Sermon for Pentecost.

 Acts 2,1-21; Romans 8, 22-27; John 15, 26&27, &16, 4b-15

I wonder if you’ve noticed how swimming pools have changed. When I was a child, they were fairly quiet places. Maybe the fact that a lot of them were in the open air had something to do with it: only the hardy went swimming in them, unless it was as warm as it’s been the last week. It was fairly easy to find a time when you could swim out into the centre of the pool, and just relax, let the water hold you up, and drift with its support.

Modern swimming pools are quite different. The great draws nowadays are wave machines, flumes or water chutes, and swimming pools are places of noise and activity, screams and rushing water. Even if they don’t have all these extras, you will usually find lanes marked out for different speeds of swimming, as people go there to keep fit. If you tried to float quietly in the middle of most modern pools, you wouldn’t be very popular!

This contrast came into my mind recently when I was reading some words of John Wesley, describing the experience of the Holy Spirit, in a letter to Mary Cooke (1785) She was worried that she didn’t have an overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit at her conversion, as others had.

Wesley  said “There is an irreconcilable variability in the operations of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men, more especially as to the manner of justification. Many find him rushing upon them like a torrent, when they experience ‘the overwhelming power of saving grace’… This has been the experience of many.  But in others he works in a very different way: ‘He deigns his influence to infuse, sweet refreshing as the dews’ and it is not improbable he will continue working in a gentle, almost insensible manner.”

Anyone hearing the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from the Book of Acts, as we did this morning, could be forgiven for thinking that her activity is always full of noise and action, like a modern swimming pool. The commentary in Friday’s Church Times spoke about ‘God’s noisy life bursting on the scene’. But if you read about the Holy Spirit in other parts of the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospel of John, as we also did this morning, then another picture of the Spirit’s action emerges – one in which her activity is much more like the calm supporting strength of my quiet swimming pool.

Christian history has shown that the Spirit has continued to reveal herself in both forms – as an overwhelming force, which turns everything upside down; and as the quiet, sustaining strength, giving invisible support. But, as with swimming pools, sometimes one sort of action of the Holy Spirit is more fashionable than the other.

For a long time, the quiet, supporting mode of the Holy Spirit was in favour, especially with those who ran the churches, for they could then claim that they controlled, or were the channel for such activity. You could only receive the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of the church, particularly baptism, confirmation and ordination.

Nowadays, the wheel of fashion has turned, and we live in world where activity is favoured over passivity, and individuality over organisations. Now, some people seem to be claiming that the only authentic activity of the Holy Spirit is the dramatic form, which results in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophecies, words of knowledge, sudden conversion, and all those experiences which go under the general label of ‘charismatic’. Sometimes, people who haven’t had such a dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit seem to be regarded as ‘not proper Christians’.

We need to beware of having our ideas restricted by fashion, in the church even more so than in the secular world. The Holy Spirit, the ‘bird of heaven’ as Sidney Carter referred to him in his less well-known hymn, is not to be confined to one mode of operation. As John Wesley concluded his letter: “Let him take his own way. He is wiser than you; he will do all things well. Do not reason against him, but let the prayer of your heart be ‘Mould as thou wilt thy passive clay’.

It may be that our characters make us more receptive to one mode of influence by the Holy Spirit than another. Or that our experience demands either a gentle growth or a sudden transformation as her way of converting us to a deeper faith.

It is not up to us to judge, nor to demand that the Holy Spirit works in us in one way rather than another. What we do have to judge, however, is whether the spiritual influences we obey come from the Holy Spirit, or from somewhere else.

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement  and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

We all pray, especially at this season of Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in greater power, to inspire us, to strengthen us and to renew us. But even when we think our prayer has been answered, we still need to exercise the discernment of which de Caussade spoke, and to check constantly that what we do and say in the name of the Holy Spirit does indeed bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in love and joy, peace and long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness and self control.

For whether the water comes upon you as a rushing torrent, or as a gentle flow, its effects in cleansing and nurturing the inner life should be the same: to produce in us the image of God, revealed to us in the life and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me,

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

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Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

All you need is Love?

May 13, 2012

Easter 6 Year B     (Acts 10,44-48; 1 John 5,1-6; John 15,9-17)

Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’.  It was first performed  on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.

It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song! In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’. This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do. Paul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law” and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the radical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.

The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

When you read the writings of the community of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of their teaching on the faith. But would that be true?

Certainly agape love is very important in their theology. It forms the main topic of the first Epistle  which is the third reading for today. For John’s community, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God.  It is only when we love God that we can love the children of God; and we show our love for God by obeying his commandments, which when carried out in love, are not burdensome.

The gospel passage, which  continues from last Sunday’s reading, and continues to use the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship  between Jesus and his followers, also talks about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others. This is  what should be the distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’s disciples.

And how do we learn about this sort of love?  Most modern psychologists would say that we learn first from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family (an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.

We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope,  our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.

The message of the Johannine writings, however,  is that we learn best about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.

Because agape love comes from God, John’s community indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that they are supported by other New Testament writers.

The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, John’s community portrays him as trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence – trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.

So, first of all, Jesus emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God,  and only if we stay connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love.  It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.

A second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage  we heard and the Epistle we didn’t hear say that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. These are not a burden, like the Law of the Old Testament. Rather, they are a series of guidelines which set out the way of love which Jesus lived, and therefore the way we should live.

Prayer is another important element emphasised by John.  In prayer we listen to God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father and our fellow Christians through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.

Our human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s Epistles and Gospel  emphasise that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Peter to Cornelius. Then we hear how the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his household, even before their baptism,  persuaded him that these Gentiles should be admitted to the Christian community. In other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.

Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, the Johannine writers remind us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit, or are growing in the wrong direction. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. We all of us – individuals and communities  – go wrong sometimes, take courses of action which turn out to have unforeseen destructive consequences, or lead to different results which were not what we hoped for.  We sometimes have to accept this, allow ourselves to be cut off from course of action which is no longer fruitful, and start again.

Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometimes, we need to let  go, even face situations that feel like death, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession, reflection and renewal  should not be things which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be renewed.

The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, ‘anything goes sort of love’. It is ‘tough love’  – which makes demands and requires sacrifice  and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action; too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was; unless they live in God, and God lives in them.

It is love which goes beyond what ordinary human love is capable of, the sort of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many of us think we might be able to do that, and we remember with honour those in our community who have done so. John’s Gospel defined ‘friends’ as those who are like us, those who believe the same things as us, those who belong with us. But the Jesus we hear teaching in the Synoptic Gospels redefined who ‘friends’ are. He taught us that our friends and neighbours are people very different from ourselves, people with different views, even people who regard us as enemies He told us we must love and do good to such ‘friends’ and even give them more than we would give to those who are our natural ‘friends’. How many ordinary people are prepared to give their lives for ‘friends’ defined in that radical way?

So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”

No – not if it is ordinary human love, restricted to the good, the deserving and those we regard as friends.

But ‘Yes!’ only if it is the love of God, which goes beyond human understanding, to that love which encompasses all creation as God’s children and God’s friends.