Barrier-breaking Spirit

Click here to listen to the audio of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below or read the text summary after that.

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension. Acts 2:1-12 tells us that the disciples were meeting together in one place. “Suddenly”, writes Luke, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This remarkable story give us two of the three key images we have of Holy Spirit: Wind, Fire and the Dove (from Jesus’ baptism).

Filled with the Spirit, the disciples begin to speak in different languages. Now Jerusalem, as the spiritual hub for Jewish people, was full of Jewish people from all over the place, speaking many different languages. They were initially drawn by the commotion – presumably the sound of the violent wind, like a tornado in a room.

But then they were “bewildered” and “amazed” and “perplexed” because “each one heard their own language being spoken”. Of all the things that Holy Spirit could have done to inaugurate her ministry among humankind, she chose to enable the disciples to speak the Gospel message in languages that the disciples did not know, so that a racially and culturally diverse group of people could hear the Gospel in words that they could understand. This tells us that:

Central to the ministry of Holy Spirit is to break down barriers

Indeed, Holy Spirit is just continuing the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself was constantly breaking down the barriers that divide people:

  • His incarnation, when the boundary between divine and human was traversed
  • His speaking with the Samaritan woman – breaking boundaries of ethnicity, religion and gender
  • His healing of woman who bleeding – breaking purity and gender boundaries
  • His healing of the Centurion’s daughter – breaking racial, class and power boundaries
  • His touching of the dead boy and raising him to life – breaking purity laws
  • His salvation of the whole world – breaking the power of sin and death

Paul’s letters are filled with similar references to the barrier-breaking work of Christ and thus also of his followers:

  • Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” These are the classical sociological categories of race, class and gender. Jesus breaks them all.
  • Ephesians 2:14 tells us, “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”.
  • Ephesians 1:10 tells us that God’s ultimate will is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”.
  • And Colossians 1:20 tells us that God was pleased “through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”.

Just as Jesus’ ministry involved boundary-breaking, so too, Holy Spirit’s ministry is about boundary-breaking. And she continues this work as her first Act at Pentecost. And the rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a working out of what boundary-breaking ministry is all about.

If you are a follower of Christ – even if your faith feels thin and weak, even if you don’t feel gifted or confident – Holy Spirit lives in you. She has taken up residence in you. And she wants to continue to do this barrier-breaking ministry through you, so that all people and the whole of creation can be reconciled under Christ.

ARTWORK WITH BIBLE BY KELLY

Pentecost image found in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, from http://thedialog.org/catechetical-corner/living-our-faith-pentecost-filled-with-the-spirit/

To be one

Click here to listen to the audio of this 26-minute message . Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows. (This is a longer than usual message, because the topic is rather difficult. I hope you will not be deterred by its length.)

John 17 presents Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”, which takes place just before Jesus’ arrest and execution. In it Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and then for all believers who are to come, including you and me. It is a beautiful prayer that reveals to us the heart of Jesus – well worth reading.

In this message, I focus on just four verses (11b, 20-23):

Holy Father, protect them [my disciples] by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one … My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

A few thoughts on this passage:

  • Four times Jesus speaks about the oneness and unity of Christians. This can be regarded as the central theme of his prayer in John 17.
  • Verse 21 emphasises that our relationship with God (the vertical relationship) is primary and is the foundation of church unity (the horizontal relationship).
  • Verse 22 refers to “the glory that you gave me”. Scholars have long debated what this ‘glory’ refers to. There is good reason to think Jesus is here referring (again) to the Holy Spirit, who occupied much of the previous chapters.
  • Verses 21 and 23 refer to the world: that they may believe/know that God sent Jesus. The unity of Christians is not an end in itself, but the ground that produces the fruit of the world seeing God at work, thus of evangelism.
  • Verse 23 says that God loves the world as much as God loves the Son. This is a profound revelation of God’s extravagant love for the world, reminding us of John 3:16.

Despite Jesus’ marvellous vision and prayer for the unity of the Church, the sad reality is that the church is anything but unified. Denominations fracture and split; independent churches spring up constantly; even local parishes are disunified and in conflict. It does not appear that we are one as God the Father and the God the Son are one. A few thoughts on this:

  • Churches may diverge due to different practices, particularly around worship. Most Christians think about how Sunday services run and whether they like how we do things – whether we raise our hands, whether we have an organ or band, whether we use a set liturgy, whether the choir is up front or at the back, how long the sermons are, etc.
  • Given that Jesus emphasises our vertical relationship with God, and given that each relationship is different because each person is different, it seems to me that worship practices are not that important. It is probably better to attend a church where your relationship with God grows than to attend a church whose practices leave you cold.
  • Churches may diverge due to different doctrine. Some Christians may not worry or think too much about doctrine, but for many, doctrine – what we believe – is important. Churches split over their understanding of the role of Holy Spirit, over the gender of God, over the Trinity, over our sequencing of the end times.
  • We should think about and hold to certain beliefs – understanding of Truth was important in Jesus’ teachings, throughout the scriptures and to the early church. It should be important to us also. However, we should have the humility to recognise that our understanding Truth is flawed, limited, incomplete and quite possibly wrong. God knows the Truth; what we know as ‘truth’ is mere limited understanding, like peaking into a palace through a keyhole – we see just fragments of the riches within.
  • Currently the church is fracturing around our understanding of the place of LGBTQI+ people within the life of the church. In my own denomination – the Anglican communion – we have churches that see diverse human sexualities as anathema and others who see sexuality as unregulated by God. People’s feelings about sexuality run very deep and lead to pain exclusions of and judgmentalism towards LGBTQI+ people.
  • While many today have very strong feelings about these issues, Jesus did not. He had very strong feelings about love, about inclusion and about reaching out to those on the margins of society. He never talked about sexual orientation; but he talked incessantly about love. It is heartbreaking that the church should so forget how to love one another, when this is the central teaching of our Lord.

Many Christians are distressed at the proliferation of different churches. I’m not. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the Body of Christ, the Church, and emphasises the diversity of the body and that diversity is good and necessary for the functioning of the whole. He gives particular emphasis to cherishing those parts of the body that people may regard as immodest, unpresentable, shameful. Paul stresses that in God’s eyes, these parts are as much necessary and beloved as those parts that people are happy to show off. Every part of the Body of Christ is necessary. Paul is emphasising how to maintain a sense of unity in the church together with all its diversity.

Let us not worry about the different churches, no matter how different they may be to us. Let us rather be sure to regard them as our sisters, our brothers, beloved by Christ and part of our own body.

2020.05.24-gless12

Featured image from https://ssnet.org/lessons/18d/less12.html

Holy Spirit – Our true friend

Click here to listen to the audio of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube below, or read the summary text thereafter.

Our reading for today (John 14:16-20) prepares us to celebrate Pentecost in two weeks’ time. Jesus teaches about Holy Spirit who will come and continue his work among us. We learn several important things about Holy Spirit from this brief passage, including:

  1. The Greek word ‘paraclete’ is directly translated as ‘the one called alongside’ or ‘the one called to come alongside’
  2. ‘Paraclete’ is translated in various ways: comforter, counsellor, advocate, encourager, etc.
  3. Frederick Dale Bruner (in his commentary on John) and Eugene Peterson (in his Bible translation, ‘The Message‘) translate paraclete as ‘friend’ or ‘true friend‘. A friend is one who draws alongside us, who comforts and encourages us, who challenges us, and who stands up (or advocates) for us when people trash-talk us.
  4. Jesus describes this true friend as a gift from God to us.
  5. Jesus describes Holy Spirit as another friend. By implication, Jesus is the disciples current friend; Holy Spirit will come as another friend. There is continuity between Jesus and Holy Spirit.
  6. Holy Spirit is a person, not a force or a thing. I try to give practical expression to this in my spiritual life in three main ways:
    • I drop the definite article ‘the’ from ‘the Holy Spirit’. Instead, I speak and think about ‘Holy Spirit’ as a name, like Jesus is a name. We don’t refer to Jesus as ‘the Jesus’ because Jesus is his name; we say ‘the Messiah’ because Messiah is a title of description. I use ‘Holy Spirit’ as a name, since we have no other name for him.
    • I use personal pronouns and avoid ever referring to Holy Spirit as ‘it’ or using ‘which’. These are impersonal, depersonalised words. I try to use the same words I use when speaking about Jesus or God the Father.
    • I refer to Holy Spirit as ‘she’. Not because I think of her as a woman, as female or as feminine. But because God is no more male than God is female. God transcends or incorporates all genders. Since we can’t refer (easily) to the Father or the Son with female pronouns, I choose to use female pronouns for Holy Spirit. If we could evolve the English language to be less gendered, we’d use gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language for God. (I appreciate that many will not appreciate or agree with me. That’s fine. We will learn a lot more about Holy Spirit on That Day.)
  7. We, unlike those who do not believe, can both see and know Holy Spirit. For everyone else, Spirit is invisible and unknowable. But for us who believe, she can be both seen and known. She dwells within each of us as individuals. And she takes up residence among us collectively, as communities of faith. We are united by Spirit, even when we are physically apart.

As we journey closer to Pentecost on 31 May 2020, let become increasingly mindful or receptive to the presence of Holy Spirit in our personal and collective lives and celebrate this precious gift that God has given us.

2020.05.17_HolySpirit_Hahlbohm

Featured image: ‘Holy Spirit’ by Danny Hahlbohm, http://www.inspired-art.com/gallery_9_10/Holy_Spirit.html

 

Jesus at the centre

Click here to listen the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video of the message below, or read the text summary after that.

John 14:6-11 is located immediately after the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet, as well as Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ and Peter’s betrayals. John 14 starts a four-chapter long sermon – Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death.

In the opening of this section, Jesus presents himself as at the centre of our faith. He says to Peter, “You [already] believe in God [the Father]; [I now invite you to] believe also in me” (John 14:1). To believe in the Father is to believe in the Son. He goes on famously to say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus places himself at the centre of our relationship with God the Father. It is through him that we encounter God. Jesus is the centre.

But lest we think that Jesus is setting himself up as the mediator between us and God, he goes even further, audaciously, to say that he and the Father are one. “If you really know me, you will not know my Father as well … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is is in me? … I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:7-11). And just a few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Jesus is not merely a path to God. He is God. He is God the Son. He is locked into the Father and the Father is locked into him. In the very following passage (John 14:15-27), Jesus speaks about Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who will come to continue the work of the Father and the Son, once the Son has returned to the Father. When we relate to Jesus, we are relating to God, because Jesus is God.

Ultimately, sensing that Philip and the other disciples are grappling to grasp these complex and elusive concepts, Jesus says, “At least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11): You have heard me teaching. You have seen me heal people, raise the dead, feed thousands. You have witnessed me reaching out to women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, disabled people, Samaritans and Gentiles. You have heard me speak truth to power and challenge rigid interpretations of the law. You have heard me proclaim a new Law that supersedes the Law of Moses.

What you are seeing is God at work among you!

Jesus must be at the centre of our personal and collective faith. The things of the church are helpful and perhaps even important. Jesus does not do away with them. But they must not be at the centre.

Jesus – the person Jesus – is the only one worthy of being at the centre.

He is our friend, our brother, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our Lord, our very God.

2020.05.10_6059765012_d7fafb9504_b

Featured image is the ‘glory window’ of the Thanksgiving Chapel in Dallas, Texas.

Being Church – Being Loved

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube recording below, or read the text after that.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20, we read about Paul’s deep love for the church at Thessalonica, which he had planted, but which he was unable to visit. Much as we are as a result of COVID, Paul was physically separated from his church, and he was really missing them. Paul expresses intense emotions about his parish – he felt ‘orphaned’, he felt ‘separated’, he felt ‘intense longing’ to see them and he ‘made every effort’ to visit.

Paul says that Satan was blocking his way from visiting. Today we should consider that Satan is blocking our ability to meet together, through the agency of the Coronavirus. This virus – a tiny thing – is blocking our ability to meet together.

But, says, Paul, he is separated ‘in person, not in thought’, that is, physically, but not psychologically, socially, emotionally or spiritually. We can and do remain connected to each other, through our relational bonds and through our common fellowship with Christ.

Throughout this passage, Paul shows the heart of a pastor, who loves his parish and longs to be present with them. And so, while we are physically separated from each other, let us remember that we have a pastor called Jesus Christ, who loves us and is in fact present among us through Holy Spirit, and that we are in fact connected with each other through the love of God.

Featured photo from St Stephens Anglican Church, Lyttleton, South Africa

Seeing Jesus

John 12:21 tells us about a group of Greek seekers who come to Philip saying, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus”. And so begins a story of one person introducing another person to Jesus, in a chain of people seeking to see Jesus.

Click here to listen to the audio of this 5-minute message. Or watch the video below.

 

 

Light of the world

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message.

(This message was preached at Irene Homes, a residential care facility for women with intellectual disabilities. They are an engaging and participating congregation. I was moving around a bit, so the volume varies as I move away from the recorder. Also, at about 13 minutes, we spent a few minutes passing out battery-operated candles; I’ve edited this out, which explains the slight jump a few second after 13 minutes.)

Jesus says of all of us who follow him (Matthew 5:13-16):

You all are the very salt of the earth!

You all are the very light of the world!

He states this as a present fact – you are, not you should be or you will be or you ought to be or one day you might be. No! He states is as Truth: You are! In our lived experience, however, we’re probably often not salt and light. So, Jesus here appears to be declaring a Truth that is to come as a present reality, much as he does when he says “The Kingdom of God is here”. It is a ‘now, but not quite yet’ statement. A prophetic Word, that encourages us to live up to the image Christ already has about us.

What does it mean to be salt and light?

Salt has many uses (primarily flavouring and preserving), but Jesus emphasises the saltiness of salt. If I presented a white powder to you that did not taste salty, you’d be reluctant to call it ‘salt’. Saltiness is the essential characteristic of salt; without saltiness, salt is not salt. So what are the essential characteristics of a follower of Christ, without which we can hardly call ourselves Christians? The most immediate answer is the qualities Jesus has just presented in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), which open the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which speak about being poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking and being persecuted because of being righteous. These qualities of Christian living – love, mercy, inclusivity, justice, reconciliation – are the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower. They are the saltiness of a Christian.

Light also has many uses, but Jesus emphasises that light enables things to be seen. It is not the essential characteristic of light he highlights, but rather the purpose to which it is put, viz. so that people can see us putting into practice these distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower, so that people will praise God in heaven. He thus speaks about how silly it would be to place a light under a bowl, or to put it in a corner on the ground rather than up on a stand. When we do that, you can’t see the light; it is wasted.

When Jesus says, “You are the salt/light”, he uses a plural ‘you’, thus “You all…” or “Y’all”. Our individual distinctive qualities and our individual light may be insufficient to be seen from far or to make much impact. But our collective qualities and our collective light, like a city on a hill with many lights burning from many windows, can be seen from far and make a real difference in the world.

Just imagine if every Christian truly put into practice the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower set out in the Beatitudes! What a remarkable place the world would be!!

2020.02.09_Light

The ladies of Irene Homes being the light of the world!