Sunday 25 January 2009

Choosing your team

An address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on Epiphany 3, 25th January 2009.

You can hardly have missed all the fuss surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th President of the United States!

We certainly didn’t in my house: my wife Marty is a dual Irish-US citizen and actually voted for him, so immediately after his inauguration speech we toasted him with a glass of champagne!

Perhaps you too have a special interest in him – while Moneygall have claimed him as a native son, I’ve heard rumours that his earliest traceable Irish ancestor really came from Shinrone!

There is such an outpouring of emotion about Obama, not just in the United States but right around the world. I find it both heart-stirring and also a bit scary. He has great charisma. His words speak to American hopes for an end to division and a return to peace and prosperity. They speak to all of us, I think. But I fear too many see him as a Messiah who can deliver the change they voted for in the twinkling of an eye. How can he possibly live up to their expectations? And how will they react if he doesn’t?

When a leader takes on a great mission, two of the many things he or she must do are these:

First, to find words clear and simple enough to inspire people to achieve his mission – in horrid business jargon, that’s a vision statement.

Second, to choose the team that is needed to implement the vision.

This is what President Obama has been doing over the last few weeks of transition. His inauguration speech is in effect his vision statement. Very wisely he has tried to use it to manage the expectations of the American people. And he has been choosing the team who will make up his Government and implement his vision.

And surely this is just what Jesus did as well, at the very start of his ministry, as Mark tells us in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:14-20).

As Mark tells it, Jesus first went to be baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan - perhaps that is when he got the first inkling of his own significance. Driven by the spirit, he then spent 40 days being tempted by the devil in the Judean desert – perhaps this is where he refined the vision that would define his mission. Only when he learned that John the Baptist had been arrested did he actually start his ministry in Galilee. Only then was the time right for the kingdom of God to come near.

Today I’m going to reflect both on Jesus’s vision statement, and how he chose his team, because I think there’s a lot we can learn from them.

Mark summarises Jesus’s vision statement, in these few words: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Mark has so compressed Jesus’s vision that I find it is not easy to grasp the meaning straight away. Let me try to unpick it.

Jesus sees that the time is right for his great mission, which is to lead every one of us into the kingdom of God. In other words his mission is to show us all how to be the men and women that God wants us to be. It is in fact no less than the salvation of humanity.

What prevents us from being the people God wants us to be? We are all created in God’s image, and in our heart of hearts we can all tell right from wrong, can't we? – in other words we are souls with consciences. But we all know only too well - it is a matter of observation, if we are honest with ourselves - that nevertheless we repeatedly do what we should not do and do not do what we should do. In other words we all sin; some more and some less, but we all sin. And that sin cuts us off from God’s kingdom.

Jesus teaches us that God loves us, every one of us, as a father loves his children. More than that Jesus teaches us that God like a loving father will forgive us our sins and give us entry to his kingdom. All we have to do is to acknowledge them and repent - of course we must really mean it, we must truly repent. This is the good news that Jesus proclaims and asks us to believe.

‘Repent, and believe in the good news’ sums up Jesus’s vision for every one of us.

Mark also tells us how Jesus chose his first followers, Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee.

The other three Gospels have similar stories, and no doubt Jesus called the rest of the Twelve who he would send out as apostles in much the same way.

Let us think a bit about the men that Jesus picked out to be his very first followers. Here are some things I notice about them.

First, notice who they are: they are ordinary folk, working fishermen. Like Jesus himself, they aren’t part of the Jewish elite; they are neither learned nor wealthy. They are part of that honourable class the common people. Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘God must love the common people – he made so many of them.’ Jesus clearly did.

Notice what they are doing when Jesus calls them: they are just going about their ordinary day’s work, catching fish and mending nets. If we are alive to God’s world and listening for him, his call may come to any one of us, at any time, in any place.

Notice how Jesus calls them: he simply says, ‘Follow me!’ I don’t imagine this is the first time they have seen Jesus. No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened to him. Perhaps they had lingered afterwards and talked to him in person. Whatever, they must already have been captured by his charisma – if Obama has charisma now, then I think Jesus must have had it in spades! Their response I feel sure is an emotional one, not an intellectual one. It is love that draws them to the person of Jesus, not his arguments, just as love has drawn so many to him ever since.

Lastly, notice what Jesus offers them: a task to do. He calls them not to a life of contemplation, but to a life of service to others, as ‘fishers of men’, in that lovely phrase from the King James translation. It is a task in which they will spend themselves, burn themselves up, and in the end die for his sake, and for the sake of others. It is also a task in which they will find eternal life in God’s kingdom.

So to conclude, among the things we can learn from Jesus’s vision statement and his choice of disciples are these:
  • We should listen well to Jesus’s words, ‘Repent, and believe in the good news’, because they sum up his vision for us.
  • And we should try to model ourselves on Jesus’s first disciples. They are ordinary people, just as we are. Like them we should stay alert and open for Jesus’s call. It may come anywhere, at anytime. It is a call to love, to love him and to follow him in his life of service to others. It is a call to enter the kingdom of God.

Sunday 11 January 2009

An Epiphany of the Trinity

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on 11 Jan 2009 - the Baptism of Christ

Tracks of charged particles in a cloud chamber

Ever since I was a schoolboy, I’ve been fascinated by the pictures taken by particle physicists of the tracks of sub-atomic particles in cloud chambers.

The particles are smashed into each other in accelerators. By studying and measuring the patterns they make as they split and decay, scientists can see traces of the underlying structure of matter. The results confirm or disprove elegant theories – mathematical models - constructed by theorists.

I’m looking forward this Summer to the first results from the Large Hadron Collider experiment. Built in a circular tunnel 17 miles in circumference under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, it will accelerate beams of charged particles to almost the speed of light and smash them together head on. Among the things scientists hope to discover are traces of a weird particle called the Higgs boson, the last undiscovered particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Some people jokingly call it the God particle, because it gives mass to all other particles!

In much the same way, I think, as particle physicists search their cloud chambers for events that reveal the nature of matter, Christian theologians have searched the Bible for passages which reveal something of the nature of God.

The Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia), from which our word epiphany comes, literally means a showing forth or a manifestation. And it is during Epiphany that we are invited through the chosen readings to reflect on how God reveals himself to us, how he is shown forth, made manifest. In the Church callendar, Epiphany begins on Jan 6th, when the focus is on the story of the Magi, when the Christ-child is first shown to the gentiles. But on this and the next 3 Sundays in the season of Epiphany, until Candlemas on 2 Feb, the set readings present us with many other epiphanies, many other stories that reveal something of the nature of God.

So today I invite you to reflect on how God is revealed to us in today's readings as a Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and what this means for us.

Psalm 29 presents us with an epiphany of God the Creator.

From time immemorial human beings have seen traces of the majesty of God the Creator in the natural world, and in the awesome power of natural forces.

Psalm 29 captures this kind of epiphany in these words:

The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe
and strips the forests bare;

I think we’ve all experienced this sense of awe when confronted by the great forces of nature, and by wild and desolate landscapes. They make us feel small and insignificant.

But this is a rather primitive idea of the nature of God, isn’t it? If this were all we knew of God, no doubt we would still be sacrificing our children to appease such a terrifying presence, as many primitive cultures have done, and as it seems the Hebrew patriarch Abraham planned to do with his son Isaac, before the angel prevented him.

Over the long centuries of OT time, the Hebrews came to see themselves as having a covenant with this powerful God, who promised to protect, strengthen and nurture them, so that Psalm 29 can finish with these words:
The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

By the time of Jesus, Jews had begun to think of God the Creator as loving his children - the Children of Israel - as a father does. And of course Jesus built on this in his teaching. He himself clearly experienced God as like a loving Father, and he taught his disciples – and through them us - to pray to Our Father in Heaven.

God the terrible creator is transformed into God the loving Father.

The 1st reading from Acts (19:1-7) is about an epiphany of God’s Holy Spirit

The dozen or so disciples that Paul met in the great pagan city of Ephesus were followers of John the Baptist. They had been baptized into John’s baptism of repentance, but they had not been baptised or initiated as Christians. They knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, which the disciples in Jerusalem had experienced after the Ascension.

Paul explained to them that John himself had taught his disciples ‘to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus’. And they accepted baptism from Paul, not ‘in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’, the Trinitarian words we use now, but ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Perhaps the earliest baptismal words were changed as later theologians began to understand the nature of God as a Trinity.

Only then, when Paul laid his hands on them, did they experience the Holy Spirit. We are told they spoke in tongues and prophesied, just as the disciples in Jerusalem had done. We are not much given in the Church of Ireland to speaking in tongues and prophesying, are we? – in fact we are rather afraid of the idea! I hate to think what the Rector and Bishop Trevor would do if I started to speak in tongues from this pulpit! But if we interpret this phrase as how the early Christians described their sense of being empowered, empowered by Jesus to do the work of God, perhaps we would do well to be more open to the idea.

The 2nd reading from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel (1:4-11) describes an epiphany in which Jesus is revealed as the Son of God at his baptism by John.

‘Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan’, Mark tells us. ‘And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven,’ – from God – ‘“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’. What an amazing vision Mark conjures up with so few words! It has inspired so many artists over the centuries to paint beautiful images.

The Baptism of Christ, by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1475, in the Uffizi, Florence

But who saw the dove, and who heard the voice from heaven? I don’t think it can have been the crowd down by Jordan’s banks, because Matthew uses the pronoun ‘he’: this vision is surely a private not a public experience. The pronoun is ambiguous. Is it Jesus who sees the vision? Possibly. Perhaps this is the very moment when Jesus the man realises his own significance as the Son of God. But perhaps more likely it is the Baptist who sees the vision. For the writer of John’s Gospel tells us that John the Baptist testified: I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’

Whichever it is, this passage is very important for all Christians who see the nature of God as the Trinity. This is the only place in the Gospels where we find all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - together at the same time. It is the defining vision of the Trinity.

The Church teaches that God is a Trinity – a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit

After analysing these and other Bible passages for a long time, around 3 centuries, Christian theologians achieved a high degree, though not complete, unanimity on this. And they expressed it in the historic creeds which we still say together.

But do we have to rely entirely on the authority of ancient scriptures and long-dead theologians to reach this understanding?

I wonder if, like the particle physicists probing the nature of matter with their cloud chambers and experiments, we can ourselves come to understand God as Trinity, by probing our own hearts and spiritual lives, and the hearts and spiritual lives of those about us? I rather think we can.

All around I see faint but unmistakeable traces of a God like a loving Father, of a Son that shows people how to relate in love to all about us, and of a Spirit that animates all creation!