Sunday, 15 May 2016

on pentecost

with guest blogger Irenaeus who was one of the Church's first theologians, and writes here of the Holy Spirit being to the Church what water is to a baker making bread. He also alludes to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the Lord told his disciples ‘to go and teach all nations’ and to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, he conferred on them the power of giving people new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in them and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in people who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that people of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the firstfruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

‘The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God’ came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for us who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up our wounds and left for our care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted us to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, from Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, compiled Robert Atwell, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999

Sunday, 8 May 2016

on freedom from forces that hold us captive

Today's reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles (16.16-34), is an extraordinary tale which has much to tell us about the role of Christians in freeing society from those things that can hold us captive, and of the power of a confident relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It all begins with a young woman, who is already oppressed through slavery and is then being further exploited by her owners for financial gain as a fortune-teller. The words the scripture uses is that she possesses a 'spirit of divination'. In the Bible, being possessed by a spirit or a demon is code for one of any number of conditions that were not well understood in those days, most usually referring to some kind of mental illness.

This slave-girl has been following the apostles for several days loudly proclaiming that they are servants of God who teach the way to spiritual salvation. Which is true. So here's the thing: this girl, in spite of her condition and circumstances, speaks with real insight. She maybe someone who is psychologically unwell, but she is well able to discern what Paul and Silas are all about.

Poor mental health, and the unpredictable behaviour that can arise from it, is very much better understood today — yet not necessarily much better accepted socially than it was in first century Europe, where this episode takes place. Society still has much to learn about how to empathise with and support those who are under psychological pressure of one sort or another. I know this both from my own experience of depression, as well as from my pastoral encounters with others. Sometimes frank and blunt talk is coupled with remarkable insight into other people. Why wouldn't it? Those who have had to, out of necessity, navigate their way around their own mental terrain might sometimes be well placed to recognise what is driving the actions and behaviour of others around them.

I can well see that a spirit of divination in this slave-girl could be precisely the sort of insight arising from her own mental state. As someone once said, in adaptation of a Leonard Cohen lyric, blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.

Which isn't to say that people who are a bit disturbed can't also sometimes be quite annoying. I remember coming home after being away from the parish for precisely a day and a half, to find that the same person had left seven telephone messages on my voicemail, written me two emails and had pushed a note through the Vicarage letterbox. It's hard not to feel slightly cramped by such persistence. St Paul clearly feels this, and after several days of being followed around by this girl shouting at them, he has had enough. In some way he is also able to recognise whatever it is that she is captive to and calls it out of her.

This echoes what Jesus did a number of times in the gospels. As Brian McLaren has written:

Thousands come to Jesus with various afflictions and internal oppressions, and Jesus draws into the light whatever oppressive, destructive, disease-causing, imbalancing, paralyzing, or convulsing forces hide within them so they can be freed and restored to balance and health . . . The demonic gives us a language to personify and identify these covert forces that enter groups of us, using us, becoming a guiding part of us, possessing and influencing and even controlling us.

What is is that holds us captive and oppresses us in today's society? The addiction of consumerism? A culture of individualism? Globalisation and power over governments by multi-national corporations? Managerialism and the increasingly excessive burdens and policies of the workplace? The judgementalism of family and friends?

In the slave-girl's case she is controlled by those who own her and exploit her condition for financial gain. Somehow Paul is able to liberate her from this, at least in part, which really annoys her owners.

Today we may be appalled by the idea that a person could be in the possession of another, a commodity to be bought and sold. But slavery is never very far from our presence in 21st century Europe. Not only do many in this congregation have forebears who were enslaved, but it is a practice that continues around the world as we speak. There are domestic slaves living in households in London today, forbidden to leave the house and with their passports confiscated. Women and girls are trafficked to this country to be sex workers. Children abroad are forced into service in the supply chain for products that make their way onto our supermarket shelves and high street stores.

Ten years ago, a good friend of this church, Steve Chalke, set up Stop the Traffik. Today the campaign he founded is an international coalition of activists who remain determined to 'disrupt and prevent human trafficking, its harm and abuse to human beings.' On their website you can read more about the way that people are 'tricked into situations where they are bought, sold, abused and exploited for financial gain.'

Christians believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, that we are all made in the image of God: that there is something of the divine within each of us. And of course you don't have to be Christian to simply believe in the dignity of all humanity.

Just as St Paul does in 1st century Philippi, and as Jesus does before him in Palestine, it remains our calling and our duty to continue to help liberate people from whatever is holding them captive, and from whoever may be exploiting and abusing them.

And that is a risky business. Standing up to vested interests takes courage, as those with power and wealth can bring a great deal of pressure to bear in thwarting those who threaten their activities. The commandment of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves compels us to put our necks on the line for others.

The owners of the slave-girl trump up some false charges against Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. But are they down-hearted? No, they are not! The apostles, like many persecuted Christians in the intervening two millennia, understand the difference between physical freedom and spiritual freedom.

In one of his letters St Paul wrote:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.35,37-39 (NRSV)

Paul and Silas, rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, take this spiritual truth to heart. There they are in prison singing hymns and praying in front of the rest of the, presumably bemused, prisoners.

The earthquake that shakes the prison, opening the doors and loosening the prisoners' chains, is probably metaphorical rather than literal. The point being made here is that even imprisonment cannot contain the spiritual freedom that Jesus' followers enjoy.

The jailer who observes these events is so disturbed by witnessing this spectacle that he wants in on it. And why wouldn't he? To see these Christians so centred and anchored by a faith that even serious tribulation cannot shake them. This is Jesus' gift to us, the unity with God that we enjoy through him.

But this is not some thing we keep to ourselves, for ourselves. Like all spiritual gifts it is given to us so that we can be a blessing to others — a blessing to those around us who are held captive, imprisoned, oppressed, exploited, abused, abandoned, hungry, diseased, disturbed; all who yearn for the freedom and liberation that God desires for all his children.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

on being blessed

God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations — Psalm 67.1-2

The word 'bless' has achieved a bit of a revival in common parlance in recent years. Sometimes it's used as a way to respond to a comment that is touching or sweet. 'Ah bless.' Amongst some young people, 'Bless' has become a way of saying goodbye, which is a habit I wouldn't mind catching on. It also gets used, particularly on social media, as a kind of affectionate put down, as in 'My husband has gone to the shed to play with his power tools. Bless.'

Our Psalm today (67) draws on one of the most famous and still widely used blessings, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6.24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (NRSV)

A blessing is 'the authoritative pronouncement of God's favour on people, places, events and objects.'* When we are the recipient of a blessing, we do not become any more blessed than we were already. The priest, or whoever is pronouncing the blessing (and anybody can give a blessing), is simply giving voice to a state that already exists: God's unquenchable love for creation, and in particular humanity. God delights in us, in spite of the mess we sometimes make of our affairs, and of the planet, and continues to bless us. We remain the object of God's favour—and hearing a blessing is a way of reminding us of this.

What, then, changes when we hear a blessing pronounced? Blessing is a currency in the economy of our faith, which is to say that it is used in prayerful transactions: between us and God, and each other. Like the pound in your pocket, a blessing doesn't stay put for long. It gets passed on.

To be reminded of God's favour is something that should always provoke joy within us. If it doesn't then this is something you can pray for, to feel that joy when you are blessed. In turn joy provokes thanksgiving, and fuels our worship and prayers. And when that happens God is blessed, because we are then making God the object of our favour. When we bless God for something, it becomes sacred and holy. So blessing God, and being blessed by God, are at the heart of our relationship with the divine.

Blessings are not simply statements though. For us, they are a prayer that we will continue to be blessed by God. We seek the Lord's blessing for the future as well as recognise it in the present. And Psalm 67 makes clear, that our concern to be blessed by God in future is not just for us. We seek it for everyone. O let the nations rejoice and be glad... Then shall the earth bring forth her increase (v4,6).

In the book of Revelation we see how blessing pours from throne of God; peace and wellbeing for all.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. — Revelation 22.1-2

Blessings are something to be shared. When we give ourselves to others in loving service, we in turn are blessed by that. Lydia in the book of Acts, is quick to understand this. She opens her heart to the good news of Jesus Christ, is baptised, and in response to this great blessing, she offers hospitality to the apostles (Acts 16.11-15). A blessing is something that keeps moving, from God to us, from us to God and from us to one another.

We continue to pray God's blessing on us and for it to be known among all nations, 'then shall the earth bring forth her increase.'

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

*The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship