Seeing more clearly with the eyes of love: A Shakespearian Liturgy

Paul Fiddes has put together a group of people to create 'a liturgy of voices based on Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, called 'Seeing more clearly with the eyes of love'.

The liturgy weaves together excerpts from the play with elements from the traditional Christian liturgy in order to explore Shakespeare's own theme of clarifying the vision which belongs to love. The liturgy includes newly commissioned music and new pieces written and performed by five contemporary poets (Micheal O'Siadhail, Sinead Morrissey, Michael Symnnons Roberts, Lawrence Sail and Jenny Lewis), based on characters in the play.

The liturgy is being performed in Stratford and London.

Holy Trinity Church, Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon - Tuesday 2nd August 5.30pm

St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square - Wednesday 3rd August, 7pm 


Where God matters: A Sermon

You don’t get to choose God.

You don’t get to decide what God is like.

You don’t get to pick your role in the story.

Your life is not of your choosing.

Your salvation is not of your doing.

Instead

God calls.

God is who God is.

God invites.

God make yours life possible.

God saves.

That’s been the recurring message as we’ve look at the call stories of

Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The Bible calls us to re-write our biographies,

with God as the subject of every sentence.

This is not straightforward

because we are taught to believe

that every sentence should begin ‘I.’

Most of our lives are centred around ‘I’.

We have accepted the narrative that we get to make our lives up,

that we are the author of our stories,

we are the creator of our destinies.

We have come to believe that we can be anything we want to be,

we can do anything we set out to do,

if we desire it enough, if we want it enough.

This is the formula for almost every Disney movie:

            whether you’re a panda, a rat, a snail or a car. [i]

The Christian gospel helps us to see our place.

We arrive in the middle of a much bigger story,

which didn’t begin with us and will not end with us.

This is a story that begins with God:

            ‘in the beginning God …’

and this is a story that will end with God:

            ‘then I saw a new heavens and a new earth …

            and God’s dwelling place is now among the people,

and he will dwell with them.’

We live in God’s creation,

            and ‘all the world’s a stage’ to quote Shakespeare,

                        for God to share his life with us.

This is a story in which God is closely involved,

            a God who speaks and acts

                        and in Jesus becomes flesh.

Talk about God and predestination (Rom 8.29, Eph 1.4-5),

            is to see that God’s intention for creation

                        and for humanity does not change.

We are created and called for fellowship with God.

This is Plan ‘A’ and there is no Plan ‘B’.

God’s intention before creation and God’s goal

            is that we might share in the life of God.

Of course we’re not sure we like the language of predestination.

We’re not sure it is good news.

It is too often heard as bad news, because predestination has meant

that human beings have been foreordained either to be either sheep or goats,

and mostly goats.

Rather than being good news this sounds like very bad news.

It condemns those who are not elect, who not chosen,

by God to a life without God in eternity.

Why would God will some to reject him?  

What has gone wrong here is to associate predestination and election with eternity,

when in the Bible, the focus is on mission.

            Abraham is elected to be father of a nation and means of universal blessing.

            Jeremiah is elected to be a prophet to the nations.

            Peter is elected to be an apostle to the nations –

‘I will make you fish for people’

            The church is elected to praise God and bear witness

to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul says those who are called are called according to God’s purpose (Rom 8.28),

                        that is, his intention, his mission.

            And that purpose is to ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (Rom 8.29);

                        that is we are to be, in the words of Nick Lear,

                                    ‘free samples of Jesus.’

To say we are called does not mean we are the chosen few destined for heaven.

Our calling is not a separation from the rest of the world,

            but a calling for and to the world.

The creation mandate to be God’s image-bearers does not change,

            and in Jesus we are given the template

            and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are given the power and the promise.

When God calls it always includes a command to witness to the mercies of God.

God has entrusted us with an enormous responsibility.

In the language of the Baptist Union’s Declaration of Principle,

          ‘it is the duty of every disciple to bear witness

to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,

and to take part in the evangelization of the world.’

That it what it means to be called.

When we consider that responsibility it may feel more like a burden.

We live in a time in which

            ‘we are in danger of worrying ourselves into extinction

            because we seem less the players in a great drama of redemption

than the last remnants of a great experiment.’ [ii]

We live after Christendom,

            we live in a world in which everything is changing,

            and the church is not sure where we fit,

            and at times we seem desperate to embrace any fad that might end up

boosting our numbers

(at the moment it seems to be something called Pokomon Go!)

We living in challenging days –

no more challenging than previous generations, but challenging none the less.

I wonder if instead of cowering before the challenge, we see also the opportunities.

Perhaps like Esther, we have been called for such a time as this.

This is the opportunity, which is also a challenge:

                        to live lives where God matters. [iii]

You might be feeling a bit short-changed by that six-word suggestion,

            but I would offer that to live lives where God matters

            is not straightforward,

            in fact I’d go as far as to say that to live lives where God matters is impossible

without God.

This the opportunity for the church,

            this is the calling of the church,

                        to be a people who live lives where God matters.

The other week, the children of year 1 at Hamstel Infants School visited the church.             There are five classes, so it took three visits.

            On one visit I asked the question: I wonder what you think is most important in this church?

            Different answers were given – the screen, the drum kit (!), the Bible, the cross, the windows, the people, and one teacher even said me!

            These were good answers.

            All of these things, perhaps even the drum kit are important in this church.

Thinking back on that occasion, and thinking about what I’ve said this morning,

            I wonder if I missed an opportunity to say that of course what is most important in this church is that God matters.

Everything else is a gift of God.

            Ministers – hopefully are a gift.

            The Bible is definitely a gift for it is revelation.

            The screen and drum kit aid our singing.

            The windows are gift because they allow light into our space,

                        We gather not in the shadows or in secret,

                                    but in the light.

            The cross is a gift because it is a reminder of God’s eternal love.

You – the people – are a gift because our lives are enriched and encouraged

by one another

            Bread and wine are a gift because they are means of communion,

                        of sharing in the life God in Christ.

Each of these gifts are a means of enabling us to live lives where God matters.

You have been called

            to make God the subject of your life.

            for the glory of his name,

            for the sake of his kingdom,

through the power of the Holy Spirit

            and the grace of the Jesus Christ.

 

[i] William Cavanaugh, Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World, p.74.

[ii] Colin Gunton, ‘The Church in the World’ in Theology Through Preaching, p.140.

[iii] This is the title of a book by Herbert McCabe. I also borrow it from John Rackley who likes to ask churches three questions: 1. What matters here? Does God matter? Do the things that matter to God matter?


Called to be Prophets: A Sermon (post EU Referendum)

[This sermon is part of a series looking at call narratives in the Old Testament. This week it was Jeremiah 1.1-10. Following Thursday's EU referendum I try within to offer some response]

 

The book of Jeremiah begins with the words:

‘The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah,

one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin.’

Not anything particularly special,

its not to dissimilar to how other books of the prophets begin.

But – you knew there was a but coming! -

it says Jeremiah is from Anathoth.

Not a well known place,

but it has a minor history in the story of Israel.

Anathoth is the place where the priest Abiathar

is banished by king Solomon (1 Kings 2.26)

for not supporting Solomon’s claim to the throne.

Here in Anathoth, a rural village,

away from the urban centre of Jerusalem

and all that is going wrong there, as king after king

fail to rule in the ways of Moses.

Here in Anathoth, it is not forgotten,

a memory, a story, a covenant is passed on and

now 400 hundred years later,

Jeremiah comes to Jerusalem

as one carrying the word of the Lord

with warning and ending.

From the exiled margins,

outside of Jerusalem,

God raises up Jeremiah,

known by God, appointed by God,

even before he was born.

Are we to see here an example of the patience of God?

Oh how we need patience in the coming days and months.

What there is no doubt about, is that once again we see God has a plan and a

purpose and it involves us.

God has habit and it's a habit of calling men and women into his purposes,

into his story

and where we live our lives in the context of one life span – ninety years or so –

God works over centuries …

bits of God’s story go on pause and then they get reactivated.

Its time for the descendants of Abiathar to re-enter the story

and Jeremiah is the one appointed to take centre stage.

The Bible displays a God who is always interrupting lives,

calling them to something that was not in their sights,

or in their plans.

Our lives are not our personal projects,

forget about your career goals,

refuse to write your own life story.

Instead start listening for the summons,

the call.

For God comes to call

and our lives will find themselves

in constant reference to the one who alone is sovereign.

Look at Jeremiah:

he has no ambition to be a prophet.

Unlike most young people who are always saying they are old enough

for whatever it is they want to watch, or wherever they want to go,

Jeremiah says I’m too young.

Age is not a factor when it comes to the call of God.

Some of you listening,

think you’re too young for God to bother to give you a task,

well remember Samuel and Jeremiah!

Some of you listening think you’re too old,

but God does not believe in retirement,

just remember Abraham and Sarah!

Some of you listening think its ok, you’re neither old or young,

but in the middle, hidden in the masses,

where you might hope to avoid God’s call.

Here’s what I would say:

Jesus follows Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations,

as one set apart,

as one known to God

and as those who follow Jesus,

we share in his prophetic ministry:

The church are called, set apart,

appointed to the nations

and so to each one of us we pick up the mantle

of Jeremiah via Jesus.

In these days we need to recover

what it is to be prophetic communities.

And to each one of us,

The word of God says:

You must go to everyone I send you to

and say whatever I command you to.

And to each one of us,

The word of God says,

Do not be afraid,

for I am with you and I will rescue you.

The claim that God is with us,

of course is echoed in Jesus own words to his disciples:

‘surely I am with you always to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28.20).

An Old Testament scholar by the name of Walter Brueggemann,

reflecting on Jeremiah says:

‘Jeremiah’s life consists in coming to terms with the word of God,

finding ways to articulate it to his contemporaries

and living with the hazardous consequences of that reality.’ [i]

Isn’t that an apt description of the Christian life?

We try and come to terms with the living word of God who is Jesus

and we try and find ways to share that with the world and our friends

and we live with the hazardous –

that is, the challenging, risky, unsafe –

consequences of having being called by Christ.

In a divided nation with an uncertain future,

the church stands.

The call to Jeremiah

is replayed in every life that responds to way of Jesus.

Speaking truth to power,

challenging lies and injustice,

working for the good of all,

re-describing reality,

refusing to accept the status quo,

believing in the kingdom of God,

is to open up ourselves to ridicule,

to claims of being unpatriotic,

and to the threat of violence –

all things Jeremiah faced,

Jesus faced,

and in some places the church still faces today.

Listen again to what God says to Jeremiah:

‘I appoint you over nations

            to uproot and tear down

            to destroy and overthrow

            to build and to plant.’

This is a summons to declare the end of one world

            and to proclaim the beginning of a new world.

In other words, God calls Jeremiah

            to the work of the gospel.

Like Jeremiah, as the church we too are watching the termination of a world we have loved too long and lost: [ii]

a world in which everything has been shaken up

            and we can react like Israel did and either pretend its not happening

                        and claim everything is ok

                        or we can give in to rage and anxiety and find someone to blame

                                    and cling to a nostalgia of an unspoiled past.

The church and national politics does both!

Nostalgia and indifference are the great enemies of the church,

for they refuse to embrace what God is doing

            and God is always uprooting and tearing down,

                        that he might build and plant.

In one sense, regardless of Thursday’s decision,

            the church continues to be the church,

                        shaped by the call of God in Christ,

                                    caught by the vision of God’s new creation,

            which is neither an England on its own or one joined to the EU.

            The institutions and structures that frame our politics are not eternal,

                        but provisional,

            and so our ultimate hope and faith is not in

Westminster, Brussels or Washington,

                        but in a new Jerusalem,

                                    on its way from the heavens (Rev 21.2).

How does Jeremiah live out his call? [iii]

He has a robust view of God.

            A God who is free and sovereign,

                        alive, passionate and without dullness.

            Jeremiah does not pander to God,

                        and equally God does not make Jeremiah’s life comfortable.

            In the midst of turmoil, uncertainty and fear,

                        we cling to God, who is not bound by our decisions.

Jeremiah has a sense of the large public issues.

            He is alert and engaged with what is happening in the world.

                        He is a prophet and a pastor,

                                    they are joined together

            Too many Christians are either prophets with no pastoral care

                        or pastors with no prophetic voice.

            What do I mean by that?

                        Jeremiah does not shirk from the message God gives him,

                        a message of judgement and uprooting

                        but it is comes with deep pastoral concern for those being judged.

            Prophets with no pastoral care or

            pastors with no prophetic voice are easy to ignore.

                        The first because they lack grace,

                        the second because they lack truth.

Jeremiah has a vigorous sense of his own call.

            He finds the summons of God an irresistible power in his life.

            He is called and not in the sense of some general vocation,

                        but with a particular purpose and commission.

            We struggle to identify with this because

                        we think we get to make up our lives,

we believe that our lives are the result of our free choices.

            What would it mean to understand our lives as called,

                        as one given over freely and obediently to the purposes of God?

            Ask yourself how and where is God calling me

                        to share in his work of speaking truth?

Jeremiah accepts that his call causes conflict

            that he does not have a settled life,

                        It his was a life lived in conflict with those who would not listen.

            We yearn for a settled life, an easy life, a lived in balance,

                        but I wonder if this side of eternity there can be such a life,

            especially a life that is faithful to the call of God.

            It is not that we seek conflict or hope for turmoil,

                        but that is the consequence of naming

                                    our sins of greed, violence and hate.                     

Lastly, Jeremiah is profoundly a prophet of hope.

            If you read Jeremiah would could be led to thinking

that he is more a prophet of doom.

            Yet while much of his work as a prophet is of the kind

                        that spoke of plucking and tearing down,

            he remembered his full call,

                        which ended with a word about planting and building.

            Jeremiah has the capacity to speak hope,

                        The newness of God out of death.

            There is no newness without loss.

            There is no resurrection without the cross,

            but there is resurrection.

            The prophetic call of the church is a serious work,

                        it must not dull down or make its message more palatable,

                        at the same it’s message must be one ultimately of hope,

                                    Of profound hope.

            Where is our hope today?

I suggest you don’t place it in Cameron, Corbyn, Johnson

and please definitely not Farage.

As Christians, our reason for hope is nothing less that Jesus Christ.

            Leaders and governments will come and go,

                        Economies will rise and fall,

                                    Lives will begin and end,

but Jesus remains the same, yesterday, today and for ever (Heb. 13.8).

            Hope begins and ends in Jesus.

                        This is our profound hope.

            We hope in a world that Jesus loves.

            We hope for a world that Jesus redeems.

            We share in this hope every time we break bread and share it.

            We overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            We demonstrate this hope every time we gather around this table

                        and refuse to let politics divide us.

            We declare this hope when we confront narratives of ‘us and them’.

We proclaim this hope when we commitment ourselves

to a seek the common good for all.

            In joy or in grief come to this table

                        because you are called.

                        Be filled with hope

            that we might be prophets to our nation.                         

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones, p.4ff.

[ii] Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones, p.27.

[iii] From this point on I am borrowing from Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, pp.14-23, 29-30.


Baylor Book Sale

This coming weekend:

Don’t miss a 50% off summer sale from Baylor University Press this weekend (June 10th-12th). The sale is intended for graduate students, but anyone with the code may order! Use discount codeBJUN at http://baylorpr.es/s50-off, which applies to books published before 2015. Happy shopping!

For those Baptists who wanted to get Jim McClendon's 3-Volume Systematic Theology or Curtis Freeman's Contesting Catholicity or Fiddes et al on Baptists and the Communion of Saints or David Bebbington's one volume Baptist history - this is a great opportunity!

Other authors in the sale include Richard Hays, Walter Brueggemann, Beverly Gaventa, Ephraim Radner, Matthew Levering, Richard Bauckham, Rowan Williams, John Howard Yoder, Amos Yong, Rudolf Bultmann and lots of others.


Latest Pacific Journal of Baptist Research available

The latest Pacific Journal of Baptist Research is available. The journal is a free download. It is the journal of the Baptist colleges in Australia (Maylon, Morling, Vose, Whitley) and New Zealand (Carey). It began in 2005 and has lots of hidden gems within its archives

A previous edition honours Stanley Grenz. More recently an issue was dedicated to responses to Curtis Freeman's Contesting Catholicity.

The latest edition seeks to honour Paul Fiddes and I was generously invited last minute to write a short editorial that gives some context to his work. Inside are three articles engaging with Paul's work on the atonement, the Trinity and covenant.

 


On hearing the news that John Webster (English theologian) has died

On the sad news of the death of John Webster. Here is a small section from Ivor Davidson's chapter entitled 'John' in the very recent festschrift written in Webster's honour. 

Quite a few moons ago, I had occasion to introduce a public lecture by John Webster. In the usual way, I took a quick look at the CV I had been sent to see what he had been up to since the last work of which I had known. As I ended up saying to the folk who gathered that evening, looking at John's resume can, in honest, by bit depressing: you are confronted with all the themes on which you suspect there is little point in trying to say much ever again ... It is not just the range [of John's work], but the sheer quality across that range - the depth of learning, the precision of thought, the distinctiveness of approach, the elegance of style - that makes John's work so exceptional.

For those who knows its author, all of it has been done by probably the most unassuming scholar they have ever met. John is firm in his convictions, no question, and crystal clear in presenting them. He is equally devoid of personal grandeur, and suspicious of quests for scholarly prestige which jeopardise the uniqueness of theology's vocation. His life's work has, in truth, been motivated by different ambitions than those that typically sway in the realms of academic culture. 'The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend,m and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints' (Confessing God). Most scholarly prose does not sound like that. For John, the idiom is standard issue, and deeply felt. As he sees it all theological work occurs in the history of grace, its mandate and possibilities determined solely by the miracle of divine generosity.

Ivor Davidson, 'John' in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015)

 


Naming God: A sermon for Trinity Sunday

Today is a day in which we take joy in the life and mystery of God.

Properly speaking every Sunday is a day in which we take joy in the life and mystery of God,

for we do not worship a different God on other Sundays,

but this day

we give ourselves to consider what it means to know God

as God has made himself known.

The church names today Trinity Sunday

and it is the day given to saying why

we say these three – Father, Son and Spirit – are one.

As Christians have read the Bible

            they have found it testifies that

                        God remained all powerful and transcendent, and yet

                        Jesus, who died and was raised by God, was somehow God;

                        moreover the Spirit, poured out on the Church, is also God, and yet

                        there is only one God.[i]

One God, three persons.

I want to ask this morning,

what is God’s name?

How do we address God?

I want to suggest we answer it in three ways: [ii]

theologically – in other words, we listen to what God says;

christologically – in other words, we listen to what Jesus says;

and pnuematologically – in other words, we listen to what the Holy Spirit says.

To begin with God,

we turn to Moses before the burning bush

and his question to God,

when I’m asked what is his name who shall I say sent me?

God answers,

‘I AM WHO I AM’

or

‘I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE’

God gives us his name.

In Hebrew it is Yahweh.

God says this is his name for ever.

It is his proper name.

This name is so holy that Israel would not speak it or write it,

instead they used the word LORD.

Whenever you read in the Old Testament LORD in capital letters,

remember this means the name God gave to Moses, Yahweh.

If this is God’s name,

we find it is the name that he gives to Jesus.

For Jesus is given the name Lord.

The Psalmist says ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’

And the gospel writers say this is Jesus.

Jesus is given the name that is above every name …

and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2.8)

In Jesus we meet God himself.

The God of Israel is the God of Jesus,

who is the only God.

And we find that we can only confess Jesus is Lord

through the work of Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12.3),

who Paul says in 2 Corinthians is also the Lord (2 Cor 3.17).

In the Holy Spirit we meet God himself.

The God who declared his name is Yahweh,

in the New Testament he is known thrice over

as God, as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit.

The song in heaven is ‘holy, holy, holy is the LORD almighty’ (Is 6.3).

This name – Yahweh, which is substituted by Lord – distinguishes God as unique,

God as present – God is ‘I am’

And as one who delights in blessing,

as the LORD says to Moses:

            ‘where I cause my name to be honoured,

                        I will come to you

                                    and bless you’ (Exod 20.24b).

When we turn to Jesus,

we find that Jesus addresses God as Father.

It is from Jesus we learn to speak of God as the Father, the Son and the Spirit:

‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me …’ (John 14)

and ‘I will send the Holy Spirit from the Father’ (John 15.26)

We know that God is Father, Son and Spirit,

because we are invited into this mystery.

Through the Spirit we are drawn to Jesus,

and we too cry ‘Abba Father’ (Gal 4.6)

and the Father is conforming us by the Spirit into the image of the Son (Rom 8.29)

We live in Christ.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not abstract theology,

but the gift of language to speak to and about God.

The Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes speaks

of our ‘participating in God.’[iii]

We are baptised into the name of God,

what is called elsewhere ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,

the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13.13).

The gift of the Holy Spirit is to find abundant ways to speak of God.

The breath of languages and tongues,

are enabled by the Spirit to praise God,

to speak of God and to name God.

We consider the ‘I AM’ sayings of Jesus which name God as bread, life, shepherd, gate, truth.

Or the different names given to God in the Old Testament.

Jesus is named as Word, Image, Imprint, firstborn of all creation.

And the Holy Spirit is named as a dove, wind, tongues of fire,

the Spirit of holiness, of life, of wisdom, of glory, of grace,

as advocate, pledge and seal.

No one image or name is enough.

Here are some ways Christians through history have spoken of God as Trinity:[iv]

Lover, beloved and love (Augustine)

Source, wellspring, and living water (David Cunningham)

Root, tree, and fruit (Tertullian)

Glory, image and light (Basil of Caesarea)

Sun, ray, radiance (John of Damascus)

Speaker, word, meaning (Karl Barth)

Revealer, Revelation, Revealedness (Karl Barth)

Playwright, actor, and producer (Wesley Vander Lugt)

Womb of life, word in flesh, brooding Spirit (Ruth Duck)

Awesome judge, healer of souls, distributor of gifts (Armenian Orthodox)

Creator, redeemer, sustainer (Iona)

Truth that sends, truth that comes, truth that is conferred (Charles Wesley)

We are always finding new language to address God.

What all these different ways of speaking God’s name

demonstrate is that God is beyond reduction,

our grasp of God is inexhaustible.

To speak of God, inspired by the Spirit,

‘is to gather up the language of the everyday,

often meagre and unpromising in itself,

and transform it into praise of the everlasting Trinity.’[v]

Our songs and prayers are an opportunity to declare

The breath and depth,

The wonder and majesty

The joy and delight

That is God.

In the gift of the Spirit we experience the blessing of God

and as we share in God’s blessing

we return it too him in praise.

The first way of speaking of God in the name revealed to Moses,

is a reminder that God is God and so we are not.

God is unique in that God alone is creator and all else is creation.

God is beyond us.

The second way of speaking of God as seen in how Jesus prays to the Father

is to find ourselves, as those saved,

sharing in this relationship.

We have been adopted as God’s children

through Jesus our brother.

To be is to be in communion.

God is with us.

The third way of speaking of God in the multitude of words and images,

Under the Spirit’s inspiration,

teach us a new language

and to call others to join the song of praise:

Praise and glory,

And wisdom and thanks and honour

And power and strength

Be to our God for ever and ever.

Great and marvellous are your deeds,

Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

King of the nations.

Who will not fear you, Lord,

and bring glory to your name?

 

Hallowed by thy name.

For thine is kingdom the power

And the glory for ever and ever. Amen

 

[i] David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One, p.55.

[ii] I borrow this from R. Kendall Soulen, Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity and much of what follows.

[iii] Paul Fiddes, Participating in God (DLT, 2000).

[iv] For a longer list see Soulen, Divine Name(s), pp.249-50

[v] Soulen, Divine Name(s), p.251.


The Difference the Spirit Makes: A Sermon for Pentecost

 You can’t tell the story of Jesus

without the Holy Spirit

This is the point that Luke wants to make clear.

The story of Jesus is

the story of the Holy Spirit resting on the Son.[i]

The Spirit comes upon Mary and in her womb conceives a Son.

The Spirit comes upon Jesus like a dove while he is praying at his baptism.

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and out again.

The Spirit fills Jesus for his ministry – ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’

The Spirit, as cloud, covers Jesus at his transfiguration on Mount Tabor.

The Spirit is the agent through which Jesus’ whole life is offered to God.

The Spirit is the one through whom Jesus is raised.

One early church father called Gregory says this:

Christ is born; the Spirit is the forerunner.

He is baptised; the Spirit bears witness.

He is tempted; the Spirit leads him up.

He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them.

He ascends; the Spirit takes his place.[ii]

The Holy Spirit and Jesus come together.

From conception to ascension

the Holy Spirit rests on the body of Jesus.

 

The truth of Pentecost,

the miracle of Pentecost,

is the Spirit continues to rest on the body of Jesus,

that is the church.

The church is the body of Christ

and says the story of Pentecost,

we are filled with the Holy Spirit like Jesus.

We read that ‘tongues of fire … came to rest on each of them.’

If you can’t tell the story of Jesus

without the Holy Spirit,

you can’t also tell the story of the church,

without the Holy Spirit.

What this means is Pentecost,

The birthday of the church,

does not leave Jesus behind,

for the Spirit is the go-between,

the bridge, the mediator,

the means of our participation

between Christ and the church.

The life of the church

is taken up into the life of Christ.

His life is now our life,

His story our story,

through the same Spirit resting on him and us.

The outpouring of the Spirit

upon the church

is to find our lives forever intertwined

with the risen life of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit comes rushing into lives,

setting us aflame,

with the newness that Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension

have created.

 

We might ask what is different about the work of the Spirit here

to the work of the Spirit that empowered the prophets,

judges and kings in the Old Testament story of Israel.

It is the certainly the same Spirit.

The Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation

is the same Spirit that hovers over Jesus at baptism

and hovers over the church at Pentecost.

The difference about the work of the Spirit is

found in the words of the prophet Joel that Peter to the crowd.

I want to highlight three in particular.

 

First, is the reference to ‘in the last days.’

This is the last days of the old world,

a new world is breaking in.

A new world made through cross and resurrection

and the sign of that new world is the gift of the Holy Spirit

as God promised through the prophet Joel.

The gospel always announces the end of the world

and the beginning of the new world.

And if the new world begun in Jesus,

Its population begins now to grow

as the Spirit descends

with wind and fire.

As the church we live between the worlds,

We are an outpost of the new world,

We are a colony of Christ,

on whom the Spirit comes to rest.

 

The second words are the reference to ‘all people’ or literally ‘all flesh.’

Where the Spirit worked in the past it was on particular individuals,

but Joel prophesied and Peter says today it is fulfilled,

that the Spirit is poured out on all people,

all flesh.

Pentecost is the day the Spirit goes all democratic.

All people, even those who previously voiceless

and hopeless

will be enabled to speak up and speak out God’s name.[iii]

No one will get left out.

The evidence of the Spirit in the church is its diversity.

Where else would you find old and young,

women and men,

black and white, poor and rich,

freely gathering?

And its not just that there is diversity,

there is also communion, community and communicating.

The Spirit makes us a body.

Our differences are not eradicated,

but we are made one people

through baptism.

In the words of one of my theological teachers, Colin Gunton:

‘the Spirit liberates us by bringing us into community:

by enabling us to be with and for the brother and sisters

whom we do not ourselves choose.’ [iv]

In God’s new creation,

where the Spirit rests

is not determined by race, age, gender, class,

but by the grace of God.

To embrace Pentecost,

to receive the Spirit,

is to learn what the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

calls the dignity of difference[v]

or what Stanley Hauerwas calls ‘God’s new language.’[vi]

Back to the story:

when the Spirit falls upon the believers,

they begin to speak in other tongues,

and it is this that draws a crowd.

Those who had come to Jerusalem from across the world

for the Jewish feast of Pentecost,

suddenly hear the believers (mostly from Galilee)

speaking in the dialects of their homelands.

Some suggest that this incident is the reversal of Babel.

The story of Babel in Genesis 11,

sees God scatter the Babel people, with their one language,

and their attempt to be God-like

and so confuse them,

leading not to humility but to division, to separateness.

Rather than a reversal of Babel,

Pentecost is a parody,[vii]

for the Spirit does not make everyone speak one language,

but where following Babel there was confusion,

here at Pentecost there is understanding.

God’s new language of the Spirit

is the gift of being able to listen, hear, understand,

communicate.

The church, where the Spirit rests,

resists all attempts to make us all the same,

instead the church is called to learn

the language of patience, peace and forgiveness

in other words the language of Jesus.

 

The third words are the reference to calling on the ‘name of the Lord’ for

salvation.

For Joel the name of the Lord,

was the name of God, Yahweh.

For Peter and the believers,

the name of the Lord is not only God,

but also Jesus.

The meaning of ‘Lord’ is expanded

to include Jesus.

Peter calls the crowd

‘to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’ (Act 2.38)

And in a latter sermon,

Filled with the Holy Spirit, he says

‘salvation is found in no one else’ (Acts 4.12).

In 1 Corinthians Paul says that no one can say

‘Jesus is Lord’ with except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12.3).

The pouring out of the Spirit is salvific.

Those on whom the Spirit rests

recognise the Lordship of Jesus.

And to recognise the Lordship of Jesus

is witness to this truth,

to be a ‘living narrative of the gospel.’[viii]

Peter’s sermon proclaims Christ.

The gift of the Spirit is the gift of becoming a witness,

in other words, involved in mission.[ix]

The difference the Spirit makes is that

the Spirit comes to

            enliven

            encourage

     and enflame

the church into active witness.

The gift of the Spirit is not an end in itself,

for the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit

and turns the church into a missionary people.

The work of the Spirit

is always the means of enabling

the world to believe in Jesus as Lord.

The work of the Spirit

is to fire the church with passion and power,

courage and compassion

and then blow it into the path of the world,

and its winners and losers,

helpless and hopeless, lost and alone,

hurt and ignored, broken and poor.                                  

 

[i] I’m drawing here on Eugene Rogers Jr., After the Spirit.

[ii] Greogry of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration cited in Rogers, After the Spirit, p.56.

[iii] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Holy Spirit, p.37.

[iv] Colin Gunton, Theology Through the Theologians, p.201.

[v] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference.

[vi] Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today, p.53.

[vii] Joel Green, “In Our Own Languages” : Pentecost, Babel, and the Shaping of Christian Community in Acts 2.1-13’ in The Word Leaps the Gap, p.213.

[viii] John Colwell, The Rhythm of Doctrine, p.98.

[ix] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p.114.


A Further Reflection on the Baptist Union Statement on Same Sex Marriage

Whatever we make of the Baptist Union's Council statement on same sex relationships last month it will not be the last word. Those Baptists who feel they are unable to affirm any kind of same sex relationship and who see this as a victory for a perceived 'majority', will find that the statement will not be the last word. In fact it may well be that the statement will galvanise those who seek to affirm same sex marriage to be more open in their conviction, and will also lead others, not affirming themselves, to more vocal as well, in arguing that an affirming position be acceptable within the Union. That is, rather than drawing a line in the sand, the statement has ignited a bigger conversation.

Those who affirm same sex marriage amongst BUGB Baptists are more numerous than the conservatives realise; not a majority within the Union, but then I challenge the view that the conservatives hold the majority either. (I'm not convinced that speaking in terms of 'majority' is helpful, because it smacks of democracy rather than communal discernment). I suggest that many sit in the middle between the two extremes, and find themselves pulled by both Bible and culture, but are driven most, by wanting to find pastoral solutions. If I'm right then the view of the Baptist Union, if the Union is to hold together, must be one of reconciled diversity on this issue. The question that must drive the Steering Group and the Council and all those who care about the future of the Union, must be, (as Angus Ritchie's suggests with regard to the Church of England): 

can we find a way of living together in one Body that preserves the integrity of opponents as well as supporters of change?

This is what we have done on the issue of women in ministry, we generally tolerate a diversity. We do not (openly) seek to unChristian those who hold a different view from our own - and this is not always easy.

We need to find ways not to unChristian one another of the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. To quote Ritchie again:

This requires traditionalists to accept they are not the only orthodox Christians, and those of an affirming view to accept that traditionalism is not always based on homophobia.

What is needed are those on both sides to say, in view of the tie that binds us, can we for the sake of unity and mission, seek to listen to one another, hard and painful though that may be, to see if that tie is strong enough to enable us to continue to walk together. My hope is that the Steering Group might, behind the scenes, seek to make that happen. 

The Council's statement attempted to 'humbly urge' those who affirm same sex marriage not to press ahead, in all reality, this will carry little weight. The seeming imbalance of the 'mutual respect' asked of those churches who have registered or are seeking to register, challenges any moral authority they might otherwise see the statement as having. 

It is my own view that neither those who are against or those who affirm hold the monopoly on truth on this question. In fact much of the arguments for or against I find wanting. As on many other issues, it remains contested, and it remains contested, also amongst those who identify as gay or lesbian. 

This will continue to not be an easy time for the Union, especially those who hold office at a national level. For them we must pray especially. Whilst I don't think they can or will (at least not quickly) retract the statement, I hope that the Steering Group and the Council (when it next meets), will recognise they will have to come back to this issue, that we have not reached a settled place. A more theological conversation is now all the more pressing and the willingness of all sides to participate is essential if we are to avoid the fragmentation of our Union. This is the story of all other church traditions, Baptists are no different.