Sunday, April 27, 2008

Standing firm in the faith

Acts 1.6-14
1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11
John 17.1-11

Luke's rather sterile account of the ascension of Jesus, which creates an artificial divide between Jesus' earthly ministry and the new age of the Holy Spirit, is given a different kind of treatment in today's passage from 1 Peter. The writer doesn't think in terms of Jesus ascending to heaven, to leave the field clear for the Holy Spirit to manifest itself through the words and actions of Jesus' followers. Instead he thinks in terms of Jesus being vindicated or glorified.

He has already said that Christians shouldn't be made to suffer for their faith, so long as we are doing what is right. Now he acknowledges that, for whatever reason, believers are going through a fiery ordeal. However, if we are suffering for the sake of Jesus then - just as Jesus was vindicated by God through his resurrection, after he had suffered and died on the Cross - so we can expect to be vindicated if we remain steadfast in the faith.

The language that 1 Peter uses is 'ascension' language. The writer talks about being exalted or lifted up. But he isn't thinking about being lifted up like a rocket lifting off from a launch pad, or even like Jesus ascending through the clouds in the Acts of the Apostles. Nor is he just thinking about something that is going to happen in another time or dimension, such as heaven or eternity, although that is certainly part of what he means by being exalted or glorified. However, he also expects God to vindicate or exalt us right here and right now, by restoring, strengthening supporting and encouraging us in our mission.

Sometimes that sort of affirmation seems in short supply. In our post-modern Western society the Church is being assailed on all sides and over-arching narratives which seek to explain our existence, the universe and everything in it are out of fashion, but if we take 1 Peter at face value we shall continue to believe that - in God - we can overcome our trials and anxieties.

I work in the voluntary sector and these are lean times for voluntary, community and faith organisations which rely on external funding from grants and contracts in order to survive. The law of the jungle applies. Only the fittest will make it into the next funding round. But fitness for the future is not just about strength and good fortune. It is also a question of resilience to misfortune, of hope that is able to triumph over anxiety and of faith in your own organisation's vision and mission. If the staff or trustees of an organisation falter on any of these levels then there are plenty of other, stronger, meaner or fiercer organisations prowling around looking for someone to devour in order to strengthen their own chances of survival.

This is a very close parallel to the situation which faced the churches to whom 1 Peter is addressed. And the remedy is the same. If we believe that God cares for us, and for what we are doing, we must be humble enough to put all of our trust in him, keeping alert for danger, resisting the pressures to give in and remaining steadfast.

John's position on the ascension or glorification of Jesus falls somewhere between that of Luke and 1 Peter. With Luke he shares the view that Jesus is no longer in the world except in Spirit, but for John this Spirit is not just a gift which God bestows on Jesus' followers, it is very much Jesus' own gift to them. And for John, the glorification or vindication which God gives to Jesus and his followers is very much a here and now phenomenon, beginning with the vindication of Jesus himself in true kingly glory on the Cross.

In part, the vindication or glorification of Jesus has an eternal quality. He has been vindicated in God's presence because he has identified himself completely with God's will. But another part of his vindication lies in the fact that he has been vindicated in the wholehearted response of those who believe in his mission and know - through faith - that it is true. Finally, Jesus and his mission are vindicated when his followers demonstrate their unity - not only with him but with one another. In so far as we let him down by our disunity or lack of wholeheartedness, his vindication is still incomplete.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Giving an account of the hope that is in us

Acts 17.22-31
Without doubt Paul is trying to find a point of connection with his audience in the busy market place at Athens. But is there a hint of irony in his comment that the Athenians are clearly extremely religious? Setting up an altar to an unknown god could suggest a commendable fastidiousness on the part of the citizens, a desire to dot every "i" and cross every "t", leaving nothing to chance. On the other hand, it could just as easily suggest insouciance or carelessness. If an unknown god really does exist, shouldn't human beings be straining every sinew to discover more about him or her? It would surely be a matter of the utmost importance. To treat the existence of gods as a more or less haphazard thing indicates that the Athenians had not got the right attitude to religion at all. To them it was just another facet of the marketplace, a matter of personal choice and perhaps a relatively unimportant one at that.

So, although two thousands years separate us from the time of Paul, it maybe that modern society is very similar to ancient Athens. Here, too, religion has been relegated to a matter of indifference.

Paul's message is that God cannot be compartmentalised or privatised in this way. We cannot create God in our own image, or file him away under 'u' for 'unknown' because, in fact, everything depends on God. In him we live and move and have our being, which makes God's nature and existence a matter of the most supreme importance. Furthermore, it is we who have been created in the image of another being - not God. We are his offspring and we shall be held to account for our failure to treat God, and the question of religious faith, with the significance it deserves.

1 Peter 3.13-22
With a level of sheer ingenuity that would have amazed even a Blue Peter presenter, the writer of 1 Peter manages to link a number of disparate themes. No one should malign Christians or make them suffer for their faith, but the writer concedes that it might happen and, if it does, we must be gentle in the way we respond, always ready to give an account of the hope that is in us but never aggressive, irreverent or unlawful in the way we respond. If we want to imitate the way of Jesus we must also be ready to suffer for doing good rather than contemplate doing anything evil. This is because Jesus chose to suffer for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring human beings into a right relationship with God.

So far, so good. But then the writer leaps to a description of what happened before Jesus' resurrection was manifested to his disciples. Even from the moment of his death, Jesus was alive in the spirit and set about the 'harrowing' of Hell, preaching to the spirits imprisoned in the world of the dead, so that they too should know the Good News and find release. Some of the imprisoned souls in Hell belong to people drowned in the Great Flood, when God rejected the almost universal wickedness of human beings at the time of Noah. This thought then leads to another dramatic leap of the imagination, as the writer begins to compare the waters of the Flood with the waters of baptism. Just as the water's of Noah's Flood cleansed the world of wickedness and made it possible for human beings to make a fresh start, so baptism is a new beginning for each individual believer, not because it literally washes us clean but because it marks a life-changing decision to put our trust in Jesus Christ and in the new life which he alone can offer as God's representative or right-hand man.

John 14.15-21
There is another, even more intimate way of knowing that we are following in the way of Jesus. That is to experience the presence of Jesus' own Spirit within us, helping us to keep his commandments, and to love him and be loved by him.

All of this is made possible by Jesus' victory over suffering and death.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

God's House

Acts 7.55-60
1 Peter 2.2-10
John 14.1-14

Jesus had warned that his followers would have to carry their own crosses in order to follow him. And now this is confirmed by the first Christian martyrdom. Stephen is stoned by a lynch mob of people enraged first by his preaching about the Temple, that God does not make his special home in a place built by human hands, and then by his uncompromising assertion that the people of Israel took wrong turns throughout their history before killing the prophets and then, finally, the Messiah. The fact that Stephen claims to have seen Jesus standing at God's righthand, affirming that his version of history is right, is the final straw for the furious crowd.

Stephen not only imitates his Lord in the manner of his death but also in his forgiving attitude and in his apparent readiness to let go of life to be with God. This is the kind of thing which, with hindsight, Jesus' friends saw that he must have been warning them about when he talked about thieves coming to attack the sheepfold. And Stephen was to be the first martyr of many. Even Christians who were not killed often went through other ordeals, as Paul so vividly describes in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Like the early Methodist preachers they were routinely imprisoned, beaten, ridiculed and mobbed. We might think that Stephen's message was a bit provocative, but his death serves as an encouragement to be faithful and an example of endurance to the end.

The Jewish people believed that God is everywhere, but they saw heaven as his throne and the Temple as his footstool, a place where people could especially meet God and discover his will. Stephen alludes to this in his sermon, and the theme is picked up by the writer of 1 Peter. Although the first Christians had spent much of their time in the Temple, Jesus had described his own body as the Temple of God and Christians quickly developed this teaching into the idea that the Church, as the continuing body of Christ on earth, is the place where all nations can come to meet God and discover his will for them. They also developed the parallel idea that each Christian's body is God's dwelling place or Temple, because of Jesus' promise that his Spirit would be within them.

The writer of 1 Peter develops these ideas. Jesus is the cornerstone of the new Temple that is being realised in the Church. He is a cornerstone that many people, like the persecutors of Stephen, have rejected. But those who recognise the true significance of Jesus are allowing themselves to become part of God's living interface with human beings. The Church is not just a community where individual Christians can come to develop their own personal spirituality, it is supposed to be a place where all people can be enabled to have a special encounter with God. And that is an extraordinary responsibility for Christians to carry. We are a royal priesthood - God's representatives in the places where we live and worship, and to the people we meet.

John's Gospel takes the idea of the Temple as God's dwelling place and plays with it in even more creative ways. During his earthly ministry Jesus had described the Jerusalem Temple itself as his Father's house, and John's Gospel faithfully reports this, but in today's Gospel reading his Father's house is definitely not one that is built of human hands. In the first instance Jesus appears to be talking about Heaven, but the many dwelling places which he goes on to refer to need not necessarily conjure up a vision of a stately mansion or a crowded city. It could just as easily be a reference to God's many dwelling places on earth - within the heart of each believer.

Jesus promises that he is going to his death so that he can prepare a place for his disciples to be with him, and with the firm intention of coming back again and taking them to be with him in that place. But, if as John also says, the Spirit of the risen Jesus is going to dwell within believers after his resurrection, the place to which he is going to take them could be a place within themselves. It could be that Jesus is challenging them to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery that will end with the realisation that they are already dwelling with God here and now. This is because no one is able to come to the place where they can truly meet and dwell with God except by allowing the Spirit of Jesus to live within them. Another way of putting it is to say that when we accept Jesus into our lives we will meet God in a new and far more complete way than would ever be possible otherwise.

The phrase, 'No one comes to the Father except through me' has caused huge controversy because it can be taken to imply that other religions and spiritual paths do not reveal anything about God at all. But this is surely to overstate the case because such a radical interpretation is only possible if we ignore the context of these words. Jesus is talking about the kind of pure and complete meeting with God which contemporary Jewish people thought was only possible in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In so far as other faiths believe they can offer such a pure encounter with God - for instance, in the pages of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam - Christians believe that such claims are wrong. Jesus is unique in his ability to bring us directly into the presence of God, or to reveal the mind of God to us. But that is not the same thing as saying that other religions are entirely false and cannot help us to understand God better. It is not an exclusive claim to all truth, just a claim that the final truth can only be known if we follow the way of Jesus.

Interestingly, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs, chose to use Jesus' image of a house with many rooms or dwelling places to describe his own vision of God and the relationship between the different world faiths. His view is that each faith has its own room or dwelling place within the whole, but we can meet one another in the shared spaces in God's house - the corridors, dining rooms and so on. In other words, each faith has its own distinctive insights and understanding of God, but we also have much that we share in common.

If this is a valid way of interpreting Jesus' words then, intriguingly, Christians would probably want to go a little further and argue, from this passage in John's Gospel, that the followers of other faiths are actually meeting God in Jesus, even when they do not realise it. This could either be because the Spirit of Jesus is the inspiration behind all true reflection on the nature and will of God, or because Jesus himself is the shared space - the corridors, or the glue even - which brings and holds the different faiths together. Could this be what Jesus meant when he called himself The Way, the Truth and the Life?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Togetherness and Conflict in the Christian Way

Acts 2.42-47
The first Christians were a community, learning, sharing, praying and breaking bread together. Modern Christians talk about being a community or a family, but the first Christians actually lived the talk, even sitting light to their own possessions, which they held in common. And the first Christians made a serious difference to the world around them, causing awe and wonder by their signs and wonders. They enjoyed the goodwill of all the people, but - of course - this could not last. Daily the Lord was adding to their numbers and success breeds jealousy and opposition.

When the Church is marginalised and is concentrating on marginal things no one takes much notice of us. When the Church is making a serious difference ad being true to the teaching of Jesus it will inevitably provoke wonder and opposition in equal measures.

1 Peter 2.19-25
This is what the writer of 1 Peter explains in his letter. Christians must expect to suffer for doing what is right because that is what happened to Jesus. Indeed, the more we do what is right the more we will bring down suffering on our heads because, by implication, we will be challenging what is wrong and threatening its hold on the world. In the final analysis, that is what the Cross did. By his death on the Cross Jesus challenged the power of sin because he opened the possibility of ordinary people being set free from its hold. We need no longer be helpless victims of the genetic inheritance which makes us shallow, self-centred beings. We can, instead, discover the latent image of God within us. This is a cause for awe and wonder, but it also provokes stubborn opposition from those who do not welcome such radical change and are more comfortable with the way things were.

John 10.1-10
Jesus' simile of the sheepfold reinforces the same point. The sheep in the fold are the followers of Jesus. He himself is the Good Shepherd, who leads the flock by day and lies down across the gate to the sheepfold to protect it from harm at night - always placing himself between the flock and the danger which it faces. And we have already seen that the danger is very real. The flock is constantly threatened by rustlers who seek only to steal, kill and destroy.

These three passages make sombre reading. They warn that following Jesus is difficult and can be dangerous. However, it is worthwhile because of the potential which Jesus can unlock in us if we take his way seriously - when we put our trust in him he can transform both our individual lives and our life together in community.