May 29, 2011
(Acts 17, 22-31; John 14, 15-21)
Can you remember having a something which you used to comfort yourself when you were a baby or a small child? Or maybe something your children had? For some children it’s a dummy, for some it’s their thumb, while other children have a toy, and still others a piece of material like a sheet or a blanket, that they carry everywhere with them. It can be a real disaster, not just for the child, but for the whole family if the ‘comfort object’ gets lost. Families with foresight have a spare one (I know of one family who surreptitiously cut bits off the comfort blanket so that they would always have a spare). But even adults have ‘comfort objects’ that they rely on in times of stress – cigarettes, alcohol or food are common ones.
The Authorised Version translation of today’s Gospel passage from John has Jesus promising to ask the Father to send the disciples a “Comforter”, and perhaps, hearing those words, some of you, like me, have a picture of God sending down a teddy, or a piece of blanket to help Christian believers through the hard times ahead.
The original Greek in John’s Gospel, parakletos (παρακλητος) has always been a difficult word to translate; many of the Church Fathers struggled to find an appropriate word in their languages. The Authorised Version copied Tyndale and Wyclif’s earlier English versions in using ‘comforter’. But that choice shows how unwise it is to continue to use a version of the Bible in old-fashioned language, since the meaning of ‘comfort’ in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries was almost diametrically opposite to what it means now.
When Wyclif and the translators working for James 1 used the word it meant something that empowered you or made you stronger (as you can guess from its Latin roots which mean ‘with strength’). This makes sense of its use in Psalm 23, where the rod and staff of the shepherd give strength and confidence to the sheep. A comforter in this sense prepares a person for action and danger.
In modern English, however, a comforter is understood as something that gives consolation to the weak, and particularly to children. It is inward looking rather than outward looking.
Paraclete is a favourite word in the writings of John. In the 1st Epistle of John it is used of Jesus , who as ‘paraclete’ pleads our case with the Father. In John’s Gospel it is used several times of the Holy Spirt. So, it is important that we try to understand what the write is trying to convey by the word.
Originally, in secular Greek a paraclete was someone who was called in to perform a public duty; later it was used of someone who was called in to stand alongside a person in a court of justice (in a similar way to the provision that you can have a ‘friend’ with you at an employment tribunal or disciplinary hearing). Usually it was a patron, or a person of some standing in the community, since the paraclete is not just called in to stand there; they are called in to do something to change things for the better for you. So it came to mean a lawyer, and advocate, a counsellor (in the American sense of a counsellor at law). More modern translations than the Authorised Version have used a number of different words and phrases to try to convey this: advocate, strength, helper, counsellor, one who befriends, one who stands with you.
So, the function of the paraclete is to stand alongside us, plead our case with God, and to empower us to do God’s work on earth, when we cannot cope in our own strength. When Jesus is no longer physically present, according to John, then the Holy Spirit does the same work in and through the disciples as Jesus did during his life.
The paraclete as Holy Spirit is Jesus alongside us and Jesus working for us and through us. The Spirit and Jesus share the same character and do the same work in the world, revealing God and God’s purposes.
Now this may not necessarily be a ‘comfortable’ experience for Jesus’s disciples in the way which we now understand the word. Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for his followers and opened their minds to God’s call. He demonstrated what it was possible to achieve in a life dedicated completely to love and obedience to God.
But according to the Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, he was often quite hard on the disciples, and told them very plainly when they had got things wrong or had misunderstood his mission. This is also a task which the Holy Spirit fulfils, as it leads believers into the truth. The paraclete is not just alongside as helper, but as a ‘critical friend’ (a phrase that will be familiar to anyone involved in education, especially as a school governor), who supports, but also is honest with criticism, asks leading questions and challenges actions in the drive to achieve the best possible outcome.
There’s no time limit given for the action of the paraclete. Its influence is not limited to the apostolic age, or the time before the New Testament was written. The Holy Spirit continues to advise, strengthen and challenge believers in the present age.
Not is the paraclete’s action limited to a particular place or a particular organisation. The Holy Spirit may work through the Church, but is also at work outside the Church. As Paul told the Athenians, God is at work in the world even when unrecognised and unacknowledged.
With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s disciples will know in a concrete way the reality of the Trinity – that the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in character and purpose and operate through love.
This is not, however, a sentimental sort of love. It is love which is shown by keeping Jesus’s commandments. Again, this is not a case of keeping a list of rules; the overriding commandment is to love – love God, love one another, love neighbour. A clear indication of what that means in reality comes from Jesus’ example, especially his humble and sacrificial service, even to those who despised, betrayed or denied him. The Spirit is given to those who love and obey Jesus – and those who love and obey Jesus will show the fruits of the Spirit.
This passage also prepares the disciples (and the Church) for the fact that the powers that control the world will not understand this sort of love and obedience.
Jesus was opposed and eventually killed by the political and religious authorities of his time. If the Church is being obedient to Jesus, it is likely to find itself frequently at odds with the state; and if it is too cosy with the state, or if its structure becomes too much like that of the political authorities, it is not likely to be being obedient to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit comes as a free gift from the Father to those who love and obey Jesus. It is not something they earn by believing the right things, or belonging to the right congregation, or worshipping in a particular way. Nor is it up to those who have received it to say who else may or may not receive it. That is up to God alone.
The Holy Spirit comes so that we may be empowered to do the work God has given us to do in obedience to Christ. It’s not a comfort blanket – it’s our spur to action.
May 22, 2011
(1 Peter, 2, 2-10; John 14, 1-14)
Sometimes happy coincidences occur. When we were walking to get the paper earlier this morning, a car stopped and someone asked the way to a local leisure centre. My husband gave directions ( which were simple) and before he drove off the man said, “Thank you. Your directions were better than my Blackberry” My husband replied, “That’s because I’ve got a brain and your Blackberry hasn’t!”
Now, I have a confession to make. I’m really old fashioned; we don’t own a sat nav, or an iPhone or a Blackberry or any other electronic device that helps you find your way! When my husband and I travel to a new place we use a map, a good old fashioned paper map. We may sometimes download a detailed map of the end of our journey from the internet, from somewhere like Google maps, and sometimes we also download written instructions that tell us when to turn and how far to go before we do so. But mostly we rely on our book of maps, and our observation and common sense to get us where we want to go. I read the map, and he drives; sometimes we make mistakes and have to go back on ourselves, but generally the system works very well, as it has done for the last 45 years or so. We don’t really see the need to have a voice from the dashboard telling us exactly what to do.
Of course, sat navs can be very useful, especially if you are travelling somewhere new on your own. But I tend not to do much of that nowadays; I find journeys are much more enjoyable if you travel in company with others. And sat navs are by no means infallible. We’ve all read the stories of drivers who have followed their sat navs blindly and ended up trying to drive an articulated lorry down a narrow country lane or parked on a railway or taking a circuitous route for a journey that should have taken a few minutes. Sometimes human error is the reason; if you enter one letter incorrectly, you can be sent to entirely the wrong place ( like the couple who wanted to go to the Isle of Capri, but ended up in Carpi). But sometimes it’s the machine that’s at fault; like the sat nav that took British tourists who wanted to go shopping in Lille, France to the tiny village of Lille, Belgium. And even if you do enter your destination correctly, the sat nav makes no allowance for roadworks or the weather. You need to employ your own eyes and ears and intelligence to get where you want to go in the most efficient way, and not just rely on machines.
Some Christians treat their Bibles as sat navs. They think all you have to do is to enter your destination (heaven) and follow certain instructions unthinkingly, and you will end up among the saved. Everyone who doesn’t use their Biblical sat nav of course will be lost. They tend to use selected verses from the Bible as part of their sat nav route to salvation – and the passage we heard today from John’s Gospel contains one of those verses that frequently appears: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.”
That verse has been used by some Christian groups in an exclusive way, to define who was favoured by God, who were true believers, who were on their way to heaven, and who was not. (An attitude common to groups such as those who believe that ‘The Rapture’ was going to happen at 6pm yesterday and the end of the world and Judgement Day will come some time in October). That sort of use is worrying to those Christians, like me, who believe in an inclusive God, who wills the salvation of all human beings.
So how can we use our Bibles so that they are useful tools for finding our way to God, and not useless sat navs that lead us astray? First we need to learn how to use our Bibles, just as we need to learn to read maps or use sat navs. The Bible is a library of books, written at different times, for different communities and for different purposes. We need to learn about these differences, and so how to interpret each book correctly, not using stories as history or hymns as prophecy. We need to know something about the background of each book.
So, for instance, Biblical scholars tell us that the Gospel of John does not contain the actual words of the historical Jesus; anyone who reads John and compares the speeches Jesus makes in John with his speech patterns in the other three Gospels will see how true that is. So the sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel come from the meditations of John’s community, inspired by the Holy Spirit after the resurrection, on what Jesus meant to them, and how they interpreted his life and his death.
It seems that John’s community was feeling persecuted, especially by their fellow Jews, or by Jewish Christians. For this reason, the Gospel contains strong polemic against the Jews and a defence of possible accusations that Christians were leading people astray, and away from God. In Judaism, rabbinic sources tell us, The Torah or the Law was referred to as “The way the truth and the life”. John 14 proclaims that actually, for Christians, Jesus supersedes the Torah and is way, truth and life.
Another way of using our Bibles so that they do not mislead us is not to take verses in isolation and out of context. When we use a map or a sat nav. we need to use our eyes and ears to look around us, and note the conditions outside, so we can disregard instructions or the map if It is leading us astray. We need to do the same with the Bible.
So when we read verses like this one, we need to look at the immediate context. This is part of the ‘farewell discourse’ in John’s Gospel which runs from Chapter 13 to chapter 17. Jesus is aware that he is about to leave the disciples, and seeks to reassure them that they will remain in fellowship with him and with God, even after his death. This reassurance makes this passage a favourite one for funeral services, but it is actually not just about being with God after death; it is mainly about the assurance of God’s accompanying presence in a believer’s life, though trust in Jesus and his ‘way’ of living.
The language Jesus uses about being with God in his ‘house’ echoes passages from the Old Testament, like Psalm 23, and others which speak of God as a rock or a stronghold. It is also a metaphor that we find in 1 Peter, from which our other reading came. As those who trust in Christ, we are already part of God’s household, enjoying the safety of being defended by God. We are a community set apart from the world in our values, but set in the midst of the world in our service. We enjoy membership of that household as a gift from God through Christ – but it is not up to us to define who else may, or may not, be given that gift.
Modern Christians tend to interpret being in fellowship with Jesus as being part of a Christian church, or signing up to certain theological beliefs. But if we look at the context, we don’t have to interpret it in that ‘exclusive’ way. In the previous chapters, Jesus has been demonstrating his ‘way’ and his ‘truth’ in a very practical manner. He has washed the disciples’ feet – including the feet of the man who will betray him, and the man who will deny even knowing him. He has given the disciples a command to love one another as he loves them. So the ‘way’ he is talking about, the ‘truth’ he is teaching, the ‘life’ he is demonstrating is one of sacrificial service and of all-embracing love. That, he says, is the way anyone can come God as Father.
Like Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, Jesus is giving the disciples confidence that the way of love is God’s will, since in Jesus they see God in action; and that the way of love endures, in life and through death. If you live in Jesus’ way, John says, you will know God not as stern Judge or distant King, but as loving Father, who will welcome you into his household and be with you always.
Another context against which we have to judge passages is the other accounts of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Does the picture of God which is being portrayed in this particular passage tie up with the picture given by Jesus’s life and actions during his earthly life? You note that in this passage, Jesus says that in God’s house there are many rooms, or dwelling places. It is an inclusive place, and that links up with the way Jesus lived his life and carried out his ministry. He welcomed in the outcast. He was never very concerned to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. This displeased the religious leaders of his own time – and it still rubs some religious leaders up the wrong way. They would rather have strict guidelines about who was in and who was out. But, Jesus says, leave God to sort out who goes in which room; my way is open to all who want to follow me. There is also comfort in these words for those who trust Jesus, but who feel that God is absent at the moment. Even when it seems you are struggling alone, John tells us, Jesus is preparing a place for you.
Finally in this passage, Jesus talks about prayer, and urges his followers ask things in his name. In Biblical times, a name stood for the character of a person. So Jesus is asking us to frame our prayers to reflect his character. He also asks his followers to believe in him. The word for ‘believe’ (pistis / πιστις) didn’t mean to sign up to a set of abstract definitions about a person. It meant to trust, or to rely on someone. So, when we act and when we pray, we are to rely on the picture of God which we get from the life of Jesus, and trust that his way is God’s way. If we do so, this passage assures us, we will have the strength to live the sort of life which Jesus did, and prayers made in that confidence will bear fruit.
Last of all we shouldn’t read the Bible in isolation. We always have to set what it says against all the other ways God speaks to us: through the writings of Christian believers through the centuries, through the natural world and the discoveries of the physical and social sciences, which may modify how exactly we follow the Bible’s instructions. Just as we shouldn’t follow a sat nav or a map blindly, without looking around at the landscape it is taking us into, so we shouldn’t rely on the Bible alone. We need to use Scripture in combination with tradition and reason to know the way and the truth.
John’s Gospel, and especially the farewell discourse, contains ‘theology for hard times’. It is a map for a difficult journey. Like all maps, it won’t give us an exact picture of the route we need to take, but it will guide us as we travel. It may be that the route will look very different from what we expected. The disciples did not immediately recognise that when they saw Jesus, they were seeing something of God. 1 Peter talks about the stone which the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of God’s house. But if we trust in Jesus, his way will become the way which leads us into truth, and into life, and into a permanent place, in this life and the next, in God’s house.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
May 15, 2011
(Acts 2, 42-47; John 10, 1-10)
If someone called you a sheep how would you feel?
I suspect you would feel insulted. The usual adjective that goes with ‘sheep’ these days is ‘silly’ or ‘woolly’ and the usual simile is ‘followed like sheep’.
Today most people value independence and intelligence in themselves and others – so being compared to something which is regarded as thoughtless and stupid is not going to be taken as a compliment!
On the other hand, however clever and independent we think ourselves, most of us like to feel we have somewhere secure to return to; so the idea of being kept safely in a sheep pen might appeal to all except the most adventurous among us.
In this first part of John’s meditation on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he pictures the sheep in a pen in the village, surrounded by high walls, and guarded by a gatekeeper. The gate is only opened for the shepherd who owns the sheep, and they respond to his voice and follow him out. The gatekeeper will not allow anyone else near the sheep – if they want to get a sheep, strangers and thieves have to climb in over the walls, and the sheep will run away from them because they don’t recognise their voice.
This is a very different way of regarding sheep from our modern one. These sheep are not seen as silly – they know who they belong to. They hear and respond only to the voice of the person they know and trust, the person who will lead them to places where they will be safe, and be fed and grow.
They are also valuable. Sheep represented a major part of the the wealth of an individual or a community, so they were worth protecting and nurturing. They also represented for most people a celebration meal – meat was eaten rarely, and only on special occasions. Think of them, then, as the Palestinian equivalent of your bank account, and caviare, smoked salmon, fillet steak and champagne rolled into one!
That should make us feel better about being compared to sheep. This tells us that we are people whom God values, who are precious to him. All we, like sheep, represent God’s wealth on earth.
There’s a very small amount of sheep farming going on now in the UK. But in, say, Australia, many people still have a lot of their wealth invested in sheep. Because of that, the sheep are marked with a brand. So, how are we, as Jesus’s sheep, branded?
We were marked at our baptism with a cross in oil or water, but that is now invisible. The only way we now show that we are branded with Jesus’s mark is by the way we live. Our Acts reading tells us that the first believers were visibly marked by their experience of the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so much so that even non-believers noticed the change. Are we distinguishable from our neighbours by our Christian way of life? Are we visibly owned by God?
John distinguishes in the reading between the true shepherd who owns the sheep, and leads them to abundance of life, and ‘thieves and robbers’, false shepherds who want to exploit them. At the time when John’s Gospel was written, Jesus and his followers were accused of being sheep stealers, taking loyal Jews away from their true allegiance to the Law of Moses; in this passage, Jesus is accusing the leaders of the Jews of the same thing.
Jesus also says he is the gate for the sheep. A door or gate has two functions: it can let the sheep (the followers of a religion) out into the place where they are nurtured and grow, or it can confine them in a place where they can be at the mercy of false shepherds or thieves who will destroy them. This is what Jesus accuses the contemporary leaders of the Jews of doing.
It is worth pondering, what is it that steals people away from the true message of Jesus in our own time? What calls us in a voice which is not the authentic voice of our true shepherd? It is hard sometimes to hear the voice of Jesus through twenty centuries of tradition and interpretation; though we are lucky that there are scholars (like the Jesus Seminar) who try to take us back to what Jesus actually said. Unless we can get back to the original words of Jesus, we may be following ‘thieves and robbers’ rather than the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is one who leads the sheep in the way that leads to ‘green pastures’, which stands for fullness of life. It is important to notice that in this metaphor the shepherd we follow is a living one. This passage is not talking about gaining fullness of life as a result of the death of the shepherd, but as a result of following his way of life.
So we are called to follow Jesus’ way of openness to the outcast and the stranger, of sacrificial service, of peaceful opposition to the forces that oppress and dehumanise us and others. It may put our lives in danger (as Jesus says the Good Shepherd does in the verses that follow this reading); it will certainly involve living sacrificially.
That makes this a very good reading for the start of Christian Aid week. It reminds us that we cannot help others without being prepared to sacrifice our own self, as Jesus did.
The Acts reading illustrates some ways of following the Good Shepherd in the way we live. Some of them may be appropriate to our lives now; others may not, but the passage should give us food for thought about the way we show that we are part of Jesus’s flock.
Acts tells us that at this time the followers of Jesus held all their goods in common. That ‘communal’ way of living is not something that works well in today’s society; but it does remind us that we should not regard our possessions as being just for our own enjoyment and benefit; they are meant to be used for the good of the whole flock. The goods of the believers were used for the benefit of those in need, as should ours be.
Acts also tells us that worship was important in the life of the first disciples. They went together to the temple on a daily basis; they prayed; and the Eucharist – the breaking of bread – was central to their lives. They were attentive to the teaching of the apostles, and they spent time in fellowship with each other. In all these way they went ‘deeper into God’ on a regular basis and strengthened their commitment to following the Good Shepherd.
Their attitude was one of thanksgiving and joy. This made them attractive to outsiders. It was apparent that they were enjoying a new fullness of life. Their faith enabled them to do signs and wonders – through their faith they were ‘transforming the communities’ in which they lived.
Their joyful attitude and the obvious mutual love and fellowship had the effect of drawing in ‘new disciples’, expanding the flock and increasing the wealth of their owner. This was not overt evangelism, but it was, and remains, the most effective sort of evangelism. People will be drawn into the fellowship of Jesus’s flock not by our words, but by the attractiveness of our worship, the strength of our fellowship and the witness of our service to the community. That is the sort of sheep fold that the flock of the Good Shepherd as meant to be in.
But the sheep in God’s flock are not meant to stay in the sheepfold for ever. We may remain for a time within the safety of the sheepfold; but the voice of the Good Shepherd invites us to follow him out into the wider world, to live life abundantly in the green pastures we will find there, transforming the community we live in and adding more and more new sheep to his flock.