Friday, May 30, 2008

Do we need to worry?

Isaiah 49.8-16a
1 Corinthians 4.1-5
Matthew 6.24-34
Today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah includes two striking images. The first is a feminine image - comparing God's faithfulness and care to that of a nursing mother. What mother, asks the prophet, would abandon her tiny baby? But, of course, it does happen occasionally - whereas God's love for us is so profound and tender that he - or she, perhaps - will never abandon us.

The passage concludes with the second striking image, which is a word from the Lord to the Prophet, "See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

Sometimes when I find myself with nothing to write on I write names or phone numbers on my hands. This is a technique which only works if I remember to transfer this vital information to a more permanent place before I next wash my hands! Often, as I dry my hands, and remove the last vestige of the data, I remember the funny moment in the first episode of Cold Feet when one of the characters has written the phone number of a girl he has met in the dust on his car windscreen, which is fine until it starts to rain!

When the Prophet says that God has inscribed our names - and indeed all the vital information about us - on the palms of his hands, I guess he is thinking of something more permanent than a biro. He must mean that the details are safely tattooed there. And, of course, tattooing would have been a much more painful and painstaking process than simply whipping out a pen. Not only that, but like the person who today gets the name of their lover tattooed on their body, it would have been a sign of real and lasting commitment.

The oracle means that God holds us close and cherishes everything about us. What a wonderful thought, especially given that Paul tells us - in the passage from his first letter to Corinth - that it is this same caring and compassionate God "who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart." How fortunate that this is a God who is clearly much more willing to commend us than to judge us!

When Jesus says that God's concern for human beings is greater than his care for the birds and wildflowers, which are in any case more than adequately provided for, he is not suggesting an anthropocentric view of creation in which we are superior to the other living creatures. He is simply asserting that we can, unlike the rest of the created order, enjoy a conscious and personal relationship with God.

This privileged intimacy and knowledge not only assures us that we really are loved by God, giving us the confidence not to worry unduly about tomorrow and its problems, but also brings with it the responsibility to share with God in the task of caring for the rest of creation. And herein lies the rub. What happens if we have not been caring properly for our planet and its other inhabitants but instead have behaved selfishly and destructively? What if we now risk upsetting the balance of nature through untimely global warming? Then our partnership with God will have broken down and it will no longer be true to say that the birds of the air are certain to be fed, or that the lilies of the field will always be clothed more gloriously than Solomon. In that situation it will become necessary, after all, to worry about the worries of our children and grandchildren as well as today's troubles. And, unfortunately, that situation has come to pass!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Our relationship with God

Exodus 34.4-6,8-9
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
Matthew 28.16-20

These passages, specially selected for reflection on Trinity Sunday, illustrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much an attempt to discern the essential nature of God as to describe God's relationship with creation, including ourselves, and with Jesus - whom Christians believe to be a human being in perfect relationship with God.

The passage from Exodus contains the unpleasant verse about God's wrath visiting the iniquity of parents on their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and the editors of the lectionary have chosen to miss it out. However, there is a truth here. We cannot hope that our mistakes will not have implications for future generations. The slate is not wiped clean after things go wrong and we recognise the error of our ways. If we wanted proof of this uncompromising truth we need only think about global warming.

However, people suffering for the iniquity of their ancestors is not the key note in this passage. What Moses discovers in his encounter with God is that God keeps steadfast love with the human race for thousands of generations, despite our mistakes and wrongdoing.

Paul doesn't talk about doctrine when he prays to God as Father, Son and Spirit and this should not surprise us, because the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist when he was writing. He talks instead about grace, love and communion - all ways of expressing God's relationship with us. Because Jesus perfectly understood God's love for us, and was truly 'in love' with God himself, he was prepared to die for us so that we might receive the gracious gift of having our own relationship with God restored, and that loving relationship with God which we now enjoy through the grace of Jesus finds its expression in our inner communion with God's Spirit.

This conviction that we can know God in three ways - as our creator, as the suffering servant who shows the depth of his love for us by dying on the cross, and as the Spirit living deep within each one of us - is such a distinctive part of the Christian message that proclaiming its truth has become the essential rite of passage to membership of the Church. But it is one and the same God whom we are meeting. God encounters us in the universe around us, in the person and work of Jesus and as the source of inner peace and inspiration, but in saying this we are simply acknowledging that the one God is in relationship with us in three distinctive ways that express his steadfast love.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mobilising for Mission

Numbers 11.24-30
1 Corinthians 12.1b-13
John 7.37-39

The point of the strange story about Moses surely lies in its punchline. We don't need to worry too much why the Lord should have commanded Moses to gather a symbolic group of seventy elders around the tent of his presence, in order to bestow on them a share of the prophetic spirit which he had already given to Moses himself, although a quick look back at the earlier part of the story shows that it was part of God's response to Moses' complaints about the intolerable burden of leadership which he felt that he had to bear on his own two shoulders.

So part of the story's purpose is to remind us that God's people can never rely on one or two charismatic leaders to carry out God's mission for them. Mission is a shared enterprise which requires team leadership at the very least.

This much might seem obvious. But the punchline then takes the lesson of the story to a new and unexpected level which is much more challenging. Moses tells his sidekick Joshua, "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"

"Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!" For 'prophets' we must read 'people prepared to take on leadership roles and play an active part in God's mission.' This is a message which speaks to Methodist circuits struggling to cope with fewer ministers and new ways of being church. How far are congregations willing to mobilise in support of the mission of the local church to their neighbourhood and in support of other congregations which might need additional support?

Of course, no one pretends that it's easy to engage in mission or to lead other people, which is why we need the Lord's spirit to help us. Only the Lord's spirit can give us the courage and the resolve that we shall need to play our part effectively.

Paul develops these ideas in his own teaching to the church at Corinth. He believed that no one ever receives all of the gifts which God has to offer. Instead each Christian receives just a part of the kaleidoscope of gifts and graces which the Church needs in order to function effectively and to become an expression of Jesus' power and presence.

Some of us are enabled to give a lead when wise and astute counsel is needed. Some are enabled to study and comprehend difficult ideas. Some receive the gift of faith, enabling them to encourage and inspire those around them when the going gets tough. Others find that they are empowered to heal and work miracles, and so on.

Without doubt, Paul saw all of these gifts as essentially miraculous rather than as natural abilities or acquired skills. This is why his list includes gifts like discerning spirits and speaking in tongues, which might seem to have no obvious leadership potential today. But the key point is that for him, as for Moses, mission and leadership are a shared enterprise, a team exercise. They are never things which can be done for us, or which belong exclusively to ordained ministers, or even to elected or self-nominated lay leaders. To be truly the body of Christ, the Church has to be mobilising all of its resources and all of its people.

The most striking thing about today's passage from John's Gospel is John's very clear identification of the Holy Spirit with Jesus. It is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus which transforms believers into agents of God's mission.

Jesus himself offered the living giving water of God's sustaining presence and love to his hearers in First Century Palestine. If they believed in his message, that God loves us so much that he has come alongside us both in life and even in death, then they need never be spiritually thirsty again - no matter what times of drought, uncertainly, pain and fear they might face in the future. However, John says that Jesus' mission to bring hope and salvation to the world continues in all those who truly believe in him and are filled with his spirit.

Does that include us? Do 'rivers of life-giving water' flow out of our hearts? Are we a source of comfort, strength and sustenance to everyone we meet - our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues? And if not, why not?

For John, it is this power to proclaim God's message, in word and by example, that is the true mark of the Spirit's presence, and it is much more important to him than the other gifts mentioned by Paul. However, the common theme which emerges from all three passages is that if we are filled with the life-giving Spirit of Jesus then the role of ministers and leaders becomes merely to support, encourage and enable our own share in Jesus' mission. They become, if you like, the back-office team rather than the people on the front line who spear-head the Church's mission. That is because the front-line belongs to people like you and me, out there in the world and in the community, witnessing to the Spirit of Jesus within us day by day.