Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Spirit and The Glory of the Lord

Exodus 33.7-20, Psalm 36.5-10, 2 Corinthians 3.4-18, John 16.4b-15

The Lord used to speak with Moses face to face. Exodus tells us that was a unique privilege, something enjoyed only by the prophets of God. But Pentecost ushers in a new reality where the Lord speaks face to face with all believers.


Exodus tells us also that Moses was afraid God might not go with the People of Israel on their journey and might leave him to lead them by himself. But God reassured him, 'I will go with you.' Wishing to press home the point, Moses reminded God that only when we enjoy God's power and presence will other people be able to recognise that we belong to Him. Pentecost is a restatement of that promise, and of its outcome. We are shown to be Jesus' disciples and God's people by the presence of His Spirit with us.

The passage from Exodus concludes by saying, 'No mortal may see me and live.' Moses may see God's goodness and hear God's name, he may
speak to God face to face but they cannot see one another face to face. This is a reminder of the otherness and transcendence of God.

There is a very ancient tradition within the Christian faith, and within other faiths too, that we cannot say what God is like; we can only say what God is not like. So, for example, we can say that God is not hateful or unjust. We can say that God does not lack compassion for everything He has made. But, by the same token, we cannot say exactly what God is like. We cannot say that God is love, or God is just, or God is compassionate, because no single human word or concept can ever sum up what God is truly like, even in a single facet of His nature. That, I think, is the angle from which Exodus is coming. We cannot get up close and personal with God. We cannot have a face to face meeting where God's inner nature is completely revealed.

And yet - while it is true that God can never be completely known and understood by human beings - the Christian doctrine of the Trinity surely qualifies and nuances this ancient understanding. For doesn't the Gospel say that God's Spirit dwelling within each one of us can bring us into a direct encounter with God, a true and authentic intimacy which allows us to have a very personal experience of what God is like? Yes, we still see only part of the truth about God. Yes, we can never fully comprehend God. But anyone who has lived with another person knows that we can meet someone face to face, and have a genuine personal encounter, without ever fully knowing or understanding them. So, for example, if a man can live for fifty years with a woman without ever fully understanding what makes her tick - and vice versa - can't we have a genuine relationship with God, through the Spirit, without knowing everything which there is to be known about God?

And of course there is also the historic encounter with God, the face to face meeting, which was made possible once and for all in the person of Jesus. In the life and death of this unique human being, God's nature is laid bare and we do see face to face, even if it is only through the filter of other people's testimony. So, when Jesus dies for us on the cross we really can say that God is love even though we couldn't have worked this out just by thinking about God or contemplating the meaning of words. That one act crystallises and focuses the nature of God's love, even when we cannot pin down the precise meaning of the idea of loving.

The Psalmist certainly thinks we can know God more completely than perhaps the writers of Exodus imagined. He, or she, speaks boldly about God's nature and sees it mirrored in creation. So God's steadfast love may not be something that we can fathom or measure precisely, but we do know that it is greater than the vast expanse of the atmosphere, stretching from the Earth to the clouds and beyond. We know that God's righteousness is bigger and vaster than the mighty mountain ranges. We know that His judgements are more profound than the deepest oceans. We know that His compassion at least extends to every human being and animal and that everyone is welcome to take refuge in the shadow of His wings. We know that Nature contains an abundance of delights which God intends all of creation to enjoy. We know that God is the source of light and life. What more do the upright of heart need to know? Doesn't this way of understanding things give us an opportunity to see God face to face in the world around us?

Certainly, this is another ancient way of comprehending the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of creation, God's presence and life force in all things. And, in Jewish theology, this understanding of God's presence in the universe also extends to include His Wisdom, which is revealed by the natural world. The Gospel of John - borrowing from earlier Jewish reflections on the teachings of the Greek philosophers - introduces a third idea, that of the Logos, the active Word of God, which fills creation but which also filled and spilled out from the life, death and words of Jesus. So Jesus and the Spirit within creation are one - drawing their power and their essence from the same source.

Paul claims that same power and presence as the source of his own authority and vocation. In a striking phrase, that comes just before the beginning of our passage from 2 Corinthians, he says: 'The Spirit of the living God... [has been] written... on the pages of the human heart.' And this is not just something which happens in the lives of Christian ministers, it is a gift to every believer, the fulfilment of the covenant promise in the Book of Jeremiah. 'There is no question' therefore, says Paul at the beginning of this evening's passage, 'Of our having sufficient power in ourselves. We cannot claim anything as our own. The power we have comes from God; it is He who has empowered us as ministers.' Or as Martin Luther once said, when someone congratulated him on his achievements, 'The Word of God did it all!'

Paul says that Moses' prophetic encounter with God was truly glorious. But it was not enough to put right the relationship between God and the human race, because other members of the People of Israel found that they could not even look on Moses after he had spoken with God, let alone meet God themselves. The radiance shining from Moses, the pure charisma, was just too great.

They found themselves in a similar position to an experience I had when I was at school. The deputy head of the school taught us GCE, and then A-Level, history. He had piercing blue eyes and I found that, however hard I tried, it was never possible to meet and hold his gaze. After a second or two it was always necessary to break away and look down or away somewhere. Well, that's how it must have been to encounter Moses after he had been to the Tent of Meeting, and that's not a satisfactory way for God to be communicated to believers, through an intermediary whom no one is able to look at face to face.

But the glory which shone from Moses face was, says Paul, no glory at all in comparison with the still greater glory that comes from having God's power permanently located within each one of us. Not only is this a more direct and satisfying way of encountering God but, whereas the aura around Moses gradually faded, this is an enduring experience of God's presence and power.

Of course, as the ancient tradition affirms, we cannot see directly into the face of God. We cannot know everything there is to be known about God, just because His Spirit is within us. Paul is careful to say that we only see 'as in a mirror', a reflection of 'the glory of the Lord' - a bit like watching an eclipse of the sun reflected in a bucket of water. But nevertheless, God's glory is revealed to us 'with ever increasing' intensity and it has the power to be transformative - to change us into new and better people.

In a somewhat bitter aside, Paul draws a tenuous comparison between the veil which Moses wore to protect people from his piercing gaze and the veil of ignorance and disbelief which Paul felt was clouding the minds of his Jewish compatriots and preventing them from recognising the truth about Jesus. But we'll pass over that, because it has no bearing on Paul's main argument, and go instead straight to the reading from John's Gospel where John talks again about the Advocate who speaks up for us, like a lawyer defending our interests in an industrial tribunal or a court hearing, helping us to show the world that it is wrong about sin, justice and judgement and has a warped and misguided perception of all these things.

In an industrial tribunal, the advocate would be trying to show - or telling us how to explain - where the procedures followed by our employer fall short of or deviate from the best practice laid down by ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. In the case of the Spirit, its advocacy is about spiritual and ethical matters.

The Spirit helps us to explain that sin can only be understood properly by looking at the life and death of Jesus. Sin is not, as most people assume, a word invented by religious fanatics to prevent everyone from having fun.

I was reading an article the other day written by a young Palestinian woman who complained that her family used to have fun and enjoy themselves, gossiping with Christian neighbours, dancing at parties, flirting with other boys and girls, priding themselves on their beautiful hair. But then they started attending lessons at the mosque about sin and how to combat it, and now they're all totally miserable. They avoid their Christian friends in the street. They sit like shy retiring wallflowers at parties. The cover their hair and faces with veils, or they wear prayer hats and grow long beards - in the case of the men. And they look thoroughly miserable, or at least that was her interpretation.

Christians have their own version of this, of course. In the same magazine I read an article by a young woman who was beaten by her evangelical Christian father for going to a party. But this is a total misunderstanding of sin, because - according to John - sin is really the attitude of mind which rejects the love of God revealed in Jesus. And justice is only really understood when we appreciate that the way Jesus showed us, in His life and death, was vindicated by God at His resurrection. And judgement is only put in its true context when we understand that the values of the world have already been condemned and put in their place by the vindication of Jesus.

This isn't the limit of the advocacy of the Spirit, of course. John boldly asserts that the Spirit 'will guide us into all the truth'. Sadly, as the history of John's little Christian community soon made clear, when it became riven by faction and disagreement about the truth, being guided into the truth is not plain sailing, even when we have the Spirit to advocate for us. The true voice of the Spirit has to be distinguished from our own prejudices and opinions, and the only way to make that difficult distinction is to ensure that what the Spirit seems to be saying to us is giving glory to the life, death and teaching of Jesus. Anything else is a blind alley.

And that brings us back to where we began, in the Book of Exodus. It is very hard to know the truth about God. Nature helps to reveal what God is like. And the Spirit, dwelling within us, helps us to have a personal relationship with God. But only that unique, once-and-for-all face-to-face encounter with God in Jesus can confirm that what we are hearing is the truth - not the complete truth, but a reflection of 'the glory of the Lord'.

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