.
And although it may be true that the Spirit of God is a wind that blows where it pleases,
            I think the analogy with members of the parrot family
                        is probably not one that I shall pursue too far! 

This Greek word Paraclete has been variously translated into English,
            with the word ‘counsellor’ sometimes being used.
However, I think that the best way of understanding the meaning of Paraclete correctly
            is to translate it as ‘advocate’.

So, in our reading this morning from John's Gospel,
            Jesus says that he will ask the Father,
            and the father will give to the disciples a Paraclete, an ‘advocate’,
                        who will be with them for ever.
And Jesus tells them that this advocate is the Spirit of truth.

The thing that strikes me about these two images,
            of the Spirit as ‘truth’, and of the Spirit as ‘advocate’,
is that this language of truth and advocacy
            takes us into the realm of the law courts;
truth and advocacy are legal terms.

It’s no coincidence that one way of thinking
            about the overall structure of John's Gospel,
            is to picture it as a legal drama, as a courtroom drama.
It begins with a mystery,
            with the tantalising hypothesis that the divine ‘word’ has become ‘flesh’ (1.14).
Then, as it proceeds, slowly the Gospel narrative
            presents the reader with mounting evidence, clue upon clue,
                        and the witnesses build up one upon another,
            to the point where the trial itself is ready to begin,
                        and the truth is ready to be revealed.

John’s gospel is in many ways a detective mystery, based around truth,
            and at stake in the trial at the end, is the question summed up
                        by Pilate’s final statement to Jesus, as he hands him over to be crucified.
            ‘What is truth?’ says Pilate, posing the central question of the gospel (18.38).

Our passage today, from chapter 14,
            comes at the turning point of the gospel.
We are moving from evidence and witnesses towards the trial itself.
            It won't be long now before Jesus finds himself before Pilate,
                        presenting the accumulated evidence of his life and ministry,
                                    as the trial to establish truth begins.

However, one of the greats ambiguities of the trial of Jesus in John's Gospel,
            is that it is never quite clear exactly who is on trial.
Is it Jesus himself?
            Or is it rather the ‘world’;
                        is the trial really about unmasking that complex interplay
                                    of systems and structures
                        that distorts and demeans humanity,
                                    obscuring truth and replacing it with deception.

It is in this context that Jesus calls on God the Father
            to give the gift of the Spirit of Truth to those who would follow his example.
It is in this context, of a legal battle over the nature of truth itself,
            that Jesus secures for his disciples an advocate for the truth.

The legal role of ‘advocate’ was well known in the ancient world,
            and the function of an advocate
                        was to ‘stand up in a court of law
                                    and explain to the judge or jury
                                    how things are from his or her client’s point of view.’
            In other words,
                        ‘the advocate pleads the case’.[1]

The Jews well understood this role of advocate
            from their own religious and legal tradition.
But in addition to human advocates,
                        and the role they played in normal legal processes,
            the Jews often used the image of a lawcourt
                        to depict their understanding
                        of what was going on in the heavenly realm.

So we get the picture of the heavenly courtroom
            occurring in a number of places throughout the Hebrew scriptures,
            with God seated where the king would sit in an earthly court,
                        dispensing justice and adjudicating righteousness.

And within this ‘heavenly court’, there was a structural role for advocates, or intercessors,
            for those persons or angelic beings
            whose role was to plead the cause of the righteous.

These intercessors were the heavenly advocates,
            and the idea of intercessory prayer finds its origins in this process,
                        with the advocate, or intercessor, speaking to the heavenly court
                        in favour of one who is unable to speak for themselves.

And so Jesus calls for an advocate,
            for one who will remain with his disciples,
                        speaking in favour of his cause,
                        interceding for him in his absence;
            offering ongoing witness testimony,
                        to the truth that has been revealed in his life and ministry.

Within the courtroom drama of John’s gospel,
            the time is coming when Jesus will no longer be able to speak for himself.
He will offer his final testimony before the Roman court,
            and Pilate will hand him over to be crucified,
            silencing the one in whom God’s truth has been revealed.

At this point, the role of the advocate, the Spirit of Truth,
            is to remain with the disciples,
            continuing Jesus mission of testifying to the truth.

Jesus actually describes the Spirit as ‘another’ advocate (14.16),
            recognising that he himself was the first advocate to the truth (cf. 1 Jn 2.1);
anointed by the Spirit at his baptism
            for a life dedicated to the revelation of truth
            and the unmasking of deception (1.32).

The brute fact of the existence of Jesus,
                        this moment in history when the word of God become flesh,
            had put the world on trial,
                        revealing and exposing the terrible depths of the human capacity
                                    for deception, deceit, and dishonesty,
                        whist pointing the way to a new way of being human,
                                    where pretences are stripped away,
                        and new life is encountered in the light of God’s revealed truth.

So the ongoing role of the Spirit of advocacy
            is to ensure that this testimony to the truth,
                        that came into being with Jesus,
                        as the divine word became human flesh,
            is not lost to a world that
                        continually conspires to ensure its silence.

So the trial and execution of Jesus,
            becomes the trial and conviction of the world.
It is the moment of terrible unmasking,
            the moment of horrific revelation,
            as the truth of the nature of reality without God becomes inescapable.

There is nowhere to hide as the world without God reveals its hand,
            putting to death the very one
            in whom divine life-giving truth had taken tangible form.

In the handing over of Jesus to be crucified,
            Pilate, on behalf of all empires everywhere,
            secures a guilty verdict on the world without God.
The truth that is revealed in the trial of Jesus,
            is the truth that without God, the world stands condemned.

Not even the Jewish legal system is let off the hook here,
            with the religious leaders of the Jews conspiring with the Romans
            in the execution of the divine word.
It seems that even the law of Moses,
            based on the God-given ten commandments,
            is found to be ineffective in revealing truth to the hearts of humans.

So it is that Jesus invites those who would live in love
            to do so not by keeping to the ten commandments,
                        but by believing his own testimony to the truth (14.1),
            and by living according to his own commandments
                        of mutual love (13.34) and mutual service (13.14-15).

He says:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 
16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,
            to be with you forever. 
17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive,
            because it neither sees him nor knows him.
You know him, because he abides with you,
            and he will be in you. (14:15-17).

There is a saying that ‘all of life’s a trial’,
            and it seems that, certainly the way John’s gospel pictures it,
                        this is the nature of reality.

Not in terms of life being difficult,
            although that certainly is true for some.
And not necessarily in terms of the inevitability of persecution,
            although it remains a very real possibility for many
            that they will be dragged before the courts, and worse,
                        for their testimony to the truth of Christ.

But ‘all of life’s a trial’,
            because the truth that came into being in Christ
            continues to put the world itself on trial.
The world continues to be called to account as the truth of Christ,
                        testified to by his advocate,
                        and witnessed to by his disciples,
            offers its persistent challenge the human tendency
                        to construct power systems and structures
                        based on self-deception and self-interest.

Just as the truth of the word-become-flesh
            challenged the legalism of the Jewish religious system,
            and the domination of the Roman imperial system,
So the truth to which the advocate bears witness in our own time
            continues to challenge those human behaviours and power systems
                        which derive from self-righteous legalism
                        and self-interested imperial domination.

Just as Paul, standing in the Areopagus in Athens,
            pointed the Athenians to the truth of God revealed in Christ,
            through their altar to the unknown God.
So those of us, in whom and through whom the Advocate continues to speak,
            are called to engage with the cultures, systems, and powers of our own time,
pointing to the truth that casts out fear,
            and releasing people from deceptions
            that distort, demean, and divide humanity.

The courtroom drama of John’s gospel does not, of course,
            end with the death of the innocent man.
It ends, much as it began, with a mystery.
            It ends with an empty tomb,
                        and with Jesus once more present with his disciples,
                                    testifying to them the glorious truth
                        that even death itself does not get the final word on human life.

And so, we who live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus
            are called to a politics of truth, compassion, and justice;

We are called to build communities of inclusion,
            where the unlovely discover that they are loved,
            and the isolated find themselves no longer alone.

We are called to obedience to the command of Christ
            that we must live lives of mutual service, and mutual love.

And we are called to live lives of truth,
            as the Advocate within us bears witness to the truth
            that in Christ Jesus, the word has become flesh,
                        and continues to dwells among us.

[1] Tom Wright, John For Everyone, Part 2.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Do you really believe that?

St George’s Bloomsbury, 18th May 2014, 10.30am

John 14:1-14   "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  4 And you know the way to the place where I am going."  5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"  6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Acts 7:55-60  But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  56 "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"  57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.  58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."  60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.

It may be a function of my line of work,
            but it seems to me that a lot of people
                        seem to spend a lot of time talking about matters of belief.
            ‘Do you really believe in God?’, I’m asked,
                        often by people who are struggling to understand the perceived inconsistency
                                    of an apparently sane and rational human being
                                    believing something that appears irrational, and quite possibly insane.

Sometimes the question is more nuanced,
            and comes from a place of personal questioning:
                        ‘Do you believe in miracles?’,
                        ‘Do you believe in the power of prayer?’
                        ‘Will you pray for me?’

Sometimes the question feels designed to test me:
            ‘Do you believe in the virgin birth?
                        In the resurrection? In the Trinity?’

And sometimes the question seems designed to trap me:
            ‘Do you believe in the ordination of women?’
            ‘Do you believe in same-gender marriage?’
And so I could go on…

Do you believe…?
            Do you believe…?
Or, perhaps more pertinently:
            ‘In what do you believe?’
Or even,
            ‘In whom do you believe?’

This is an important, and surprisingly contemporary, issue.
            And our passages this morning take us right to heart
                        of this question of belief.

Of course, people believe for all sorts of different reasons:
            some of us have simply inherited our belief system,
                        while others will have arrived by a process of conviction,
            some of us have latent belief, which we’ve not quite managed to lose yet,
                        while others of us, myself included,
                                    have what I can perhaps best define as ‘reluctant belief’.

It can all be very troubling, very confusing, very divisive,
            and that’s before we even start to address the question
                        of whether some sort of belief is necessary for salvation.

Well, says Jesus in John’s gospel,
            ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.
                        Believe in God, believe also in me.’
It seems that, for the author of this gospel at least,
            belief in God is based upon belief in Jesus.

How do we know God?
            We know him through Jesus.
And how do we know Jesus?
            We know him by his Spirit at work in our lives.

Belief in God is not based on belief in creeds, confessions, and catechisms.
            Neither is it based on security, stories, or scriptures.
Rather, belief emerges as the outcome of a lived relationship
            with the one through whom God is made known,
                        and in whom God is revealed.

Belief is the product of a relationship,
            it is not the outworking of a theological conviction.

And here I think it’s important to take a moment to clarify something significant:
            Not all beliefs are equal.

Sometimes, the concern for ‘balance’ in our post-enlightenment society
            means that we end up giving equal weight
                        to very different orders of belief.
So, for example, on the television news
            the scientist representing the weight of scientific opinion,
                        may find themselves given equal billing
            with the lone representative of the minority view that disagrees with them.

It’s the same with matters of faith and belief:
            Asserting belief in God as revealed in Jesus,
                        is not the same thing as, for example,
                        asserting belief in the effectiveness of homeopathy;
            despite the best efforts of some new atheist polemicists
                        to equate belief in God
            to the equivalent status
                        of belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Francis Spufford makes this point eloquently.
            He says:

‘Whether God exists or not is unprovable,
            so for an individual person,
            whether He exists or not is always going to be a matter of belief.
But at the same time, quite independently,
            he either exists or he doesn’t,
            irrespective of whether He’s believed in.
He’s a fact, or a non-fact, about the nature of the universe.
            So if you believe, you’re making a bet
            that God exists whether you believe or not.’[1]

So it is that Jesus says:
            "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
            No one comes to the Father except through me. 
            If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Here, we meet Jesus offering the readers of John’s gospel
            a new and radical path to God.

The Jews of the first century believed that the way to God
            was to be found in careful observance of the Jewish Law
            as revealed in their written scriptures (Pss 86.11; 119.30).
While the Graeco-Roman religions of the time
            believed that the complexities of the pantheon
            revealed the path to divine knowledge

Over against both of these, Jesus offers something new, something radical.
            The way to God, says Jesus, is to be found through lived relationship
                        with the one in whom God is revealed,
                        and through whom God is known.

God is not encountered through obedience, observance, and ordinances,
            but through relationship, friendship, and revelation.
Jesus opens the way to God
            because in him is to be found life in all its fullness,
            and in him is the truth that shatters all our defences,
            and disarms all our pretences.

In Christ there is nowhere to hide,
            because in Christ we are most fully known,
            even as we come to know that which is most fully other to us.

When we stand with Stephen,
            and open our eyes to see the revelation of God in Christ,
we are united with the life and the truth
            that is at work in this complex, fallen, broken world,
            drawing all of creation into God’s loving eternal embrace.

When we join our voices in worship and name Jesus as Lord
            we do it not to make God feel good about himself,
                        but because we are sharing with Christ in the re-centering of creation.
When we pray to Jesus, we do so not to abase ourselves before the almighty,
            but in order to align ourselves, our lives, and our world,
                        with the one in whom all earthly principalities and powers
                                    find their completion and fulfilment,
            and in rejection of all other claims on our lives
                        that might otherwise demand our allegiance.

Belief for belief’s sake is, frankly, pointless.
            But belief that emerges from a lived relationship with Christ,
                        sustained by his Spirit at work in our lives,
            is something that changes the world.

[1] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, p. 77