Saturday, 30 May 2015

Hope in things not seen.

Reflections on Romans 8, Isaiah 6 & John 3


As you read that word ‘hope’ what image builds in your mind?

Say it out loud.

As you hear that word ‘hope’ what feelings well up inside you?

Just sit for a moment with that word ‘hope’: see and feel what it means for you.

Paul wrote to the people in Rome and he reassured them of their faith in the midst of their ambiguous experience of life.  Some had doubts, some experienced persecution, some disagreed about God and their faith, some just worried about how to get by every day, and some worried about their families and their futures.  In this they were not that much different to us.

Paul wanted them to have hope and through the inclusion of his letter to the Romans in the Scriptures we might also then say God wants us to have hope.

Paul wrote:

For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
We wait for it with patience.

Earlier in the service I challenged us all about how we perceive and understand the world.  

Do we see the glory of God in all things? Do we know and experience the fullness of God’s presence in our lives?  Can we see the promised salvation for which we long?

What is our perception of the world? Is it filled with hope?

Paul later wrote to the Corinthians that none of us see clearly: we all see God as through a dark glass or as in a dim mirror.

We do not fully comprehend or experience what God offers but we hope for it.

This is what faith is all about.  The realisation of the distance between life as we experience it and the life God longs for us – in Jesus language it was the coming kingdom.

Yet this coming kingdom of God has not arrived in all its fullness and as people of faith we should hold closely to this truth.

At the beginning of Paul’s letter he reminded the Romans that all people were sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Like Isaiah and his vision any who come into God’s presence realise this.

None of us have a perfect faith.
None of us has a perfect understanding of life and of God.
None of us respond to the needs of each other perfectly.
None of us loves God or others as we should.

But the good news is that although we do not see or experience it in all its fullness God’s will for us is not judgement but new life. 

This is hope: hope not seen.

The story of Isaiah’s vision and the burning coal which represents his release from the power of sin pre-empts the fullness of what God’s intention for the creation and for each one of us is.  In John’s gospel we read “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is hope: hope not seen.

We long for the salvation of the world

We long for a perfect faith.
We long for a perfect understanding of life and of God.
We long for people to respond to each other’s needs perfectly.
We long for a time when all people would love God and others as we should.

In other words:
We long for the peace of God
We long for the coming kingdom

This is hope: hope not seen.

In Romans Paul wrote “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord”

For it is in Jesus our hope is found, it is in Jesus that the past, present and future collide and are made new.  It is he who lived and died and was raised again that transforms and remakes us.

This is such a difficult thing for us who live in this world of enlightened understanding to accept.  We are people who like to think that we are in control, that we know where we are headed and that we can make our destiny.

Yet just as Jesus challenged the lawyer Nicodemus so long ago so Jesus words hurtle through time and space and confront us.

The only way to glimpse God’s kingdom is to be born from above.  It is God alone who shows us what is in store for the creation and for each one of us.  It is God alone who remakes our lives.  It is God alone who came and lived and walked among us as Jesus, who died and yes who rose again, that saves you and I.

Christians, as people of faith tie themselves to hope that they, and that we, believe in but cannot see.   Jesus presence in world means salvation – God saves what God has made.

It is through the Holy Spirit, which works where it will, that we can be drawn into this hope as we receive the gift of faith.

Hope in what we do not see but can only glimpse as God reveals it to us: the kingdom is coming!

We live in a world beset by problems.  We are accustomed to hiding our problems and trials from each other.  We deceive and delude ourselves and each other with the idea that we are in control. Our perception is skewed.

Yet we hope in things not seen.

God made us, God loves us and God is saving us.

Close your eyes, take a moment, dwell on the hope that we have as Christians – a hope in things not seen.

What does this mean for you?

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Day of Pentecost

Today is the day of the Pentecost.  It is the day when we celebrate the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit on the infant church, but not only the infant church that had gathered in Jerusalem but the whole church in all times and places.  Today we celebrate that the Spirit of God is poured out on us.  Or do we? 

Do you have a sense of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life?  Do you have sense of being a charismatic person?  By which I mean do you recognise the gifts of the Spirit in your life that you have been given for the building up of the whole body?  Are we as a congregation listening for the wind of the Spirit blowing through our congregation?  Or are we possibly too staid, too set in our ways, too tied to being proper to be moved by the work of the Spirit, with its rushing wind and tongues of fire?

This morning as we explore together God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the meaning of that day of Pentecost so long ago we will also explore what it means to be filled with the Spirit now.  In exploring these things together I will be focussing us on three aspects of the passages and then bringing them together under the question of the mission of the church.

The first aspect of the passage that is important to reflect on is the meaning of the feast of Pentecost for the Israelites.  The feast of Pentecost, also commonly know as the feast of weeks or of the harvest, took place fifty days after the Passover and was one of the 3 pilgrimage feasts – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.  There can be little doubt that the presence of Jesus followers in Jerusalem was for this feast.  They had come together to worship God.

The feast focussed the Israelites first and foremost on God’s activity in creation.  It was a springtime feast when people brought offerings of their crops before God.  In Leviticus 23:17 we are told that two loaves were elevated and waved before the people to remind them of God’s goodness in giving them all things.  God gave abundantly and the response of the people was to give to God and celebrate together.  In a crude sense they came together to worship God and to party.

But whilst worship and thanksgiving to God were at the centre, the celebration also contained a heart for all people.  In Leviticus 23:22 we hear that when the harvest was to be gathered in people were instructed not to reap the edges of the field.  The edges were to be left for the poor and alien.  How could God’s people celebrate God’s abundant giving when other’s suffered from deprivation?  To do so would have been a denial of God’s abundance, a denial of the covenant!  In the feast we see enacted the two fold commandment love of God and love of neighbour.

It is in this context that God pours out his Spirit on the early church.  In the context of a festival that focussed on God’s abundant giving in this life.  In the context of a festival that focussed people on worship of God and provision for and care of others.

This brings me to the second aspect of the readings for our consideration, the way in which the Spirit is poured out.  The Spirit manifests itself in a wind and in divided tongues of fire which come upon the disciples who were gathered together.  It is a miraculous sight and sound display of God’s power and presence.  We do not know how many followers of Jesus were there but we get a sense that it was quite a crowd for it drew the attention of others.

The Spirit that is poured out is the Spirit promised by Christ in John 14.  It is the Spirit of truth that cannot be received by the world because it opposes God.  It is the Spirit sent to bring comfort and to bring peace.  It is the Spirit of Christ sent to be an Advocate to teach and remind the disciples of Jesus and the good news for all humankind.

The miracle that takes place after the Spirit is received is often referred to as speaking in tongues, although one might better describe it as hearing in tongues.  The disciples spoke among themselves but the crowd that had been drawn together heard the disciples speaking in their own languages.  The gift of tongues in this instance is focussed on those who our outside.  It is gift that allows the listeners to hear what was being said in their own language.  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia and so and so forth!

The gift is given not so that the disciples can understand one another.  It is not given so that Jesus followers might simply get a spiritual rush or high.  It is not given so that those who were gathered could be confirmed in their faith as the saved ones as opposed to those outside.  The gift is given so that others might hear the proclamation.  What were the followers sharing?  The disciples were speaking about God’s great deeds of power and God gives the crowd who had gathered the opportunity to hear this in their own language.  I wonder when it was that someone who was not a Christian last overheard you discussing the great deeds of God.

The pouring out of the Spirit fulfilled Jesus promise to send a helper, a comforter and a guide to Jesus followers.  But more than that in the manifestation of the Spirit others were drawn to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and through the power of God they were empowered to hear the message.

This brings me to the third aspect that I would like us to consider this morning which is what Peter had to say.  Peter draws from the prophecy of Joel which spoke of God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh.  ‘Your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit.’

Young and old, male and female, slave and free.  All shall receive God’s Spirit.  The people of God gathered together to be God’s people with one another and God working in their midst by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit is given to help people remember God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  It is given to comfort and guide them.  This is the promise of God.  If we were to read on we would hear that Peter goes on to speak of Jesus and what he has done.  He speaks of the mystery of the faith Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again.  He speaks of the grace and mercy of God established through Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  Peter calls people to repent and to be baptised.

The Spirit is poured out to inaugurate and establish the body of Christ as a representative beginning of the new creation.  It is poured out to establish a community of faith, in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  It is poured out for the sake of the gospel message.  Peter proclaims the Spirit’s coming on all flesh and the coming together of people under the gracious sovereignty of Christ.

Today these three aspects Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit, and the establishment of the church are tied together to give to us a sense of who we are and what we are called to be as the Spirit is poured out on us.

Firstly we are called to be a worshipping people.  The Spirit is not poured out on individuals so that they can be a Christian wandering aimlessly out there disconnected from God and the people of God.  When we come together we embody what we are, we become the body of Christ.  Being a Christian is not simply a moral lifestyle choice, being a Christian involves worshipping God, celebrating with God’s people and giving thanks and praise to God for his abundant grace.  This is not done so that we can be saved but so that we might remember and so that the world might know of God’s love.

Second, we are called to be a generous people.  We bring our free will offering to God and we leave the edges of our harvest for the poor.  As Christians ours is not to judge the poor and alienated for their predicament, ours is to declare God’s generosity to us through our generosity to others.  It is so easy to bury our heads in the sand of our own lives and forget that there are those in great need around us.  Since I have been here in I have learned of the need for affordable housing in the area, I have learned of the need of those who live in community housing around us.  We do not have to run next door to the next suburb to find the needy, but we should be challenged to see the great need that is out there.  Not just next door, but in the wider community of this world in which we live.  If we celebrate together without consideration for those who do not have enough to even survive, let alone celebrate, have we really understood the call to be the people of God?  God has bee so generous to us let us celebrate God’s generosity through our own.

Third, we are called to be a Spirit filled people.  I have said before today that I do not believe I have so called miraculous gifts of the Spirit like tongues or healing.  But this does not mean that you or I are any less Spirit filled.  We are charismatic because God has given to us gifts of the Spirit so that we might be reminded about Jesus Christ and his love for us and so that we might share the good news with others.

Fourth, we are called to be the people of God together.  Young and old, slave and free, male and female and might I suggest of all races and languages.  We live in difficult times in this area.  The church has already been rent asunder by denominational loyalties.  The church is becoming more segregated into age groups and idiosyncratic worship styles.  Far too often I hear of another Church where there is a traditional service at 8 a.m. for the oldies, a family service at 10 and a youth service in the evening at 7.  The body is broken - the dreams and the visions aren’t shared but held closely and jealously almost against one another.  As people of the Spirit we need to open our hearts and minds to the unity of the body given to us in Christ Jesus.  At Synod during the Norman and Mary Miller lecture it was stated that Christians often mistake cliques for community.  We need to ask difficult questions about our own traditions and expectations as a congregation, myself included.  We need to continually be challenged to make space for others to belong in our midst and nurture them in the faith.

Fifth, we are called to be evangelists proclaiming the good news.  On that day of Pentecost so long ago of the crowd that had gathered some three thousand were baptised.  When did you last share the faith with someone who does not believe?  When did you last speak with one another of the great deeds of power done by our God?  When did you last bring another person into the family of God?  When did you examine what God is calling you to be as you respond in thanks and praise?  It is well and truly past the time when we should have realised that this country in which we live is not a Christian nation.  We have never had a state religion.  Less than 1 in ten attend a Christian church regularly.  The scope for evangelism is huge.  We have good news to share.  It is not the minister’s job.   It is all of our jobs as people to whom the Spirit has spoken. 

Today is the day of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit was poured out so that we might be reminded of the good news of Jesus Christ.  The Spirit continues to guide and inspire the people God.  Are we ready to respond?  Are we willing to listen to the dreams and visions?  Are we willing to speak to one another and to the world of God’s grace?  Are we ready for the unexpected and the exciting things which God might do in our midst?

After a few moments of silence I am going to give you the opportunity to share the work of the Spirit and of God’s great deeds with the person beside.  Share what you think God may be calling you or us as a church to do?  If you are not sure where God is leading you tell the other person and ask that whoever it is that you are speaking to, to pray for you this week as you seek to understand God’s will for your life.  Let us to take a few moments to think about what you might say to one another and then we will share.