Friday, June 24, 2022

The Most Holy Trinity

This is the transcript of my podcast for the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Festival of the Most Holy Trinity 2022

Reading: John 16:12-15

This is our last reading from St John’s Gospel for a ‘little while’! Next week, we resume our reading of St Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel we are reading in church this year, Year C of the lectionary. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says to the disciples:

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.’ (John 16:12)

We may feel the same is true for us. I certainly feel that our Lord still has much to say to us through St John’s Gospel, and I hope we will come back before too long to hear Jesus speak to us again through this Gospel.

The Farewell Discourse, which our readings for the past few weeks have been from, is challenging for us as readers. When someone has something to communicate to us, we are used to a point-by-point presentation. ‘PowerPoint’ has reinforced this expectation, and we have got used to material being laid out in a logical outline that we can follow. The Farewell Discourse, and indeed the whole of St John’s Gospel, is not like this. It is more like a musical symphony in which various themes are woven together and keep repeating. The Gospel even begins with the literary equivalent an overture in chapter one, which introduces the themes that will keep recurring throughout the Gospel. We can single out the various themes in order to try to understand them, as musicologists do to analyse and understand a musical composition, but we need to remember that they are intended to be heard and understood together, not individually, isolated from their context.

So far on the fateful evening in the Upper Room, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and has spoken of betrayal and denial. He has told them that he is leaving them and that they must love one another. In chapter 14, Jesus seeks to comfort the disciples who understandably are troubled by all this. Jesus speaks of how he and the Father will come and make their home in the life of the believer in the person of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus will send to them from the Father.

In chapter 15, Jesus speaks of how he is the ‘True Vine’ (John 15:1) and of the importance of the believer abiding in him and keeping his commandments. Jesus repeats that they must love one another. Jesus continues to tell them how the world will hate them, making their love for one another and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives all the more essential.

In chapter 16, Jesus responds to the disciples’ obvious distress at what he is saying to them and at him saying he is leaving them. The disciples are deeply troubled, but Jesus says:

‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ (John 16:7)

This is quite a statement! There can’t be many today who, if given the choice between either Jesus’ physical presence or that of the Holy Spirit, would choose the Holy Spirit. I imagine that even if all we were offered were a YouTube playlist of video interviews with Jesus, we would choose the playlist over the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, however, is adamant that it is better for his disciples that he goes away, because if he doesn’t, the ‘Paraclete’ won’t come. As I said in the sermon for Pentecost 2022, we still don’t understand and appreciate just how important the Holy Spirit is.

No wonder, then, that Jesus says that he has many things to say to his disciples, but that they can’t bear them at this time. It is a lot for us to take in, and we have had a lot of time to do so! How much harder, then, for the disciples after a Meal in such an emotional environment. All, however, is not lost. Jesus says to them:

‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.’ (John 16:13)

The question is, of course, what has this to do with our celebration of the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity? Jesus continues in our reading to explain how the Holy Spirt will take what is his and declare it to them. All that the Father has is his, so what the Spirit will declare to the disciples is ultimately from the Father himself. As Jesus has emphasized, and will continue to emphasize in chapter 17, Jesus and the Father are one. What belongs to the Father also belongs to Jesus. What the Spirit declares to the disciples is from Jesus.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit belong to each other and belong together. They are inseparable. St John’s Gospel is thoroughly ‘Trinitarian’. But not just St John’s Gospel. The language of the New Testament is consistently ‘Trinitarian’. This can be seen, for example, from even a superficial reading of St Paul’s letters. St Paul, for example, closes what we know as his second letter to the Corinthians by writing:

‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2 Corinthians 13:13)

St Paul does this as if it is the most natural thing for him to do. We now use this greeting as a prayer, and it is known as ‘the Grace’. We will say it quite casually at the end of a meeting without giving it a moment’s thought, but it is really quite staggering. It was understanding and making sense of statements and language like this that was to pose a real challenge to the Church in the years after the death of the apostles and which was to cause much controversy and division.

The problem, to put it simply, was that the first believers were all good Jews and, as good Jews, they believed that the Lord their God was one. But if that was the case how could Jesus also be divine and where did the Holy Spirit fit in? Eventually the Church came up with an answer, but the answer the Church came up with took some 300 years to arrive at, and it was only arrived at after much argument and debate.

On Trinity Sunday each year, we celebrate the answer the Church came up with. That answer is that God is three persons in one God; one God in three persons. Most of us know the formula; not many of us understand it! So, what are we to say about the Holy Trinity on the festival that celebrates the Most Holy Trinity?

1. The Spirit of truth leads us into all the truth

Jesus said that the Spirit of truth would lead his disciples into all the truth, but, truth be told, we are not too concerned about truth, not at least when it comes to God. If we are honest, even as believers, not many of us particularly care about the sort of issues that have occupied believers in the past. We leave these to those who take an interest in such things. We don’t see the relevance of them to our own lives, and it is our own lives, above all else, that we are focused on.

It has, then, become common practice, even among theologians and clergy, to criticize the early Church Fathers, who wrestled so hard and for so long with this question of the nature of God. Instead of receiving our praise and gratitude for their labours, They now stand accused of complicating things unnecessarily and of importing alien concepts drawn from Greek philosophy into the Church’s theology.

The Fathers, for their part, would not have understood this accusation against them. As far as they were concerned, God is ‘the One in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). St John, in the book of Revelation, quotes Jesus as saying of himself that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). This makes the truth about God fundamental to all truth. Of course, it is not going to be easy for us mere mortals to understand the truth about God, even in a limited way, and, if we are merely to begin to do so, then we should use whatever intellectual tools are at our disposal. After all, all truth is God’s truth.

The way the early Church Fathers worked is not unlike the way scientists work today. Scientists study the data of the physical world to understand the physical universe in which we live. The data is all there; the challenge is to understand it and to make sense of it. We value the work of scientists even when we don’t understand it ourselves and when we can’t see the immediate relevance of it to our lives.

We all know, for example, Einstein’s famous theory of relativity, E=mc2. On the face of it, it is surprisingly simple, but I doubt if most of us could explain it, even in general terms. I remember one year, when I was working at a College in England, inviting Professor Russell Stannard, who was a Professor in Nuclear Physics, to speak at our College Christmas Carol Service. Afterwards, over a meal, Russell said to me how he thought that you could not teach the theory of relativity to adults. You needed, he said, to be a child to understand it. It was for this reason, he said, that he wrote children’s books, seeking to explain Einstein and his theory to young children while there was still hope. There was more to Jesus’ words about the need to become a little child if we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven than we sometimes imagine (Matthew 18:1-5)!

Interestingly, Einstein’s theory of relativity may have solved one scientific problem, it has, however, led to others. Physicists are now working on how Einstein’s theory of relativity fits with quantum theory. The problem has been stated simply as this:

‘Although both quantum theory and relativity theories work extremely well in explaining the universe at the quantum and cosmic level respectively, the theories themselves are fundamentally incompatible and hence the search for unification theories.’ (K Lee Lerner, encyclopaedia.com)

In other words, scientists are searching for a ‘grand unified theory of everything’, that is, a theory that will encompass the fundamental forces of nature and bring together two types of theory both of which seem to be true, but which are in apparent conflict with each other. There is perhaps an irony that their quest has distinct similarities with that of the early Church Fathers! It is highly specialized work requiring metaphysical as well as physical reasoning. It is beyond the mental ability of most of us, but I don’t know many who think that it is work not worth doing. We think that attempting to understand the universe is a noble and worthwhile task.

Theology, the study of God, also used to be thought of as a noble and worthwhile task. Theology has been described in the past as the ‘Queen of Sciences’. The first universities were places that had the study of God at the heart of the academic enterprise. We today may think that the early church theologians created unnecessary problems for themselves and that, rather than worrying about philosophical and doctrinal questions, they should have concentrated on the simple teaching of Jesus. They, however, believed they were being faithful to Jesus by seeking answers to these fundamental questions about God. What those who urge us to focus on the ‘simple teaching of Jesus’ actually mean when they talk about the ‘simple teaching of Jesus’ is the teaching of Jesus after they have removed all the parts they don’t like. In fact, it was Jesus’ teaching about himself and the work his Father had sent him to do that gave rise to the questions that the Fathers of the Church were so occupied with and which many in the Church today are so dismissive of.

If the nature of the physical universe is such that even the best brains in our world struggle to understand it, it is unlikely that the God who created the universe is going to be easy to understand! But we need to ask ourselves, what is more important: understanding the creation or the God who created it? Our fascination with the physical world and our rejection of the One who made it is just one more symptom of our idolatry.

The irony, as St Paul writes in the first chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome, is that from the beginning of creation God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’ are clearly to be understood and seen through the things that God has made (Romans 1:20). The problem is that we as humans did not want to see God’s eternal power and divine nature, and refused to honour God or to give thanks to him for our existence. The consequence of humanity’s rejection of God, St Paul writes, is that:

‘… they [that is, humans] became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)

We like, as humans, to think we are so clever and advanced, but our rejection of God that we see as evidence of our insight and cleverness is, in fact, proof of our ignorance and stupidity. Our society believes in the myth of human progress, that is, that the human race is continually getting wiser and more advanced. St Paul rejects this idea seeing humanity as falling into ignorance not progressing in knowledge.

It is because our ‘senseless minds have been darkened’ and because we have become ‘futile in our thinking’, a futility which shows itself in our preoccupation with ourselves and the physical world, that God has to reveal himself to us if we are to come to know him. This he has done in Christ, the Word become flesh, but even this revelation of himself is not enough.

We cannot come to Christ unless the Father draws us (John 6:44) and when we come to Christ, who is the Truth (John 14:6), we can only understand what he has to say to us if the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, leads us into all the truth. God must reveal God, and this he does by the Holy Spirit working through those who are willing to respond in faith by opening their hearts and minds to him.

The Fathers got it right. There is nothing and no-one more important than God, and there is no higher study than the study of God.

2. Knowing God leads to wanting to know more about God

It took some of the world’s greatest intellects over 300 years to come up with what we now know as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The obvious question then is, What hope is there for us as we seek to know more about God?

We need to remember that knowing about God comes out of knowing God and understanding about God comes from a relationship with God. Our knowledge of God is not based on our own spiritual and mental effort, but on God’s revelation of himself. As I have said, God has to reveal himself to us if we are to know anything about him. When Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, says to Jesus that if Jesus shows them the Father they will be satisfied, Jesus replies:

‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.’ (John 14:9-10)

Jesus speaks of how he will reveal himself to those who love him and keep his commandments (John 14:21). He tells them how the Father and Son will come and live with the believer (John 14:23). He promises that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything they need to know and will remind them of all that Jesus has said to them (John 14:26).

The promise that the Spirit of truth will lead us into all the truth is a promise to each of us individually, as well as a promise to the Church corporately. I said in my sermon for Pentecost 2022 that our experience of the Holy Spirit should be ‘conscious, direct, and emotional’. It is, in other words, one that is real and one that leads to a relationship with God in Jesus. Having met God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, we will want to know more about him. If we don’t, there is something wrong.

For example, when a couple fall in love, it is both an exciting and an emotional experience. But if it is more than a passing infatuation, then the couple will want to spend time with each other and get to know each other. As their relationship deepens, they will want to share their lives with each other and make their home with each other.

Our experience of God, which is an experience of love, for God is love, will lead to us wanting to know more about God. This will, in turn, lead to us loving God more. Too many know about God without knowing God. Too many, having come to know God, stop there, and don’t go on to know more about God. The New Testament writers urge us to grow in the knowledge and love of God (2 Peter 3:18; Philippians 1:9).

Believers tend to divide into those who emphasize the emotional and those who emphasize the intellectual dimensions of the spiritual life. It is unlikely that many would be more emotional in their relationship with God than St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). St Catherine unashamedly talks of God as her lover and of being married to Christ. Yet she longed to know more about the God she loved and experienced. In her great book, The Dialogue, she writes of the questions she asked God in order to get to know more about him and of the answers he gives. St Catherine is a doctor of the Church, the highest position a theologian and teacher of the faith can have in the Church.

A story is told about the thirteenth century saint, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). St Thomas wrote extensively of God and what can be known about him. St Thomas’ greatest work, the Summa Theologica is in several volumes, and has been massively influential. St Thomas is often regarded as the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest theologians of all time. He is himself a doctor of the Church.

One day a Dominican friar named Brother Dominic of Caserta, a sacristan, secretly observed St Thomas Aquinas in tears before the crucifix in the chapel where he was praying. The voice of Christ from the crucifix called out, ‘You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labour?’

So, what did St Thomas ask?

Domine, non nisi Te—that is, ‘Lord, nothing except you.’

St Catherine and St Thomas both knew that if our experience of the Spirit is real, it will lead to an intense desire to find out all we can about the God we have encountered, not out of mere intellectual curiosity, but out of a longing to know him and love him more.

3. To know him is to worship him

Knowing God will lead us to want to know more about God, but, if genuine, knowing God will lead us above all else to worship him.

We are, however, very resistant to worshipping God. St Paul tells us that it was our rejection of God as humans that was the beginning of our downfall. But our rejection of God didn’t lead to us worshipping nothing, it led to us looking around for other things to worship that were more congenial to us. Not only do we all need someone to love, we also all need someone, or something, to worship.

At first, this was images of animals and even of other people, but of late we have asked ourselves whether the one we should be worshipping is ourself. We know that worshipping images of animals and humans is foolish, but instead of seeking to worship the one true God, we have turned in on ourselves. Even so, we can’t quite let go of the idea that we are not alone in this world. Surely, we ask, there is more to life than what can be experienced through the senses?

We are, however, only interested if the something benefits us directly. So, we talk about the Universe having a plan for our lives or we even look to astrology to see if our future lies in the stars. Anything, it seems, no matter how absurd, to avoid turning our attention from ourselves to worshipping the one true God.

God, however, is to be worshipped not for what he can give us or for what he can do for us, he is to be worshipped solely for who he is. This is why coming to know God for ourselves is so important. St Paul, when he was asked to address the people of Athens gathered on Mars Hill to hear him, said to them:

‘… as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

Our worship of God as believers is not of an unknown, distant being, nor even of the one who can be known as our creator and sustainer, but of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who reveals himself to us in Christ and who is proclaimed in the Gospel by the power of the Spirit. He is not an unknown god that we worship from a distance, but the One we meet personally in Christ by the Spirit.

Those who talk about what they like and don’t like in worship and who evaluate worship on the basis of what they get out of it are totally missing the point. Those, for example, who long for the return to traditional forms of worship and those who want a more contemporary style are in fact arguing for the same thing, even though they don’t realize it. Both make worship about what appeals to them. Whether it’s listening to Anglican chant sung by a robed choir or joining in worship songs sung by a band, often what matters to us is whether it is what we want and enjoy.

Jesus, however, said to the woman at the well in Samaria:

‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:23-24)

True worship is about God from beginning to end, regardless of what we feel, think, or like. The most important question to ask about worship is whether it is centred on God. If it isn’t, then it isn’t the worship that God wants, whatever form it may or may not take.

Trinity Sunday challenges us to look beyond ourselves to the ‘one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:6) and who makes himself known to those who have faith in Christ by his Spirit. St Catherine and St Thomas knew that there was nothing worth having more than Christ himself, for in Christ we meet the Father and by the Spirit become one with him and with the Father.

May we acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty worship the Unity.

We worship one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Pentecost

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for Pentecost.

Pentecost 2022

Reading: John 14:8-27

We are celebrating the festival of Pentecost the time when we think of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and of what is also the official birthday of the Church. The birthday of the Church we understand, but we still have difficulties understanding what it means to receive the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, those who came to see what was going on with those gathered in ‘one place’ were, St Luke writes, ‘amazed and perplexed’ by what was happening (Acts 2:12). We may not be amazed, but most churchgoers are certainly perplexed when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit. This despite the growth of the Pentecostal churches and of the charismatic movement.

The Pentecostal churches and the charismatic movement each stress the place and role of the Holy Spirit both in the life of the individual believer and of the Church.

Pentecostalism is normally seen as having emerged at the beginning of the 20th century out of the holiness movements of the previous century. The beginnings of the Pentecostal movement are normally traced back, firstly, to 1901 and events in a Bible school led by Charles Fox Parham in the city of Topeka in Kansas, and secondly, to a series of revival meetings that took place in Los Angeles beginning in April, 1906 led by William Joseph Seymour, an African-American preacher.

At first, these meetings were in a building at Bonnie Brae Street, but, because of the numbers wanting to attend, they soon moved to a larger meeting hall at 312 Azusa Street. At these meetings, people experienced the Holy Spirit in a dramatic and visible way. This experience was described as being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’, with ‘speaking in tongues’ being seen as the ‘initial evidence’ that a person had received the baptism of the Spirit.

Out of these meetings came the creation of new churches separate to the established mainline denominations. There is not one single Pentecostal denomination today, but several different groupings of Pentecostal churches. What each grouping has in common is their emphasis on the importance of being baptized in the Spirit. These groupings now take their place alongside the other older denominations.

The charismatic movement, which shares much in common with the Pentecostal churches, started as a movement within the mainline churches in the 1960s and 1970s. The charismatic movement also stressed the work of the Holy Spirit and emphasized the importance of experiencing the Holy Spirit, an experience which manifested itself in ‘spiritual gifts’ such as, but not confined to, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and supernatural healing.

After encountering resistance, and often outspoken opposition within the mainline churches, some in the new movement left the traditional churches, seeing them as blocking what the Holy Spirit was wanting to do. Those who left went on to form ‘house churches’. They became convinced that it was only outside the traditional structures of the Church that they were going to be able to be faithful to what the Holy Spirit was doing. Ironically, many of these house churches were to grow and become much like the mainline denominations they had left. It is a religious version of Orwell’s, Animal Farm!

Those who stayed hoped that they would bring renewal and new life to their churches, and they sought to make the Holy Spirit central to the life and worship of the Church and its members. As time went on, however, those who stayed found themselves dropping the more contentious aspects of the movement, so that charismatic today can mean little other than liking a more contemporary style of worship.

In the 1960s and 70s, the charismatic movement seemed to offer the hope of the revival of otherwise declining and moribund churches and of attracting people back to the church in what were seen as traditionally Christian nations. In the West, at least, neither has happened with church numbers continuing to drop and secularism continuing apace. While many people’s lives have undoubtedly been touched by the charismatic movement and while some churches have seen numerical growth and success, if it is to be judged by its fruits, the results are disappointing. I speak as a disappointed charismatic. [I have written about my own experience under ‘Personal Journey’ on my website.]

There are many reasons for the failure of the charismatic movement to produce what it seemed to promise, but a significant part of the blame lies with the charismatic movement itself. The movement was in part a reaction against the formality and lack of warmth and emotion in the established churches. It was, then, perhaps inevitable that the movement would end up focusing on experience and emotion. My own criticism of the movement, for what it is worth, is not that the charismatic movement focused too much on the Holy Spirit, but that it didn’t focus on the Holy Spirit enough. And so today, when the Holy Spirit is spoken of, people still remain perplexed, even if they don’t care enough to be amazed.

For the past few weeks since Easter, we have been building up to the festival of Pentecost. Our Gospel readings have come from what is known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’ in St John’s Gospel. This is Jesus’ final words to his disciples in the Upper Room before being arrested and crucified. Our Gospel reading is taken from it, and in our reading, Jesus has some important things to say about the Holy Spirit.

It has already been quite a night when Jesus speaks the words in our Gospel reading. The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room to eat the Passover meal, just a few days after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19). Everyone is expecting Jesus to lead a rebellion against the pagan power and to establish the Kingdom of God. You can feel the excitement in the air as the disciples gather. The disciples are even discussing who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom when it comes (Luke 22:24-27).

Jesus soon puts an end to such talk by getting up from the table during the meal and washing their feet (John 13:2-5). He tells them that they also must wash each other’s feet (John 13:14-15) and that anyone wanting to be great must become the least. As if this is not shocking enough, Jesus puts an end to any thought of triumph by telling the disciples that one of them will betray him (John 13:21) and that the one he himself has made their leader will deny him (John 13:37-38). We can understand why the disciples are troubled after this!

So, chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel begins with Jesus trying to comfort his disciples (John 14:1-4). He doesn’t tell them off for being troubled; St John has told us that Jesus is himself troubled (John 13:21). Jesus does, however, encourage them to trust him. Yes, he is going away. He has to leave them, but he will come again and take them to himself, so that where he is, there they may be also. Jesus also makes the famous statement about there being many rooms in his Father’s house (John 14:2).

These opening verses to chapter 14 are often read at funerals, and they are taken to refer to Jesus’ second coming or to us meeting Jesus when we die. Jesus is coming again, and if we die before he does, we will go to be with him at our death. Both are true, but this is not what Jesus is talking about in chapter 14. Jesus, in what he says to his disciples, is not concerned with what will happen at their death but with what will happen at his.

Jesus is concerned with how his disciples are going to get on in a world that will hate them as it has hated him (John 15:18-19). Jesus is sending the disciples into the world as his Father has sent him into the world (John 15:16; John 20:21) and Jesus knows it isn’t going to be easy for them (John 15:20; 16:1-2, 33). They are troubled now because of Jesus’ words that he is leaving them (John 16:6), but Jesus also leaves his peace with them, and he repeats that they should not be troubled (John 14:27; 16:33). Strangely, although Jesus tells the disciples he is going away, Jesus keeps repeating that he is coming to them. Jesus says this four times in chapter 14 alone (John 14:3, 18, 23, 28). But if Jesus is not talking about his second coming or coming to meet us when we die, what is Jesus talking about?

Jesus tells his troubled disciples that he will ask the Father, and the Father will give them another ‘paraclete’ to be with them forever (John 14:16). The Greek word ‘paraclete’ that St John uses is notoriously difficult to translate into English. It is sometimes translated ‘comforter’ and that is certainly an aspect of its meaning. This Comforter, Jesus explains is the Spirit of truth who abides with them, but who will be in them (John 14:17). Jesus will not leave them orphaned; he is coming to them (John 14:18). Jesus tells the disciples that he and the Father will both come to them and make their home with them (John 14:23). The way the Father and the Son will do this is through the Holy Spirit who will be in them. This must have been a lot for the disciples to take in, just as it is for us! Jesus reassures them that the same Spirit whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name will teach them everything and remind them of what he has said (John 14:26).

The way Jesus talks and the language he uses makes absolutely clear that what Jesus is talking about is not some theoretical idea, but a real and intimate relationship, so real and intimate that Jesus can describe it as the Spirit being in them and as he and the Father making their home with them and dwelling in them (John 14:20).

Jesus says, however, that this experience is not for everyone. Jesus tells them that the Spirit of truth whom he will give them cannot be received by the world (John 14:17). This is because the world neither sees him nor knows him. Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus why Jesus will reveal himself to them and not to the world (John 14:22). Jesus answers that those who love him keep his word and the Father loves them. As is often the case in St John’s Gospel, it is not immediately clear how Jesus’ answer answers the question! What Jesus is saying is he will reveal himself to those who love him and keep his word. Those who do not love him, do not keep his words (John 14:24). It is, then, because the world does not love Jesus and keep Jesus’ words that Jesus will not reveal himself to the world. In his life and ministry, Jesus has revealed the Father, so that whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), by rejecting Jesus the world has rejected the Father (John 13:20). The world will no longer see Jesus, but the disciples will see him (John 14:19).

While what Jesus says can be hard to understand and, on their own admission, Jesus’ disciples certainly did find it hard to understand (John 16:17-18), the main point of what Jesus says is clear enough. He is going to come to them in the person of the Holy Spirit who will establish an intimate relationship between him and the Father and them. It is a relationship that the world cannot have. This relationship will enable the disciples to do the works that Jesus does and, indeed, to do even greater works because Jesus is going to the Father (John 14:12). They have only to ask for something in Jesus’ name and he will do it (John 14:13-14).

Jesus will say to the disciples later in the Farewell Discourse:

‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ (John 16:16)

It is this reference to a ‘little while’ that the disciples find particularly hard to understand. Jesus asks them:

‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’?’ (John 16:19)

Jesus goes on to tell them that they will weep and mourn and have pain now, as he is about to leave them, but their pain will turn to joy when they see him again (John 16:20-22). Jesus repeats that if they ask anything of the Father in his name, the Father will give it to them. If they ask, they will receive that their joy may be complete (John 16:23-24).

Jesus’ reference to the disciples not seeing him in a ‘little while’ and then seeing him a ‘little while’ is a reference not simply to his resurrection, but also to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name (John 14:26). In chapter 15, Jesus says he will send the ‘Paraclete’ to them from the Father. When the ‘Paraclete’ comes, he will testify on Jesus’ behalf (John 15:26). In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples before he ascends to heaven that they are to wait in Jerusalem for the ‘promise of the Father’ (Acts 1:4; see also: Luke 24:49).

The Day of Pentecost is when all that Jesus has spoken about a ‘little while’ earlier takes place, and they receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus baptizes the believers in the Holy Spirit, as he promised he would (Acts 1:4-5). St Peter tells those who gather outside to find out what is going on:

‘Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.’ (Acts 2:33)

The language St Peter uses is important: ‘poured out’, ‘that you both see and hear’. St Paul writes in our second reading from his letter to believers in the Church at Rome:

‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:15-16)

In other words, the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit is definite and tangible. It is something we know about and which can be seen and heard. It is the Holy Spirit who makes real our relationship as children of God with the Father through Jesus, the Son. The language St John and St Paul use is the language of experience. Unfortunately, our own experience does not match the language of the New Testament.

Jesus, in the Farewell Discourse, describes a relationship between the believer and his Father and himself made possible by the Holy Spirit that the believer knows to be real. It is not something based on a doctrinal or sacramental deduction. It is not a theological calculation. What do I mean by that?

Church doctrine teaches that all believers are given the Holy Spirit, so in asking whether a person has received the Spirit, we make the following deduction:

        All Christians receive the Holy Spirit

        Jane is a Christian

        Therefore, Jane has received the Holy Spirit

In sacramental churches, where baptism and confirmation are an essential part of Christian initiation, it can be expressed in a similar way:

        All those who are baptized receive the Holy Spirit in baptism

        Jane is baptized

        Therefore, Jane has received the Holy Spirit

In other words, for Jane, receiving the Holy Spirit is a theological calculation rather than an experiential reality. It is something that Jane needs to take on trust. She must believe it has happened rather than experience it happening. The truth is that our receiving of the Holy Spirit needs to be both: theology and experience belong together. Our theology of the Holy Spirit should not be separated from our experience of the Spirit. The problem is: it is.

When St Paul came across some believers in Ephesus, he knew that something was wrong. He asked them:

‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ (Acts 19:2)

St Paul’s theology told him that they should have received the Holy Spirit; his instinct, based on his observation, told him that they had not. His instinct was right; they had not even heard there was a Holy Spirit.

For believers in our churches today, the situation is more complicated. We have all heard that there is a Holy Spirit. We even say we believe in him when we say the Creed together. Next week, on Trinity Sunday, we will celebrate the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Holy Trinity, alongside the Father and the Son. Our belief in him, however, is often not reflected in our lives and experience and in the life and experience of our churches. St Peter on the Day of Pentecost describes the giving of the Holy Spirit as that which Jesus has ‘poured out’, which people can ‘see and hear’. On Pentecost Sunday, we need ask ourselves, ‘Do we see and hear’ the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the life of our churches?’

This immediately brings us up against a problem. What it means to ‘see and hear’ the Holy Spirit has been somewhat hi-jacked by certain groups within the Church.

Many Pentecostals, for example, have claimed that ‘speaking in tongues’ is the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and unless a person speaks in tongues they have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit. This has led to much confusion, especially for those whose own experience tells them they have received the Holy Spirit, even though they do not speak in tongues. It is as if the Holy Spirit is limited to just one of his gifts, with one of his gifts being evidence of his presence more than another.

Many charismatics have thought that for worship to be ‘Spirit led’ liturgical and traditional forms of worship have to be rejected. The result has been that, in many churches, church services are no different from a secular rock concert. It is as if a service with a worship leader and a band are intrinsically more likely to be ‘Spirit led’ than a service with a Choir master and organ, and raising your hands during the service more spiritual that falling on your knees.

By now, I am probably in danger of offending just about everyone. I don’t mean to – or perhaps I do if it helps make the point that an emphasis on experiencing the Spirit should not lead to an emphasis on one type of experience. Experiencing the Spirit is about the Father and the Son coming to make their home in the life of the believer. As the Father and the Son, who come to us in the person of the Spirit are always the same, our experience of the Holy Spirit will have much in common with each other. However, because we are all different, there will be significant differences too. For some, their experience of the Holy Spirit will be highly emotional; for others, it will be quieter but no less real. But whatever form the experience takes what should always be the case is its reality.

So how do we explain the fact that many people in our churches, by their own admission, do not have a direct and conscious experience of the Holy Spirit in a way that enables them to answer with confidence St Paul’s question, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? There is a serious issue here. Many who are unable to answer this question positively are otherwise regular committed churchgoers with a sincere faith.

The way that Pentecostals and charismatics traditionally have tackled this problem is, as I have described, theologically, by arguing that there are two stages in becoming a Christian. Firstly, by a person believing in Jesus and making a personal commitment to him, and then secondly, by that person receiving the Holy Spirit. While, they claim, believing in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit may both happen at the same time, they are different and can, therefore happen at different times. Sometimes the two stages can be a long time apart. For some people, the second stage never happens at all.

This second stage itself is described using various terminology. Pentecostals have usually called it the baptism in or with the Spirit. Others use terms such ‘second blessing’, ‘renewed by the Spirit’, or ‘filled with the Spirit’. The reason for the terminological confusion is that the New Testament simply does not support such a two-stage process. Receiving the Spirit, being baptized by, with, or in the Spirit, and gaining new life in the Spirit are all used to describe what happens when a person first becomes Jesus’ disciple.

Recognizing this, some have argued that a person indeed receives the Holy Spirit when they believe, but they don’t necessarily know about it. They need a subsequent experience for the Holy Spirit to become real to them. Often this is described using the phrase ‘filled with the Spirit’. On this understanding, then, a person receives the Holy Spirit when they believe in Jesus, but they are filled with - some would say baptized with - the Spirit as a separate experience. But again, this is not how the New Testament describes receiving the Spirit. And ‘being filled with the Spirit’ is something which needs to be a continual experience throughout the life of the believer from the very beginning of their life as a believer (Ephesians 5:18).

Quite simply, if a person has not received the Holy Spirit, they are not one of Jesus’ disciples. As St Paul writes:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

The problem, then, is that theologically anyone who is a committed believer has received the Holy Spirit, but the experience of many believers is that they haven’t.

The approach I have been describing seeks to tackle the problem theologically by separating becoming a believer from a full experience of the Spirit (whatever language is used to describe it) creating a two-stage process and, it could be argued, two classes of believers. Instead, I would argue, the problem is not primarily a theological but a pastoral one. As a pastoral problem, it has many different causes.

1. Not having made a commitment to Jesus

Firstly, the reason many in our churches have not directly experienced the Holy Spirit for themselves is because they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. The reason they have not received the Holy Spirit is because they have not yet made a commitment to Jesus.

They may be very regular churchgoers, but people have many different reasons for coming to church. Some come, for example, for social reasons because they are looking for community and friendship. Others enjoy the style of worship on offer or come because of the church’s stance on social and political issues. Others simply because their family has always attended a particular church. It is right that churches welcome everyone who comes, and we should try to create a safe place for people to explore faith and find answers to their spiritual questions. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is given to those believe in Jesus and make a commitment to him. He is not given to those who are just interested in Jesus or admire him. At the Feast of Tabernacles, when Jesus invites anyone who is thirsty to come to him to drink, St John writes:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

The first question, then, to ask if someone who comes to church says they have not experienced the Holy Spirit is whether they believe in Jesus in the sense of having made a personal commitment to him. It is all too easy for someone to come to church, and even to be active in a church, without having made a personal commitment of faith. Until they do, they remain like those on the Day of Pentecost who can see and hear without knowing what it is. After Peter explains to the crowd what it is all about, they ask him what they should do. Peter replies:

‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 2:38)

In preaching the Gospel and telling people what being a follower of Jesus means, we need to preach the full Gospel, and this will always include teaching about the Holy Spirit and God’s promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who believe in Jesus. In bringing people to faith, we should also bring them to expect to experience the Holy Spirit in their life. We also need to encourage those who have experienced the Holy Spirit to share their experience with the body of Christ. It is important to teach people that the gift of the Spirit is given, as St Paul teaches, for the common good and not just for our own benefit (1 Corinthians 12:7).

2. Not having been told about the Holy Spirit

Secondly, there are those who will say that they do believe in Jesus and have made a commitment to him. What is more, they seek to live faithfully for Jesus in their lives and are active in the Church. Nevertheless, their experience of the Holy Spirit is not what I have been describing. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, they too have not directly experienced the Holy Spirit.

There can be many reasons for this and the best next step for them is to talk to a priest or pastor who believes in the Holy Spirit. The reason, however, for many in our churches not experiencing the Holy Spirit lies not with them personally, but with their church. St Paul tells the Church at Thessalonica not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). A major reason many people in our churches have no direct personal experience of the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is effectively quenched in the church they are attending. In their answer to St Paul’s question about whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, the believers in Ephesus replied:

‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 19:2)

Churches, and clergy in particular, have to take a large share of the blame for people not having experienced the Holy Spirit. We have failed to tell people about the Holy Spirit in a way that leads them to discover him for themselves. Clergy can be guilty of talking about the Holy Spirit in such away that people don’t realize that a person can experience the Holy Spirit for themselves or else think that such experiences are only for the saints or for those who are that way inclined! St Peter says:

‘For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:39)

People need to be introduced to the Holy Spirit and be made aware that the promise is specifically to them too and not just to the select few. We need, however, to make sure that it is the Holy Spirit we introduce people to and not our own ideas of who he is and what it means to know him. Jesus says that the wind blows where it chooses (John 3:8). We often understand Jesus’ words to refer to the Holy Spirit, but what Jesus actually says they refer to is anyone ‘born of the Spirit’.

A person’s experience of the Spirit is up to the Spirit to determine. The Holy Spirit will not be confined by the limits we seek to place upon him. The Father and the Son want to make their home in the life of all who believe in Jesus and keep his commandments. They come to do this by the Spirit, but the home the Father and the Son make in a believer’s life is for them to decide, not us.

3. Being afraid of the Holy Spirit

Finally, many in our churches have not directly experienced the Holy Spirit for themselves quite simply because they are afraid to. On the one hand, this may be a perfectly reasonable fear. It may be a fear of the unknown, and the Holy Spirit, as I have been saying, is still the unknown person of the Holy Trinity for many in our churches. It may also be because of what they have seen and heard in some churches or in the behaviour of some people who claim to have experienced the Holy Spirit.

Tragically, many who claim to have had experiences of the Holy Spirit have been given to excess and to behaviour which has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit and everything to do with their own emotional desires. Jesus, however, says that the Holy Spirit is given to those who love him. The Holy Spirit is a gift of God given out of love. St John writes in his first letter:

‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …’ (1 John 4:18)

We need to reassure people that there is nothing about experiencing the Holy Spirit for those who love Jesus to fear. The Holy Spirit’s role is to be another ‘paraclete’. The original paraclete is, of course, Jesus himself. The Holy Spirit is given to enable us to stay close to Jesus and to do his work in the world, so that the world may know that the Father sent him. If we are not frightened of Jesus, we should not be frightened of the Holy Spirit. Again, as St Paul writes in our second reading:

‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:15-16)

On the other hand, however, our fear may be to do with losing control and, in a sense, we are right to feel this way. This is not because the Holy Spirit is going to take us over and possess us like a demon or make us do things we don’t want to do, but because being a follower of Jesus is about giving up control. To be a follower of Jesus is to submit our will to his, and if we are unwilling to submit our wills to his, then our fear is justified. The Holy Spirit won’t make us submit our will to Jesus, but he will help us and encourage us to do so as he draws us closer to Jesus and reveals him to us, as Jesus said he would. As St Paul tells us, submission to Christ is not the reluctant submission of a slave, but the willing obedience of a child to their Father, a Father who only gives good gifts to his children (Luke 11:9-13).

Conclusion

The Nicene Creed that we say together each week describes the Holy Spirit as the Lord and giver of life, and each week we say together that this is what we believe. Rather than changing our theology, we need to change people. As both churches and individuals we need the life-giving Holy Spirit.

Being a follower of Jesus in a hostile world is not easy. We can feel very isolated and alone. But we don’t have to do this on our own. What is more, we can’t do this on our own. Jesus told his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned. St Peter told the crowd that the promise was for them, for their children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. That includes everyone listening to this podcast. God wants you to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son want to make their home in your life. The only thing that’s stopping them is you.

The distance between theory and reality, however, can seem very great. Again, it doesn’t have to be. Jesus said

‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:13)

If we want to receive the Holy Spirit, all we have to do is ask. This promise is for you.

May we each receive the promise of the Father and experience our own personal Pentecost.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 5:1-9

In the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, there is a choice of two Gospel readings, both from St John’s Gospel. The second, from chapter 5, is the one I have chosen. If we don’t read from chapter 5 of St John’s Gospel this week, it will make chapter 5 the only chapter from St John’s Gospel that we have not read from, and which I have not preached on, in the three-year cycle of readings we use for our services. I am not sure if this is the best of reasons for selecting the reading for this week, but it seemed a shame to miss out this one chapter!

There are two preliminary issues we need to deal with before looking at the chapter in detail.

The first is the order of Jesus’ movements as St John describes them in his Gospel. In chapter 3, St John has described Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in Jerusalem at the Passover festival. Then in chapter 4, he has given an account of Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:1-42) and of the healing of the official’s son at Cana in Galilee (John 4:46-54). Chapter 5 then begins with Jesus going up to Jerusalem for a ‘festival of the Jews’. Jesus’ movements so far are all straightforward and easy to follow. The next chapter, chapter 6, however, begins:

‘After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.’ (John 6:1)

Before this, at the end of chapter 5, though, Jesus is still in Jerusalem, so the opening to chapter 6 doesn’t seem to follow very smoothly from chapter 5. St John, by writing that Jesus went to the ‘other side of the Sea of Galilee’, seems to suggest that Jesus is already on one side of the sea. This has led some scholars to suggest that at some point, early in the history of the Gospel, chapters 5 and 6 have somehow got out of order when the Gospel was first copied. Chapter 6, they argue, follows more naturally from chapter 4, as, at the end of chapter 4, Jesus is in Galilee. They propose, then, reversing the order of chapters 5 and 6 to have chapter 6 after chapter 4 and chapter 5 after that. (So, on this understanding of Jesus’ movements, the order of the chapters would be chapter 4, 6, and 5!)

This reordering of the text, however, is pure speculation, as there is no manuscript evidence that the order of the passages was ever other than as it is. It is best, then, to work with the text as we have it. My own suggestion, for what it is worth, is that the phrase, ‘the other side’, was just a common way of referring to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias and could be used to describe it no matter what the context. In any case, although it may seem awkward to us now, we still know what St John means!

Secondly, St John begins the chapter by writing that Jesus ‘went up to Jerusalem’ for a festival of the Jews. There were three festivals that Jews ‘went up to Jerusalem’ for: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These were the three pilgrimage festivals. Commentators speculate as to which of the three this one was. St John normally tells us which festival it is that Jesus is attending. The fact that he doesn’t here, then, seems quite deliberate on his part. With the other festivals that St John names and describes in the Gospel, what happens at them and what Jesus teaches during them are related. In chapter 5, the unnamed festival itself isn’t relevant as such to what St John wants us to focus on. The festival is only mentioned as an explanation as to why Jesus has gone back to Jerusalem.

So, what happens when Jesus gets there? St John writes that in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool. Interestingly, St John uses the present tense. He could just be using this for vividness in his telling of the story, but some have taken St John’s use of the present tense to mean that St John was writing before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 while there still was such a pool. After AD 70, the pool ceased to exist. I think St John was writing before AD 70, but that is not a popular opinion! This reference, however, can’t decide whether it was or not, and most commentators date the Gospel to the end of the first century.

In the various manuscripts we have of St John’s Gospel, different names are given for the pool: Beth-zatha, as in our version of the Gospel reading, but also Bethesda and Bethsaida. It is easy to see how the names could get mixed up! It used to be the case that scholars didn’t take the reference to the pool seriously and argued that St John had just imagined its existence. That has all changed now, as archaeologists have discovered a pool by St Anne’s church in the Old City of Jerusalem, which matches St John’s description.

St John describes the pool as having five porticoes. Porticoes are covered walkways or extended porches. It is likely that there were, in fact, two pools next to each other. Four of the porticoes would have been around the perimeter of the site with the fifth portico in the middle separating the two pools. It seems that at times the water would stir, and it was thought that the first to enter it when it did would be healed. The belief that this was a place of healing was clearly a popular one, and so those with sickness and disability gathered there in the shelter of the covered walkways hoping to be healed.

One man, St John tells us, has been there 38 years. St John is very good at dropping these sorts of details into his Gospel. He intends them to have a symbolic as well as a literal meaning. Anyone who knew Jewish history, and most of St John’s first readers would have known that history very well, would have been aware of the significance of 38 years in Israel’s past.

After the people of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, they entered the wilderness. Two years later, at a place called Kadesh-barnea, they were given the chance to enter the Promised Land, but they lacked the faith in God to do so, fearing the people who lived there (Numbers 14:1-25). God punished them for their lack of faith. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who did have faith in God, the people who lacked faith in God were all to die in the wilderness and their children would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land until their parents were all dead (see also Deuteronomy 1:35). When the time has eventually come for the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land, Moses, in recapping what has happened to them, says:

‘And the length of time we had traveled from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn concerning them.’ (Deuteronomy 2:14)

38 years, then, is the length of time the people of Israel suffered as a consequence of not believing in God. We don’t how old the man Jesus sees lying by the pool in Jerusalem was, just that he also had been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him what at first sight seems a very odd question, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ Why does Jesus think the man would be there if he didn’t want to be healed? The man explains that the reason he has been there so long is that he has no-one help him into the water when it stirs and someone else always gets there ahead of him.

You may notice that in your Bible the last part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 is missing. This is because it is no longer thought that the words in these verses are original to the Gospel. The words are interesting, though, as they supply an explanation for what the people who went there believed about the pool. Referring to the people who were at the pool, these two verses describe how the people at the pool were:

‘… waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.’ (John 5:3-4)

The man Jesus speaks to is not only unable to walk; he is utterly alone without anyone to help him. Hearing the man has no-one to help him into the pool, Jesus simply says to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ St John writes that ‘at once’ the man did so. It is a happy ending to an otherwise sad story, except that St John adds the sentence, ‘Now that day was a Sabbath.’

Those hearing this read for the first time would have got the significance of this sentence right away. Some may even have gasped in horror. Healing someone who had been both ill and alone for so many years was something all good Jews would have approved of. But healing on a Sabbath was something else, not only that, by telling the man to take up his mat, Jesus was telling the man to break one of God’s most important commandments.

There were Ten Commandments, and not working on the Sabbath was one of them. Carrying your mat on the Sabbath was definitely classed as work. St John writes that people tell the man who has been healed that it is not lawful for him to carry his mat on the Sabbath. The man replies that the man who healed him told him to. After all, if you have been unable to walk for 38 years and someone heals you, you are probably going to do whatever else they tell you to do.

Later, Jesus finds the man in the Temple and says to him:

‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ (John 5:14)

The man goes straight to the authorities and tells them that it is Jesus who has made him well. It seems a little strange that the man should do this knowing, as he must, that it would cause trouble for Jesus with the authorities.

This has led commentators to see an implied criticism of the man in what St John writes. They compare this man’s reaction in chapter 5 with that of the man born blind, who we read about in chapter 9, who Jesus also heals on the Sabbath. When questioned by the authorities, St John describes how the man born blind voices his support for Jesus and believes in him. St John doesn’t, though, tell us anything about what the man who was lame thinks of Jesus.

In the same way, however, that St John in chapter 5 is not concerned as to which festival it is, the man’s faith is not what St John wants us to focus on here either. St John describes Jesus’ miracles as signs. They point to something else. Jesus healing the lame man is an act of compassion, but it is more. It is revealing something we should know about Jesus himself. It is Jesus’ act of healing on the Sabbath and what we learn from what Jesus has to teach about himself in the light of it that is St John’s main interest in his account of this sign.

We today have little patience with those who criticize the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. We have no sympathy whatsoever with them when they begin persecuting Jesus after finding out that Jesus is the one who is responsible for the man doing so. We are dismissive of their concerns, seeing them as legalistic, petty, and lacking in compassion. Of course it is alright to heal on the Sabbath, we think, and who cares about someone carrying a mat whatever day of the week it is? But the Jews then did care what happened on the Sabbath, as many still do today. Not only was keeping the Sabbath one of the Ten Commandments, God had repeatedly told his people that they must observe the Sabbath. In the book of Numbers, for example, we read how God orders that a man who has been gathering sticks on the Sabbath should be stoned to death for doing so (Numbers 15:32-36).

While Christians nowadays tend to be very indifferent to the Sabbath commandment, it has not always been the case. When I was growing up in the UK, Sunday, because of the UK’s Christian past, was still regarded as the ‘Christian Sabbath’. Today, of course, you can do just about anything you like on a Sunday, and churchgoers behave no differently on a Sunday to anyone else. Indeed, it is hard to get even church members to go to church on a Sunday, if there is something else they find more interesting happening at the same time. It never used to be like that, however. Shops and most places of work were all shut, and there was very little that you were allowed to do on a Sunday. It was a dreadful, boring day, and I used to hate it. When I went to Bible College, ‘Sabbath observance’ was taken so seriously that we weren’t even allowed to read a newspaper in college on a Sunday.

The Jews in Jesus’ day, however, don’t seem to have found the Sabbath boring, but, in any case, they certainly took it seriously, in the way Christians once took Sunday seriously. Even outside of the Holyland throughout the Roman Empire, the Jews still observed the Sabbath. The Romans found Jewish observance of the Sabbath strange, and some pagan writers criticized them for it, but generally the Romans tolerated it. Josephus, the Jewish historian, quotes several Roman laws permitting the Jews to observe the Sabbath.

Jesus was himself a good Jew. He attended the synagogue and knew the Scriptures well. His attitude to the Sabbath, however, got him into a lot of trouble. What people found hard was not simply that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, but that he did so when he didn’t have to and when there was no immediate risk to life. The man who Jesus healed at the pool had been unable to walk for 38 years. What difference would having to wait one more day make to him? The man wasn’t going anywhere in the meantime. Jesus doesn’t just heal the man, however; Jesus commands the man to carry his mat. It is as if Jesus is deliberately wanting to make a point.

Elsewhere in the Gospels (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus teaches that the Sabbath is a particularly suitable day to heal someone. Rather than breaking the Law, Jesus believes that healing someone on the Sabbath is completely compatible with the Law. Later, in chapter 7, St John writes that Jesus is again in Jerusalem for a festival. This time St John tell us which festival it is. It is the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath at the festival in our Gospel reading from chapter 5 is still causing trouble for Jesus. They will not let it rest! Jesus asks them a question:

‘If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?’ (John 7:23)

How can it be against God’s Law to make someone whole on the Sabbath? They, however, don’t see it like that. After they discover it is Jesus who has healed the man at the pool on the Sabbath, St John writes:

‘Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.’ (John 5:16)

The word ‘persecution’ has quasi-legal overtones. St John frames his account as if Jesus being on trial. While Jesus believes it is entirely appropriate to heal on the Sabbath, here he answers their accusations against him by saying:

‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ (John 5:17)

The Sabbath was given to Israel to mark the day when God rested from his work of creation (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11). The Jews, though, didn’t think that God actually stopped working altogether; he still continued to work in his world, sustaining it and keeping it in being. Jesus links himself to the Father and argues that if the Father is working, he as God’s Son can work too.

Jesus working on the Sabbath, as the Jewish authorities saw it, was bad enough, but Jesus’ claim of such a close relationship with God that he can claim prerogatives that were believed to belong to God alone is too much for them and they now seek to kill Jesus for blasphemy (John 5:18). Jesus’ life is now permanently under threat making Jerusalem a dangerous place for him to be (John 7:1, 19, 25).

Jesus, however, will not be silenced, and in chapter 5, and again later at the Feast of Tabernacles in chapter 7 onwards, Jesus continues to elaborate on his relationship with the Father. Here in chapter 5, the Jewish authorities assume that Jesus is answerable to them and that they are in a position to judge him. They are in for a shock. The Father, says Jesus, has entrusted all judgement to him. All who hear Jesus’ word and believe in the One who sent him will have eternal life and not come into judgement (John 5:24). The prospect for those who do not believe in him, however, is a bleak one, and the judgement they face is near at hand and not in the distant future. Whether people hear Jesus’ words and believe in him or not will determine their future.

Jesus answers the accusations against him by appealing to four witnesses who can testify on his behalf: John the Baptist (John 5:33); the works the Father has given him to complete (John 5:36); the Father himself (John 5:37); and the Scriptures (John 5:39). Jesus tells his accusers that he will not accuse them before the Father, but there is someone who will (John 5:45). Their accuser, ironically, will be Moses whom they think they are being obedient to. As they accuse Jesus of breaking the Law given through Moses, Moses himself accuses them. Moses had written about Jesus, and if they do not believe Moses, how are they to believe Jesus (John 5:46-47)? If they do not believe Jesus, they will not escape condemnation.

It is Jesus’ accusers who are on trial, not Jesus, and Jesus is the judge!

In asking what this says to us today, I want to highlight three phrases from our Gospel reading.

1. ‘Do you want to be made well?’

This is the question that Jesus asks the man who cannot walk. As I have said it sounds at first a strange question. Whatever Jesus’ actual reason for asking it, it is good psychology. People who have been unwell or have lived with a disability can let their illness or disability become a part of their identity. Their life has been lived in the light of its reality to such an extent that it can be hard to imagine life without it.

It is also true that people can become defined by their illness or disability rather than by who they are as a person. The English translation of the Bible that we use at Christ Church is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Recently, this has been ‘updated’. It has been lightly revised in the light of advances in scholarship and our understanding of the manuscripts and original languages used by the Biblical writers. The English used to translate the Biblical languages has also been revised to make it more contemporary. The translators have also tried to avoid translating using language that labels a person by their condition. So, for example, in Matthew 4 verse 24 the NRSV originally has:

‘So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.’ (Matthew 4:24 NRSV)

The updated version translates it as:

‘So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.’ (Matthew 4:24 NRSVue)

This can seem like a form of political correctness, but it makes an important point. People are more than their illness and disability.

Whatever the reason for Jesus asking the man whether he wanted to be made well, Jesus will go on to speak of true wellness. The Son, Jesus says, gives life to whomever he wishes (John 5:21). Wellness is a big thing nowadays, and it has become a major industry. Many of us are very much concerned about such things as healthy eating, going to the gym and exercising, taking vitamin and mineral supplements, and we will talk of having a good work-life balance.

I find it interesting to see how religious language has been taken over and applied to physical and mental health and well-being, while ignoring how it was originally used, which was to do with spiritual well-being. Marks and Spencer, for example, advertise their home fragrances by urging people to make them an essential part of their self-care ‘rituals’. Dieticians will speak of the benefits of intermittent ‘fasting’. And various types of therapists advocate ‘meditation’ in the way priests once suggested prayer.

If it is true, as popular sayings have it, that ‘you only live once’ and ‘once you are dead you are dead’, we want to make sure that the one life we have before we die is both long and fulfilling.

In chapter 3 of St John’s Gospel, Jesus has told Nicodemus that he needs to be born again spiritually from above (John 3:3, 7), and in chapter 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well in Samaria:

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (John 4:13-14)

We find the question, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ odd when asked of a man who is physically lame. He, at least, knew how to answer. When it is asked of us who are unwell spiritually, we are not so sure. But Jesus does ask it of us. Do we want to be made well? Or do we prefer to continue to lie in sin, spiritually dead, and without the life Jesus offers to give to those who believe in him?

Society defines us in many ways. It identifies us by our race, sexuality, gender, perceived ability or disability, even by our outward appearance and how we dress. Jesus invites us to be defined by our faith in him. He is the One in whom we find our true identity.
 
2. ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’

Jesus warns the man that, while he has been made well, he is not out of the water yet! The man has been paralyzed for 38 years. He has been so alone that he has not in all that time been able to find anyone to help him into the water. What worse that could happen to him?

Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ (John 5:25)

The worse thing that could happen to anyone is that they are not among those who hear the voice of the Son of God and receive the life that Jesus is able to give. Jesus promises that anyone who hears his word and believes the One who sent him has eternal life (John 5:24). They do not come under judgment but have passed from death to life. Jesus also makes clear that there will be some who will come under judgement and will miss out on the life that he offers. There will be a resurrection to life, but there will also be a resurrection to condemnation (John 5:29).

Jesus tells the man to sin no more. In saying this, Jesus is talking to us as well as to the man who is lame. We inevitably think of sin in terms of the Ten Commandments or the ethical teaching of the Scriptures, but sin in St John’s Gospel is not to believe in Jesus. It is this sin that we will be condemned for. The Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin because they have not believed in him, Jesus tells the disciples in the Upper Room (John 16:9). As St John writes of Jesus:

‘Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’ (John 3:18)

We struggle with this idea of judgement, and will not accept that God could condemn anyone, even less that he could reject them completely. The default position of most churches now is that of ‘universalism’, the belief that somehow regardless of what a person may have done in this life and irrespective of whether they believe or not, all will be alright in the end: all will be saved.

This is delusional. We may choose to believe that there are no consequences to what we think or do, but that is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Church’s tradition. We can take the risk and go on as if there is nothing to worry about, but Jesus warns us against it. If we persist in the sin of unbelief, something worse will indeed happen to us, and when it does it will be too late for us to do anything about it.

It sounds very encouraging and reassuring to hear sermons from church pulpits assuring us that God loves us and not only wants all people to be saved but will also make sure that all are saved and that none are lost. We are inevitably attracted to a message that tells us that we are unconditionally loved by God no matter what. But aren’t we being more than a little hypocritical in all this?

Some of the people I know who are strong advocates of universalism are also very active in speaking out against injustice and the wrongs that have been done to people in the past. They call for justice now, for past wrongs to be acknowledged, for present wrongs to be put right, for the guilty to be punished, and for reparations to be made.

But if we believe in justice and that wrong should be punished, don’t we condemn ourselves? Isn’t this St Paul’s point in his letter to the Church at Rome. St Paul writes:

‘Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.’ (Romans 2:1)

We are judged and condemned by our own words. We need someone to save us if we are to be made well and for nothing worse to happen to us. We need hear the voice of the Son of God and to believe in the One who sent him.

3. ‘The man went away and told the Jews it was Jesus who had made him well.’

As I have said, many are not worried about future judgement because they have decided that this life is all that there is. There is nothing beyond the grave and nothing to worry about after we die. This means, therefore, that we need to make the most of this life now. Nevertheless, we find the idea that we will cease to be hard to come to terms with. It is this that makes us want to prolong our lives for as long as possible and why scientists are working so hard to find ways to extend the human life span.

Length of days is one thing, but what about what we do with the time that we have? We instinctively search for meaning, but often despair of finding any. Life for many can be hard. There are, of course, those who are happy with their life and who enjoy what they consider to be a fulfilling existence, but there are many who do not. For many, life is desperate, demanding, and depressing. It is one thing to talk about the 100 things you are going to do before you die when you are in a position to be able to do them. But for many, just making ends meet and ensuring there is enough food on the table for their family is difficult enough. Even those who are materially rich and who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle are often left wondering if this is all there is.

It is no wonder that, almost despite ourselves, we hope for life beyond death. I take and have taken quite a lot of funerals in my ministry. The majority have been of people who have not been religious during their life and whose family are themselves not religious. Very few people at a funeral, however, are prepared to see the person’s death as the end of that person’s existence. Most hang on to the idea that their loved one lives on in a different place. We even tell ourselves ‘death is nothing at all’! We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person who has died is now free from pain and suffering, living a better life, having been made well beyond death.

St John, however, is very clear that if we want to be made well in this life and if we want that wellness to last beyond death into the next life, we need Jesus. St John stresses that it is in Jesus and only in Jesus that we can find abundant life (John 10:10). St John writes that Jesus uses a series of seven metaphors to convey this message. Jesus says he is the bread of life (John 6:35, 48, 51); the light of the world (John 8:12); the gate (John 10:7, 9); the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); the way the truth, and the life (John 14:6); and the true vine (15:1, 5).

St John records seven metaphors in total. Seven, of course, is the number of wholeness. St John is saying that if we want to be made well, it is in Jesus that we will become fully well. It is by believing in Jesus that we receive eternal life and are made whole.

The phrase ‘eternal life’ does not refer primarily to length of life. It refers to a quality of life found only in Jesus, the Word made flesh and the source of all life (John 1:3-4, 14). The life Jesus gives is not simply life that lasts, but abundant life (John 10:10). It is life that begins now, and which continues after this life with God and in God forever.

It is so that we might have this abundant life that Jesus came, and it is so we might find it that St John says he wrote his Gospel (John 20:31). Those of us who believe in Jesus are to hold fast to the word of life that we have received (Philippians 2:16), but more than that we are to hold out the word of life to all those who have not received it and who are perishing without it.

Today, Jesus asks us, ‘Do you want to be made well?’

May we hear Jesus’ word, believe in the One who sent him, and receive eternal life for ourselves.

Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Thu is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter 2022

Reading: John 13:31-35

St John has brought Jesus’ public ministry to a close at the end of chapter 12 of St John’s Gospel. This is the chapter before the chapter from which our Gospel reading for this week is taken. In chapter 12, St John has described how Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the cheering of the crowds that have come to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. Jesus appears to be a success, and it seems that there is nothing that can stop him. This is certainly how it appears to the Pharisees. They are despondent and say to one another that the whole world has gone after him (John 12:19). In fact, things are far more complicated than they seem.

The crowd who was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead continue to ‘testify’, to use St John’s word (John 12:17). They can’t stop talking about it, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the commitment to follow Jesus that Jesus asks for. The crowds who cheer Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, symbolically riding on a donkey, cheer him as a celebrity or as the Messiah they hope will deliver them from the pagans, but they do not believe in him for whom he claims to be.

Earlier in the Gospel, at the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, many people also appeared to believe in him in the way it appears to the Pharisees that people believe in him after he has arrived in Jerusalem for what will be his final Passover. St John told us in his account of Jesus’ first Passover that Jesus did not entrust himself to them because he himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:25). Jesus knew when people’s faith was real and when it was not. He knows now, at this final Passover before his death, what is in those who shout his praise. Despite all appearances to the contrary, they do not believe in him.

At this moment, although Jesus seems to be at his most popular, Jesus knows that the hour of his death has come. What seems to signal its arrival is that some ‘Greeks’ at the festival ask to see him (John 12:20). When Jesus is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all to him (John 12:32) and the Greeks coming to him are a trailer for what will happen in the future. But first Jesus must be glorified, which means Jesus must die, for that is why he came.

Now is the moment for the judgement of this world and for the ruler of this world to be judged (John 12:31). The crowd, however, don’t know what Jesus is talking about; Jesus’ talk of dying doesn’t fit with their understanding of what the Law says it means to be the Messiah. As far as the crowd are concerned, the Messiah will live forever (John 12:34). If Jesus is the Messiah, how can he be lifted up and die?

After three years or so of being with them, it is, then, a somewhat bleak picture. There is interest, but not commitment. St John’s own assessment of the situation is stark. St John writes:

‘Although he [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

Interest isn’t enough. Regardless of their interest in Jesus, they don’t believe in him. St John acknowledges that there were many, even among the authorities, who seemed to believe in Jesus, but they would not come out in the open about their faith for fear of the Pharisees. St John is damning in his opinion of them. He writes that ‘they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God’ (John 12:43).

St John, however, gives the last word on Jesus’ public ministry and of this section of the Gospel to Jesus himself. St John writes that Jesus cries aloud (John 12:45). Jesus wants what he is about to say to be heard. It is important. Jesus is going to give a summary of all he has been saying during his public ministry before he departs from them. This, then, is Jesus’ own statement of his message.

Jesus says that anyone who believes in him believes in the One who sent him. All those in Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem who have seen him have seen the One who sent him. Jesus came as light into the world, so that anyone who believed in him would not remain in darkness. He does not judge anyone who hears his words and does not keep them. He didn’t come to judge world but to save it. There will, though, be judgement for those who have not responded to him and his words by believing in him. The word Jesus has spoken will be their judge on the Last Day. This is because the word Jesus has spoken is not his own. His Father who sent him has given him a commandment about what to say and speak.

The Father’s commandment is eternal life (John 12:50).

The theme of Jesus’ teaching during the past few years he has been speaking to them has been eternal life. This is what his Father told him to speak about. It has been the theme of the first section of the Gospel. St John has described how God sent Jesus the Word made flesh as the Light of the world, but the world has not believed in him. Now the world is to be judged and its ruler dealt with. The world has had its chance. But it is still not too late for anyone who believes in him. Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). All who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). These are the words his Father commanded Jesus to speak. This is God’s commandment. This is what Jesus’ coming is all about.

Chapter 13, then, begins a new section of St John’s Gospel. It’s now the night that Jesus will be betrayed. This is what it has all been building up to. Jesus knows that his hour has come to depart the world he came to save but which has rejected him. He has loved his own who were in the world, and he hasn’t stopped loving them. The Devil has already put it into Judas’ heart to betray him (John 13:2). The stage is all set for the final drama. Jesus, however, has something he wants to do before it takes place, and what he does takes them completely by surprise.

During the Last Supper, Jesus gets up from the table and starts to wash their feet. This is shocking, and Peter won’t let Jesus wash his feet. Jesus tells him that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter doesn’t belong to him. Peter then enthusiastically accepts. If being washed by Jesus is an indication of how much you belong to Jesus, then Peter wants his hands and head washed too! Jesus then explains what he has done. Jesus says:

‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15)

Jesus is preparing the disciples for the time and task ahead. He uses the phrase, ‘Amen, amen’. This is often translated as, ‘Very truly’. It is a phrase Jesus uses to emphasize the importance of what he is about to say. Jesus tells them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’ (John 13:20)

After this, Jesus is very troubled. St John told us Jesus was troubled shortly before this when the Greeks came to see him, and he realized this was the ‘hour’ (John 12:27). Jesus is troubled again now, as he knows that one of those whose feet he has just washed will betray him. Satan has already put the idea into Judas’ heart, now as Jesus gives him a piece of bread, Satan himself enters Judas (John 13:27). Immediately, Judas goes out to do Satan’s work. St John writes simply and powerfully, ‘And it was night (John 13:30).’ The light of the world is about to be put out.

Jesus knowing this tells them that where he is going they cannot come. He has washed his disciples’ feet to give them an example of how they are to behave towards each other. Now he makes it explicit. Jesus says:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

Jesus is sending them out and anyone who receives them receives him. People will know they belong to Jesus by their love for one another. It is from ‘mandatum novum’, the Latin for ‘new commandment’, that we get the word ‘Maundy’, as in Maundy Thursday.

Jesus tells them he is going away and that they cannot come with him to where he is going. Peter, not unreasonably, asks where it is that Jesus is going. Jesus replies that Peter cannot follow him now, but he will later. As we saw in the sermon for Maundy Thursday this year, Peter asks why he can’t follow Jesus now. He will, Peter says, lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus replies that rather than Peter laying down his life for Jesus, before the cock crows, Peter will deny him three times.

We don’t hear again from Peter until they are in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter attempts, but fails, to give his life for Jesus (John 18:10-11). Peter is prevented from doing so by Jesus himself. Peter thinks that laying down his life means taking someone else’s in the process, and Jesus won’t let him. The next thing, Peter is denying Jesus three times.

But that was what we thought about in the sermon on Maundy Thursday. This week’s Gospel reading focuses on Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to his disciples. In what sense, however, is Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another a new commandment?

Commentators, in attempting to answer this question, often begin by asking what the old commandment is, and naturally think in terms of the commandments of the Old Testament.

The first three Gospels each record Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Interestingly, St Luke, in his account, records that Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the lawyer must do to inherit ‘eternal life’. Jesus replies by asking the lawyer what he reads in the Law.

We read Jesus’ own answer at every Eucharist. Jesus, quoting from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18), says that the greatest commandment is to love God completely and that the second is to love their neighbour as themself. St Luke tells us that Jesus has to clarify for the lawyer who his neighbour is, but Jesus’ answer makes clear that the commandment to love is not itself new; it is, as Jesus says to the lawyer, to be found in the Law.

Given, then, that the commandment to love is not itself new, commentators argue that what is new about the commandment is that the disciples must love each other as Jesus has loved them. Jesus has just shown the disciples what this love looks like by washing their feet, and in just a few hours he will give the definitive demonstration of it by dying for them. It is Jesus’ command that their love for each other must be like his love for them that makes the commandment new.

It is certainly true that we see love in a new and vivid way when we look at Jesus, both in the way he ministered to people and, supremely, in the way he died for us. While it may be a new way of thinking it about what it means to love, the commandment to love, even with Jesus’ qualification of it, still doesn’t sound like a new commandment as such.

So why does Jesus describe it as a new commandment? The answer, I think, to this question lies not in going back to the Old Testament commandments and seeing them as the background to what Jesus says, but in asking whether there are other commandments in St John’s Gospel that Jesus might have in mind. Jesus has previously used the word ‘commandment’ in two other contexts in St John’s Gospel.

The first is in chapter 10. After Jesus has described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus says:

‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ (John 10:17-18)

Earlier in the Gospel, St John has written:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:15-16)

In chapter 12, St John explains that the phrase ‘lifted up’ refers to Jesus’ death (John 12:33). In chapter 10, Jesus having explained how he lays down his life for the sheep says he gives his sheep eternal life (John 10:28). Jesus is commanded by the Father to lay down his life so that those who believe in him may have eternal life.

The second time Jesus uses the word is again in chapter 12, when, as we have already noted, Jesus summarizes his teaching. Jesus says:

‘… for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’ (John 12:49-50)

The whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry has been to offer people eternal life. This has been the central theme of Jesus’ ministry, as St John describes it in the first part of the Gospel. By his words and works and by being willingly prepared to die, Jesus is obeying the commandment given to him by the Father to reveal eternal life to those who believe in him. This commandment to reveal to people how they may receive eternal life by believing in Jesus will also be given to Jesus’ disciples, as they are sent by Jesus as the Father sent him. The Father’s commandment is eternal life. Jesus obeyed it by dying so that those who believe in him can receive it. We obey it by telling people about Jesus.

To this commandment, Jesus now adds another. It is not simply to love, but specifically and deliberately, more narrowly and exclusively, to love one another.

St John, in using the phrase ‘love one another’, has been seen as limiting love only to those who are members of the community of believers. This is not, however, what either St John or Jesus are doing. Jesus, in giving this command, is not concerned here with how his disciples are to relate either to God or to those in the world, but how they are to continue his work as they are sent as the Father sent him. As they are sent with the command to offer people eternal life in Christ, they are also given the command to love one another. It is by loving one another as he has loved them that they show people they are Jesus’ disciples and demonstrate what his love looks like. This is a love people can share in by believing in Jesus and receiving eternal life for themselves, something Jesus has made possible by his death.

The disciples are sent by Jesus with the command given by the Father to offer people eternal life by believing in Jesus and also with the new commandment given to them by Jesus himself to love one another as he has loved them.

There is another reason why they will need to love one another, as they are sent out by Jesus. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command to his disciples to love one another (John 15:12-17). This time, Jesus links their loving one another with bearing fruit for him. Immediately after repeating the command though, Jesus warns the disciples that the world will hate them as it hated him (John 15:18-19). They do not belong to the world, if they did the world would love them as its own. Jesus, however, has chosen them out of this world, and this is why the world hates them.

The disciples will show the world they are his disciples by how they love one another. On the one hand, some people will be drawn into that love, as they believe in Jesus and receive eternal life. On the other, by showing they are Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another, Jesus’ disciples will also attract the world’s hatred and persecution.

The disciples’ love for one another, however, will help them face the hatred from the world. They are to take courage; Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33). In loving him and loving each other, the disciples will know Jesus’ peace and conquer too. St John will have more to say about this in the Book of Revelation.

The hatred that Jesus’ disciples face in the world from the world helps us to understand why Jesus’ new commandment is so important. Jesus knows that he will be the one who is responsible for them being hated after he has returned to his Father. Jesus will not, however, leave them comfortless, he will ask the Father to give them ‘another comforter’ to be with them forever (John 14:16), but he also gives them each other.

Before leaving them, Jesus seeks to create a community of love to counter the world of hate he is sending them into. He wants them to support each other when the world persecutes them. He gives them a family they can belong to as the world rejects them.

St John’s Gospel has been severely criticized for offering a limited moral vision and for having a narrow ethic of only loving those who love us. This is to miss the point. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the reality of what life will be like when he leaves them and as they undertake the work he is sending them to do. They are going to need each other.

What is more, this new community of mutual love that Jesus is creating by his new commandment is God’s alternative to the world that has had its chance, and which has already been judged. God’s love is not to be found in the world, but in the community of those he has chosen (John 14:21). It is to these believers who love him and keep his word that the Father and the Son will come and make their home (John 14:23). This they will do by the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive (John 14:17).

I want to highlight three aspects of Jesus’ new commandment.

1. ‘That you have love …’

The English word ‘love’ causes all sorts of problems for us. It is impossible for us to think of love without thinking of it in the way it is used in popular culture. Firstly, it can be used simply to describe things we like, as in, ‘I love ice-cream’ or ‘I love watching football’. Secondly, it is more commonly used, of course, in the context of romantic and sexual love. Thirdly, and related to this, it is often used to advocate a lifestyle that is free of regulations and restraint: ‘all you need is love’. What matters, it is said, is that you love; anything you do is alright as long as it’s done out of love.

Love as Jesus means it, however, does not merely mean ‘like’. It is much more than that. Nor is Jesus talking about romantic and sexual love. And the fact that Jesus describes it as a ‘commandment’ at least suggests that Jesus doesn’t have in mind the removal of all restrictions on how we live.

The problem is that in English, at least, it is hard to find an alternative word, so we find that we have to try to explain its meaning, as I am trying to do now. The encouraging thing is that when St Paul wants to tell believers in the Church at Corinth to love, he finds he has to do the same. We have one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, 1 Corinthians chapter 13, as a result.

To help us understand what he means by love, Jesus adds the phrase ‘as I have loved you’. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus repeats the command adding:

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ (John 15:13-14)

We are not normally called to lay down our lives for each other, but we are called to ‘wash each other’s feet’. Jesus has already given his disciples and us a practical demonstration of what the love he is talking about looks like in action. What washing someone’s feet and laying down our life for them have in common is that both require a willingness to put another person’s needs before our own. They involve giving up what we want for ourselves for the good of another.

St Luke, in his account of the Last Supper tells us that the disciples argued about who should be regarded as the greatest among them (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus tells them he is with them as one who serves and so it should be with them. Love, as Jesus means it, means being willing to make sacrifices and to put ourselves out, not worrying about our rights and reputation as we do so. As Jesus’ followers, we all know we should love like this, but it easier said than done. Even when we are trying to do it, we can’t help ourselves, and our pride and ego, our regard for ourselves, gets in the way.

I can’t help finding it mildly amusing how often church leaders when they are appointed to a position in the church will often talk about how they see their appointment as an appointment to service and to serving others. Then, once in their appointment, they insist on being treated with greater honour and respect and being addressed not by their Christian name, but by a title. What could be more contrary to the teaching of Jesus?

It is as we give up our claim to position and privilege and give ourselves instead to the needs of others that we love as Jesus tells us to love. Jesus by dying for us gave us life; he also showed us how to live that life. Our Lord on his knees, washing the disciples’ feet, and nailed to the Cross, dying for our sins, is the be our role model as we too seek to live for him.

2. ‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples …’

It is impossible to hear this new commandment of Jesus without being ashamed and embarrassed. Even if we only have a fleeting knowledge of church history, we know that all too often in the past those who have claimed to believe in Jesus have failed miserably as believers to love another. Believers have condemned each other, fought and killed each other, and separated from each other. Whether it is in the language we use about one another or in the divisions we are willing to tolerate, and even encourage, among each other, we still fail to love one another.

It is very easy to criticize the Church both past and present for its failure in areas where we have no personal control or influence. But what about closer to home in our own local churches that we personally are members of? What do we do positively by way of loving one another and what negatively do we do to hurt and injure one another? How is our behaviour contrary to the love that Jesus commands?

We all have a personal and individual responsibility to help each other in practical ways in whatever way we can, but we also have a collective responsibility to do what we can to promote and preserve our unity and to love one another as Jesus’ disciples, so that people can see by that love that we are Jesus’ disciples.

At the very least, this means everyone of us not thinking highly of ourselves or considering ourselves better than others. It means metaphorically taking off our outer robe and washing each other’s feet. It means getting ourselves dirty, so that others may be clean. We do this because this is the love we owe one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, but also, Jesus tells us, so people who do not believe in him may know we belong to him.

Jesus at the beginning of the Last Supper speaks about sending the disciples out and of how anyone who receives them, receives him, and whoever receives him, receives the One who sent him (John 13:20). But how are people to know who they are and who it is who has sent them? Jesus says it is our love for one another that will show we are his disciples. Our love for one another is a visual aid for people as we are sent by him into the world to speak his word. People are to see what we mean by our words in our relationships with each other.

There are, however, two sides to how people will react when they see our love for one another and realize we are Jesus’ disciples. Some will indeed respond positively and will want to join us and become Jesus’ disciples too. This is how we normally understand Jesus’ words. Others, however, will respond negatively, and will react violently as they reject the message we bring.

When Jesus repeats his command to his disciples to love one another, he speaks of how he has chosen them to bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16). But, after again repeating his command, Jesus immediately continues by saying:

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:18-19)

Not everyone will be drawn to Jesus when they see our love for each other just as they were not drawn to Jesus when they saw him in person. If they persecuted him, they will persecute them, Jesus warns them. If we love as Jesus commands us to love, they will persecute us too. We won’t be popular or liked, but whether the reaction is positive or negative, we are to obey Jesus’ command knowing, as St John writes in his first letter, that we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

3. ‘One another …’

As I have said, St John’s Gospel has been criticized for limiting the command to love to disciples only. It has been seen as an exclusive rather than an inclusive love. What Jesus says about the world hating his disciples and persecuting them, however, explains why it is so important for them to love one another. As Jesus is about to be crucified and leave them, it is an absolute priority for Jesus to see his disciples are not left alone.

Jesus, by this point, has spent three years talking to them about how they should live and how they should love even their enemies. But that is not his concern now. In what he has to say to his disciples before he leaves them, he wants them to know about the Holy Spirit who he will send to them to be with them forever (John 14:16) and who will guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

In giving them this word of command to love one another, Jesus tells them:

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit abides with them, Jesus says, but he will be in them (John 14:17). In them, that is, individually as a person believes in Jesus, but in them and at home with them as a community that hears Jesus’ words, keeps his commandments, and loves him and each other.

As Jesus sends the disciples into the world that hates them as it has hated him, a world to which they do not belong, Jesus wants them to know they belong to him in a community of love that provides a radical alternative to the world from which they have been saved. In this community, they will receive the teaching and the fellowship they need to follow Jesus faithfully and to serve him selflessly in the world into which they are sent.

Jesus offers us a vision of the Church as place where the values of Jesus can be lived out in a loving commitment to all who belong to it. Tragically, it is a vision that we have largely abandoned. We don’t obey the Father’s commandment of eternal life either by holding it out to people or living it with those who experience it. We have other priorities. We want our needs to be met rather than to meet the needs of others. We want to stay where we are in the comfortable and familiar rather than to go out and testify to Jesus. We want to be relevant in this world and prefer sitting at the tables of power and having influence rather than kneeling at someone’s feet and becoming the least. Like those of the authorities who believed in Jesus but kept silent, we too love human glory more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:42-43).

So, our churches rather than being radical communities of love are more like performance venues where we can be popular, or preservation societies where we can escape to the past, or pressure groups where we can strive for prestige and position.

I have to take my own share of responsibility for this. I may criticize church leaders, but I am one of them. As one of the clergy, it is all too easy to go with the flow, to accept the status quo, and to live in an easy conformity with the world, rather than following him who calls us to die to self, to abide in him, and to speak of him in a world, which will hate and persecute us. I confess to a strange peace in facing up to my own failure, but at the same time to a sense of grief and loss at what might have been if only I had had the courage to be more faithful.

The world is, I believe, becoming progressively more hostile to those who have faith in Jesus and who follow him. In China, the Church is seen as promoting the religion of a foreign power and in the west, it is accused of having attitudes and values that belong to a colonial past. In both east and west, persecution is the result. But with the persecution comes the opportunity for believers to decide whose side they are on. Do we make peace with the world in the hope of gaining recognition in it? Or do we trust him who gives us a peace that is not as the world gives (John 14:27) and which leads to rejection by it?

The command to love one another as he loved us will identify us as Jesus’ disciples. He loved us by laying down his life for us. Those who love as he commands must be prepared to do the same.

May the Spirit he has sent us give us the courage to do so.

Amen.