Archive for May, 2014

Where is God?

A large part of the task the writers of the New Testament set themselves is to convince us that there is no simple answer to that question
And yet, in the beginning, it all seems to simple

In the Book of Genesis, Adam walks in the garden with God
Jacob sets up an altar on the sport where he believes he wrestled with God

In the book of Exodus, Moses speaks to God in the burning bush
the glory of the Lord settles on Mount Sinai when God gives Moses the Law
The glory of the Lord fills Solomon’s temple at the time of its dedication

You read of these events and you think, at that time, people could point their fingers and say, ‘there is God’
But the glory of God that filled the temple is not God himself
The glory of God is a vision of God, a revelation of God, but it is not what philosophers would have called the essence of God

God himself came in human form in the person of Jesus
Yet few people looking Jesus thought they saw God

So where do we find God?
The answer the Bible gives us to that question is very complicated
It’s much easier to say where you can’t find God

As Paul tells the Athenians:
God does not live in shrines made with human hands: he doesn’t live in a statue, or a pillar, or a special box, or a cupboard in a special room
God made the world and everything in it: he’s not the god of this mountain, or that stream, or this city, or this country
God is not served by human hands: he doesn’t need anything from us, and he isn’t controlled by human actions: we can’t make him do what we want by offering sacrifices

You could hear this and think there’s no way to begin a relationship with this God
You simply can’t find him: there’s no way to work out where he is
No meaningful way to respond to him, or make him respond to you

But what the Bible says is, we enter God’s presence, and God becomes present to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit
As Paul says,
he is not far from each one of us
And he quotes a few words from an ancient Greek poet, to convince the Athenians who are listening to him that God has been living among them and speaking to them all along: In him we live and move and have our being

God lives in us, and we have our being in God
Or as Jesus puts it in John’s gospel,
I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you
And the Spirit abides in us, and with us, forever

The Spirit abides in us
‘Abide’ is a special word – just as dwell is a special word
In Scotland, when I was growing up, people would still ask each other, ‘Where do you bide?’

Last week at St George’s I said ‘dwelling’ was a way of thinking:
usually a negative way of thinking
to ‘dwell’ on something, usually means to spend too much time brooding over it
To dwell on something changes you – changes you for the worse, if you dwell on the wrong things
But to dwell with God in prayer, through the Spirit, is something that changes you fundamentally for the better

This week, we think about ‘abiding’
Again as a habitual way of thinking that fundamentally alters our experience of life and existence; I’m talking about faith

To have faith, or to be faithful, means not just to believe that God exists, or that certain things about God are true
To have faith is to abide in God, through the Spirit

The dictionary definitions of abiding actually say a lot about faith. It has three meanings:

The first meaning of abide is, to stay or live somewhere: ‘where do you bide?’
For Christians, Christ is where we live: the body of Christ, here, in the Church, through the Spirit

The second meaning of abide is, to accept or bear something
Usually expressed in the negative:
I can’t abide so-and-so; I can’t abide gossip
For Christians, abiding means bearing with God: remaining faithful when our faith is challenged by things that are hard to bear or hard to accept

The third meaning of abide is, to remain or continue
That is the oldest and most biblical sense of the word

Depending on which version of the Bible you read, there are several Hebrew words that could be translated as abide

But the one I want to focus on is qavah: A word which is usually translated as wait
Just a few examples:

Psa 25 You are the God of my salvation: for you I wait all day long
Psa 37.9 Those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land
Psa 130.5 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits; and in his Word I hope

The Book of Isaiah is full of this language too
The best-known passage is this one:

Isaiah 40:31Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I could give other examples from other books
The point is, what is this ‘waiting’ like?
Surely the fact we are waiting means God is not here?

That is the paradox of the gospel
As we wait for God, we know we are already abiding in God
The God we are waiting for is already here with us, because he has promised to be with us
Our salvation is an accomplished fact, because it is God who has promised to save us
So for us who believe, to wait for God is to
renew our strength, as the psalm says

We don’t wait as lonely strangers: we wait with each other, as the church

We don’t wait in the absence of God: we wait in the presence of the Spirit

We don’t wait in a state of despair: we wait in joyful expectation: I wait for the Lord; my soul waits; and in his Word I hope


1 Peter 2.4-9; John 14.8-14

You probably heard this morning’s gospel reading, from John 14, and thought, ‘where’s the rest of it?’
We’ve left out the best bit: – In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places

You often hear that at funerals, usually as: In my Father’s house there are many mansions
In the old translation, it’s a very materialistic expression of reassurance
As if dying is a bit like winning the lottery: you’ll swap your semi for a stately pile

I don’t want to speculate about how many bedrooms and bathrooms we can hope to enjoy in heaven
I want to talk about the gospel’s promise of a dwelling place with God
Not far off, but here and now

We’ve been talking about how the apostles metaphorically built their church
The first thing to remember is, there were no church buildings until Constantine
Who became the first Christian emperor, in the fourth century

The Christians continue to believe in the great Jewish paradox: that their God is one who is everywhere
Yet who chooses to be specially present in a certain place, among one people
The Jerusalem temple is not a Christian temple: and by the time the gospels are written, it’s gone

The Book of Acts depicts the life of the early church community in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the Temple
Peter’s letter represents the church as a spiritual house of living stones
Embodied in the fellowship: meeting in each other’s homes

So John’s gospel doesn’t talk about church buildings: it talks about dwelling
Dwelling with each other; dwelling with God; dwelling in Christ,
Dwelling in Christ, as Jesus tells us the Father dwells in him

This will have to be quite a philosophical discussion
But as Christians we are very philosophical people
It’s a discussion of how early Christian writers used old familiar words to express a new sense of belonging to God and each other

A very important name in twentieth century philosophy is Martin Heidegger
Heidegger was German: you probably guessed that
He is remembered mainly for having invented a branch of philosophy called phenomenology

Phenomenology doesn’t study physical things; it thinks about how we experience them:
it studies the structures of experience and consciousness
Frankly, I don’t understand very much of it
But now and again a shaft of light strikes through, and illuminates something in Scripture that seemed difficult

Heidegger is one of the few philosophers known to architects
Because he wrote an essay which all trainee architects apparently have to read
Its title is, ‘Building, dwelling, thinking’

Heidegger turned away from thinking of buildings simply as things
And thought instead about how we actually experience buildings, and how they shape us

Building, dwelling, thinking: three significant words
Heidegger says basically, dwelling is the combination of building and thinking, the physical and the mental; as Christians, I think we have something distinctive to say about this

Take the first word: building
Building is much more than creating a roof to put over our heads

Think about the people who built this church: What were they setting out to do?
They weren’t just laying bricks: they were making a statement of faith
This building is a sign of the presence of a community of believers in Christ
It has also played it part in building up that community

The second word of Heidegger’s title is ‘dwelling’
Dwelling is a very biblical word, and a very theological concept
We’ll come back to that one

The third word of Heidegger’s title is thinking
How we think of buildings embodies our sense of place, and our sense of belonging
The history of Israel from the time of Abraham onwards is a prolonged train of thought about a particular place: the Promised Land

Let’s go back to our second word: dwelling
Thinking and dwelling go together
Dwelling is a word we often apply to a particular way of thinking
Negatively, we say it’s wrong to dwell on certain things
But positively, dwelling is a word the Bible uses to describe the presence of God

To remind you of a few examples:
God’s promise to the people when he brings them out of Egypt is, ‘I will dwell among the people of Israel and be their God’
In Deuteronomy he commands the people to bring their offerings to the place he will ‘choose as a dwelling place for his name’

In the prologue to John’s gospel, the writer marvels that God himself dwelt with us:
literally, tabernacled with us
With these words, John reminds us that the God of Moses dwelt in a tent with his people in the wilderness
He draws a parallel with how Jesus dwelt on earth in a tent of flesh, encamped with his disciples
God now dwells with us in the church through the presence of the Holy Spirit
He dwells with us, and invites us to dwell with him

How do we dwell with God? We dwell with God in prayer
That’s why Paul tells the Thessalonians to pray constantly:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Thess 5.16-18)

Constant prayer is a way of being: a way of dwelling in Christ
It doesn’t necessarily use words: it simply means, being constantly mindful of God

In our passage this morning, Jesus explicitly links the idea of God’s dwelling with us, to God’s hearing our prayers
He promises his disciples, If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Our practical way of asking for things in Jesus’ name is by ending our prayers with a tag line: something like, All our prayers we offer in the name of Jesus Christ
A bit like licking the flap of the envelope, and sticking it down

But I think what the passage really means is that God will answer the prayers we offer when we dwell with Jesus
When when we live in the awareness of his presence, and seek to unite our will with God’s
Particularly when we pray as a church: the church being the new dwelling place he has chosen for his name

Building, dwelling, thinking – These words are not just the title of an essay: they are three key themes of the New Testament
Building for us means building God’s temple by building each other up; building the sense of community in Christ
Dwelling for us means being aware of the presence of Christ with us when we gather as a church, and when we pray
Thinking for us is prayer, reflection, discovering in our hearts the assurance of salvation experienced through the sense of belonging to Christ, individually and as a community

So when Jesus tells the disciples he will prepare a place for them, maybe that isn’t a place in heaven we will see when we die
Certainly, it’s a place in the presence of God
But perhaps it’s a house of living stones
A place glorified and made holy by the indwelling Spirit of God
A house of prayer for all the nations
A place that joins heaven and earth in present experience
A place where we find ourselves in God
Maybe we’ve already seen it; maybe it’s here

Ezekiel 34.10-15; Acts 2.42-47; John 10.1-10

Why is the church shrinking?
Sociologists and even some people within the church say it’s because the world has changed
People now are more interested in developing their individual spirituality than in joining a formal organisation
The new model of faith, they say, is believing without belonging

I can’t put my hand on my heart and say none of us had anything to do with this shift
We all belong to Protestant traditions that over-emphasised the individual experience of religious conversion
You come to faith, and then, when you know it’s right for you, you join the church

The problem with this model is that it makes Christianity a lifestyle choice
If you didn’t grow up in a churchgoing family, it’s a choice you’re never likely to make

I read the books written by the people who say you can believe without belonging, and I think they’re wrong
A faith believed in by one person isn’t a faith: it’s just an opinion

Real faith always has a social dimension: it’s always rooted in a community
Real faith isn’t based on the pride of individual discovery
Real faith is based on the humbleness you need to be one of the flock

Real faith isn’t a private matter between you and God; real faith needs other people

Real faith includes a willingness to be vulnerable: to talk about your faith with others, and to hear what they think about what you believe
It includes a willingness to be accountable: to listen to what other people think of your conduct and way of life as a Christian
It includes the willingness to serve other people
it includes the desire to build other people up in their faith

For all these reasons, I don’t think you can believe without belonging
If you don’t belong, you don’t really believe
You certainly won’t grow in faith, if you decide to go it alone

The New Testament shows us clearly that Christians saw from the beginning that believing and belonging went together
Luke tells us in the Book of Acts how new converts ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’
He tells us, ‘ All who believed were together’
He tells us, ‘ they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts’

Of course, the fact they spent so much time with other believers meant they spent less time with other people
With the people of their former lives: people who didn’t belong, because they didn’t believe

That’s the potential problem of such closeness
You can overdo your separation from the world
You can create a spirit of isolationism that isn’t part of the gospel
The church community can turn in on itself; and I think too often that’s what it has done

A closed community forgets its responsibility to others who haven’t yet come to faith
A closed community is a place where leaders can exert too much power
Where doctrines are distorted and abuse of weaker members goes unchecked and unreported

The sheepfold in today’s reading represents membership of God’s chosen people: in gospel terms the church, the community of the saved
– John sees the vulnerability of such a community to thieves and bandits
– to the deceptions of those who make self-righteous and self-interested claims to leadership

Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd has a lot to teach us
We can begin by thinking about what Jesus means by claiming this title
Then we should think about whether the church itself is a good or bad shepherd

The first claim Jesus makes as the Good Shepherd is that he is the one authorised and appointed to lead the sheep

The evidence for this claim is simply that he has a clear and distinctive voice
A voice recognised not just by those closest to him, but a voice that is also heard by the lost
Jesus is heard simply because he speaks the Word of God, which is the word of love for the lost
A word he is singularly well-qualified to speak, because of course he is the incarnate Word of God

So the church also has to speak with a clear and distinctive voice
Not a voice of authority, but a voice of compassion for the sheep without a shepherd
Not the word it thinks the world wants to hear, but the word of the gospel
A voice of love for the lost; a voice that points the way to the Father, through the love of Christ

Jesus is acutely aware of the responsibility he places on those who follow him
Which is why his final commandment to his followers is that they should love one another

People who love another won’t act like thieves and bandits
Looking for easy pickings
Seeking to manipulate and exploit others
Laying hold of positions within the church for the sake of prestige and authority

Then, Jesus says that he is the gate of the sheepfold
He doesn’t represent captivity: he represents freedom:
‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’

I think we can see the church as the gatekeeper:
Not deciding who is fit to enter, not locking people in, but offering to show them the way to Christ
Through our prayers, our teaching, our offer of fellowship, through our worship, through participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion

I’m tempted to say that the church shouldn’t pretend to be a shepherd
It’s too dangerous a claim
It’s too easy to be a bad shepherd

But we shouldn’t evade the responsibility of shepherding
Shepherding is pastoral care
No one thinks the church should give up pastoral care

Instead we should turn again to the example of Jesus
Jesus is not just our model of leadership: Jesus is our model of humility

Because not only is Jesus the Good Shepherd
We know from other passages of the Bible that Jesus is the Lamb of God:
He is one of the flock, who stands for the whole flock, who yields himself up for the flock

Jesus gives us something to believe in; he also gives us reasons to belong
He commands us to love one another, to watch over one another, never to let our friend and neighbour slip away
One day, he will hold us accountable, not for the depth of the spirituality we have cultivated in ourselves, but simply for the love we have shown one another in his name

I was speaking to someone who had lost both her parents within a short space of time, while she was still relatively young
Her mother went first
When her father died a year later, she said it felt like going up to the flight deck on a 747, and finding the pilots had disappeared: there ws no one flying the plane
For the first time in her life, she felt, all the responsibility for her life was hers
There was no one there any longer to tell her what to do

I wonder if the disciples felt a bit like that
Jesus was their only guide to the new life they had entered into
The early followers of Jesus didn’t belong to a church
There was no church
There were no denominations
There were no synods or districts or circuits or assemblies
There was only Jesus
Then suddenly, there was no Jesus

And yet, within a few decades of Jesus’ death, within the lifetimes of his closest followers, the community of the church and the distinctive Christian way of living and believing had formed and taken root

How did Jesus’ followers make this transition?
What do you do as a disciple when Jesus is gone?

The disciples of Jesus were simply followers of Jesus
They walked with Jesus; they saw what he did; they listened to what he said
The most authoritative dictionary of the Bible defines the disciples as, ‘The people in the NT who stood in a special and intensive relationship with the earthly Jesus’
When there is no longer an earthly Jesus, there are no longer any disciples

So the disciples had to undergo a painful transition, to a new role, with a new title
Which is what the resurrection appearances of Jesus are really about

Of course, they’re also about creating a body of witnesses who can testify convincingly to the truth of the resurrection
But mainly, their purpose is to steer the disciples into an awareness of their new role and identity, no longer as disciples, but as apostles
– As representatives on earth of the risen and ascended Jesus
– As teachers of the faith
– As encouragers of local churches

How did they set about it?
– They did it on the basis of the models Jesus provided in his earthly ministry
– They did it on the basis of the models he provided in his post-resurrection appearances
– They did it on the basis of models provided in Scripture

The model Jesus provided in his earthly ministry was one of going from town to town
Preaching in the synagogue
But if no one would listen there, which they often didn’t, going out into the streets and the market place to talk to people the elders of the synagogue didn’t have much time for
This is what Jesus’ followers went on doing

Of course, Jesus performed miracles; and so did some of his followers
But the Book of Acts talks much more of their preaching and teaching

The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus shows how much the early church learned from the post-resurrection appearances
Jesus listens, doesn’t criticise, doesn’t point out at first how mistaken they are
But then he teaches them, with such authority, such deep knowledge of the Scriptures and such passion for the gospel, that their hearts ‘burn within them’

He stays with them, and breaks bread with them, in a way everyone would later think of as a commemoration of the Last Supper and his own death
And then, in the very moment they recognise him, he vanishes
Leaving the disciples to rush back to Jerusalem to tell their story and testify to the truth of the resurrection

The disciples became apostles because they witnessed the resurrection appearances
That’s what an apostle is: someone who had seen the risen Christ
But more than this, they were recognised as apostles because they accepted Jesus’ commandment to preach the gospel to others in his name

‘Blessed are those who believe and have not seen’
We cannot be apostles because we have not seen the risen Christ
But we regard ourselves as perhaps more blessed, because he has called us from such a distance

Peter’s first letter was written to the early church but it speaks very clearly to our own situation
He seems to be describing a balancing act: we’re in a very ambiguous situation
‘Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile’
– God has blessed us by leading us into a place of exile: by taking us out of the familiar surroundings which other people find so comfortable

‘You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from our ancestors’
– God has blessed us by helping us see through the habits and assumptions which other people find a sufficient basis for the way they live and act

We were ransomed, bought out, redeemed, by the ‘precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish’:
– God has blessed us showing us in Christ the model for our own self-sacrifice
– God has given us the faith and hope to accept anything we endure in his name

God in other words has blessed us with a special understanding
– An understanding not widely shared with others in the world
– But an understanding shared with the other people he has called to himself

He has united us with those other people
– United us with those sitting next to us now; united us with others much further away

Christ’s commandment to us now, says Peter, is that we should ‘love one another deeply from the heart’
– Because God our deep love of one another is the mirror of our reverent fear of God
– Our deep sense of belonging to one another is the other side of the deep sense of exile we feel at being separated from the world, and separated from God during our time here

The community Christ created in his name is the image of God in this present world
Not a perfect image: but a community united in the faith that the Holy Spirit will reveal through us the love of God given in Jesus Christ

We pray that God will use us, to offer to those who come here a fore-taste of the deep love and unity with him we hope to experience beyond this world
– ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good: happy are those who take refuge in him’

At the Lord’s table today, we taste and see that the Lord is good
In his name, and following his example, we call others to join us
– To experience the glory of God, by giving him glory
– To experience the love of God, by offering our love
– To experience his salvation, by offering our selves