A FOSSIL PRESERVED IN ASPIC OR THE TRUE AND LIVING FAITH?
a sermon preached at S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON on 26th MAY 2019. Text: John 14.23-29
We’re getting closer to Pentecost (now only two weeks away). Meanwhile, we’re still listening to snippets from Jesus’s long speech at the Last Supper.
A week ago, He gave us a “new commandment” – that we should love one another as He has loved us. Today we learn how the Holy Spirit helps us to do that loving which our Lord commands.
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.
Words of great comfort and reassurance. Because, you see, He’s in the middle of breaking the news to His original disciples that He is “going away”. In the sense that they’re not going to be able to enjoy His physical company for very much longer. What’s going to happen in short order is that He’s going to be killed, rise from the dead and then ascend to His Father in heaven.
And after that, those original disciples will be in the same boat as us. They won’t have Him on hand to see, talk to, and get a hug from, as a human being.
But He also says, a bit further on in His Last Supper speech, that it’s actually a good thing for them (and for us) that He’s off back to Heaven because otherwise He can’t do what He wants to do and that is send us the Holy Spirit. You see, this is how He and God the Father can come to us and make their home with us in our hearts rather than as an external physical presence.
It makes a lot of sense, you know, when you think about it.
He is freeing up His “word”, which He wants everybody to keep, from the limitations of time and space. His vision, and His prayer, is that this word of God can gradually spread to the whole world – to the millions and millions of people of every race and nation who have never met Him.
And that isn’t really going to work if He hangs around on earth in one tiny spot on the globe (Jerusalem in Judaea) as some sort of ageing guru answering as many random points as He can field in a day, day after day, in a sort of theological “any questions” clinic for those who queue up to get an audience with Him.
As He says, there are so many more things we need to know but He hasn’t got time to give us any more answers. And, in any case, He says, the disciples at the Last Supper are lectured-out and can’t cope with any more teaching for the moment.
So the plan is He will disappear and come back in or via the Holy Spirit which, as the gospel promises, will be the one to teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus did say when He was on earth. Or, as He puts it a few verses later, when the Holy Spirit comes, it will LEAD or GUIDE us into all truth.
Now it’s really important that we get this. He is saying that there are truths which we haven’t yet encountered. The idea is that we are on an adventure, hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit, of discovering and understanding these new truths.
Every day the church as a body and you and I, its members as individuals, may be confronted with choices, decisions, moral dilemmas. Should I do this or should I do that? What would the right thing be to do? Well, the right thing, if you are a Christian, is what Jesus would do or say.
But Jesus lived 2000 years ago in a very different society and a very different culture to ours. So 9 times out of 10, it’s no good leafing frantically through the pages of the 4 gospels and looking for a quote from Him which covers your question or problem.
You won’t find anything on His lips about ethical problems arising from the use of the internet, or mobile phones, or cars. He never said anything specifically about assisted suicide or in vitro fertilisation or women priests or, for that matter, any kind of priests.
And in case you’re wondering what He said about homosexuality, the answer is zilch, nada, rien. So much for the Australian Rugby player who said “Hell awaits all homosexuals” and then complained, when he was suspended, that his “Christian faith”was being attacked! What Christian faith??
What we have to do, whenever we are confronted with a thorny issue which Jesus did not pronounce upon during His lifetime, is to pray for guidance to find the mind of Christ or the will of God on the matter and what that boils down to is allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us into the necessary new truth. And that often means taking a trusting leap of faith into the dark.
You can actually see this very process happening as little as months after Christ’s Ascension.
The early church is wrestling with a basic problem of identity: should it remain a recognisable sect within the official Jewish faith (in which Jesus had been brought up) or should it go for some more radical break-away?
Among other thorny issues, should Christians still be circumcised? And should they still observe the Jewish kosher dietary laws? Jesus hadn’t specifically answered these questions for them……. .
Well, the Holy Spirit certainly gave them a boot up the backside on these debates. We had a wonderful reading from the Acts of the Apostles last week, when we heard how Peter saw the light after his technicolour dream of being invited to tuck into pork sausages and bacon sarnies.
The point is that, if the job of the Holy Spirit is to LEAD us into all truth, then our faith must not be afraid to grow and, if necessary, change. Sometimes it needs to be brought up to date – that was the idea behind the 2nd Vatican Council and now we have the refreshing Papacy of Francis, who is more interested in mercy and compassion than doctrinal rigidity.
Whether we’re Roman Catholic or Anglican, if the Holy Spirit isn’t still moving, burning and blowing in us and our church, we might as well all pack up and chuck it in.
But if it is alive in us, then our faith can’t remain static and unchanging.
The phrase “the faith once delivered to the Saints” doesn’t make much sense, either in the letter of Jude, where it first appeared, or in the way it’s bandied about in traditionalist circles today.
Those words really get my goat. They are thin-lipped, fearful, defensive, judgmental.
Our faith was never ONCE delivered to somebody else centuries ago to be preserved in aspic or to fossilize. The expression I prefer, and which I can wholeheartedly sign up to as a priest, is “the true and living faith”, something with the breath of the Holy Spirit still filling it so that it can interact with current affairs.
Of course we must be on our guard against heresy or false teaching, and it is the vital job of the church to weed out from official doctrine whatever is harmful or misleading. But that is NOT the same thing as refusing to let the Holy Spirit lead us into new truths.
So how, in the end, with the help of the Holy Spirit, do we distinguish between the true and the false? How do we tell the difference?
I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come and make our home in them.
The litmus test in every dilemma, every issue, every debate, every question which is not specifically answered in the text of the gospels is “What would LOVE say, what would LOVE do?” Because love is His word.
If in doubt, just our pour in more love. You can’t go wrong that way.
And the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth, will show us how.