Tuesday, 29 May 2007

the comforter John 16 1-16

We often get the wrong idea about the Holy Spirit, “the Comforter”. That word derives simply from the Latin which means the strong one alongside which is itself a literal translation of the Greek parakletos. But in our day the word comforter conjures up a kind of security which is very far from what the Holy Spirit offers. Indeed it is only when we have left the snug foetal position, safely curled up in the womb of our water based pre-natal state that the Holy Spirit comes into His own. Nicodemus was told he had to be born again: to move from a water based world to a spirit based world. To be born is dangerous: it means leaving the safety of the warm, dark, hidden place and coming out into the world – into the light, into the cold, to risk exposure to all sorts of dangers and ultimately to become independent.

When the Holy Spirit came upon them the disciples were reborn: they left the relative security of their hide-out in the upper room. The door was now opened and out they went into the street. They abandoned the security of silence for the risk of witnessing. The direct result of the gift of the Holy Spirit was that they soon found themselves in front of the authorities for breaches of the peace. The Holy Spirit offered no security; instead it exposed them as witnesses. It took them beyond their comfort zone and some of them to death and persecution.

In John’s gospel we see why. Unfortunately the word advocate – the modern translation of parakletos tends to be linked with defence rather than prosecution. In our child protection policies we have advocates to whom children can go for comfort, advice and ultimately protection. The way Jesus describes the work of the Spirit shows that it is more about prosecution than defence. It is the power of conviction. It drives the church on to the attack. It shows the world that it is wrong about sin, wrong about Jesus and complacent about judgment. Some comforter! The strong one alongside is elsewhere described as the “Sword of the Spirit”. It is an encourager “pour encourager les autres”.

The Spirit is also the great communicator. We often think we need to have silence for the gentle dove-like spirit to appear among us. But the Spirit came in anything but silence at Pentecost. It’s arrival was marked by those two deadly accomplices in mayhem – fire and wind. Flame, accompanied by wind is the great communicator. Just hold a piece of paper close to a candle and see how the flame leaps across the gap to communicate with the paper. Watch a forest fire in its full, fearsome unstoppability. Driven by the wind it leaps across gaps with a terrifying desire to communicate. And so as soon as they got into the street the apostles began to speak and the great communicator got the message across. Even language was no barrier. Far from creating a feel good factor within the upper room the Spirit broadened out their community until in one day it now embraced 15 different cultures. And so the Spirit took these Galileans outside their comfort zone in that it exposed them to new ways of thinking and new styles of living. For them it was bad enough being in Jerusalem; soon at least one of them would be in Rome.

Yet the Spirit is also a spirit of unity. Those language groups that were dispersed as a result – so the story went – of the failure of the Babel project were now being galvanised into a unity not of hostility or rivalry to God but into co-operation with him. The new creation born at the resurrection of the new Adam was to be a creation of reconciliation. And so the Holy Spirit has already begun to reveal the last days; when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea; when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. The world we see now – nature red in tooth and claw, nations at war with nations, fear and hunger stalking the planet is not the truth. The Spirit prosecutes this world and exposes it to the promise of the new creation and the hope of peace and reconciliation. Those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells can never be content with the status quo – they can never rest comfortable with the injustice of this travesty of a world in which we live. They yearn for unity with all the passion of a creating God.

I'm sorry but this is my last blog for a few weeks. I'm having a break.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

litany for pentecost

Lord we are in need of your reviving power:

we have become stale and unimaginative:

sometimes we are afraid of your

creativity and cower in the darkness because we fear the revolution of your kingdom.

Visit us in the deepest parts of our being:

renew us with the sweetness of your grace,

you who are the source of all that lives.

Come Holy Spirit:

Come Holy Spirit from heaven's pure height;

scatter our darkness with your glorious light.

Come, father of poor folk, great giver of all,

light of our being, the fire of our soul.

The Lord says, I shall make you a light to the nations so

that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of earth.

Lord, we need the refreshment you alone can bring:

sick, we need healing, tired we need energy,

bereaved we need comfort:

sometimes we cry in desperation with Jeremiah, why is there no progress in the cure of our people?

Come Holy Spirit

Of all who bring comfort, Lord, you are the best,

to those admitting you, life's welcome guest;

in toil our refreshment, deliciously sweet,

solace in sorrow, cool shade in the heat.

The Lord says: I have seen their ways, but I will heal them,

I will repay them with comfort.

Lord we need peace:

In the words of your prophet Isaiah,

we are searching for peace in this world like those without eyes,

feeling our way along the walls, stumbling as though noon were twilight, waiting for judgment that never comes,

for salvation that seems far away.

Come Holy Spirit.

Bereft of your presence, most blessed pure light,

bound in the darkness, we languish in night;

come, visit your faithful, our hearts fill with peace;

from sin's grim prison grant saving release.

The Lord says: Look I am going to send peace flowing like a

river, and like a stream in spate the glory of the nations.

Lord we need cleansing: we try to do better week by week but

we fail: we need you to forgive us; bend our stubborn wills

to your gentle purpose, melt our ice bound hearts with the

fire of your passion:

Come Holy Spirit:

Cleanse all that is dirty, what's arid, refresh:.

heal wounds that fester with healthy new flesh:

make brittle minds supple, make frozen hearts warm:

guide the lost wanderers safely back home.

The Lord says: I shall pour clean water over you and you

shall be cleansed. I shall give you a new heart and put a

new spirit in you: I shall remove your heart of stone and

give you a heart of flesh instead.

Lord we need your life within us: we become discouraged so

easily; we wilt before the powers of evil in the world, we

willingly retreat into the obscurity of religion instead of

carrying your light to all people:

Come holy spirit

Please give to the faithful who serve in this place

your sev'nfold blessing, the gifts of your grace;

give goodness its prize, give safe journeys at last,

life that is endless, a joy unsurpassed.

The Lord says I have loved you with an everlasting love and

so I still maintain my love for you. I shall build you up

once more, yes you will be rebuilt.

RJG verses trans from Stephen Langton

Friday, 18 May 2007

ascension Luke 24 50-53

Jesus leads his disciples out to the Mount of Olives in the direction of Bethany. The description is brief, almost laconic. For a full description we have to turn to Luke’s second volume. When Jesus reaches the Mount he raises his hands in blessing. The Son of the Most High, the daystar, the Saviour in a manger, the Son of Man, the righteous man unjustly crucified, the risen Lord finishes the task the priest Zechariah had failed to complete at the outset of our story. It is as if the whole world had been waiting for the blessing of God, only to find those qualified to give it dumb and unbelieving: Israel, God’s son and agent through whom blessing was to be communicated to the world had seen the vision but never taken it seriously, ever since Sara had laughed at God’s promise, it had been never properly communicated the love and grace of God to the nations. With this blessing the training of the apostles is now complete: they simply await empowering. For Jesus, however, this is the final exodus. He disappears in front of their eyes. Those who had slept through the transfiguration now stared open eyed into the heavens waiting for something sensational to happen again. But this time there is no heavenly host, no vision of Elijah and Moses, no cryptic conversation about the exodus. This is the exodus, and he just slips quietly away as enigmatically as he was conceived.

Two witnesses appear and tell them to stop watching the skies and get on with work on the ground. They return to Jerusalem praising God, constantly in the temple. The hosannas of palm Sunday ring out again – but not to one riding lowly on a donkey – to one crowned in heaven as Lord of all. These hosannas are not to end in tragedy: they are not just a fickle one off event. They are continuous. They are for all time. They are for eternity.

From now on it is down to the apostles: they are going to be at the centre of attention: the presence of Christ in the world will largely depend on them. They, gifted with the Holy Spirit, will be God’s agent. Perhaps the ascension is a wrongly titled event. The exodus of Jesus is less about his glory than the more wonderful incarnation of God in his people. At Pentecost the process is completed and the new Body of Christ is unleashed on the world with an impact hitherto unseen. At last Jerusalem rocks.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007


Great God of justice, mercy, peace

Who rules the world in matchless grace

How could it be your sovereign will

That evil men should take and nail

Your son upon a cross of wood

Shatter his body, drain his blood

Release a terrorist instead

Happy to see your Jesus dead?

Is this the way you punish sin

Condemn to death earth’s greatest man?

Leave him, rejected with the poor

Naked, unloved, alone, unsure

Forsaken by his Father God

To die in darkness like a dog?

Surely our sins were multiplied

As yet another good man died.

Or was it you we killed that day,

Your blood we coldly poured away?

Slaying in hate like Cain of old

Our brother sent to love and hold;

Holding the world in terror’s thrall

By bomb and bullet, loveless law,

Condemning millions to your fate

Seeking to strangle love with spite.

Was it not nails but love that tore

Open your body, like a door

Through which, by faith, we see your way

To turn earth’s hells to heavenly day

Renouncing violence, hate and war

To walk more humbly, finding power

In patience, kindness, loving care

Till justice makes this sad world fair.

RJG copyright Baptist Peace Fellowship.

I was asked by the Baptist Peace Fellowship to write a hymn putting forward an alternative to penal substitution as an explanation of the atonement. There are of course many such models as a perusal of Paul Fiddes’ excellent summary Past event and present salvation: the Christian idea of atonement (1989) makes clear.

In my hymn the first 2 verses point out the illogicality of penal substitution: that a Father should execute his own loved and innocent Son to satisfy his wrath is morally repugnant. Such a God is simply not credible as a God who saves. Instead I suggest that God was judged by man and found guilty: we crucified the Son (in the words of the parable) so that the vineyard should be ours. Like the tenants we used violence to assert our independence, and like those tenants we have done ever since. Every act of violence re-enacts the crucifixion of Jesus in our culture and in our age. When Cain slew Abel it was to “punish” God.

By sending his Son God makes himself vulnerable to our hate. But the willingness of Jesus to absorb our violence and not allow his love to be destroyed by it demonstrates the indestructibility of the love of God. This is of course affirmed by the resurrection. Thus the broken body of Jesus reveals the ever beating heart of God’s love. Jesus commands us to carry our cross daily. The kingdom does not come by crucifying – or by any other violent means – or by playing power games; it comes through cross bearing, absorbing suffering into love. It is in this sense that Jesus “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He bore the squalor of death with the nobility of God. Paul tells us that the mind that was in Jesus should be ours too. This mindset did not seek equality with God but accepted slavery, and ultimately death on a cross. The way of the cross is the authentic route by which we all travel. This we embrace willingly through faith, as Christ did.

A few words about the form of the hymn. It is in the somewhat unusual metre of DLM which allows for long sentences. It is also marked by a number of deliberate half rhymes, especially sometimes in key points: e.g. peace – grace, will – nail, sin – man, God – dog, thrall – law, fate – spite, war – power.

Half rhymes create an unease, a jarring in the smooth run of words. In this hymn they are meant to prevent us from feeling that we can box the atonement into a formula – the amazing grace of God that triumphs over our rebellion must never cease to surprise us and the awkward corners of the cross should never be totally planed out. The other device used is enjambement, where the sense is carried over a line break – throwing the emphasis forward. This is particularly evident in the last verse – e.g. ………………..tore

Open your body

I was trying to create a picture of the body of Christ being torn apart like bread at communion.


Wednesday, 2 May 2007

the glory of God John 13 27-35

It was night. Last week it was winter, now it is night. Sometimes John is sparing with his words. It is often when what he has to say is most poignant. Judas has slipped out of supper to do what he had to do. The sun has gone down on his wrath and under the cover of darkness he did what he did because his deed was evil and he preferred darkness rather than light. Judas gets a bad press in John. He steals from the bag and allows Satan into his heart. In a narrative that makes so much of the symbolism of darkness and light the words “it was night” are profoundly chilling.

And yet that awful brief phrase (just seven characters in the Greek) is immediately trumped. Now at that moment as Judas is betraying him; now at that moment of deepest night; now at that moment that Satan has penetrated into the heart of one of Jesus’s closest followers; the glory of God is most clearly revealed. Five times in 33 words we read that God is glorified. Of course darkness cannot obliterate light. It can only reveal it. Only light can destroy light. In Portugal on the feast of the Assumption in the middle of August fireworks are launched into the height of the noontide sky. They explode with deafening bangs but leave only whispy smoke trails across the brilliant sky. When the sun goes down, they career across the inky velvet of the star spangled heavens, showering spectacular reins of amber and balls of green, blue, red and silver and gold. Against the lowering clouds of Caiaphas’s judgment the triple rainbow arch of God’s mercy sparkles more spectacularly than at any other point of human history.

There has been some controversy about the atonement recently; what is the glory of God? It is certainly not his wrath. Jesus tells his disciples clearly where the glory is revealed. “Love one another.” It may be new it may be radical it may not seem to match perfectly what they understand by atonement but this is the truth that Pilate and all politicians and lawyers like him find so elusive. The darkness of a betrayal, the darkness of a lynching, the darkness of unjust trial, the darkness of a cynical political trade, the darkness of a crucifixion: they extend the love of God and man to the furthest limits of their elasticity. The love of Peter for his Lord might snap relatively early in the piece, but the love of Jesus for his mother survives and the love of God for the whole human race shines in glory from pole to pole across that eclipsed earth.

So, if you want to demonstrate the glory of God in your living, look to me in my dying, Jesus says. Forgiving, healing love is the glory of God. Live his glory in all your relationships.