Does God take life?
Reflection Sunday 30 January 2022
Does God take life?
4:30 But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
I have always wondered how Jesus walked through the people who were about to kill him and went on his way. I can imagine the men in the synagogue getting very angry with Jesus. Jesus came into the Synagogue filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, but the men in the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ words with anger. They became filled with rage or perhaps filled with another spirit. They reacted greatly when Jesus said that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown and gave the examples of the prophets Elijah and Elisha whose miracles were not done in Israel but among foreigners in neighbouring countries. In their rage the men forced Jesus out of the synagogue and out of the town and they led him to the brow of a hill with the intention to kill him. I presume they grabbed hold of Jesus and led up the hill. But how did he simply walk away? How could he have got away with so many around him?
In another incident in John chapter 8, John tells us that Jesus was teaching in the temple and clashing with the Pharisees, but no one arrested Jesus because his hour had not yet come. This suggests that God the Father was protecting Jesus, allowing no harm to come to him, until it was his ‘hour,’ his time to die on the cross.
Often Christians who are grieving the deaths of loved ones, console themselves by saying it must have been God’s time to take them. This is sometimes said when someone has died in tragic circumstances or when someone dies quite young. But can we really say it was God’s time, when for example someone dies in a car crash when an oncoming speeding car crosses the white line and ploughs into them? In our grief we sometimes clutch at hopes that may contradict. When Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary died, Jesus wept (John 11:35). I imagine that God weeps with us in our grief when any person in the world dies; for everyone’s life is precious to God. The emphasis in the story of Lazarus is not on a God who takes life but one who restores life, one who affirms the life that is in Jesus and the life that is Jesus.
It seems to be that we get many of our beliefs about God controlling whether we live or die from the book of Job. Rather than giving us the answers to why there is suffering in the world and why good people suffer while the not so good seem to prosper, the book may be raising questions, the very same questions we are asking, the very same questions that seem to have no answers. Beware of reading the book of Job literally. It may be a work of fiction, a story about good and evil, and why suffering happens and whether God allows it. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus seems to say that accidents happen. Accidents are not caused or allowed by God. People happen to be in the wrong place at the time. Perhaps when the tower of Siloam fell, it was the sin of poor workmanship or the sin of cutting corners that led to the tower falling. It was not their time nor God’s will.
In other parts of the Old Testament, the length of our life appointed by God is not set down to the very hour or day, but in years. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away Psalm 90:10). In Psalm 39:4 -5 David prays, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” Perhaps we need to read these Old Testament passages in the light of the Word of life that Jesus brings.
Our lifetime is short, for some shorter than for others. Whether it is short or long, whether we live or we die, our life is always in God’s hands, our life is always part of God. (Nothing)… will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). Whether our life on earth in our bodies is long or short, God’s will for us like God’s will for Jesus, is that we live life to the full, that we live in the Spirit, filled with the Spirit. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit with the fullness of God’s life flowing in harmony with our life, as one. When we die it is not our life that leaves us but we who separate from our bodies. We are life, raised up into eternal life.
So, what ever we face may we remember than our life cannot be taken from God, for our life and God’s life flow as one in the Spirit.
Reflection Sunday 23 January 2022
Filled with the power of the Spirit
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…
We often refer to others as being full of themselves, full of ego, full of their own importance, full of shame, full of self-pity, full of bitterness, full of hatred and so on. What we may mean when we make these kinds of comments about people is that they are so full of something that they cannot see, or feel, or do anything else. It is as if they are blinded to all else because they are so full of something. They are so full of one thing that they have no capacity for anything else.
When Jesus returned to Galilee, Jesus was not full of his own importance. Jesus was not full of his own power. Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit. What is the power of the Spirit? How did Jesus become filled with the power of the Spirit? What might being filled with the power of the spirit mean? Can we be filled with the power of the Spirit? If we are filled with other things, how can we be filled with the spirit? If we were filled with the power of the Spirit instead of being filled with other things, what difference might it make?
To explore what being filled with the power of the Spirit may mean, perhaps we can look at where Jesus was before he returned to Galilee. Jesus was in the wilderness. In Luke 4:1-2 we read - Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the Devil. In the wilderness Jesus’ new fullness of the Spirit was tested and he came through the testing in such a way that the power of the Spirit filled him. Jesus entered the wilderness full of the Spirit and he returned from the wilderness filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and the Devil tried to render Jesus powerless through the temptations. The power of the Spirit is unlike the power of this world. We do not earn it or work it up. It is what remains or arises when we refuse to choose the powers of this world which are often no more than forms of violence pretending to be the only option for us to take. Sometimes these choices are very difficult because they are presented to us as the lesser of two evils. The power of the Spirit comes by being aware of the powers of this world, by refusing to take and use the power of this world for ourselves. So often we are tempted to take a short cut, to step on someone’s toes, believing that the means justify the ends. We use violence to defeat violence. The danger is that we become a monster in order to defeat a monster.
The power of the Spirit It is not a power stronger than evil. It is a power that arises through weakness. Saint Paul was well aware of this mystery. Paul wrote about it in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 - but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[a] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
We often want power so we can get things done the way we think they should be done. Even in the church we have power struggles. For example, if we don’t like what our leaders are doing. We can think we can do better. We vote them out or create such a toxic atmosphere that they leave and we then fill the vacuum. We are full of our own power- full of ourselves. The church becomes filled with the powers of the world and there is no room for the power of the Spirit.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers, Christians who lived in the deserts of North Africa in the early centuries after Jesus, looked to Jesus’ wilderness experience as the source for their spiritual power. In turn the Celtic Christians of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, modelled themselves on the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the experience of Jesus in the wilderness. They turned their backs on the power of the church and the empire and sought spiritual power from the source of all life, from God alone. They spent much of their lives alone, amongst nature, contemplating, praying, listening for God. They learned that one could not rely on the power one had experienced in the past or simply amass power and carry it with them into whatever situations they would face in the future. The power of the Spirit filled them and continued to fill them in every moment when they chose not the powers of the world but to renounce them and rely alone on the Spirit. And in every moment of relinquishing power, they were filled with the Spirit’s power.
Filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus went on to the Synagogue in Nazareth and tells us why being filled with the power of the Spirit is so important - "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." Luke 4:18,19.
The Good News is just as important today and it is made manifest through the power of the Spirit.
Photo: Native Ginger and Rosella
Signs BE AWARE - Spirit at Work
Reflection Sunday 16 January 2022
Signs – BE AWARE - Spirit at work!
2:11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The disciples saw the water turned into wine and believed. They saw and they believed. But in John 20:29b-31 Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John’s Gospel is often called the book of signs. Signs do not point to themselves they point beyond themselves in the direction one needs to go in order to get to the place one is seeking. In John these signs point to Jesus, and in believing in Jesus one may have life. These signs point to life, to where life can be found. These signs say, BE AWARE - Spirit at work!
In last week’s reading from John’s Gospel, we read how the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Did the Spirit convey the voice of God? Did the voice of God come on the breath of the Spirit?
The same word pnuema is used in the New Testament Greek for both wind and spirit and in the Old Testament the same Hebrew word Ruach is used for wind and Spirit. Just as sound is carried on the wind, the Spirit brings the word of life to us.
The wind makes no sound, but sounds are made as the wind passes through tree branches and around buildings and through windows. Without breath we would make no audible sound, there would be no voice, no way of communicating with words. As the breath flows from our lungs and passes out through our mouths, we form words and the breath carries the sound on which our thoughts are carried and come into being and are expressed and heard by others.
Many years ago in a theological study group, I discovered that in the act of speaking we formulate what we believe. Our spoken words give voice to what we were previously unable to understand. Our unbelief becomes our belief as the Spirit breathes in us and then out through us, illuminating the mind on the way, forming faith. The Spirit works within us bringing us to believe, taking the hidden Word within us and bringing it into being and to fruition, to life. I was reminded at the time of the verse - if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved Romans 10:9).
In the story of the water being changed into wine Jesus speaks the words and the transformation from water to wine takes place. The Spirit creates wine out of water. The Spirit brings about the transformation.
As we read the words of the text today, Be Aware of the Spirit at work. Be open to the work of the Spirit, to take the words we read and bring them alive within us transforming us from unbelief to belief, from death to life.
Wait and listen.
Notice the wind.
Notice your breath.
Notice the effect of your breath creating your voice.
May you be surprised by the Spirit.
A Fire of Love
Reflection Sunday 9 January 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:21-22…and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,
Acts 8:17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
John tells the people that they will be baptised with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus was accompanied by words of love. "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." I like to think a window of love was opened in the skies, a portal between heaven and earth, a river of love flowing out into the world, a wind blowing with forgiving love, a fire of love, warming hearts, transforming lives. Unlike a devastating bush fire which destroys all before it, the fire of love enlivens all, it lifts up the broken hearted, it places people on their own two feet, no longer bound in sin, free to be who God created them to be, alive to all God’s goodness. The fire of love heals the sick, raises the dead, transforms the world.
I have always maintained that an experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience of love.
Luke tells us that a very surprising thing happened in Samaria not long after Stephen was stoned as a martyr and Paul began persecuting the church. The followers of Jesus were scattered and everywhere they went they proclaimed the good news. Philip went to a town in Samaria and the people believed what he said about Jesus. People were healed and great joy came to that town in Samaria. When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they got there, they found that the people had not received the Holy Spirit when they had been baptised and so they prayed that the people would receive the Holy Spirit. They laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit, just as the apostles had received the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
That was a great surprise. Jerusalem had rejected Jesus, but Samaria accepted the message that he was the Messiah, and its people were filled with the Spirit. Centuries of division were broken down with the coming of the Spirit. The fire of love had come to Samaria. It is the fire of love that can cross boundaries and tear down walls of division.
I find it fascinating, puzzling, the Samaritans had believed the message and been baptized in the name of Jesus, yet there was more to come. It is hard to explain what happened, yet it seems to me that we can believe in Jesus, be baptised yet it is when the Spirit comes that something happens. The Spirit it seems fills us with love and sends us out to others in love. No longer is it a matter of private belief or a matter of right and wrong, good and evil, but the Spirit drives us to others in love.
Many times I have spoken of my experience of the Holy Spirit in Ireland. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement of the Spirt which brought Catholics and Protestants together. As the fire of love spread, Catholics and Protestants, separated for centuries discovered a love coming upon them, a fire of love within, and a wind of love that sent them across to the other side, where they discovered a strange love for the enemy, where hatred and bitterness was melted away in the heat of God’s love.
Who knows what surprises lie in store for us in 2022. I think that one of the most surprising things in the life of a Christian is the experience of the Holy Spirit. For me the defining mark of the Spirit in our lives is a baptism of love. The Spirit is a fire of love that burns within us. Of course, we are not always loving and kind, but within us, is a fire of love, sometimes waiting for us to stoke it and sometimes it overwhelms us, surprises us, reminds us that God is love.
Pray that you receive the Spirit, the fire of love within your heart. Pray that our congregation would receive the Spirit, the fire of love, consuming all our divisions, all our bitterness and creating here a place of welcome and love for all people.
May you be surprised by the Spirit. May you be baptised in love.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation