Saturday, 20 May 2017

Aldersgate Sunday

John 14:15-21
The Promise of the Holy Spirit
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’

In substance Wesley's teachings contained nothing new. All Wesley wished to do was reintroduce what, in his opinion, had been forgotten. His objective was not to overthrow existing dogmas but to `galvanize them into life'. Wesley took the body of existing Anglican teachings as found in the bible, coupled with the liturgical framework, homilies and articles of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and gave new emphasis to certain old teachings which had, in his opinion, been ‘sadly neglected’.

The reformers focused on the process of justification – how we are declared right with God by faith -`Wesley may be said to have focused on the way of sanctification'. He believed that being `born again' was not simply the moment of justification, a sudden experience but rather `the whole process by which the believer becomes transformed from sin to holiness.' Henry Rack explains that for Wesley the true goal of Christian life was `sanctification, holiness, even to the point of perfection'. Although the process of becoming `holy' might have been Wesley's major focus, it does not mean that `sanctification' or `being made holy' took precedence over justification. Wesley saw both processes as being possible only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Wesley arrived at a definition of perfection that was in itself imperfect `a perfection that was blameless, but not faultless'. In 1759 he described Christian perfection as follows:
The loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. This implies that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all thoughts, words and actions are governed by pure love.

Hulley adds that `Perhaps the most characteristic Wesleyan term is`perfect love'. He quotes Wesley as summing up Christian perfection as follows:
... the sum of Christian perfection ... is all comprised in that one word, love. The first branch of it is the love of God; and he that loves God loves his brother also ...

This perfect love, according to Wesley, is a gift from God which `could be received at any moment and not simply before death'. Once this gift had been received it could also be lost `if not sustained by constant vigilance' and even the perfected `depended at every moment, at every stage in salvation on grace and faith'.

The perfection Wesley was calling for required a continual process of growing in grace `both before and after "perfection" had been reached'. Hulley explains that Wesley taught that `Perfection is then seen merely as a point on a continuum, not a final objective reached'. He explains:

Wesley never regarded perfection as a state, a position which a believer reaches or achieves. He saw it as a point in the experience of Christian growth which only took place in those who had faith, it was in that sense a gift of God not a human achievement. God is the agent, he does the sanctifying in response to faith ...

Our Gospel reading on this, Aldersgate Sunday, explains how this love, this faith, this process of being in Christ, being made into the people we are declared to be by faith, can become a present reality in the lives of Christians – it is something that we experience as a meaningful reality in our lives, by the Spirit.
My text this morning is written in John 14:15-17
15‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
In our reading, Philip asks for a theophany – a divine disclosure to man: “Lord, show us the father and we will be satisfied …” – and Jesus repeats the answer that he gave to Thomas because Philip’s request makes the same sort of presupposition as Thomas’ question: it assumed that the Father was other than the Son. Philip could not conceive of the unity of Father and Son which Jesus had spoken of so frequently. Jesus explains by referring to the two dominant themes of the Gospel: his word and his works. Neither of these are done on his own: his words are not spoken on his own authority but with the authenticity of the Father. This is sufficient theophany. His works are also not his own doing, but those of the Father who dwells in the Son. What Philip needs to do is recognise this. Jesus says in verses 10-11: ‘… I am in the Father and the Father is in me …’ and the ultimate proof of this is in Jesus’ works – in what he did.
For Jesus to ‘… go to the Father …’ does not mean a departure; it means staying with him … abiding with him forever. Marsh adds: “The metaphor of ‘departure’ must not be pressed to the point of letting any disciple suppose that there is knowledge of the Father to be had beyond Jesus himself. In the Son the Father has been pleased to manifest himself.”
Jesus had made this point many times: “If you had known me you will have known my Father”; He that has seen me has seen the Father”; “I am in the Father, and the Father in me” and “The Father that dwells in me, he does the works …”
J C Ryle writes: “Sayings like these are full of deep mystery. We have no eyes to see their meaning fully, no line to fathom it, no language to express it, no mind to take it in.” Bishop John V Taylor spoke of Jesus reflecting in a human life the being of God. Norman Pottinger captured the essence of this truth in his book entitled The Human Face of God where he wrote:
“… the Word is made flesh in one of our own kind, our Brother, without over-riding or denying the humanity which is ours, but rather crowning and completing all that is implicit in humanity from the beginning. The divine intention is ‘enmanned’ among us.”
I am also taken with the understanding of Thomas Merton who said that he underwent two conversions – the first to the transcendent, awesome God, with whom communion may be enjoyed through worship and contemplation, the second to the imminent, approachable God, who is present in his world and its people.
Here Jesus reminds us of another two-fold experience: the risen and ascended Jesus of history whose transcendence enables him to be imminent – here with us -in the power of the Holy Spirit as he dwells within us in the world today. Jesus himself said that where two or more are gathered, he is there in the midst and Mother Teresa reminds us of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 25 that we meet Jesus in the needs of the most vulnerable people in the world … and this is especially evident when people respond in faith and continue to do the works of our Lord in the present.
Jesus offered a test based on two things: what he said and what he did. When we read or hear the words attributed to Jesus, they have the ring of truth and – as Barclay rightly observes – when we hear them we cannot help saying: “If only the world would live on these principles, how different it would be!” And of course Jesus’ deeds does cause one to pause and think; “Who is this?” Barclay comments:
“Still the way to Christian belief is not to argue about Jesus but to listen to him and to look at him. If we do that, the sheer personal impact will compel us to believe.”
Think also of the limits of the ministry of Jesus. He never left Palestine. The world was in a mess: in the Roman Empire morality was hardly in existence even compared to today, things were outrageous. And into this world went the disciples of Jesus – and this world was transformed. In the days of his flesh Jesus was limited to Palestine; when he went back to the Father, he was liberated from these limitations and the Spirit could work mightily everywhere. The disciples of Jesus achieved greater things than he.
It is all too easy for us to forget that we are together with Jesus. His Ascension is a wonderful truth, because it reminds us that Jesus left the constraints of this earthly existence and so can be with us all – everywhere freed from the limits of time and space. But more, He is with us now, when we are alone, and especially when we are together in worship and fellowship with others. What binds us to our Lord is not an act of intellectual assent; it is a bond of love. It is because we love Jesus that we willingly accept what he calls us to do, and this requires obedience to our Lord’s teachings. To those who respond in obedience to our Lord’s calling, he offers us another counsellor. Jesus had been the disciple’s counsellor while he was with them, and when he left this earthly realm he gave them the Holy Spirit who would remain with them forever. Marsh writes: “So his departure will not leave them unsupported and unguided as they might have feared. The coming of the Spirit of truth to stay with them will mark them off from the world; for just as the world cannot see Jesus for the Son he really is, so it cannot discern the presence of the Spirit of truth, for the world cannot see him nor know him. But the disciples will know him, for he will be dwelling in them.”
For the disciples, the Holy Spirit was not a replacement for Jesus, it is Jesus, but just in another form. The disciples will see him for – as Marsh explains “… they together will enter upon a life with quite new conditions.”
All this is based on love and obedience. Love is not a sentimental emotion; its expression is always moral and is revealed in obedience. You cannot claim to love someone, if you bring them hardship and heartbreak. Children and young people cannot claim that they love their parents and at the same time cause them grief and anxiety. There are children who claim to love their parents, yet cause them a great deal of anxiety and grief; there are husbands who claim to love their wives and yet they are inconsiderate, irritable, thoughtless and unkind. Real love is not easy – it is shown through obedience to his laws of love.
But we are not left to struggle alone – Jesus gives us another helper – the Greek word used here for the Holy Spirit is parakletos which is very difficult to translate. The Authorised Version renders it Comforter, Barclay, Helper, NRSV, Advocate. Probably the best way to translate it is ‘… someone who is called in …’ but this alone is not enough; what also matters is why the person is called in. In Ancient Greece, people were ‘called in’ to give evidence in a court of law in someone’s favour; an expert called in to give advice in some difficult situation; to give encouragement to a group of soldiers who had lost heart. The parakletos was called in to help in times of trouble or need. This is what the Holy Spirit does for us: “He takes away our inadequacies and enables us to cope with life.” Barclay suggests that Jesus is, in effect, saying is: “I am setting you a hard task, and I am sending you out on a very difficult engagement. But I am going to send you someone, the parakletos, who will guide you as to what to do and enable you to do it.”
There is also another sense: from the prefix para we get the word parallel, and so there is the very real image of someone coming alongside us to help us, to equip us and to enable us. But this is only part of it; Jesus says, that the Holy Spirit will also be within us, becoming part of who we are.
The world cannot recognise the Holy Spirit because we can see only what we are equipped to see. An astronomer can look into the night sky and see much more than the average person; a botanist can look into a hedgerow and see far more than the average person; someone who knows art will see far more in a painting than others. What we see or experience depends on what we bring to the sight or experience. A person who has dismissed God as impossible will never hear His voice deep within their lives when he speaks, and will never receive the Holy Spirit unless we wait, look and prayerfully seek for him to come to us in the depth of our being.
Christian people ought to be remarkably different; there ought to be something special about us, something that marks them out from the rest of the world. And when this happens, it becomes obvious: it was obvious in the lives of Martin Luther, John Wesley, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, but also John Smith of Loughborough or Gareth Jones from Cardiff or Ian MacKenzie from Glasgow – ordinary Christians who make a different for good where they are.
People outside of Christ cannot fathom this. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually.”
This is why it is fruitless to try to convince someone through argument; they have to experience it. When people experience love, they know it; when they experience grace, they know it; when they experience selflessness, they to know it. If we are going to fulfil our calling and thereby come to know what life is really all about, we need to be prayerful people. As J C Ryle states: “He that does much for Christ, and leave his mark in the world, will always prove to be one who prays much.” Those who pray will also be those who are steeped both in the Scriptures (especially the Gospels) so that we can be reminded of what Jesus taught and did and thereby received direction as to what we need to teach and do in His name.
The Holy Spirit is there for all to receive: but it is not automatic – we need to be obedient, we need to be faithful in prayer, we need to search for the truth in our own situations, and we need to ask and then we will be filled and equipped and enabled to live as we ought. Barclay concludes: “The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no person’s heart: He waits to be received. So when we think of the wonderful things which the Holy Spirit can do, surely we will set apart some time amidst the bustle and rush of life to wait in silence for his coming.”
Jesus put it this way: 15‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. Amen

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Jesus, the way to the Father

John 14.1-10 (NRSV)
Jesus the Way to the Father

1‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

I am indebted to Barclay and McPolin for inspiration as I prepared this reflection.

The opening verses of this reading reveal so much about our Lord as he relates to us. Notice how he does not say “Don’t worry ...” but “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus knew the difference. There are some things that get to us deep down at the core of who we are.

The disciples were terrified. Things had not been going well for them, as Jesus had come under greater threat, and he had just finished explaining to them that, in the future, it was going to get worse. There are times in all our lives when we experience similar things, when we are unsure as to what the future holds for us and it seems as though our present difficult situation is only going to get worse. The disciples were especially downcast because they were warned that they were in fact going to fail their Lord – and this disturbed them deeply. We too, especially in times of failure, sink very low. At times like these, we can hear the voice of Jesus telling his disciples (and us): “Do not let your hearts be troubled ...” He goes on to explain how to make this theory become real for us: “Believe in God, believe also in me.” William Barclay comments:

There comes a time when we have to believe where we cannot prove and accept where we cannot understand. ... If in the darkest hour, we believe that somehow there is a purpose in life and that that purpose is love, even the unbearable becomes bearable and even in the darkness there is a glimmer of light.

Jesus is proof that God’s love is so great that he is not willing to hold anything back from us when we turn to him; we know this because he gave us his only Son.

The essence of human existence is knowing if there is any purpose in life at all. If we are merely here as a matter of chance, and all that we have is this life, then we need to find meaning in what we do and experience in the here and now. And if a life is cut short or there is any tragedy, it is devastating. This would all be true if there is no God. But we know that there is a God – one true God – and we also know what God is like because he has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Jesus, we know that God is love; so, the purpose of human existence becomes clear – it is to love and to be loved – or as Jesus put it: “Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

We do not need to philosophise about the existence of God. We do not need to explore the great mystery of trying to find out what God is like – God has been revealed to us in the greatest embodiment of love – Jesus. This is very clear in our reading, where Philip asks Jesus: ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ (verse 9) Isn’t this the truth of the matter? If there is a God and if God loves us and our ultimate destiny is to be with him, then we too can say: “Show us God and we will be satisfied.” John in his first letter writes: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Paul put it this way: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15). The author to the letter to the Hebrews explained: “3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3) Jesus responded to Philip: “I am in the father and the Father is in me.” To Thomas, Jesus replied: ‘7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

William Barclay comments:

... in Jesus we see the picture of God ... in the face of that amazing love, it becomes ... at least possible to accept even what we cannot understand, and in the storms of life to retain a faith that is serene.

The disciples thought that Jesus dying and leaving them was the greatest tragedy, but Jesus explained that he was going, so that he could be with them in an even more special way; he was going to prepare a place for them, and he would return to be with them forever.

Jesus explained that where God is there are many dwelling-places and that he was going to prepare them for his disciples. This is a wonderful truth. Once again we are reminded by the author of all the dangers involved in being fundamentalist and only reading the Bible literally, for to do so would imply that Heaven is a place and that it is just somewhere for us to go to in the future, after death. Barclay explains that the Greek word used here is monai, and while it does refer to an abode, Jesus gives it its true meaning and that is in Heaven there is space for everyone. An earthly house is finite and there is only room for a certain number of people; but in Heaven there is space for everyone for – as Barclay writes – “... heaven is as wide as the heart of God and there is room for all.” The Father’s love and life present in Jesus are so immense that no one need be excluded.

We can take comfort, because we have irrefutable evidence that Jesus tells the truth. He said to his disciples in verse 2: “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” But not only is it true that God loves us, will never leave us and that our destiny is to be with him forever, Jesus also tells us the truth that this life can sometimes be difficult, can include persecution, hatred and even death. This is true for all people, and this is why some see life as so tragic. The difference is that without God, this can lead to despair, but with God’s presence with us now, even these things can be used for good. Barclay writes: “Jesus was not a leader who tried to bribe men with promises of an easy way; he tried to challenge them to greatness.”

And we have been shown the way.

Time and again Jesus had explained everything to his disciples, but they so often didn’t understand. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Moses reminded the Israelites that they must walk in the ways of God. Jesus takes us by the hand and walks with us when we allow his Spirit to guide our lives. The Psalmist in Psalm 86 prays: “Teach me your way so that I can know your truth.” We know that real truth is more than mere intellectual assent, it must be demonstrated by example; Jesus is the only one who could ever complete this revelation by the example of his life. And all of it has the purpose of finding the ultimate goal, what it means to live and not merely exist. Barclay writes: “Our search is not for knowledge for its own sake but what will make life worth living.” He adds: “What we take for ourselves gives us a living, what we give to others gives us life. Life comes alive when we love one another.”

And then a verse that is so often misunderstood – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” It is not up to any human to decide who is and who is not saved and this is a verse where some make this claim. This is God’s decision. What we do know is that it is only in Jesus that we see what God is like and he alone can lead people into God’s presence without fear and without shame.

Like Philip, we can find this all difficult to grasp – and so Jesus helps us along the way. Jesus did not only leave his words – he left the example of his life – his works. Actions speak louder than words – as recorded in verse 13: “11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” We know what God is like and what his relationship is with us – because Jesus did not only tell us – he showed us.

Our lives matter to God. Jesus’ earthly ministry was God living our life. He chose an ordinary life, and an ordinary way of earning a living. He knows of the struggles, temptations and difficulties as well as the joys. Barclay writes: “... common work is tinged with glory for it has been touched by the hand of God. The life of Jesus shows us, not the serenity, but the struggle of God ... God goes through the struggle that we must undergo.” But more too. As McPolin writes: “The person who looks closely at the works of Jesus with the eyes of faith will see that they are the works of someone who lives in intimate communion with God.”

The way to believe in God and also believe in Jesus is not to argue about Jesus, but to listen to what he says to us; but we must also see what Jesus did. Just as the blind man was restored not only to sight, but also to insight – to see with the eyes of faith – we must also listen intently, and hear with the ears of faith. Barclay claims that, if we do this, ‘... the sheer personal impact will compel us to believe.’

And then to end with some challenging verses – 12-14. What did Jesus mean by works greater than what he did? He gives us a clue by adding at the end of verse 12, the words ‘... because I am going to the Father.’

Jesus was going to leave behind the limitations time and space imposed on him by the incarnation, now he can work more freely and universally as his Spirit moves in the lives of people in history. Most importantly, this means that, in every generation he has a mass of agents working on his behalf – scattered throughout the world. God is active in the world when we are active on his behalf, enabled and equipped and inspired by his Spirit. As McPolin explains: “In this way the faith and love of Christian disciples make visible the invisible presence of the glorified Lord.” Our experience of this life includes with it the experience of a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus is real to us now, not just when we die and our souls go to heaven.

We close with the challenge to pray in Jesus’ name. This is not an offer to use the name of Jesus as some kind of magical invocation like some evangelists have done and continue to do. Our prayers are not shopping lists or demands that suit us or others; they ought to come from being immersed in a deep communion with Jesus and the Father. This prayer needs to be the result of a living communion from within the depths of our being united with God’s being as the Spirit moves in our lives. McPolin speaks of our participation in the prayers of Jesus himself and explains ‘... the more one’s life is penetrated by the teaching and example of Jesus, under the inspiration of the Spirit, the more unselfish, free and assured does our prayer become.’

Life has meaning – life has purpose. Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us – and we experience that place now – because Jesus comes to us and makes his presence real to us as we study his Word together and hear his teaching, and as we reflect on his works. Doing this transports us into the realm of where God is. This is our future hope and also our present reality.

Jesus put it this way: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”