Archives for posts with tag: holy ghost

Sermon for Holy Communion at 1030 on Wednesday 4th November 2020 at St Mary Oatlands

Matthew 5:1-12

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471270293

If you had to say what was the real essence of Jesus’ teaching, the true essence of what it means to be a Christian, I think that a good place to start would be Saint Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

In his great sermon, Jesus built on the foundations of the Old Testament. He put himself in the tradition of the prophets, like Moses. For instance, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet God, and Jesus, who was God, also went up a mountain to give his most important teaching.

Jesus highlighted the old teaching, according to which, if somebody did you harm, you should pay back ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Jesus took that much further by saying you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; again under the old Jewish law, the rule was to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but Jesus taught that you should love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

Jesus said that he had ‘not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’. He was not rejecting the old Jewish law, but rather developing it. It would be a mistake for us to ignore what is in the Old Testament, but Jesus went much further.

The ‘blessed are they’ sayings, these Beatitudes, are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought the first one was rather difficult to understand. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor.’ Poor in spirit – what does that mean? Is it really that they ‘know that they are poor’?

I’m not really sure what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’. It might have connotations of lack of character, being weak-willed or spineless, not, on the face of things, what Jesus might want to give a prize for, in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word which many Bibles translate as ‘spirit’, as in ‘poor in spirit’, is the same word, πνεύμα, that is used for the Holy Ghost, sometimes as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, meaning a sort of rushing wind, reminiscent of the events on Whit Sunday, when a sort of rushing wind came upon the assembled disciples, lighting tongues of fire on their heads (which didn’t burn them, just as the burning bush which Moses came across was not burned up: again, another parallel between Old and New Testaments in the Bible: it’s a sign of God’s presence.)

That word in Greek, πνεύμα, is related to the word that you have in French for a tyre, pneu, or for something inflated like a tyre, pneumatic; they all involve wind or breath. So, what are the poor blessed in? – they are blessed for being short of wind. Blessed are the people who don’t know which way they’re blowing, don’t know whether they’re blowing hot or cold, say.

Or is it in fact better translated the way the New English Bible has it,‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor’? There, the translation has taken the ‘in spirit’ bit and turned it into a sense of consciousness, knowledge. They know that they are lacking, deficient – but deficient in what? On this interpretation, it doesn’t say. They are just ‘poor’.

But the word which means ‘poor’ in this passage goes grammatically with the word for ‘spirit’ the other way. You are not spiriting out the poverty, the being poor, but being poor, deficient, in spirit. In Greek it says, ‘Blessed are the deficient in wind’. To say they are simply ‘poor’ isn’t really right. They’re not short of money, but short of puff.

On Sunday, the preacher said it meant, ‘Blessed are the humble’. Humble. Not people who think they are big-shots. People who know their limitations. Again, that’s not what the Greek says literally, but you could argue that it’s closer to what the words really imply. In need – lacking; in spirit – in self-esteem, say: so, humble, lacking in self-esteem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Think about it a bit, and think what it means for you. Are you humble? Are you running out of puff? Never mind. You are blessed.

But when are you blessed? The other thing you can say about the Beatitudes, and obviously specifically about this first one, is that they are a vision of the future, a vision of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is promising to his followers, but which hasn’t happened yet.

Things may be awful now, but in the world to come it’ll all come right. There might be a snag in this; because you might think, on the basis of this passage, that it was all right to tolerate slavery and oppression in this life, keeping people oppressed, but pacifying them by giving them an assurance that they are on target to inherit heavenly blessings later. That would conflict with what I think is the the heart of the revolutionary message that Jesus gives us.

Those bits of the Sermon on the Mount don’t mean, put up with bad things now because you will be all right later in heaven; but rather, you must do this extra thing, go the extra mile, and not just pay back evil for evil: you must even love your enemy. And the reason for doing that is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it leads to a payoff in heaven.

People often say that the Sermon on the Mount is all very well, but it is just not practical. It demands more than mortal man is capable of. But then you read about people like Nelson Mandela. People can do those impossibly generous things that Jesus recommended. They really can. Really? People like that must need to be saints, you might say.

It’s a good point to make, especially at this time in the Christian year, when we do think about saints. Sunday was All Saints’ Day and the list of the various Beatitudes is, if you like, a list of the things which mark out a saint. Saints – in Latin the word is ‘sancti’ – are people who are marked out, distinguished, holy – holy, which is another word which means the same thing, separate, kept apart from the general run of people. But not necessarily marked out because they’re exceptionally virtuous.

The things that Jesus blesses are all characteristics of saints; but they aren’t superhuman; they are ordinary characteristics, ordinary virtues. Anyone can be a saint. Anyone in any of our churches could be a saint.

St Paul addressed his letters to the ‘saints’ in the various churches he was writing to, and it’s clear that he was just writing to the people in the pews. For example in his First Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: [This is from] ‘Paul, …. unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Sanctified – there’s the ‘sancti’ word – but I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he was only writing to part of the congregation, just to the good guys. He was writing to all of them.

When you work through the list of the Beatitudes you will realise that it is far from being a catalogue of success or perfection; it’s a catalogue full of weakness and need, the sort of thing that ordinary people suffer from. Jesus is affirming that. He is saying that in the kingdom, people like that, ordinary people, will be saints. Just as they are, they will go marching in.

So be a saint: be a peacemaker; be gentle in spirit, care about justice; you are allowed to be sad; people may make fun of you or even actively persecute you for trying to do all these things as a Christian. But don’t worry; you are a saint; you are blessed, and you do have a place in heaven.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13th January 2019

Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:1-11

What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?

Isaiah is saying to the Israelites, come back to the true God. Don’t follow pagan idols. 

‘Why spend money and get what is not bread,

why give the price of your labour and go unsatisfied?

Only listen to me and you will have good food to eat,

and you will enjoy the fat of the land.

Come to me and listen to my words,

hear me, and you shall have life:

I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever,

to love you faithfully as I loved David’ [Is. 55:2-3, NEB]

Salvation is coming. The Messiah will come. He will not be what you expect – he will be like a suffering servant, even – ‘ despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ [Is. 53:3f]. But ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. You can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in it – but you mustn’t be seduced by the beautiful music into not hearing the Bible underneath.

It’s the major theme of much of the Old Testament. The chosen people, the Israelites, ‘like sheep have gone astray’. They have worshipped false gods. Isaiah asks, ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ 

We can recognise ourselves a bit in this, even though it was written nearly 3,000 years ago. Your eyes will probably glaze over if I say this. Yeah, yeah. Of course we shouldn’t get hung up on new cars and posh extensions to our houses. But – we do. What harm does it do? Worse things happen at sea.

Well, Isaiah said to the Israelites, according to some scholars about 700BC, that they needed to ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord.’ It could still be valid for us today.

Because what the Israelites were doing was sin; they were sinning against the one true God. But he offers them a second chance. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

Sin is, in a sense, doing bad things. But underpinning that is the reason that something is sinful. It is, that it shows that the sinner is turning away from, is separated from, God. So if you steal, or envy someone their things, or elope with their wife, those are bad things, but they are also sins, because you are going against God’s commandments. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ [John 14:15f].

But in our other reading, from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have flashed forward 700 years from Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, and St Paul. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true. The Messiah has come. This morning in our services we were marking the Baptism of Christ. Christ meeting the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. You might perhaps think that because of the story of Jesus, there isn’t any need to bother with the Old Testament, with 60+ chapters of Isaiah and things, any more. But remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17). So when the dove came down on Jesus after his baptism in the River Jordan, and the voice from heaven said, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’, it was a pivotal moment, joining the prophetic time with the incarnation of God on earth.

Paul made powerful use of baptism in his preaching to non-Jews. Baptism was a ritual common in Greek cults as well as in Christianity. ‘To his pagan converts it appealed as a sacrament parallel to those of the Greek mysteries’ (C.H. Dodd, 1950 (1920), The Meaning of Paul for Today, Glasgow, Wm Collins Sons and Co, p.130). In the Greek mysteries, by performing sacramental acts ‘spiritual effects could be obtained’ (Dodd).

Running through St Paul’s letters is the idea of the Christians being ‘in Christ’, intimately bound up with Christ. So, in a sense, Christ’s baptism was a symbol of being dead and then resurrected; going down into the water and then rising up out of it.  By being baptised ‘along with’ or ‘into’ Christ, Christians were symbolically sharing in his death and resurrection. 

At the same time, there was a problem: even after being baptised, Christians were still human, they still did sinful things. Paul said that we need to be ‘dead to sin’ in the way that Jesus was. That is, as Jesus died, he couldn’t be prey to sinful influences. He was ‘dead to sin’.  So as a Christian, if I am ‘alive to Christ’, baptised, sacramentally dead and resurrected with him, I too should be ‘dead to sin’. 

But it isn’t magic. It’s a sacrament. The essence of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, as the Catechism in the BCP puts it (p294 of the Cambridge edition). It’s worth reading this bit of the Catechism. Things aren’t as fierce today as they were in the 16th century, when the heading to the Catechism in the BCP was ‘an Instruction to be learned of every Person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. That is, learned by heart, at about 10 years old… 

Anyway, if you’re up for it, this is what you have to learn about being baptised.

‘Question.

How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer.

Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question.

What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer.

Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question.

What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer.

A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question.

What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer.

Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.’

‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. That’s what you get in Christian baptism. But just as sin doesn’t just mean doing bad things, so conversely, being a child of grace doesn’t mean just going with the flow, being baptised and doing nothing in consequence of it. You need repentance, μετάνοια, change of mind, as a prerequisite.

Paul has posed the problem, the puzzle. Why is there still sin around, or rather, can we still get away with committing sins, after we have been baptised? Indeed, he starts with a rather nerdy argument that sounds as though it has come out of a philosophy essay, to the effect that we need to carry on sinning in order to demonstrate by contrast the weight of grace which we have got. It’s almost like saying you can’t understand what it is to be black unless you have white as well.

Paul answers his puzzle not philosophically, but by explaining how we are joined with Christ in the sacrament. Dead with him; dead to sin.  Alive, resurrected, with Christ. So, I come back round to my original question. ‘What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?’

This is tough stuff. It really means that, if we put our heads above the parapet and let people know that we are Christians, it should be evident in what we do, evident in how we behave. 

It means that in business, if we say that our actions are dictated solely by the need to make value, or profit, for shareholders; or in public affairs, if we say that we would like to do something good, but that money, or the market, dictates otherwise; if we see poor people risking their lives to escape poverty and danger, and try to keep them out instead of giving them a place of refuge; in all those cases, we will show ourselves as still not being dead to sin and alive to Christ. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching. God and mammon: the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; giving and not counting the cost. As Jesus said just before he was baptised, in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.’ It’s not enough – although it’s a good start – just to go to church. Think what you have to do, to really do, in order to be really dead to sin.


Sermon for Mattins on Trinity Sunday 2014
Isaiah 6:1-8, Mark 1:1-11

Today is Trinity Sunday. We commemorate the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you turn to page 27 in your little blue Prayer Books [Book of Common Prayer], you will see that there is a rubric which tells you when the words which follow can be used. That includes Trinity Sunday. So instead of what we did chant, the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth … and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, ….’ and then, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost …’, instead of that, we could have said the Creed of St Athanasius, called ‘Quicunque Vult’, Latin for ‘Whoever wants’, that is, whoever wants to be saved; this is what they must believe, if they are to be fit for salvation at the day of judgment.

If you read it afterwards at home, you’ll see that this Creed really goes into the question who God is, and what He is. This all comes from the revelation of Jesus: that Jesus appeared on earth, as a human being.

‘Day by day like us He grew.
He was little,weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us He knew.’
[Mrs C.F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s City, Common Praise, hymn 66]

But He did more than a normal human being could possibly have done. Specifically, of course, He did miracles. And the biggest miracle of all, He was resurrected from the dead. So whatever else you might say, He wasn’t exactly like other men.

‘Thou art my beloved Son’ [Mark 1:11]

Then, when Jesus had ascended, after His wonderful life and death and resurrection, at Pentecost, last Sunday, Whit Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples. They realised that God still cared for them. Their Lord was still there. His Spirit is with us.

So when we think of God, the Christian way to do it is to think of the three ‘persons’ of God, as they’re called: the father, the creator; the son, and the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’ we sing in the hymn [Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Common Praise, hymn 202], but what does it really mean? It’s a slightly odd way of thinking about our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Normally we approach those sacred mysteries one by one, and especially through thinking about Jesus Himself and studying the Gospels, His life and teaching here on earth.

The voice from heaven said, Thou art my beloved Son’. So if we accept that this was the voice of God, He said he had a Son. Somehow related to, or representative of, that god, but in the form of a human being. God is not just the Creator.

But then, perhaps those two, Father and Son, are no longer visible: but surely, we are still able to discern lots of greater or lesser occasions when it becomes apparent in various ways that God is still at work here among us. That is the third face of God, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

If there hadn’t been Jesus Christ, or if we hadn’t accepted that He was more than just a prophet or a great teacher, and if we had not recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit, then one would be left with worshipping God as Creator, but not knowing whether He was still actively involved with us; whether He cared for us, or whether in fact God had simply wound up the mechanism of life and set it going: and then gone on to look at other things.

(Incidentally that is roughly where the Jewish and Moslem religions are. They recognise the life of Jesus and they acknowledge Him to have been a great prophet: but nothing more.)

But we know that He did things that would normally be completely impossible, culminating in His glorious death and resurrection. Resurrection from the dead. So Jesus has god-like powers. He isn’t just a great preacher. He really had power to heal, in fact even to raise people from the dead; and when He Himself died, power to be resurrected, three days later. We read they heard the voice of God, saying, Thou art my beloved Son’.

The early church had big debates about how to understand the true nature of God and of His Son. One of the early fathers, Arius, decided that in fact, God was not just God in three persons, but that there were effectively three gods: father, son and Holy Spirit were all gods independent of each other. But if that were true, our understanding of God would be very odd indeed. If the father created the son in the normal way, and if the father and the son together created the Holy Spirit, then who created the creators?

Is it true, or would it be true under that arrangement, that Jesus was divine? It’s a very difficult thing to hold in our heads. ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ There is a distinction made, in all the early theology, between ‘persons’ and ‘substance’. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply. A person is who we are: a substance is what we are. Thomas wrote:

‘We can say the Father is another who from the Son, but not another what.’ You can say God is one ‘what’ but not one ‘who’. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol 6, 31-2] The answer to the question ‘who?’ can give you three separate persons within the divine nature, within the Godhead, within the ‘Godness’.

You have in the Nicene Creed, which we say in the communion service, a reflection of this. Did the Holy Spirit come from the father or from the father and the son – and if the latter, was there some kind of family tree, so that the father created the son and the son created the Holy Spirit, so that the son and Holy Spirit were not really God? So that was the controversy. The Council of Nicaea, 325AD, decided that the right answer was that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded from the father and the son. Who with the father and the son together is worshipped and glorified’ [Nicene Creed].

That corresponds with what the Athanasian Creed says (at the beginning of the Prayer Book, on page 27). ‘But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one…. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.

(Not completely impossible to understand, but impossible for us to understand every bit of it.) It goes on:

‘So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

… He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.’

The key thing in this whole area is how to think correctly about Jesus. ‘It is necessary to everlasting salvation: that [you] believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read this part of the Athanasian Creed (on page 29), it sets it all out:

‘… Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: …
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ.’

So that is the Trinity: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.