Monday, 25 December 2017

Full of grace and truth

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Christmas Day 2017

John 1:14-17  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'")  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 4:24  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
John 8:31-32  Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
John 14:6  Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 16:13  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
John 18:37-38  Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  38 Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"

A trilogy books I greatly enjoyed a few years ago
            was the Philip Pullman series ‘His Dark Materials’.
Famously anti-religious,
            and condemned by certain quarters of the Christian church,
I found them to be that rare combination
            of both thoroughly enjoyable, and profoundly thought provoking.

I’m looking forward to reading the latest sequel, the ‘Book of Dust’,
            which I opened on my Kindle just this morning for Christmas.

The ‘church’ in the books
            is represented by an establishment known as the Magisterium,
a powerful and power-hungry organization
            that constantly seeks to silence its critics and reassert its monopoly;
                        which, to be fair, is a not-unrealistic caricature
                        of what the church can become.

In a year where we have been remembering Martin Luther’s great critique
            of the indulgence-selling church of his time,
we would do well to remember that all stripes of religious conviction
            have a propensity to succumb to the temptation to power.

From the rise of radical nationalistic Islam,
            to the fusion of right-wing politics
                        with conservative evangelicalism in North America,
            to the established church of our own country,
we live in a world where religion and power do deals to mutual benefit.

In Philip Pullman’s novels, the looming authority of the Magisterium
            provides the backdrop for the adventures
            of the young female protagonist Lyra;
and on her adventures she comes into possession of a wonderful object,
            known as the Alethiometer, or the Golden Compass.

In a world of lies and untruths,
            the Alethiometer points to the truth,
            and not always comfortably.

It enables those who know how to read it
            to access the deep truth of creation
            which exists beyond the propaganda of the Magisterium and its allies.

And this idea of deep truth,
            which cuts through the lies by which people live,
is just one of several profoundly Christian concepts
            that Philip Pullman builds into his supposedly atheistic narrative.

He could even be echoing John’s gospel,
            which is shot through with the language of truth.

The Greek word for truth, which is used in the gospel, is ‘aletheia’,
            and in fact this is where Philip Pullman’s word ‘Alethiometer’ comes from,
            it’s something that measures truth.

And it’s this word ‘aletheia’ that we meet time and again through John’s gospel,
            beginning with our verse for this morning from the prologue to the gospel.

If you’ve been with us at Bloomsbury for our various services through Advent,
            you’ll know that we’ve been working our way
            through the opening verses of the fourth gospel,
and today we conclude
            with the closest thing John gets to a birth-narrative.

In the fourth gospel there’s no choirs of angels or singing shepherds,
            no wise men or virgin birth,
            no census, no inn, no donkey, no cattle lowing…

Just this bold and profound statement:

John 1.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
            and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son,
            full of grace and truth.

The word aletheia, translated here as ‘truth’,
            means literally ‘to stop concealing’, or ‘to reveal’.

To see the truth is to see the true nature of things,
            which would otherwise be concealed, falsified, truncated, or suppressed.
Aletheia reveals the full, or the real state of affairs,
            it is to see things as they really, or truly, are.

And in a world of post-truth, fake-news,
            it can be very hard indeed to know what the true, or real state of affairs is.

Facebook have been in the real news recently
            for their efforts to counter the spread of fake news
                        on their social media platform,
            as they have tried various algorithms
                        to highlight those stories doing the rounds which are either simply untrue,
                        or worse, are malicious or carefully designed
                                    to manipulate people into certain views.

The recent resurgence of far right political ideologies in Europe
            can in part be traced to the spreading of fake stories about refugees and immigration
                        on platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp;
            with President Trump’s notorious re-Tweeting
                        of hateful fake news stories originating with the organisation Britain First
            giving a prime example of how lies and falsehood can take root
                        and spread so quickly in our world.

And in the midst of all this, how are we to know truth?
            What is to be our guide to truth?

Unfortunately we don’t have Philip Pullman’s Alethiometer
            to help us distinguish the truth from the lies,
and there is no perfected spiritual algorithm
            to which we can turn for a calculated answer.

Rather, says John’s gospel, we hear the truth
            through the word of the Father, spoken in the person of Jesus,
            mediated to us by the revelation of the Spirit.

The truth of all things is made known to us
            through the life of the one in whom God becomes flesh.
And it is as we hear the stories of Jesus
            that we are signposted to the truth of the witness he gives.

It’s like we are invited to read the world
            through the lens of Jesus,
to hold up the ideologies, beliefs, and actions of those around us,
            and measure them against the words and actions of Jesus.

And I worry that all too often Christians don’t do this;
            that all too often we become obsessed with a narrow Biblicism
                        where we use the words of the Bible as our yardstick,
            forgetting that the words of the Bible are simply there to point us
                        to the ultimate Word made flesh who lived among us,
                        and who continues to witnesses to our spirits by his Spirit of truth.

Truth, according to John’s gospel,
            is known by the inner witness of the Spirit
                        whispering the truth of Christ’s witness
                        to the depths of our being.

And I do understand that in some ways
            this can seem a highly unsatisfactory answer,
            because it is so subjective.

I do understand that in a world of uncertainty,
            people long for the certainty of a written guide,
            that will lead them into truth if only they follow it carefully enough.

I really do understand the desire
            to have access to the word of God in written form,
            that can be held, and read, and followed.

But that is not what John’s gospel says we have.

The Christian Bible is not God’s written truth for us to follow,
            any more than John the Baptist was himself the Messiah.
Rather, the Bible testifies to the truth because it points to Jesus,
            just as John the Baptist testified to Jesus and pointed to him.

The Law of Moses was the Jewish attempt to capture truth in written form,
            and Jesus comes to fulfil that law
by writing it onto our living hearts, and into our daily lives,
            rather than on tablets of stone, or scrolls of parchment.

The word of truth, it seems, cannot be contained in stone or book,
            because this word is alive, it dwells among us,
            speaking truth to our hearts by the Spirit of truth that is active in our lives.

And this Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Jesus who is God-made-flesh
            brings truth to birth in our lives
            just as Jesus came to birth in Bethlehem in Judea.

And here we find ourselves at the heart of Christmas,
            and the enduring significance of the baby in the manger.

Jesus came to a world of sin and darkness,
            to unmask the lies and to reveal truth,
and he does the same thing in our world today.

Letting the Spirit of Jesus into our lives is a dangerous thing,
            because once we start to listen to the whispers of truth,
                        we start to see the world differently,
            and once we see it differently,
                        we have to start living differently.

As truth is born in our lives through the witness of Jesus,
            the lies by which we live, and by which we are often comforted,
            are challenged and stripped away.

The birth of the Word of truth is an uncomfortable thing,
            as any birth is and should be.
New life does not come easily,
            but it does come, whether we are ready or not.

And this morning, as we gather to worship the child in the manger,
            I wonder if we can hear his cry of truth,
            echoing down the years to today?

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Theology Live! 2017

Theology Live!
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 December 2017

Andy Goodliff
Leonard Champion and call for clearer, more coherent and widely accepted theology amongst Baptists

Ruth Moriarty
Discernment and the Church Meeting: A Practical Theology Approach

Trevor Neill
How a Concern for Conversion Stopped us from Being Missional

Myra Blyth
Rituals of Restoration: a critical dialogue between anthropology, theology and restorative justice.

Paul Goodliff
Do Baptists Really Find Natural law Unnatural?

Helen Paynter
Hospitality in the Bible and Today: Not as straightforward as it seems.

Edward Pillar
Power, Politics, Justice, and Temptation: A Political Critique of the Temptations of Jesus

Liubov Payne
The Ecological God and the Worth of Creation

Martin Hobgen
Are you my Friend? Exploring the Inclusion of Physically Disabled in Baptist Church Communities

Michael Peat
'Which Body?' before 'Which Changes?': 1 Corinthians and the Morality of Inherited Genetic Modification

Pat Took
Still a Fond Thing? Universalism and the Revisiting of Purgatory
No audio recording (mechanical failure), paper available upon request.

Ashley Lovett
Absent Friends: Do Baptists Need to Reimagine How They Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Simon Woodman
‘The Seal of the Spirit’: The Holy Spirit in the book of Revelation

Steve Holmes
Reflections on Day: Baptists doing Theology.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Creation in Avent

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
3rd December 2017

John 1.1-3a, Psalm 33.1-9

John 1.1-3a, Isaiah 55.6-12

‘Be careful what you wish for’, the old saying goes,
          ‘because you might just get it’.
And, as Christmas approaches,
          I wonder what it is that you’re wishing for?

I’ve found, as the years have gone by,
          that my personal Christmas wish-list
          has got very much shorter than it used to be.

The thing is, these days if I want an item of relatively low value,
          the chances are that I already have it.
And so I’ve officially become what is known in the trade as, ‘hard to buy for’.
          I get warned that if I wish for nothing, I might get nothing,
                   but actually that’s fine by me,
          although apparently it’s not fine by those who feel socially obligated
                   to get me ‘a little something’ anyway.

Well, maybe you’re like me on this,
          or maybe you’ve got an Amazon wish-list all set up
                   and ready to share with friends and relatives,
          like some seasonally recurring wedding-list.

And what, I wonder, are you wishing for this Christmas?
          Something, or nothing?
          Something different, or more of the same?
Well, be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

Except, of course, you probably won’t
          if you don’t actually tell anyone about it.
Do you remember as a child blowing out the candles on a birthday cake?
          ‘Close your eyes and make a wish!
                   But don’t’ tell anyone, or it won’t come true’.
Nonsense, I used to think:
          it’s if I don’t tell anyone that I won’t get what I want…
But that’s the mercenary logic of childhood for you.

However, I do think I was onto something as a child here,
          sometimes we do have to speak things aloud,
                   in order for them to become real for us.
Whether it’s the longed-for gift that we pluck up the courage to ask for;
          or a deeply held emotion that we finally articulate;
sometimes we have to speak our wishes out loud
          in order for them to become real in our world.

Because it’s by speaking words that we create new realities,
          where our lucid expression can give rise to change,
                   to new possibility, to new opportunity for growth and development.

This, of course, is the premise behind the so-called ‘talking therapies’
          of counselling or psychoanalysis;
          the act of speaking can itself be the catalyst for healing.
Sometimes you just have to say it,
          in order for it to begin to become real.

So, what are you wishing for this Christmas?

If we get beyond the trivialities of the latest paperback or DVD,
          I wonder what the deeper desires are,
                   that we might struggle to speak aloud.
Where in our lives do we encounter that dislocation
          between what is and what should be;
that disjuncture which points to the disintegration
          of who we desire ourselves to be?

What are our unacknowledged longings
          that, for good or bad, drive our actions and interactions
                   at the deeper levels of our personalities?
And we’ve all got them,
          those dark places of our souls where we long for forgiveness,
          for transformation, for healing, for acceptance;
and we all keep them hidden from others,
          and from ourselves too if we can manage it.

But our silence condemns us,
          because our failure to acknowledge our deepest desires
                   locks fast the door to our souls,
          and keeps the light of change from breaking in.

And so we come to God,
          and to darkness, and to the deep void
                   that underlies all our experience of this created world;
          and we come to the first three verses of the prologue to John’s gospel.

Because here we meet God’s solution
          to the darkness that would otherwise overwhelm all light and life.

‘In the beginning was the Word’
          is probably the most famous line in the whole of scripture.
It’s a dramatic statement of intent,
          deliberately echoing the opening words of the book of Genesis,
          which starts with a similarly big bang, so to speak:
                   ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.

This simple but evocative phrase, ‘In the beginning’,
          just two words in the original Greek,
tells us that we’re in the world of something coming from nothing,
          the world of order coming from chaos,
          the world of light coming into darkness.

In other words, we’re at the beginning,
          at the root of the question of what it means to be human.
Where does life start?
          Why are we here?
                   What is the purpose of our fleeting existence?
These are the questions of the beginning.

And if Genesis tells us that we’re here at the behest of God,
          John’s gospel takes it a step further.
‘In the beginning was the Word’, it tells us.
          The world, it turns out, is called into being by the spoken word of God.
The deepest longing of God’s divine nature
          takes shape as God speaks form into void,
                   light into darkness, and order into chaos;
          and what God desires is us – this world and those who inhabit it.

This concept of God’s word as the agent of creation is an ancient concept.
          We have it here in Genesis,
                   as God speaks each aspect of creation into being,
          and we find it again in our reading from Psalm 33
                   where God’s command brings forth the waters and the land,
                   the heavens and the earth.

The point, of course, is that the earth is here by design and not by chance.

Other ancient religions and philosophies asserted
          either that there was no meaning to existence,
          or that if there was purpose to life,
                   it was to be bloody, short, and violent.

The Jewish insight, expressed in their scriptures,
          was that the earth was good in intent, and ordered in its conception,
          because it arose from the spoken will of a good and ordered God.

And whilst it is clearly inappropriate for us to take these ancient texts
          and treat them as an equivalent to a modern scientific text book,
          I think we ignore them at our peril.

I love hearing a scientist such as Brian Cox
          explaining the origin of the universe at a scientific level;
but we must be wary of concluding
          that the quantum fluctuations that underlie the big bang
          necessarily strip our experience of the universe of all order and purpose.

The insight that God speaks into creation and brings light into our darkness
          may well be metaphorical in nature,
                   as indeed is all language when we come down to it,
          but it is a profound statement that we may need to hear
                   in the midst of our own personal chaos and darkness.

And this is where John’s gospel comes in,
          because the Word that God speaks into creation
                   is not some abstract philosophical concept,
                             as the Stoic philosophers would have it;
                   and neither is it a mere personification of God’s wisdom,
                             as the Jewish tradition might suggest.

Rather, when God speaks life into death,
                   light into darkness, and order into chaos,
          this happens in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

This is the great insight of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation,
          this is what lies behind the message to Mary
          that Jesus is to be called Immanuel, God with us.

When God speaks salvation, what is spoken is a person,
          a relationship, sacrifice, Jesus.

‘In the beginning was the Word’
          is a statement that presses the reset button on all our preconceptions,
inviting us to pause and consider the very ground of our being
          on which we construct our lives.

Is there more to life than blind chance?
          Is there more to life than the will to power?
Is there more to life than a brief flicker of light and then eternal darkness?
          Is there more to life than this?

Well, if God speaks anything to us here it is that yes, there is more to life,
          because all life discovers its capacity for transcendence
                   in the spoken word of God in Jesus
          which echoes across all time and space,
                   across all generations and geography.

‘In the beginning was the Word,
          and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’

This is all very well, I can hear some of you saying,
          but really when it comes down to it,
          what does it mean to believe this stuff?

What is this God?
          Where is God to be found?
                   What does God look like?

And here we have to do battle
          with a divine traditioning process
          as long as the history of monotheistic religion itself.

The ancient Jews believed that God looked like their kings,
          and so they described God in terms of having a heavenly court,
                   and sitting on a heavenly throne,
                   directing their battles and demanding their tribute.

Christianity, for much of its history,
          has seen God in terms of the Roman Emperor,
ruling the world through the agency and obedience
          of the citizens of his kingdom.

In the more recent times we’ve come to see God
          as being a bit like Father Christmas,
checking to see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice,
          and rewarding people with gifts according to their deeds.

And the thing is, I’m atheist with regard to all of these Gods.

I don’t believe God is a violent monarch
          who defends his tribe against the world.

I don’t believe God is an emperor
          who is set on conquering all the other nations
          and bringing them to obedience.

And I don’t believe that God is Santa Clause,
          I stopped believing in that capricious judgmental God a long time ago.

Rather, says the opening to John’s gospel,
          if you want to see God,
                   take a long hard look at Jesus.
          If you want to hear God,
                   listen carefully to Jesus.

Jesus is not just the word of God,
          sent forth into the world to echo eternally around the edges of the cosmos.
Rather, the Word is God,
          and it is through the word of God, that God can be known.

And so Isaiah tells his readers
          to ‘seek the Lord while he may be found’,
                   and to ‘call upon him while he is near’ (Isa 55.6).

For Isaiah, writing to the Jews at the time of their Babylonian Exile,
          God must have seemed impossibly distant.

The tribal God of their history had failed them,
          their land had been conquered
          and their temple had been destroyed.
They had lost their faith in their localized deity
          who fought for them and defended their borders,
and they had gone into exile at the hands of pagan rulers
          who worshipped violent and unpredictable gods.

But it was these disillusioned, disappointed, and dispirited Jews in Exile
          that Isaiah called back to faith,
and not to faith in a God that they could control or coerce,
          but to faith in a God whose thoughts are, he says, higher than theirs,
                   whose ways are different to theirs,
          but who speaks new life to the human experience of death,
                   and whose word does not return empty.

In our reading from Isaiah 55,
          we see how the faith of the exiles is restored
                   not by a promise of vindication or triumph,
          but by a message of hope that springs from the mouth of God,
                   bringing peace and joy, and unity with all creation.

When we make God in our own image,
          when we construct God according to the principles
          of our human power relationships and structures,
we make an idol that cannot sustain faith.

But when we listen to the word of God spoken in Jesus,
          bringing life and light, and hope and peace,
                   and reconciliation with all that has been made,
          maybe, just maybe, we begin to see a God
                   that might be worth believing in.

Sometimes, when someone asks me ‘do you really believe in God?’,
          I reply, ‘not most of the time’.
What I mean by this is not just that my capacity for faith comes and goes,
          although it does,
but that all too often what people mean by ‘God’
          is precisely the thing I don’t believe in.

In fact, of all the various versions of God that I’ve met
          both within and beyond Christian churches over the years,
it’s only the one that looks like Jesus
          that has seemed worth continuing with.

Which is kind of the point, I suppose,
          of saying that ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

If our God is not Jesus-shaped, and if our God doesn’t sound like Jesus,
          then it might not be God at all.
It might be a king, or an emperor, or a divine gift-giver,
          but it is not God.

And a Jesus-shaped God, a Jesus-sounding God,
          will have certain characteristics that we will recognize.

The passage we’re looking at from John’s gospel starts to spell these out for us,
          and as we move into the third verse
                   it takes what might strike us, if we weren’t so familiar with it,
                   as a sideways move.

It takes us from the divine word spoken in Jesus
          to a much more tangible expression of Christ
          as the origin and lord of all creation:

‘He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him,
          and without him not one thing came into being.’

A Jesus-shaped God will be the God of creation,
          the God of all the earth.

Last week, John Weaver reminded us
          that climate change is possibly the single biggest issue facing humankind.
If we do not address climate change,
          then all our investment in global health and education projects
                   will be rendered largely pointless.
If we do not address climate change,
          the people-displacement and wars that will confront future generations
                   will dwarf the refugee crises and armed conflicts of our own time.
And if our worship of God does not take us
          into a place where the word of God
                   calls the mountains and the hills to burst into song,
                   and the trees of the field to clap their hands,
          then quite possibly we are worshipping the wrong God.

From Genesis to the Psalms, to Isaiah to John’s gospel,
          God is the God of creation, the God of nature,
                   of the earth, of the seas, of the deeps and the heavens.

As the Psalmist puts it,
          ‘the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.’ (33.5).

And it seems to me that if we’re going to bother with this faith adventure
          that we seem to be on together,
          then it has to take us somewhere worthwhile.

If our bothering to turn up on a Sunday
          to sing and pray, and listen and learn,
                   and share in bread and wine is going to continue,
                   then it has to make a difference,
          not just to me, or to us,
                   but to the world beyond our borders,
                   to the people beyond our community.

And if we’re going to gather
          in the name of the one who speaks meaning into all creation,
                   from the darkest corners of our souls
                   to the deepest depths of the widest ocean,
          then we need to discover in our worship
                   something of what it means to live in unity
                             with the God of the whole earth,
                   revealed in the one who comes to bring light and life
                             to each and every created being.

I simply have no energy left for tribal battles,
          and I certainly don’t want to rule the world by proxy,
          and I’m not interested in receiving divine gifts
                   from some spiritualized version of an Amazon wish-list.

But if we’re in this to see the world made better,
          if we’re here to lift our voices
                   in concert with the one who speaks love into being in our midst,
          if we’re here to participate in the transformation of creation
                   and the redemption of the broken,
          then I’m in, and I hope you are too.

So let’s find ways to speak truth to one another,
          to challenge one another in the way we live before God,
          and in community with each other.

Let’s learn what it is to be accountable to one another for our living,
          as we learn together what it is to be accountable to God.

Let’s raise our voices together against injustice,
          and let’s speak out for the vulnerable.

Let’s find ways of being that are kind to creation,
          and which honour the God who calls all things to being.

Let’s take seriously our own commitment,
          both as individuals and as a community
                   to reduce our energy consumption
                   and live in ways that are more in harmony with the planet.

Let’s break down borders and welcome the excluded,
          let’s make friends with those who are not like us,
          and who we would not naturally like.

Let’s worship God together,
          as we live Christ-like lives,
learning to speak the words that God speaks in Christ
          to bring light and life and order
          wherever darkness and chaos still linger.