Romans 5:1-5; John 14:4-17a
St Barbara’s 016.06.19
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you have watched or listened to the news this week it will not have escaped your attention that there is an election contest going on to appoint the next leader of the Conservative Party, and our next Prime Minister. As seems to be inevitable on these occasions, candidates have not been slow in coming forward to express why not only are they the best person for the job, but why their colleagues definitely aren’t. Candidates are being briefed against, closets are being searched for skeletons, and there was even the suggestion that Boris Johnson’s team were requiring his supporters to take photographic evidence of their secret ballot paper to prove that they had in fact voted for him. Trust is in short supply. Perhaps in the interests of political impartiality I should also note that other similarly disunited political parties are also available!
Well imagine if the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were a political party? Who has the highest office? Would the Spirit brief against the Son in order to secure a better job down the line? Of course, the very idea is preposterous.
But in fact two thousand years ago, as the church was beginning to try and understand its experience of their interaction with God, the religious culture of the day was quite different. Most religions of the time – whether Greek, Roman, Persian or Hindu – had a belief that divine beings were competing with one another for top spot, where there was back-stabbing and political manoeuvrings, indeed where the gods simply reflected human nature on a cosmic scale. Think of the famous Greek story of the siege of Troy for example – all brought about by the gods scheming and fighting against each other.
But the early Christians’ encounter and experience of God led them to some startlingly different conclusions. Like the Jewish faith from which the Christians emerged, there was a strong, undiluted faith in one God. Unlike the Jewish faith however, the events of the resurrection and Pentecost had led them to something extraordinary – God was making himself known through three persons, perfectly distinct yet totally unified, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
To get a handle on this, and to understand why it makes a difference for us, let’s return to the conversation that John records in his gospel of Jesus with the disciples in the upper room the night before his death. His disciples ask him a number of key questions, questions not only that were key for them, but were the key religious questions of the age, perhaps of any age, including our own.
One question is asked by Philip, a request really: “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus’ response is so startling it would probably have been enough to make the disciples fall off their chairs or roll off their couches. For his response is this: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” In other words, Jesus reflects who God is in human form. In Jesus, we see God. In Jesus, God can be known.
That is extraordinary. Throughout the Old Testament, we get glimpses into the character and nature of God – but they are fleeting glimpses – a pillar of fire, a burning bush, a still small voice after the earthquake, wind and fire. But now in Jesus we see fully who God is.
We see God revealed in Jesus as both mighty – he stills the storm on Lake Galilee – but gentle – embracing the children who come to him. As both above the constraints of nature – able to walk on water – and yet willing to confine himself to its constraints – going hungry in the desert, enduring the nails of the cross. As both a God of holiness – calling all to righteous living – and a God of forgiveness and compassion – embracing the outcast, loving the unloved. A God wiling to do anything, whatever it takes, to show us his love. Jesus reveals to us who God is for he himself is God.
What does this mean for us? It means that we should immerse ourselves in the story of Christ. We should continually come back to the gospels to discover more about God. It means that when God feels distant, we should remind ourselves of who God is in Christ. Take time to meditate on who Jesus is this week.
A second key question that the disciples ask, as Jesus speaks about his death and his return to his Father in heaven, is this: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This wasn’t a question of geography. It wasn’t a request that we might ask of someone for a postcode to a party that we can put in our satnav. This was a more fundamental question than that: how can we possibly enter into the presence of God?
You may remember last week how Greg acted out going into the holy of holies – the extraordinary privilege that was granted to the highest priest in the land, on one day once a year, to enter into the place representing the presence of God. For anyone else, or for anyone on any other day of the year, such presumption would believe to be met with instantaneous death. God was so holy, he was almost unapproachable.
And yet Jesus’ response to the question is this: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” It is through Christ that we can enter into the holy presence of the Father. Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome that we heard earlier: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” The early Christians were experiencing the remarkable life-giving presence of God, they were knowing the joy, the intimacy, the comfort, the hope, of entering into God’s presence, through prayer and worship, through service and fellowship. How could they make sense of this? Only through Christ – through his death and resurrection that cleared away the sin of our lives and made it possible to enter into the holy presence of the Father.
The Father and the Son working perfectly together to bring us to a place where we may enter into their life-giving presence.
What does this mean for us? It means celebrating the extraordinary privilege we have of being able to enter into the presence of God. At times we can all too easily take this for granted, assuming it is our right, when in fact jt is the greatest privilege of our lives. As we say the words of our communion liturgy later, reflect again on what it means for Christ to make possible for us to come before God.
And there may be other times, when we can feel so unworthy, so inadequate, so much a failure, that entering into God’s loving presence feels like an impossibility. At such times, hear again the wonderful assurance – it is not what we have done, it is what Christ has done for us that makes it possible.
Indeed, reflecting on the Father’s love expressed in Christ, leads us to a final question: how can we possibly respond to such love? how can we possibly live in a such a way that expresses our gratitude?
Well, as the early church reflected and pondered this question, they realised they could. They found they could live lives that were full of thankfulness to God, lives of service and compassion, lives devoted to following him, and standing up for right. How? Not by their own strength but by God’s Spirit living within them – the remarkable truth of Pentecost. As Paul writes: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The image is an extravagant one. God is not just giving us two or three minute drops of his Spirit measured through a spiritual pipette; rather imagine a huge pitcher, filled to the brim, that is upturned and poured into a glass until it is full to overflowing, cascading onto the table and the floor. God’s Holy Spirit overflowing in our lives.
And how we need him. Just this week, further research has come out showing the catastrophic impact of climate change. How we need to respond. We look at the enormous needs of war-torn states and starving populations. How we need to respond there too. And we see the trauma and the hardships of those in our own community – those who are living with terminal illness, those who are isolated and alone, those living with broken or dysfunctional relationships. How we need to respond. And we can respond. Empowered and inspired by God’s Spirit living within us. Our Prayer Week helped to highlight some of the remarkable work already being done across our city to respond to these situations with God’s love. Nationally, a recent study found that if all the voluntary community work done by faith groups was added up and paid by the minimum wage it would come to £6 billion worth of contribution a year. God at work, through his holy spirit.
The early church, two thousand years ago, made sense of their experience of God’s extraordinary work in their lives by coming to express their love of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, distinct in activity, united in purpose. For us too, as we are drawn into relationship with the Father through the love of the Son, and as we express that love in action, inspired and enabled by the Spirit, we too can worship with those words: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
May God the Son draw us ever closer to the Father; may God the Father fill us ever more fully with His Spirit; and may God the Holy Spirit inspire and enable us to walk ever more closely in the footsteps of the Son. To the glory of God – father, son and holy spirit. Amen.