The God who comes
Advent is about the coming of God into the world and especially into ‘our’ world, into the personal world of our own lives. And it’s all wrapped up, like a Christmas present, in the Christmas story.
Now it is very important for us to recognise ‘that this is a story’ we’re dealing with. Anything and everything about God has to be told in a story because there is no other way. What we mean by God is beyond reach from where we are, so we have to tell a story. But we mustn’t get stuck in the story by trying to make it literally true. That’s not what stories are for. Stories have a purpose to convey some truth which then we have to live with. We experience the Advent/Christmas Story by feeling the truth of it, seeing the light, and setting off on your own spiritual adventure.
Now let’s think a bit more deeply about ‘the Coming of God’. Straight away you might want to ask “well where does God come from?” The answer to that is that God doesn’t come from anywhere! God just IS, here, now, and forever. That wonderful Psalm 139 knew the truth of God’s Coming long before Jesus came. What does it say, “wherever I go, north, east, south or west, up or down, under or over, God will always be there for me.” The whole of Creation is filled with the presence of God. God is the Creative Energy and the Life-Force that keeps the universe evolving, keeping all that lives alive. God doesn’t come from anywhere. God just IS.
Of course this is a great mystery, deeper than our understanding, but in some way we are part of the mystery. The story in the Bible says that, “we are made in the image and likeness of God”, which means that we are part of the mystery. It is there, hidden inside each one of us. The outcome is that the Spirit of God can touch our spirit and bring us to life in a new way. We can be activated by the Eternal Spirit, who is always there wanting us and calling us to a spiritual adventure, whereby we can get to know who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. It is not so much God coming to us because God is always there for us. It’s ourselves coming to God and that is the adventure we are on. This does not happen all at once. It is a lifetime’s process and surely goes beyond that too! The important thing is to be on the adventure and making progress – what John Bunyan called ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.
So the coming of God is not God travelling through space from A to B. It is not God moving from where God is to where God has not yet arrived. All the travelling – we have to do. The Christmas story is full of folk travelling. There’s Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem, the shepherds coming down from the fields, the journey of the Magi (wise men from the East).
The coming of God is more like the dawning of light, of new understanding. It is something that happens to people, seeing the light, seeing in a new light, having new thoughts, new experiences and making progress on your way to God. For all Christians, Jesus is the light by which we travel and knowing God more fully is our destination. But we are not there yet. There is travelling to do. And in our case we are travelling through ‘time’. We’re getting older as we go. BUT GOD IS NOT!
The Good Book says that “God is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) So when God ‘comes’, that is when we experience the presence of God. Time disappears and we get a taste of “that peace which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), our oneness with God.
We are all on a spiritual adventure but it is not a ‘religious journey’ in the narrow sense of that word. It is the journey of life that everybody is on, if only they knew! It is a spiritual journey and if a person’s religion is helping them as it should be, giving them sustenance and guidance and encouragement, that’s OK. But if not, well, I’ll leave you to work that out for yourself!
Christmas is coming, and Jesus is our Key Person to unlock our understanding and shine a light on the way of the ‘God who comes’, because he is already here.
Donald Horsfield, 1st December 2013
Matthew 13:24-34, 44-46. Luke 17:20-21
One of the most important words in my own vocabulary is the word PARABLE. I know I’ve told you this before, but I’m not apologising. I daresay you won’t remember anyway, why should you!
ALL THINGS COME IN PARABLES.
I know that’s a sweeping statement, but the older I get, the more I believe it to be true. What lies behind the word parable is that there’s always something there that you haven’t seen. A new meaning that is waiting for you to get hold of, something you need to be open to, and ready to move on.
So you won’t be surprised to know that a favourite Bible verse of mine is where it tells us that all Jesus’ teaching was in the form of parables. Matthew 13:34 ‘he would not say anything to them without using a parable.’
The word ‘parable’ simply means ‘something you put alongside something else’ so that you can compare the two, you can see that they are ‘comparable’. This is a very simple and effective teaching method. You begin with the people you want to influence. Begin with where they are and with what they know, then introduce them to something new which they can compare with what they already know and learn something new.
When I went to Papua New Guinea with the London Missionary Society in 1965 I was given this advice. Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know and build with what they have.
And that is exactly what Jesus did. He went around pointing to what was going on. There’s a farmer sowing his seed, a woman sweeping her house, children playing in the street. He listened to the local news. There was that violent robbery on the road down to Jericho, the tower at Siloam that crashed down killing all those people, that unfinished house left standing there for so long that people were laughing about it. And then alongside these events he brought out his teaching about the deeper things of life and left people to make their own connections, draw their own conclusions.
The one overall theme of Jesus’ teaching was what he called The Kingdom of God. This was the great passion of his life, the one thing he lived for, wanting to see it realised here on earth, as it is in heaven. Heaven is not a place, it’s an idea to be aimed for through prayer and action. And it is this teaching we need to keep coming back to because ‘religion’ has a tendency to create its own agenda and become ‘an end in itself’ rather than ‘a means to an end’. And that’s when things start going wrong. And the Christian religion has gone wrong many times over the years.
The teaching about the Kingdom of God is like the Magnetic North. The compass always swings round to it and, if we go astray, our religious compass should swing round and point towards the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus will always get us back on the right track if we lose our way.
I want to look closely now at the word KINGDOM because it’s not the Biblical word. It’s our translation of the Biblical word and our ideas of KINGDOM that can easily lead us astray. And we can get the wrong idea of what the Kingdom of God is all about.
If there is a kingdom we think there must be a king, and a king wears a crown and sits on a throne and is surrounded by pomp and ceremony. And at one time kings had absolute power over subjects. If the king said, “off with his head”, off came the head, of Anne Boleyn or anybody else the king accused of treason.
As Christianity developed and spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, God was proclaimed as King, and the Church became God’s Kingdom exercising God’s authority here on earth where anybody accused of treason, or in this case heresy, also had their heads cut off after they’d been suitable tortured. God as King and Church as Kingdom filled people with dread. One Roman Catholic theologian of the 19th century was brave enough to say that, “Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom but the Church came instead.” He was immediately excommunicated and at one time would have lost his head too or been burned at the stake.
Given that way of understanding God as King and Church as Kingdom, terrible things have been done. The Church became a weathly and worldly power. It turned the Cross of self-denial into a sword of aggression and on that basis set out to conquer the world in the name of the ‘High King of Heaven’ as we are asked to sing in one of our hymns.
But the message of Jesus is not like that! God is not a remote King with absolute power who has to be flattered and feared and praised lest he take offence. And the Kingdom is not like a castle with a drawbridge or a palace with a high wall where you can hide away and feel safe from a wicked world. In our day and age, in the 21st century, God needs some new clothes. Kingly robes and thrones and all the trappings of royalty are no longer appropriate, and have never been. The parables of Jesus on the Kingdom of God are not about Kings and kingship and royalty. Quite the opposite! They are about humility, compassion, mercy, love and peace.
There are no walls round the Kingdom of God because it’s not a ‘place’ at all. It’s a people who show by the quality of their lives that they have been in touch with, and influenced by, the meaning of Jesus’ parables. Their lives have been transformed by the example and teaching of the one who told those parables. They have been given a vision of a world where the human family has found a way of living together in peace and harmony, caring for one another, inspired by Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love, which is how we should understand God, rather than as a King sitting on a throne.
“When will God’s Kingdom come?”, the people asked Jesus. “It’s already here”, he said, “if only you would realise it.” It’s within you and needs to emerge and be seen at work among you in every aspect of your life on earth.
Clearly this is not yet fully realised. That’s why we continue to pray for its coming. But it can be like a seed growing, like yeast in the dough rising. It can be seen in humble and loving service to those who have fallen by the wayside, in careful planning and good use of the resources we have. It can be like searching for the hidden treasure which is buried in our humanity, there to enrich our lives and bring us to oneness in God.
Donald Horsfield, 24th November 2013
No-one Has Ever Seen God
1 John 4:7-21 (text v.12)
As a general statement, I think you would agree with me, that the Bible is a book about God. But in that book it says that ‘no-one has ever seen God’… nor CAN they see God, because God is not something or someone to be seen. So what is God? Or who is God? That’s the big question. And it’s such a big question that we don’t ask. We leave it alone. It’s just too big for us to find an answer.
If we want to find a way to God and have some understanding of what God is, we have to begin with our own experiences, begin where you are with what you’ve got. Even Jesus had to do that. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus grew up developing his knowledge and understanding, learning from his experiences at home, at school, at play, growing and developing, adapting and changing in body, mind and spirit. (Luke 2:52…). He was just growing up the way we all do, and we all do it differently because we are different, each one unique in our own way.
Since the time of Jesus we have studied the ‘growing up process’, and we know a bit more about it. Children at first tend to see things in black and white. Everything is clearly right or wrong for them. They know what they want and they cry if they don’t get what they want. But as we grow up we put away childish things and from experience, sometimes very slowly, we learn a few things. For example: that there are other people in the world who need things just as I do, that life doesn’t come in black and white – there are shades of grey, and there are differences of opinion, there are relationships and responsibilities to develop. Learning and growing doesn’t stop, it’s a continuous process or at least it should be. We learn that life is not simple. It’s complex and mysterious.
Now sadly some people don’t learn these lessons. They carry childish ideas with them into adulthood. And it seems that such people are very much attracted to religion of one sort or another. Any ideas of God become fixed and final and unchangeable, instead of changing from experience as you mature. Such people claim to know very clearly what God has done, and what God said, and what God wants, and what God will do if we don’t listen to what they say, because they know and everybody else doesn’t know. I’m afraid that’s the kind of world we live in at the moment and it’s a dangerous situation, and all religions need to something about it. Our ideas of God are absolutely central to bringing about changes that we need to see in our world today.
There’s an important verse in the Bible which says, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15). And that’s our responsibility, to choose the kind of God that we will serve. To follow the God that will bring out the best that’s in us and appeal to the highest that people are capable of. So what kind of a God would this be? I want to suggest three ways of thinking about God that will lead us in the right direction
The first is to understand God as THE GOD OF LIFE.
The whole creation is alive, on the move, full of vitality and energy which is throbbing throughout the universe of which we are a part. This is a great mystery. There is no explanation but there is an awareness of that same energy of ‘the God of life’ throbbing through you and through all of us keeping us alive. And because of the faculties that you have, you can KNOW that you are alive, that you are part of the ‘one life’ of all things, and knowing this deep in your heart can be called an experience of the ‘God of life’. Certain things follow from this. There are important consequences from believing this. The first one is to accept your life as a gift from God and desire to live it to the full. It follows that we must respect other people who are also alive with the same life. And not only other people but the very world we live in and on which we depend, for it too is alive. This is the recognition that ‘in God we live and move and have our being’. Let that thought soak into you and feed you and draw out the best that is in you.
Secondly, we can understand God as THE GOD OF LIBERTY.
Liberty is freedom and this above all is our deepest need because without it we cannot even begin to look for God. We must be free to make choices that will lead to the fullness of life that we are looking for. But of course we make wrong choices, do we not? And as a result we get wrong ideas about life, about ourselves and about God. By our choices we step into the bondage of selfishness, greed, envy, lust, the desire for possessions and power over others which can all lead to violence of one sort or another, and the darkness descends and we fail to see what is the good and the best. We miss the mark. We don’t achieve what we have the potential to do and to be. We are all in the same boat and we need some help and it is there for those who can see it, on offer for those who want it. This is where good religion comes into its own. Not a religion that entraps and enslaves you even more, tying us up in doctrines and creeds, but one that offers you the freedom that you need and releases you from any burden of guilt or whatever your wrong choices have left you with. Your religion should re-connect you with the God of life and at the same time reveal to you the God of liberty who gives you the freedom that you need.
So the God of Life is also the God of Liberty. Life wants you free to fulfil your potential and the gift of freedom is always there, you just have to accept it and move on. We’re not talking about two gods! God is One, the giver of life is the giver of freedom to live that life to the full. The one and only way to live that life is to live in love, because the God who is Life and Liberty is also THE GOD OF LOVE.
All this we learn from our experience of life. We learn to love by being loved. Love is a relationship. It’s about ‘giving’ and finding that in giving you also ‘receive’. Something is happening! On a human level this love can be satisfying enough but it can go deeper than that. It can make you aware of being part of an even greater love, something which is your true home and from which you can never be separated. This may remind you of the parables of Jesus about finding the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost Prodigal Son. That can be your experience too.
Jesus is for us Christians an embodiment of this truth about the meaning of God. Jesus believed in God as Life, Liberty and Love so completely, that we could say he was One with God. So he becomes an inspiration and a pattern for us to follow, or you could use the word Saviour if that’s to your liking. Nobody has ever seen God. That’s not surprising. God is not an object or a person to be seen with the human eye. God is the source of life. God is the invitation to freedom. God is the experience of loving and being loved. God is the completion and the fulfilment of all that is good and right and lovely and true. And the world today is in desperate need of that Good News.
Donald Horsfield, 3rd November 2013
The Dance of Life
Most people, I would think, enjoy Musicals. If I asked you to name your favourite musical, I’m sure there would be a wide range of choices – from Gilbert and Sullivan, to Rogers and Hammerstein, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Irving Berlin, and lots more.
The other week I was watching The King and I – with Yul Brynner as the King of Siam and Deborah Kerr as his English teacher. It’s a lovely story, full of colour and action and splendid songs like ‘Getting to know you’, ‘I whistle a happy tune’, and ‘Shall we dance’. In fact the King of Siam had decided that he wanted to learn how to dance the POLKA. It’s just delightful to see him whirling round the floor ‘doing the polka’. But then suddenly he loses the rhythm and everything stops. He’s trying to understand what’s happened, trying to work out the right steps. Is it one-two-three … one-two-three … No! That’s the waltz! The polka has a different tempo – it’s one-two-three-AND … one-two-three-AND … one-two-three-AND … He’d forgotten the AND … which is a little hop that comes after the one-two-three. Ah! Now he’s got it. A big smile comes on his face and away he goes dancing happily. One-two-three-AND … one-two-three-AND … one-two-three-AND …
So, if you want to do the polka, don’t forget the AND. But also don’t forget the AND if you want to do the ‘dance of life’, doing it smoothly and efficiently. More of that in a minute.
Let’s just look at this little word AND. It’s a conjunction, which means it’s a ‘joining word’. The word ‘and’ is like a meeting place where two become one. We could think of Adam and Eve, or love and marriage, husband and wife, fish and chips. AND is a joining word, it’s about relationships. But there is another relationship that we are particularly concerned about when we come to church, and that is You ‘and’ God. How’s that relationship getting on in your life?
The important part of any relationship is the word AND. It’s ‘you AND God’. It’s the ‘and’ that joins you together because you belong together. It’s the ‘and’ that holds you together, and will keep you together, in the dance of life. If you forget the ‘and’ like the King of Siam did in doing the polka, the dance you should be doing will stop, or at least you’ll lose the rhythm, and might trip up and fall down.
So what is this AND that joins us to God making a partnership, a oneness between you AND God. Listen to this verse from the Bible (Romans 5:5). “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is God’s gift to us”. The AND is God’s gift of himself, his love, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God joins with your spirit. You hear the music and you begin the dance of life, you and God, one in the Spirit. “So dance then, wherever you may be!”
In Union with Christ
v.22 “In union with Christ, you too are being built, together with all God’s people, into a place where God lives, through his Spirit”.
You may not know what an expository sermon is because I don’t normally preach that kind of a sermon. I would describe my preaching as being more ‘thematic’, that is, having a theme which I illustrate from various sources. Maybe you’ve never heard the phrase ‘expository preaching’. So I’m going to put that right this morning and I’ll begin by telling you what an expository sermon is. The word ‘expository’ comes from the verb ‘to expose’, which among other things means to explain, to make clear, and so enabling people to see, and to understand, what perhaps they didn’t know and understand before. So that’s what an expository sermon attempts to do, and the listeners have to decide how convincing the ‘exposition’ has been.
So we need a text from the Bible, which of course always carries with it the invitation to ponder, think about, and decide what it means. That’s our privilege and responsibilty. But there is a teacher, and it’s not just me! Paul tells us that God’s Spirit is always available to give us the teaching and guidance we need. The words of the Bible themselves are like any other words. They are just print on paper. We don’t worship the Bible, that would be making it an idol. What happens is that “the Spirit breathes upon the word”, as the hymn says, “and brings the truth to sight”. And that’s spot on, absolutely right. The Spirit is our Teacher. So we use our eyes to read, our ears to hear, our mind to think about, and we let the Spirit reveal the truth that we need to know.
I have a text from the last verse of our reading where it says, “In union with Christ, you too are being built, together with all God’s people, into a place where God lives, through his Spirit”. And you can see immediately this text holds the three foundation stones on which Christianity is built – God, Christ, and Spirit are there. The three key words that open up the secret of our faith, that let us into the mystery of our relationship with God. “In union with Christ, you too are being built, together with all God’s people, into a place where God lives, through his Spirit”.
We’ll begin our exposition with the opening words, “In union with Christ”. As Christians that’s where we are. We are living ‘in union with Christ’. But what does that mean? And how did we get to be ‘in union with’ … at one with … in love and friendship with … Christ? We need to know what we understand by this word CHRIST. There’s an important distinction to be made here, that not everybody knows about. Christ is not exactly the same as Jesus. It’s not his surname. It’s a title that was given to him by his followers after his death. Jesus himself was an historical figure, an itinerant preacher, who went around with a message about the Kingdom of God, inviting people to become part of that Kingdom, to live in it and follow its rules. Actually there was only one rule, which was ‘to love God by loving other people’.
The religious leaders of the time felt threatened by the simplicity of this message. It made their religion seem obsolescent, that is, unnecessary. They didn’t like that. And we know what they did to him. In connivance with the Roman authorities they killed him. But there was something about Jesus and his message that neither the Roman Empire nor the Jewish religion could get rid of. And this is where the word SPIRIT comes in. SPIRIT is the best word we have to understand the life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus. SPIRIT was what moved and energised and inspired him. It was the spirit of God like a fire burning within him which nothing on earth could put out. And that same fire was ignited in the hearts and minds of his followers. And it spread until today we ourselves have got caught up in it. And this is why Jesus was given that title of the Christ – the way to follow, the truth to believe, and the life to live.
The Christ is an ideal figure of perfection, a human being, at one with God and therefore an example for us to follow, a magnet to draw out the best in us, an inspiration to breathe into us the life that was himself. And Paul describes this condition as being ‘in union with Christ’. And he goes on to say that ‘we are being built, together with all God’s people’. And those people come in all shapes and sizes, and God alone knows who they are. They are not all ‘of this fold’. Some are religious and some may not be. But building is going on, although it’s not the church that’s being built, at least it’s not any of the hundreds of different churches that now exist, some of them claiming that they alone are right and all the others are wrong. We’ve got to leave that kind of competition behind and move on to a new understanding of what IS being built, and by whom. If it’s not the church, what is it?
According to the text, we are being built, together with all the others, into a place where God lives through his Spirit. And the evidence of that is not big flourishing churches. The evidence is the fruit of the Spirit being seen in the lives of those who are ‘in union with Christ’, and ‘where God lives through his Spirit’. The concept of Spirit is absolutely central in our understanding of God. The Bible puts it simply and directly – God is Spirit. God is the Spirit in Jesus that makes him The Christ. And since we are ‘in union with Christ’, we are together ‘one in God’. This is our faith, this is our ideal. It’s what we want, it’s what we’re aiming for.
But we are not there yet. We are being built. And it’s God the Holy Spirit, God the Creator Spirit, who is doing the building, persuading, influencing and inspiring those who will listen and become part of the project. Jesus called that project The Kingdom of God, and he wants it to be seen here on earth in the hearts and minds, in the lives and actions, of those people, where God lives through his Spirit.
Donald Horsfield, 20th October 2013
ENGAGING with GOD
Ephesians 1: 3-14
So far as I understand myself, I am what you might call a VISUAL PERSON. I often see things with my eyes before I understand them with my mind. For example, I do cryptic crosswords. My family think I’m addicted to them (and I must admit I do need a daily dose!). But very often I can solve a clue by ‘seeing’ the answer before I understand how to get there.
Let me give you another example. When I was living in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea I used to get around on a motor bike, a Honda 175 (I think it was). I would start the engine, kick start, pull the clutch with my left hand and flip through the gears with my right foot, and away I would go. I hadn’t a clue what was happening underneath me and secretly I was praying that I would get from A to B and then back again. I did fall off a time or two because they were just dirt tracks but luckily I didn’t come to much harm.
Then one day a friend of mine who knew more about engines actually ‘showed me’ what WAS happening ‘underneath me’. He’d removed a gear box and was holding it in his hands and he showed me how it worked. There’s a series of ‘sprockets’ and it’s all about engagement. The engine is running but the motor bike or car is not moving because the sprockets are not engaged. When they are, they both go round together and the wheels begin to move. When you pull in the clutch it disconnects and a different sprocket or gear can engage, and you can go a bit faster or slow down.
And that’s my parable for this sermon. A parable of ‘engagement’ for the running of the Christian life. There’s got to be engagement with the source of power, otherwise nothing happens. There’s no movement. The power’s there but you just stay where you are.
For us Christians, the power is there. God is there (here, there, everywhere) – the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, forever and ever, Amen. The power is there, but we’re not always connected.
The car’s engine can be revving up like mad but until you engage, nothing will happen. That’s very simple and obvious as far as the car is concerned, but it’s also true in our relationship with God. If you don’t engage, you don’t move. You just stay where you are. Or as somebody once put it – Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it’s just not been tried. But once you ‘engage’ and start moving, you won’t look back and before long you’ll be saying “how do I get this thing into top gear?
In the Christian life, it’s not a motor bike we’re on. It’s not a car we’re driving. By definition ‘we are in Christ’ – that’s what the reading was all about, being ‘in Christ’. We are ‘engaged’ and we are moving under the power of the Spirit.
Throughout the whole of the New Testament, the phrase ‘in Christ’ is a kind of shorthand way of talking about ‘being a Christian’. Paul usually begins his letters, addressing the church at Corinth, or Ephesus, as – those who are in Christ Jesus. He tells the church at Philippi that – the peace of God will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (4:7) And in the letter to the Colossians (1:27) he writes – the secret is this – Christ in you. So it’s not just ‘you in Christ’, it’s also ‘Christ in you’. It’s a true engagement with one another. In John’s Gospel Jesus puts it like this – you in me, me in you, together one in God (14:20)…and we’re on the way; on the move.
So let’s just think about our ‘engagement with God-in Christ’. How do we do it? There are different ways, different ‘sprockets’ we can use, so that we’re not always going at the same speed! I’m going to mention three gears that we can ‘slot into’.
And the first one is PRAYER. We engage with God through prayer. But we need to know what prayer is – and it’s not just ‘saying prayers’. Prayer is much more than that. It seems that Jesus himself spent time (made time) for prayer and he encouraged his disciples to do the same. But he also said – God knows what you’re going to say, even before you say it. So why bother?
This clearly means that prayer must be something different from telling God something he already knows, something different from trying to persuade God to give you what you want. I think Jesus in his usual way, was challenging his disciples to do a bit of deep thinking about what’s going on when we pray and why we need to do it. In prayer we are first of all bringing ourselves to God. Confessing the weakness and frailty of the human condition. Admitting how little we know and humbly recognising how powerless we are in face of the vastness of the Universe and mind-boggling thoughts of eternity.
In prayer you don’t need to ‘say’ anything. Let the spirit within you ‘engage’ with the Spirit of God and you will know the peace of God which passes all understanding. When you engage with God in that way the power will flow, you’ll feel it and it will make you alive in a new way and give you the means of coping with whatever you have to do.
Another way of ‘engaging with God’ is through Practical Compassion. This is very much ‘down to earth’ and concerned with loving your neighbour, sharing, generosity, and kindness to those in need. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, getting involved with agencies that are out to change the world and make it a better place, a fairer place for everybody. Jesus called it the reign, or rule, or kingdom, of God. Something that he wanted to see here on earth where different communities, races and religions are finding a unity, deeper than their diversity.
Engaging with God through Practical Compassion involves taking time to stop and think about ‘what gear you’re in’ and whether you need to move up to a higher gear. How much time, money and commitment are you giving? Is it enough? And always making sure that whatever you do give, you give it cheerfully and thankfully for what you yourself have received. We can’t love God whom we haven’t seen if we don’t show concern and practical compassion to those in need whom we have seen.
And then lastly, we can engage with God by not DOING anything. This doesn’t cancel out the Prayer and the Practical Compassion, it goes together with them. You have to get the balance right. You will need time for just BEING rather than doing. Just ‘being there’ wherever it is, being alive and appreciating the fact of being alive. Lifting your hands and your soul to the Eternal Being we call God, who is the Ground of all being and whose real name is LOVE. The One in whom we live and move and have OUR being.
God is the source of spiritual power. We are invited to ‘engage’ and feel the power flowing through us so that we can be part of that Movement, which is the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Donald Horsfield, 7th July 2013
The Art of Letting Go
Isaiah 55:1-13, Luke 12:13-21
The sermon I am about to deliver is called THE ART OF LETTING GO. It’s an art, or skill, that we all need to develop in order to keep ourselves healthy in body, mind and spirit. The art of letting go.
Let me begin at the beginning. Some of you know more about babies than I do and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong. But soon after they’re born, their little fingers are going like this. They want to get hold of something. They’ve just been born (for God’s sake!) and they want to get hold of LIFE. And if they DO get hold of something, they’ll put it straight into their mouth. This is a natural instinct, to get some food so that they can grow and live. They want to get into LIFE. That’s what they’ve come for!
And we were there once ourselves, living by instinct. But as we grow up our minds develop and we become ‘thinking people’, not just responding to our basic needs. We begin to learn. We get knowledge and hopefully a bit of wisdom so that we can use that knowledge wisely, so that we can become wise, thinking, knowledgeable people. We learn about the world we live in, and especially about our relationships with other people and with the world itself. We discover that ‘the world’ has its own agenda and this is where we need as much wisdom as we can get.
Now when I say ‘the world’, I’m not talking about the ‘physical world’ of mountains, rivers, trees, birds and animals. I’m talking about the invisible world, the world of ideas and thoughts and feelings. The world that we can’t ‘see’ but we know it’s there, because it can ‘get hold of us’. It’s the culture and beliefs of the age we’re born into. We drink it in as it were, with our mother’s milk. And the world that we now live in today is telling us, loud and clear, that our ‘security’ (which is a very deep need in all of us), our security lies in our possessions. The more we have, the safer we are. That’s the philosophy of the world. This is the way of the world. Millions, nay billions, of pounds are spent proclaiming this truth, that you are what you possess and money will get you more of it. So in this world, money becomes of all things most desirable. Your happiness and security depend on it. That’s what ‘the world’ is telling us.
But there are other voices that we should listen to. They are not so loud, more of a ‘still, small voice’ that many people don’t even hear, so loud is the clamour of the world. These other voices are telling us, watch out…be careful…the world may be wrong…it may be leading you astray. Think about it. Maybe your possessions, and your desire for possessions, are possessing you and making you into a kind of prisoner.
Over the years these voices have belonged to poets, and prophets, and story-tellers and not to those who have climbed to the top of the ladder and are looking down on us and telling us how to do it. The poet William Wordsworth, has a fine sonnet which begins like this:
The world is too much with us, late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Poets and prophets are people who have the ability to look a bit deeper than the surface and see what’s going on underneath. They put us in touch with the deep things of life. They help us to see the underlying values that can nourish our souls, and not just our bank balances. And in terms of what the world thinks, they are saying something quite surprising, even shocking!
What did we hear from the prophet Isaiah?
Come everyone who is thirsty, here is water. Come you that have no money. Buy corn to eat, come buy wine and milk. Why spend money on what doesn’t satisfy. Why spend your wages and still be hungry. Come, I will make a covenant with you. And you will have life.
So what is this covenant? A covenant is a relationship. And it seems as if God wants to make a covenant with us. It’s an invitation to have a personal relationship with God. It will reach down to the roots of your soul which is your ‘real self’, where life doesn’t depend on your money and your possessions. One of the results of developing this relationship with God, is that you begin to see through the glamour and deceit of the way of the world. And you begin to learn the art of ‘letting go’, of unfastening yourself from the grip of worldly thinking, setting yourself free from the world’s philosophy and letting it go. If, perchance, you have been thinking that possessions and money will bring you happiness and contentment, it’s an illusion. Let it go and let the Spirit of God take you deeper into yourself to discover your real needs.
Jesus was more of a Prophet than a poet but his particular skill was in story-telling. He wrapped his message up in what seemed to be simple parables, and people were invited to ‘unwrap’ them for themselves. And when they did, they often got the shock of their lives, because they met themselves face to face, or rather they met their ‘better selves’ and they knew they were in the presence of God. And as they listened to the parables they felt the challenge to do what the Good Samaritan did, to see themselves as the prodigal who needed to return home, or to sell all they possessed to buy that one field that had the treasure in it. And sometimes, with just a few words like a sharp sword, Jesus would cut through the way of the world and open it up to new thinking – life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
And anyway, by now we should know from our own experiences that too many possessions can be a heavy burden to be carrying. Over-loaded, just having too much, and instead of living in the ‘freedom of the Spirit’, we end up being possessed by our possessions. We need to learn how to let go, not so much of our possessions per se, but of the ‘desire to possess’. It’s more of a spiritual problem than a practical one. Get the spiritual problem sorted out and the other will look after itself. But there are practical measures that we can take.
Paradoxically Jesus said, “what you give away, you keep: and what you hang on to, that you lose”. It’s all there in the parable of the Rich Fool who was thoughtlessly and selfishly amassing wealth and possessions when he could have been enjoying the riches and the freedom of letting go. But he was trapped in the way of the world.
The art of letting go can be learned and we can enjoy doing it! Feeling lighter as we go! Letting go of whatever it is that is preventing you from experiencing that ‘freedom of the Spirit’ which is the gift that comes to you when you enter into your Covenant with God. The Spirit within will teach you how to let go. It’s an ongoing process, entering more deeply into that personal relationship with God, which is the purpose and fulfilment of your life. Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. It consists in your relationship with God. So let go, and let God.
Donald Horsfield, 2nd June 2013
God in Trinity (i)
As you know, I frequently use the phrase Church Calendar. That’s because it contains the yearly programme that we follow. From Advent through Christmas, to Easter, Pentecost and Trinity, and that’s where we are today on Trinity Sunday at the end of the cycle. The theory is that, after a year’s worship and teaching, we should be able to understand and talk about God as Trinity, three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is a big assumption! Too big for many of us!
At one time a few hundred years ago, the CHURCH Calendar was the same as the SOCIAL Calendar, because daily life revolved around the Church in the village which is where everyone lived. You could say that the Church had a finger in every pie that was made!
Those days are over. Social life now is quite separate and revolves around other events. What are they? Television – mustn’t miss my favourite programme. Football, the beautiful game is now the religion of many. Important days are cup-ties, test matches, Wimbledon. Of course, we mustn’t miss that. Now these are not bad in themselves, but do they provide any ‘spiritual’ nourishment? Those who are wise will make sure that they do get spiritual nourishment, and that is why we’ve come to church and we’re here on Trinity Sunday.
The word Trinity obviously means three. And the Church tells us that God is to be understood as three in one. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different aspects of the one God, there to help us understand the Great Mystery that is God. And MYSTERY is the key word. God will always be beyond reach of our understanding whatever words we use.
So the word Trinity is not a ‘description’ of God. We can’t describe God. Whatever God is, is beyond reach of any form of words. The very word God is not God itself, it’s just a word pointing to the Great Mystery in which everything exists including ourselves. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just three ways by which we feel our way into that Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.
On Trinity Sunday we don’t come to Church to try and work out how three can be one, and one can be three. These are just numbers and we’re not here to do mathematics. We’ve come to learn about life and how to live our lives as well as they can be lived. And if God understood as Trinity can help us do that, good. If not, we can find some other way. And I’ll say a bit more later in the service.
God as Trinity (ii)
Ephesians 3:14-19, 4:1-6.
Let’s have another think about the Trinity.
Where did this idea of God as Trinity come from? The word Trinity is not in the Bible. This way of thinking about God was developed by the Church 300 years or so after the time of Jesus. The purpose of the Trinity was not to ‘define’ God, not to say exactly what God is, because nobody not even the Church can do that. Whatever God is, is totally beyond our understanding. As the hymn-writer puts it, Immortal, invisible, God only wise. In light inaccessible hid from our eyes. That is, beyond reach of anything we can say or write down. Ineffable … indescribable…beyond words… is really all that we can say.
So where does that leave us? Well, at least it leaves us with the word GOD. And it’s a very important word especially to religious people. But the word is there for everybody, it’s part of the English language pointing to something that is beyond the reach of words. The word is there because we need it. If we didn’t have the word GOD we’d have to find another word which points in the same direction. It’s pointing in the direction of MYSTERY, the mystery of life itself, of who we are, why we’re here, and what we should be doing.
Your religion, and your involvement in religion, will be pointing you in this direction, towards this Mystery-which-is-God. Your religion will have, or should have, set you off on a journey of discovering ‘who you are’ and how you are related to this ‘God’ who cannot be described in words but can be experienced in the Spirit, in the ups and downs of daily life. You could say that this ‘exploration’ into discovering who we are is the quest that we are all engaged in. And for us Christians, Jesus is our Helper, Guide, Saviour, the one who shows us the way, how to be at-one with God. Jesus is for us the Way, the Truth and the Life. Seek and you will find is what he tells us.
So what are we going to find in this word Trinity? Does it make the mystery of God any clearer for us to understand? Well, it might not! It certainly doesn’t for everybody, and if it doesn’t, it’s better to leave it alone and get on with understanding God in a way that does mean something to you. But at least on this one Sunday we can have a closer look at the word Trinity and see what we can find. The word itself simply means THREE. And these three are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But these too are only words and we mustn’t take them in any literal sense. They too are symbols or parables representing what is beyond the reach of any set of words even if they are sacred scriptures or church doctrines.
We must always remember to be wary of ‘words’, to be careful with them. Don’t get stuck in any form of words. And don’t let your understanding of God get trapped in words. Especially when you read the bible; don’t take it literally! Listen to the Spirit. Look for the meaning behind and underneath and through the words. For example, if you read the Book of Revelation (which I don’t recommend!) you’ll need to be VERY careful. The book is there. It’s the last book in the Bible and it gives vivid pictures of the Father, who is also a King sitting up there on a throne with his only beloved Son sitting on his right hand. They are surrounded by 144,000 people dressed in white who are worshipping and singing hymns of praise. What a picture! It has to be symbolic. We can’t take it literally. And what it means we don’t really know, so it’s best not even to think about it because, whatever the writer of the Book of Revelation understood by it, we no longer live in the same world of beliefs.
But there is one question we can ask about that picture. Where was the Spirit, while the Father and Son were sitting on their thrones? Was the Spirit not also there sitting on the father’s left hand side? And the answer is NO. Definitely not, because the Spirit doesn’t ‘sit down’ anywhere. The Spirit is God in action, movement, energy, wind and fire. The Spirit is God at work in Creation from the beginning until now and still at work penetrating, filling, inter-connecting, and holding all things together in a unity that we call the Universe and of which we are a part, and there lies the possibility of a connection! The Spirit is directing the evolution of all creation according to Divine Wisdom which is beyond any wisdom that we might have, but not beyond our spiritual awareness for we too are essentially spirit and we can know in the depth of our being that we are somehow involved, one with God, in the Spirit.
I can’t emphasize enough that we can’t think of God as ‘God is’. We can only think of God using SYMBOLS. The words Father and Son are symbols. The word Trinity is also a symbol but certainly from where I am it’s not the best symbol. The best symbol is SPIRIT. We should think of God as Spirit. It says that quite simply and clearly in John’s Gospel (4:24). And in John’s letter (1 John 4:8) it tells us that God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. For me, these are the two most precious words in the whole Bible, God is Spirit, and God is love.
Now if we look at the Trinity in the light of this truth, we can say that the Father loves the Son and the son loves the Father and it’s the Spirit of Love that binds them together and holds them in ONE. So God is essentially ONE. As Paul says in his letter to Ephesus, there is one God who is over all, works through all and is in all (4:6). Essentially ONE and not three separate ‘persons’. But if ‘God is love’, love needs somebody to love, and there we have the symbol of the Trinity. Two who love, with the Spirit of Love holding them together in ONE. So the word Trinity is just a symbol pointing to the truth that God is the Spirit of Love. It’s a truth that Jesus believed and lived by. And like Jesus, whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.
The mystery of who God is remains. Of course it does and probably always will. So we have a lot of exploring still to do and where it will lead us, we don’t know. But we live by faith and we travel in hope, trusting that all will be well.
Donald Horsfield, 26th May 2013
Spirit of Pentecost
Matthew 3:13-17; Romans 8:14-17
I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I don’t do numbers. There are those who do and I thank God for them. Meanwhile I get on with what I can do, which is words. And there are two words which are predominant in the New Testament part of our Bible. I didn’t count how many but I did look in the concordance and it was clear that those two words are used more often than any others. And they are the word LORD and the word SPIRIT. Both of them referring to Jesus. The Lord is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17). And that’s what we focus on at Pentecost. This is the climax of the whole story of the life of Jesus. Jesus is now understood as being ‘alive in the Spirit’, moving in and through the whole of creation and with a particular interest in those who can respond through the spirit within them. And that’s us! Each one of us! So what I want to do is look at what the Spirit is ‘up to’. What’s it doing and wanting for us and with us? I’ve got four headings: BAPTISE, GUIDE, EQUIP, UNITE.
BAPTISE. The first thing the Spirit wants to do is baptise us. Now maybe you’ve already been baptised or christened as a baby, or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter because that baptism was just a symbol, or a parable, pointing to another baptism. Jesus’ cousin John was a specialist in water-baptism and in Luke’s Gospel (3:16) he tells the people – I baptise with water, but there’s somebody coming who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. And Jesus himself, as we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, had both baptisms at the same time. As he came up out of the water the Spirit descended upon him. This Spirit-baptism is for all of us. We can all have it.
What it amounts to is wakening up to the Spirit of God that is already within you. And this will happen for you in your own way, because you are very special to God who will respect your freedom. Symbolically, the dove will descend. That’s God’s Spirit coming to awaken your spirit and setting you off on the spiritual adventure of discovering the depth of your own spirituality and your relationship with God. That’s it! That’s the baptism! You don’t need to have a big drama. You don’t need to record dates in your diary. It’s just a wake-up-call and getting you ready for what comes next which is GUIDANCE.
We read that after his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness to do some thinking. It’s part of the deal. We’re called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind (Luke 10:27). It’s not a case of getting swept off your feet. By all means enjoy the emotional experience of your relationship with God, that will be good for you and you need to do that, but don’t leave your brains at the door when you come to church. Use whatever ‘grey matter’ you have, to think things through for yourself.
Try to see the bigger picture of the world, indeed of the Universe that you live in. You are part of it; you’re at home! And then work out for yourself what to do, how to live as a witness to the fact that you’ve woken up to the reality of the spiritual dimension of life. But you’ve still got your feet on the ground, and the Lord who is the Spirit guiding you is still concerned for God’s will to be done on earth. John’s Gospel is a commentary, not a record of, but a commentary on, the life and teaching of Jesus. It’s not like the other three Gospels. It’s not telling us what Jesus said. In chapter 16, John as it were, sees Jesus telling his disciples, when the Spirit of Truth comes, She will lead you on, farther than I have been able to take you.
Just a little ‘aside’ here. What most of us don’t know, because those who translated the Bible have hidden it from us, is that throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, the concept of Spirit is feminine and not masculine. This is a correction that needs to be made and that’s why I said ‘She’. The ‘feminine’ side of God has been much neglected to the poverty of the Church’s message.
According to John, the Spirit will lead us deeper into truths that we need to know. And these truths are not about domination and control but about freedom, about loving relationships, peace, mercy, justice and kindness. So there’s a job to be done spreading that word and we need to be EQUIPPED to do it, and that too is the Spirit’s ministry to us.
We’re all different with individual gifts and abilities. These are part of our God-given equipment for the task in hand. Identify your gifts and abilities, and dedicate them and use them for the building up of what Paul calls the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). But this idea of the church as the Body of Christ has been too narrowly understood. The Body of Christ is more than the Church. It’s wherever people are awake to the prompting and guidance of the Spirit, whether they are attached to any religion or not. They will be known by the quality of their lives. They will be seen to possess the fruit of the Spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.
And where is all this leading to, the baptism, the guidance and the equipment? In answer to that I can do no better than quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (and we are now the Ephesians!). There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called us. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism: there is one God and father of all, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all. That’s a wonderful statement of oneness, unity and of harmony, the inter-connected Oneness of all that exists. God IS the Oneness that will be greater than the sum of the parts. So the mystery of God remains, but we belong to it. We are part of it. We can feel it deep within ourselves. Our spirit knows it, for it is our true home.
And so there it is – the work of the Spirit. To baptise, to guide, to equip, and to bring us home.
Donald Horsfield, Pentecost 2013
Living Under Pressure
Philippians 4: 10-13, 2 Corinthians 11: 24-29
What I want to do is offer you a short meditation on the theme of Living Under Pressure … which of course is what we are all doing! But there are different kinds of pressure. There’s good pressure and bad pressure, healthy kinds of pressure and harmful, pressures that are positive and helpful, and those that are not and which we should avoid.
So there are pressures of all kinds. There used to be and probably still are, though I haven’t seen one for a while, homes with a barometer on the wall which you would ‘tap’ and take a reading to measure the air pressure. This would tell you what the weather was like outside and what the prospects were for the next few days. Low pressure – rain. High pressure – dry and sunny.
But there is another pressure which we should be more concerned about. Let the weather look after itself. So what’s this other pressure? It’s our blood pressure! If you’re not feeling too well you go to the doctors and one of the first things they do is check your blood pressure. This will tell you something about what the ‘weather’ is like on the inside. Is it all peaceful and calm in there? Or are you having some rough and stormy conditions to cope with?
Your blood pressure is a general indication of the effect of all the other pressures that are weighing on you. And these days we are susceptible to so many pressures pushing us this way and that. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going and we struggle to keep our balance. Even the very act of having your blood pressure taken can send it shooting up! And that’s why they usually give you the equipment to take home and do it yourself when you’re more relaxed.
From the reading we heard Paul had a few ‘pressures’ to cope with, but in spite of everything he managed to keep his equilibrium. I have learned, he said, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t feeling the pressure and that he needed to do something about it, but that he was in touch with a source that enabled him to ‘keep his balance’.
Of course we’re all different mentally, physically, emotionally, and our situations are different. And comparisons are odious, that’s a saying I remind myself of quite often. And I usually say that they’re odorous as well! Nevertheless, if there is a source that we can all be in touch with, as Paul was, then we need to know what it is. So let’s have a look for it amid all the pressures that we’re feeling. Obviously we need to identify and welcome those pressures which are good and wholesome, and stand against, resist, those which do us harm by either lifting us up too high or taking us down to dangerous levels. We need to keep a balance.
There are certain parts of our bodies that are regarded as ‘pressure points’. In those places the beat of our hearts can easily be felt by the nurse or doctor in your wrist or some other place. That’s for your blood pressure. But there are other kinds of pressure points too and anybody who wants to influence us would go for those places. And that is what the ADVERTISERS do. They go for the weak spots in our defences. They try to break through our defences to get what they want, which is usually our money! But it could be other things. They may want to influence our behaviour or our beliefs, or even take control of us at a deeper level by creating a dependence or even an addiction. So we need to be careful in identifying the pressures that the outside world is putting on us.
So let’s do a bit of identifying first of all, the good pressures. There is the simple and obvious pressure, that we don’t bother to think about, of just being alive. I’m not talking about blood pressure. That keeps your body alive. This is more of a spiritual pressure. You measure it with your mind and in your thoughts and feelings. It’s the awareness of just being you in this amazing, wonderful and mysterious universe. This awesome universe had given birth to you! Of course your parents gave birth to ‘you’, but the universe gave birth to them first. So we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s hard to find a name for what’s behind it. We could call it a Life-Force, a Creative Spirit, or we could call it God. It doesn’t matter what word we use. Feel the pressure, the wonder, the awe, the miracle. And respond to it with your own spirit and find yourself ‘at home’ in it, where you really belong.
I’m just going to mention quickly three other pressures that are there, part of life. And the first is EMOTIONAL PRESSURE. This is the weakest link in our defences and the advertisers make full use of it appealing to our feelings and fears, our hopes and dreams. They try to tempt us into some fantasy world where we have everything we could ever want. And to do this they appeal to our lower nature – lust, envy, pride, greed. They advise you to put yourself first and act as if you were the only one in the world that matters. They stress possessions and ownership, having the right home, clothes, car, food, holidays. But if we are wise we will not be taken in. We will look a bit deeper into ourselves and feel the better kinds of emotional pressure. The pressures of goodness and love, compassion, sympathy, tenderness, kindness and tolerance, responsibility and concern for others. Feel the good pressures and respond to them. You can feel the pressure of getting to know yourself better, to do a bit of self examination, to understand your feeling more. This will help you to keep your balance. You will then be more in control of your emotions and able to enjoy them but without being dominated by them.
To help you maintain that balance there is INTELLECTUAL PRESSURE. By all means be alive and love life with all your heart and soul – that is with your emotions – but do it also with your mind and your strength … that is with the strength of your mind. In other words, use your head! Don’t get carried away with your feeling, weigh things up, make wise choices. A bit of common-sense goes a long way. Try to see the end from the beginning and if it doesn’t look promising don’t go that way!
Then lastly there is MORAL PRESSURE. The pressure to ‘do good’ simply because it is good. Do it for goodness sake! Goodly pressure is Godly pressure because God is good and the more you seek to do good, the more you will be aware of God’s presence in your life. As believers in God and followers of Jesus, it is our duty and privilege to exert ‘moral pressure’ on the world we live in. This means being involved, as much as we can, with those agencies that are putting pressure on governments and decision makers and those who have power and authority over others.
Whatever else is going on we all need to feel God’s pressure, the pressure of goodness, truth and love. And feeling it we also need to exert it in order to make this world a place where all people can enjoy the pressure of just being alive. And thank God for it.
Donald Horsfield 5th May 2013
First of all, I have a text. I’ll announce it and then I’ll leave it there until I need it. It comes from the 2nd letter to Corinth Ch 3, v 17, and this is it – The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
A good text I think for Easter Sunday! What I want to do now is share a few thoughts with you and offer you a kind of meditation on the Easter theme; something to get you thinking and maybe expand, or deepen, your understanding of Easter – which after all is the central event, the focal point of the Christian faith.
Easter is, as it were, the spiritual equivalent of what scientists call ‘the Big Bang’, which started off the existence of the physical universe.
The Easter event is not just Easter Sunday, but everything to do with the life and teaching and death of Jesus. At Easter it was all compressed and concentrated into this weekend when the whole thing ‘exploded’, releasing a spiritual power which is still vibrating throughout the universe and even today we can pick up the vibes.
I also like to think of Easter as God’s ‘parable’. All things come in parables – I’m sure I’ve mentioned that before, but it’s important to remember. Jesus was essentially a ‘teller of parables’. Mark says that all his teaching was in parables (4:34). A parable is that which points beyond itself to some truth that you have to discover – or maybe, you have to let it discover you! It’s an encounter with Truth.
You discover the truth of Easter not just with your ‘mind’, but with your heart as well. Easter can both challenge your mind and embrace your heart at the same time.
So for me, Easter is God’s parable. It points beyond the physical events of whatever happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday to a spiritual happening that can also happen to us and change our lives, giving them a new direction and a new power to move in that direction.
Easter is not about saying you believe in a literal way the stories in the Book, there’s no ‘power’ there! It’s not about trying to ‘prove’ that the stories are literally true, you can’t do that anyway. Parables are not for proving! Getting people just to say that they ‘believe in the resurrection’ is to miss the whole point to Easter!
It’s not about having a belief in your head but having a presence and a power in your heart. That ‘presence and power’ is best described by the word Spirit. And of course this message, this truth, is also there in the Book. It just needs to be carefully extracted and explained which I will now do, beginning with the text I left behind. The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Now clearly, Jesus is the Lord, and the Lord is the Spirit.
Jesus of Nazareth, that is Jesus in the body, has now become ‘Jesus in the Spirit’…or…Jesus the Christ. These two words are interchangeable, Spirit and Christ. Easter is telling us that Jesus is now alive, not in the physical dimension of ‘body’ (the body has died) but in the dimension of Spirit, and one with God, for God is Spirit.
Jesus now free from the limitations of the body, is able to touch the spirit that is in each one of us and set us free to live in that same dimension of the Spirit, or (in the words of Paul), to know the power of the Resurrection (Phil 3:10).
The 1st letter of Peter (3:18) tells us that – Jesus was put to death physically, and made alive spiritually. So at Easter we learn that Jesus the teller of parables has now himself become God’s parable, pointing beyond his bodily existence and now fully alive in the Spirit; one with God, the Eternal Spirit, in whose likeness we have all been made and whose desire is to draw us all to Himself, into Oneness, with Christ in God.
At Easter we celebrate Jesus of Nazareth becoming Jesus the Christ, alive in the Spirit and one with God, causing a ripple on the airwaves of an evolving universe (there’s a Spirit in the air) which is able to awaken that same spirit in the lives of those who are ready to respond.
If you ever want a spiritual uplift open your Bible and read the whole of Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans where you will find these words – if Christ lives in you, God’s Spirit has become one with your spirit, and you know that you belong to the family of God.
You may well ask what happened to the body of Jesus? But once again, just to ask that question is to be missing the point (we know what happens to dead bodies!). This is God’s parable that we’re dealing with. It’s not the hunt for a missing body. It’s not, find the body and you’ve solved the mystery!
No! no! It’s not like that. We don’t need to know what happened to the body. If you go down that path you’ll find yourself waiting for the body of Jesus to come back, riding on a cloud in the sky, which sadly, some people are doing but there’s no future in that!
Jesus has already come back, or to put it more truthfully, he has never left us. He is always with us ‘in the Spirit’, in the NOW of the present moment. Paul tells the church – you are now the body of Christ (1Cor 12:27). Christ lives in you. The spirit that was in Jesus is now in you. He has no hands but our hands to do his work today, no mind but our minds to unravel the mysteries and unpack the parables.
We are God’s people living in the Spirit, and so Christ living in us, working together to answer the prayer of Jesus. Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done, until all are one, in the unity, peace and love of God.
Donald Horsfield, 31st March 2013
People Come First
Today is the 3rd Sunday in Lent. The word Lent comes from the same root as the noun ‘length’ and the verb ‘to lengthen’. It’s a time for Christians to focus on the life and teaching of Jesus and to lengthen our understanding of it; to expand and develop our insight into what Jesus was about, what he was doing and wanting during his life and ministry.
It is important for us to be doing this ‘lengthening business’ because if you get a fixed idea into your head as the ‘right answer’ that somebody gave you when you were in Sunday School and you haven’t lengthened it, then you’ll be stuck there and your religion will not be the exciting adventure of discovery that it could be and should be.
In my early years I had a few fixed ideas that I lived with for a long time and really I was a prisoner of those fixed ideas. Basically they were thinking that Jesus was in some way wanting to change God’s mind; that God would be sending all sinners to hell if they didn’t believe the right things about Jesus. And of course I was going to tell them what those right things were. Well I don’t know about changing God’s mind. I was the one who had to change my way of thinking. And I came to understand that Jesus was not in the business of changing God’s mind but rather he was in the business of revealing God’s mind. Telling us and showing us what God is really like or as I would prefer to put it now I’m a bit wiser, enabling us to see what the word ‘God’ means.
And it is very simple. The word God means LOVE. “God is love, and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them” (1John 4:16)
What I find fascinating about the life of Jesus are those thirty years he spent before his ministry began. What on earth was he doing all that time? Well among other things he must have been looking around, observing, thinking and working things out. He would have been familiar with all the stories about Moses and Abraham, Job and Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and he would have been looking for some thread of meaning and direction that would link them all together. He wanted to know what God was doing with this people who called themselves ‘the Chosen People’.
Chosen for what? As Jesus looked around he must have wondered about that because what he saw was a religion that had come to a full stop. It had hardened and solidified. The ‘spirit’ seemed to have departed. ‘Ichabod’ is the biblical word for it. In case you ever come across that word it means ‘the spirit has departed’. But that ‘spirit’ was moving in the heart and mind of Jesus, so he was looking for the presence and activity of that spirit in the religion he had grown up with and was all around him. But what he saw was not the spirit, it was the Torah, the law of Moses, which seemed to be the ‘be all and end all’ of the religion of the times.
The Law came first and people who kept the Law would be blessed by God, and people who didn’t would pay the price of not doing it. The connection between God and religion seemed to be broken somehow. It didn’t ‘ring true’ in the mind of Jesus. It didn’t chime in with the music that was throbbing through the very veins of his life. The Law of Moses, the Torah, was the Ten Commandments plus a few hundred others. But it was the fourth commandment about keeping the Sabbath Day holy that seemed to dominate all the rest. A person’s standing with God seemed to be based completely on that, as it still is with ultra-orthodox Jews today.
The Law came first and people came second. Jesus wanted to turn that round and put people first. For Jesus, people were more important than the observance of the Sabbath Law. What Jesus said was this, “the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath”. People came first because the ‘real purpose’ of the Law was for the good and guidance of the people and not to preserve the holiness of God. There are even stories in the Bible of how people were put to death for breaking the Sabbath Law, preserving the holiness of God at all cost.
We don’t often read of Jesus being angry. But this did make him angry. The purpose of God’s Law was being twisted and distorted, tying people up in knots and loading them with a heavy burden instead of liberating them into the freedom of the spirit. And so the teaching of Jesus offered a new understanding of God, or perhaps restored one that had been overlaid with too much legalism. But it didn’t suit the religious leaders and they began looking for ways to get rid of him. This was no surprise to Jesus and he was quite ready to pay the price of following the guidance of the spirit within him. He said that the new wine of his teaching had to go into new wine skins. He said it’s no good sewing new cloth onto old garments.
People are not there simply to obey religious teaching and be crushed by it if they don’t. And so on a wider scale this means that all religions should be open to change under the influence and guidance and persuasion of the Spirit. Jesus would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Ezekiel (36:26f) where God is understood to say, “I will put my Spirit in you. I will take away your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh”, so that you can feel people’s deepest needs. These words would have had a ‘ring of truth’ for Jesus, as they did for Paul who later wrote, “the Spirit is God’s secret agent, not the Law. The Spirit within will remove stony hearts and stony laws, creating a new humanity where the only law is the law of love and everything will flow from that”.
Jesus was living for and eventually died for this new understanding of our relationship with God. The spirit within him was his teacher and his guide, and that same spirit has now been poured out and made available to all people. It’s the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Love, wanting to embrace all humanity, whatever religion, creed or culture they belong to. And if we are the Church of God, followers of Jesus, we need to keep in tune with that Spirit.
Donald Horsfield, 3rd March 2013
The Finger of God
Luke 11:14-20 (RSV), 2 Corinthians 3:1-6
In these passages of scripture there’s one phrase that I want us to look at and think about, which is what scripture is there for isn’t it? It’s not just giving us information that we have to say we believe, God has more respect for us than that. It’s inviting us to use our minds and think about what we have read, so that we can understand it and God can speak to us in our own times. It’s the LIVING WORD of God that we need for the ‘living of these days’. So what is the phrase that I have in mind?
The Finger of God – that’s what it is. Jesus is reported as saying “If I, by the finger of God, bring healing and blessing to people, then the kingdom of God has come among you”.
The Finger of God – does that mean God has fingers? Of course not! We don’t take it literally. It’s just a colourful and symbolic way of talking about ‘the presence of God’.
This is the only way we CAN talk about God, in parables, stories and picture language, which point us to something that is beyond words. Of course we have to use words – but that means we have to be very careful HOW we use words, and how we understand them.
St Francis used to tell his followers, “go out and preach the Gospel, use words if you have to!” Which means that what you DO is more important than what you SAY. In one of his letters Paul talks about “doing the truth”, not so much believing it but doing it. Let your actions speak for you because they speak louder than words and more clearly too.
So we need to have this firmly in our minds when we’re reading the Bible. Words can point you in the direction you need to go, but they can’t take you there. You have to go yourself, find the way yourself, do your own thinking. Words can be good servants but bad masters, so don’t let them enslave you, freedom is too precious.
This line of thinking was summed up for me very nicely in something I read recently. It said, “the ‘word’ water is not drinkable; the ‘word’ bread is not edible; and the ‘word’ God is not God. The word ‘water’ points to an ‘experience’ of drinking; the word ‘bread’ points to an ‘experience’ of eating; and the word ‘God’ points to an ‘experience’ that is … well … beyond words. It’s too deep for words – but very real, none the less.
So when we read about ‘the finger of God’ it doesn’t mean that God has fingers. If God has fingers that must also mean God has hands as well. And of course the Bible does talk a lot about God’s hands – especially God’s Right Hand. So taking this literally, which of course we don’t do, God must be right-handed and as a result of that left-handers have actually been persecuted as enemies of God. The word ‘sinister’ simply means left-handed or left-sided, but now it carries overtones of evil, menace and wickedness. Although one sharp lad in Sunday School said that he thought God did everything with his left hand. Why? Because he said Jesus was sitting on his right hand!
Teaching children about God needs a lot of skill and sensitivity so that they don’t get fixed with just one idea which they have to unlearn when they get older. And of course that’s when they stop going to church because that one way of thinking is no longer relevant and they haven’t been given any alternative.
So if words can only take us so far, we have to find other ways of knowing God. And there are other ways that we should explore. We have our feelings and emotions, a rich source of knowledge if we tread carefully. There is intuition, insight and imagination which are all part of everybody’s make-up, gifts of God that need to be grown and developed. Fruit and vegetables are grown in our garden to feed our bodies. Insight and imagination need to be grown in our minds to feed our faith in God.
So let’s do that for a minute. Use our imagination and think about the finger of God. Of course, God has a finger! And one of the things God does with that finger is BECKON … Come, come closer, come to me all those who are looking for the real meaning and purpose in life. Or in the words of Jesus, “Come unto me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
If things are getting too much for you, maybe there’s something from your past that you haven’t come to terms with, something you’re ashamed of that needs forgiving. Maybe you’re feeling lost and lonely, like the prodigal son – come home. I often remind myself of the poem of William Wordsworth, “trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God who is our home.” Use your imagination and spiritual insight and see the finger of God beckoning you to come closer, to feel at home, and enjoy God’s closeness.
Fingers also POINT. And God’s finger does the same. There are places to go, people to meet, situations to become involved in, and if God wants you there, there will be a finger of some sort pointing the way. But how do you know? How do you recognise it? How can you be sure? Well, you can’t be sure, that’s not an option. But faith is an option. Faith means TRUSTING the guidance that you think might be there.
I remember some ‘in-service training’ I once did at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire, a lovely place, led by a Roman Catholic monk. And this is what he wisely said about the pointing finger of God if you’re looking for God’s guidance, “Consider all the options carefully, prayerfully and honestly … then make your decision … and TRUST that that’s what God wants you to do, that it’s where God wants you to go. Do it and you will find that God is with you.”
And finally, fingers on hands are CREATIVE. And God is the Supreme Creator. The Book of Genesis has that splendid, imaginative story about the creation of the world, where God takes a handful of clay and shapes it into living people.
And today living people can put themselves back into the hands of God to be re-shaped and re-created by coming close in response to the beckoning finger and by following the finger that points towards fulfilment of all that we have it in us to be.
Donald Horsfield, 3rd February 2013
IN THE BEGINNING
Genesis 1:1-12, 26-28
What goes around – comes around.
I don’t know if you’ve heard that saying, it’s not very well known. But I’ve heard it a time or two and it’s one that I like to use myself when the occasion arises. But when is that?
Well, let’s say that there is something ‘going around’, an epidemic of some sort, maybe a flu bug. It’s ‘going around’, and then one day it ‘comes around’ because you catch it yourself as some of us have! What goes around – comes around.
It might be a word or a phrase that everybody’s using. On the radio, the telly, in the street, you’re hearing it all the time. It’s going around, and then, one day perhaps to your surprise, you start using it yourself. It’s ‘come around’.
So that’s what it means. And it’s true also on a bigger scale, especially at this time of the year – January, New Year. What goes around, comes around, and here it is again, another year to tick off on your life’s journey. How many more?
BUT, we’re not going to be pessimistic! We’re going to be positive, because what’s come around is another year and a NEW BEGINNING. And we can let the idea of New Beginnings be our theme to get us off to a good start. Let the idea of NEW BEGINNINGS be a ‘golden thread’ to lead us through whatever the year has in store.
And that’s why we’ve had a Bible reading about Beginnings. The book of Genesis opens with the words In the beginning GOD: and that’s what we want to hear, that’s what we need – A God of new beginnings, but also a God who understands our past and forgives our mistakes. A God who gives us hope and encouragement, and confidence as we look to the future. But wait a minute. Let’s just take five and think about the word GOD – what does it mean? What do we understand by the word GOD? Who is God? What is God?
Well, first of all, God is just a word. But it can become an EXPERIENCE. It’s like other words. LOVE is just a word. You can look it up in the dictionary but it can also be an experience. You can find it’s meaning, not in a book but in yourself, in your own life.
The word GOD is just a word but it represents, it stands for, all the good things in life. You’ve probably heard me say this before “God is good, with nothing ‘o’ left out”, the totality of goodness.
So that is where we start. That’s the real beginning of our journey through life. When you find the meaning of ‘God’ – not in the dictionary, but in yourself when you start looking for goodness in yourself, when you come to see and believe that God is the Source, the Centre and the Supply of all that we need in our pursuit of goodness, truth and love. Because that’s what we should be looking for in life, is it not? In meeting God in this way you can have an experience of the Spirit, the power, the energy to become the best person that you can be. That’s the beginning of our real life’s journey – when God is no longer just a word but an experience, something that happens to you.
“In the beginning – GOD”. That’s a statement of faith. It’s not a scientific ‘fact’. Not something you can ‘prove’. It’s more like an invitation, an invitation into the experience of what the word means. It’s the same with other words like ‘love and peace and beauty, joy, mercy, kindness and forgiveness’. And the word GOD is the “composite word” for all of these. The word GOD means love, peace, beauty and goodness, and you can experience these without any academic qualifications. You don’t need degrees in theology (God help us!). You just need your basic humanity and the WISDOM that resides there. Being human is enough. The spirit within you is already related to, connected with, and ultimately ‘one with’ the Eternal Spirit, that we call God. And a new beginning, a new awareness of that relationship, can start at any time.
In verse 27 of our creation story, it tells us that in the beginning “God created human beings, making them like himself”. And once again this is not a scientific statement. This is pure poetry, but it’s more powerful than any scientific BIG BANG, it’s a spiritual bang! And the vibrations from it are forever resonating through the whole of Creation. And we can ‘pick up’ those vibes if we are spiritually alert. And we can make new beginnings whenever they are needed. And we do need them. And the help and guidance is there for us.
In the Christian religion we have the life and teaching of Jesus. He was forever calling people to New Beginnings. “The spirit of God is within you,” he said, “listen, learn and follow.” Which is what we are doing. We are now on the journey of faith. We travel by faith as we go through this life. But it’s enough, the resources are there. We can make whatever new beginnings we need, trusting that all will be well.
Donald Horsfield, 6th January 2013