OT Lectionary May 31st Trinity Sunday Isaiah 6:1-8

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

Here it comes again – the Sunday preachers love to hate. How do we help people to understand the mystery of the Trinity? To be honest the OT doesn’t help, the Trinity not being much of a Jewish idea. In fact the Jews were so fiercely monotheistic, and you can see why when you look at their history and the problems false worship got them into. Much of their resistance to the infant church was the apparent belief in three different gods. Even the NT only hints at the doctrine, which was not formalised by the church until the 4th century. So the fact that Isaiah’s seraphim cried out ‘Holy’ three times does not of itself prove much, and it would be bad hermeneutics to suggest that it did.

For what it’s worth, whilst clover leaves and ice, water and steam go some way towards illustrating the Trinity, I prefer an aural rather than a visual aid – that of a musical triad. Each note of the chord is distinct, and each has a special purpose within the triad, but heard together they become much more than the sum of three individual notes. I’ll let you play around with that idea.

G Triad

I wonder, though, whether our job on this Sunday is to help people understand the doctrine of the Trinity? Hands up anyone who does understand it? Frankly it’s an impossible task, so it may be more productive instead to focus on what difference it makes in real life, to illustrate the doctrine rather than nail it down tightly for all to comprehend. If that’s the case, and as long as we understand that this is not what the passage means or is about, I believe we might find something helpful in Isaiah 6 after all, as a trinity of motifs lead to and facilitate Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Firstly there is a God who calls. He is a God of holiness, majesty and power, reigning from his throne but affecting the earth too. It is he who calls human beings into his service.

Then there is the seraph who comes to Isaiah as he expresses his natural reluctance and lack of qualification for such a task. He is sent by God into Isaiah’s world to deal with the problem of human sin.

Thirdly there is the burning coal, which actually affects the cleansing and makes Isaiah ready and able for service. Of course it is highly fanciful to see in this trinity a reflection of the Holy Trinity, with the Father who reigns and calls, the Son who steps down into the human world to deal with sin, and the Spirit, who comes with burning flames to cleanse and equip God’s people. Of course, as with any illustration of the Trinity, there are limitations. The Son is of course more than an angel, and the Spirit more than a lump of coal. But to think ourselves into Isaiah’s position, and to meditate on our calling and obedience (or not), our experience of sin and forgiveness, and the touch of the Holy Spirit’s fire on our lives might be a profitable thing.

Old Testament Lectionary Jan 25th Conversion of St Paul Jeremiah 1:4-10

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of my quibbles with small-c catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on the ‘Saints’, is that for ordinary Christians like you and me it can seem very de-skilling. Often based on a mediaeval and unbiblical distinction between ‘saints’ and ‘souls’, the language is usually that of emulating and being inspired by the great heroes of faith. But the reality is that actually I have never had a baby through virgin birth, I’ve not done much at all in terms of miracles, and I hope to goodness that I never get martyred. So I’m just an ordinary Christian, as opposed to the saintly super-heroes of the faith. I know my place.

However other bits of the church can be just as guilty, even when their heroes and heroines are found within the pages of Scripture. The calls of both Jeremiah and Paul are often preached as ‘types’ of calling for all Christians. Fortunately we have moved away from believing that if you couldn’t time and date your conversion experience you probably haven’t had a genuine one (although some people still can, and they need to be recognised as valid too). Jeremiah’s call is often held up as a good paradigm for present-day Christians, although the experience of most of us is a lot less dramatic. Nevertheless, there are some elements of this call to which we maybe do need to listen carefully.

 File:The Conversion of St. Paul by Benjamin West.jpg

First of all we note that looking at these two stories together, conversion equals call. In both cases the call of God is a call to action. Jeremiah’s is specific, Paul is merely told to go to Damascus where he will receive further instructions, but both incidents imply a call to ministry. Too often today we concentrate on conversion as encountering Christ, and surrendering to him for the first time, as stage one, and we may or may not get round to stage two, our call to serve Christ, at some later point. Leave it too long, and we have actually allowed new converts to relax into ‘passenger’ rather than ‘crew’ mode, and it will be all the more difficult to recruit them into action.

Secondly, we see in many biblical call narratives (although not, interestingly, in Paul’s story) the motif of reluctance. This lack in Acts 9 may be the result of God having had, as it were, to hit Paul so hard that he was too stunned to object. But when we sense some kind of a call from God, there are two things to learn: a) if we feel nervous we are in good company, and b) our reluctance cuts no ice at all with God, so get over it!

Thirdly, I am interested, because of my particular personality type, in the negativity of Jeremiah’s calling. There are four negative tasks for him (uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow) and only half as many positive ones (build, plant). Again, in Acts we do not get details of Paul’s specific calling, other than to stop destroying and overthrowing, but as we see his career panning out there is a certain amount of confrontation and resistance to the old ways of Judaism in which he was schooled and zealous. But I wonder how much of the uprooting and tearing down had to happen within himself, as the encounter with the living Christ turned his life, and his beliefs upside down.

Calling people to turn to Christ, which is surely the most important ministry the Church has, must, I believe, involve a good, clear account of just what it is we are calling them from, and what we are calling them to.

Reflections on Discipleship – Fears and Fantasies

Last Sunday I was preaching at a St Andrew’s Day Patronal Festival, and although I must have read the passage in question (Matthew 4:18-22) hundreds of times, I was struck afresh by two things, both of which I believe are good news for would-be or slightly nervous disciples.

You see in my experience people have some pretty powerful fantasies about what it would mean if they really decided to follow Jesus, to surrender everything to him. This passage speaks powerfully into some of those fears.

I noted firstly that here and elsewhere Jesus often calls disciples in pairs. Here we have Andrew and his brother Simon, followed by James and his brother John. In John’s account of the story, these two pairs are followed by Philip and Nathaniel. It seems to be a bit of a pattern. I wonder if this is because Jesus knows just how difficult it can be to swim against the tide on your own. People often feel, I reckon, that to follow Jesus will isolate them. Their friends won’t like them any more, or understand them: they won’t fit in at work, or down the pub, or at the golf club, or wherever it is they live and move and have their being. They’ll turn into religious nuts, unable to take a place any more in normal society. So it is significant that in the case of these disciples Jesus calls them together. We’re stronger when we’re not alone. Later on Jesus is going to send them out to put into practice the things he’s been teaching them, and again they are sent out in pairs. We’re meant to support one another in this enterprise of discipleship, and I believe Jesus knows that. If you are feeling some kind of sense of call to go deeper with Jesus, the first job is to ask who else around you is feeling the same call, and whether you might respond together. Tragically it can be the case that church is the last place where we can really speak about our relationship with God. But if we can foster a culture where such conversations are common currency, I bet we’ll see more people discovering the same call, so that we can strengthen and support one another as we respond and obey.

But the second bit of good news might just be even more important. Look what Andrew and Simon are called to. ‘You’re fishermen’ says the ever-astute Jesus (I reckon it might be the boats, nets and all-pervading smell of fish which gave him the clue). How do you fancy catching people instead of fish? I think this is significant because another common fantasy people have is that if I really obey the call of Jesus to follow him I’ll have to go to Africa. Serious Christians always seem to get called to some awful mission-field, so although I do like Jesus I’d better keep a bit of distance. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard this fear expressed. In fact Jesus is calling them to do what they’re already good at, and presumably enjoy, but with a new twist.

When I was 18 I went off to university to become a chemistry teacher, but for reasons I won’t bore you with (but which you can read about in my God’s Upgrades … My Adventures) it didn’t work out. But a couple of years later, when God got his hands on me again, I started the journey to Christian ministry. Now 33 years on the thing people say most often about me is to thank me for my teaching ministry. There are, of course, several aspects of my ministry which go the other way, and I’ll spare you the details of what people say I’m lousy at, but the point is that my instinct to teach was a good one, but that God wanted to take it to a new level. He hadn’t created me to teach people about chemistry, but about his Word and what it means to live for him.

So if God is calling you to go deeper with him (or if you are involved in caring for and nurturing those who he is calling) look for the stuff you’re already good at, passionate about, and experienced in. It may well be that God doesn’t want to turn your life upside down, but merely to enhance what he has already put it in your heart to do for him.

What’s Church For? Church as Ekklesia

We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?

Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.

This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.

The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.




But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.