Saturday, 9 June 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa

My wife and I had four friends from our old church in Diss over last night to enjoy homegrown pizza together.  It was - if I say so myself - a hoot.  In good company I drank a lot of wine and, as Luther might put it, right freely!  Luther, of course makes an excellent point here, but despite which there is still no getting round the biblical injunction against getting drunk.  Why do the biblical authors make this point (see here)?  The obvious, and most boring answer, is that drunkenness is a stepping stone to other forms of debauchery; e.g. get drunk and you might find yourself flirting, fighting or otherwise disgracing yourself, etc.  That's fine, but of course that wouldn't really have been much of a temptation last night; it was just a group of friends enjoying each other's company over wine and pizza.  Why not drink to excess?

The answer I would suggest is not to do with the effects of alcohol on inhibitions after having drank too much, but rather the state of disordered desires that precedes the excess, and of which the drinking is a physical manifestation.  That is, excessive alcohol consumption is symptomatic of a kind of incontinent appetite, a grasping, greedy reaching over and over again for something that in itself is a social good.  In this sense, to drink too much is no different from eating too much or buying too much, or any other manifestation of an 'I must have' mentality.  To be sure, alcohol also incorporates lowered inhibitions that can be unhelpful, but essentially the problem with all of these manifestations of an incontinent appetite rests not so much in the behaviour itself but in its opposition to who God is as pure self-giving generosity, as the opposite of an 'I must have' appetite.  It is because God is the opposite of the open, desiring mouth that just wants more, more, more, that drinking too much is wrong.  As such, the solution to the problem of drinking too much is not necessarily cutting back, but rather in drawing closer to Him who is pure self-giving love and becoming like Him in his total (violent, even) generosity.  This is not to give licence to excessive drinking, but rather to acknowledge that drinking or not drinking are not the point, as neither represent a better, more godly position than the other.  

I hope I've explained myself clearly.  I'm not arguing for drunkenness, but neither am I arguing for sobriety as being good or bad in themselves; I'm arguing for being transformed (intoxicated) by the Spirit, and drawn into the circle of God's expanding love in Christ, and allowing that love to rightly organise one's appetites.  Only transformed and reordered desire towards Christ can solve the problem of drunkenness and sobriety.  


Thursday, 7 June 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon at Yaxley, Suffolk

[WARNING: heavy pilfering from Mike Reeves ahead!]

Icon of the Trinity
I’ve got about 10 or so minutes to try and talk about the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a bit tight, but I like a challenge!

I think that for me, the main reason why the Trinity is important is because it is the answer to the question of what Christians mean when they say that God is love, and that it is because God is love that we are invited to share in his life at the most intimate level. The doctrine of the Trinity IS the good news of Christianity. 

One of the problems with talking about the Trinity is that it’s easy to become either too complicated or too simple. Both are wrong, primarily because we don’t first know God as Trinity by working him out, like reading a really long and boring instruction manual translated badly from the Japanese into broken English. God is one, but he is also three, and the three are one, and they are the same but they do different things, but those things are the same – what does that even mean?? How is THAT good news? Instead it’s better to start with where Jesus started, which is with God as Father: his Father and ours. Now, whatever our experience, we all know or have an idea of what a father is; I’ve got one, you’ve got one, Tiffer’s become one again, and I’m about to become an adoptive father too. What Jesus was expressing in calling God his Father was neither a complex nor a simple theory about an idea, but a relationship. By saying that God is his Father, Jesus was saying everything he is comes from the Father. And unlike me, I bet God didn’t have to sit through endless meetings with social workers assessing him for his suitability. Jesus’ constant affirmation is instead that one of the most basic things you can say about God is that he is a Father. It gets deeper, because in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, he prays, 
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
The Father then loved the Son before the creation of the world. Before there was a creation to be lord over, and before there were miserable sinners like you and me and especially Tiffer to give laws to, who God is can best be described as a Father loving his Son. And what a shift this brings about in our understanding of God? My own early experience as a Christian was to imagine a god who was distant and vaguely angry. I thought I had to really work hard to please him, and of course nothing I did was ever good enough, there was always that critical voice condemning me. ‘Couldn’t you have tried better?’, or ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ Quite a few years passed before the truth sunk in that God the Father loves me equally as much as he loves Jesus. With the doctrine of the Trinity this simply would not be possible, because if God isn’t Trinity then he also isn’t love. The gospel good news is the shocking truth that God loves us more than we can imagine because he is our Father. Jesus reveals to us a God who before he is anything else is a Father loving his loveable Son. God is Love. And they have always, always lived in a relationship of loving communion with one another. God wants to share his love with us. 

But this is Trinity Sunday, and you can probably sense something or someone missing from this picture. The Holy Spirit, of course. It’s fairly easy to picture God as a Father loving his Son, that is not something that needs much explaining; but with the Holy Spirit we have the introduction of a third and somewhat ghostly member, - a bit like a spiritual gooseberry. Does the Holy Spirit add anything to our understanding of God? Well, quite a lot, actually. 

The Father and Son love each other – that is what they do. But that love is not an exclusive mutual admiration society. All that the Father is he gives to the Son, and the Son gives back all that he is to the Father. Neither cling to what is theirs by right, their power and authority or their status; and the Son just wants to give all of himself away in the extravagant emptying of himself on the cross, which is where we most clearly see who and what God is like. And so intense is this love that it exists as a person in his own right, and the Holy Spirit is the name for this back and forth movement of love between the Father and the Son. I was always a bit nervous of the Holy Spirit. I can get the idea of a Father and a Son, but the Holy Spirit sounds a bit forbidding – the HOLY SPIRIT. Again though, Trinity means that God is love, and that through the Holy Spirit God’s love lives inside us. Having the Holy Spirit in us means that all of the love of God is given to us as a gift. There was never anything to be nervous of. 

Assorted Church Father

It was the Church Fathers who called the giving and receiving of love the Holy Trinity, and they said it was like a kind of dance. It’s hard to picture God as a Can-Can or a disco dancer, but it would probably be a better image than an old man with a long grey beard. This also answers that age old philosophical question about what if the Hokey-Kokey really is what it’s all about. And this dance is the love that God shared in the creation of you and me and even – unbelievably - Jedward. The Father sends his Son, who brings about creation through the power of the Spirit, in order that what is created can share in the Zumba dance of love. The work of the Holy Spirit is to be the means whereby the love of the Father and Son is shared, both between them and with the rest of creation, but especially with humanity, who it turns out are not very good dancers. Without the Holy Spirit we could not share in that love. 

God even loves these two!
When we say that there is one God, Father, Son, and Spirit, what we mean then is that God is one in the sense that God is the love between Father, Son and Spirit. We don’t believe in three separate gods who together make one big God. Christians do not believe in three gods any more than we believe that a child, wife, and husband are three families. 

And for us, the spreading love of God as a Trinity is very good news! What the gospel is calling us to is not just that we can have our bad dancing forgiven, but something much, much more. When I was a new Christian I was often told that becoming a Christian is all about inviting God into our lives, and this is true, but I think a much more accurate way of putting it is as my wife once said; that it is we who are invited into God’s own life, we who are literally invited to join in the dance of love between Father, Son, and Spirit. In his prayer for us, Jesus puts it like this:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
So you see? The invitation of the gospel is really similar to the adoption process I’ve spent years going through to get my new son, who will become as much of a Matcham as I am, even though he wasn’t born into it. It is the invitation to enter into the love between the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit in which we come to know that the Father loves us as much as he loves the Son. And it would be fair to say that who the Father is, is entirely taken up with loving the Son, loving Jesus. Anything more than that is just peripheral. If you want to be more like God, then, the answer is simply to grow to love Jesus more, anything more than that, whether it’s trying to be a better person, or reading the Bible more, or coming to church, is just window-dressing. And none of this is a purely individual thing. The spreading love of God invites us as individuals, but equally we are invited as part of the church, as part of each other, because God always wants to spread his love as wide as possible. It is only as the Church, and not as individuals, that we are the bride of Christ. The good news of the Trinity is that we are invited to a dance and a wedding in which we are all honoured guests, in which we are all first born sons with God as our inheritance, and in which in the church we are together the peasant-bride who marries the king. These are all images that we can relate to and understand: fathers and sons, dancing and weddings, brides and grooms, romance, inheritance, and adoption. If you can understand those things then you can understand the Trinity. The Trinity is not then a dry, boring or irrelevant piece of ancient theology; it is immediately relevant to all that we know as being the best in life. And knowing God as Trinity is the best news ever, because to know God as Trinity is to know that God is love, and we are invited to share that love forever.