One plus One plus One is ONE

John 15:26 – 16:15

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

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. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

I don’t know about you, but I find simply living my life as an average human being, I have so many roles so many facets so many faces

I am Son, Father, Lover, Preacher, Counsellor, Teacher, Friend and sadly, Enemy too. All of these are based on the experience others have of me which determines the name they would give to me.

If I have so many aspects that I can only begin to imagine the many ways God has been experienced

The doctrine of the Trinity like all other doctrines is an attempt to describe what has been experienced by people who have experienced God

Trinity Sunday invites us to realise again that in the Judeo-Christian tradition God has been experienced as Father, Son and feminine nurturing Spirit. This is a wonderful image of our relational God. It was however a very difficult doctrine to formulate. Not that it was more complex than say the doctrine of the Incarnation, I mean, how did baby Jesus still remain the divine Logos at the heart of the Universe? No, the doctrine of the Trinity was challenging because it flew in the face of a very hard won understanding that Jews express succinctly in their Shema, “Behold O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE

It had taken centuries and many battles and bloodshed, for Israel to come to the conclusion that there was to be only one God. Molech, Baal, and earlier Isis and Ra, were abandoned in favour of Yahweh, the great I am. Having come to this conclusion as a united Israel in their promised land, they clung to their monotheism as the key to their unity. When the New Israel, the church, experienced Jesus and later the Spirit, this experience had to be integrated into this monotheism and thus the doctrine of the Trinity was born. A beautiful work of theo-philosphical reasoning that retains the unity whilst recognising the diversity of operation and experience of the being we call God.

However, to step back just a moment, in the formulation of the Jewish monotheistic dogma the men (and they were all men) who did this reasoning could not conceive that perhaps Baal, Molech, Isis and Ra along with the pantheon of other Middle-Eastern deities vying for market share, could possibly be valid experiences of the same God too! Judaism, wasn’t particularly good about inclusion of “Other” in their thinking. Clawing for their self determination did not make them the most inclusive society in the Mediterranean neighbourhood. So I understand the blind spot, whilst ruing its missed opportunity. Some ideas take centuries to ripen.

I would like to suggest that the Trinitarian doctrine of God is ripe now. Ripe for fruiting a further step along its logical path.

Before I move to suggest the next step for the doctrine of the Trinity, I need to publish a disclaimer. I am fully aware that this is very volatile ground. After all, wasn’t it the filioque debate around the Trinity that led to the first Great schism between the Eastern and Western Church? So I am cautious yet compelled to make my suggestion…

I think we are outgrowing the Trinity.

More correctly I believe that in the miracle of the global village encounters we are having of trans-cultural, trans-national and thus trans-religious relations we have to face the fact that for others on the planet, the “One” whom our tradition has experienced as Father Son and Mother Spirit, has also been experienced as Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Tao and Vishnu by our spiritual siblings in other religions.

Remembering that the Trinity is a doctrine born directly from our collective experience of God in God’s modes of being experienced, can we begin to acknowledge that in other cultures and parts of this planet the names and roles of God are multiple, far more than three, and go on and on, just like God does.

Risking redundancy, let me recap that the Old Testament is amongst many other things, a record of Israel’s discovery that God is much more than a limited tribal idol God whom they thought to be only concerned with their own particular national and political salvation project to the exclusion and detriment of all others. The New Testament reflecting on the inclusivity of Jesus and the expansive vision of Paul had to realise that God was not a God of tribe nor of nation.

Could it be our task in these days to realise that those inclusive and expansive embracing arms of the Father Son and Spirit are reaching even wider? In this process of expanding our thinking, every group, creed and religion whom we are trusting enough to embrace in the inclusive love of Jesus, will bring to us their names and roles of God as they have experienced and named God on their journeys of discovery.

The Church Fathers were at pains to teach the early church that there were not three but one essence in the being of God although the attributes of this being were experienced by specific names and energetic encounters.

I would like to believe the Fathers and Mothers of the Church would invite us today to realise that there is still only one essential divine heart beating at the centre of the universe. To think that we are the only ones to have authentically heard that heart beating or felt its compassion directed to us, is not only narrowly erroneous, it is also arrogantly exclusive.

God is God in every corner of the planet and dimension of the Universe. God is God in every place of worship, and most importantly God is God in every heart of those God created to be called human.

Name God, Draw God, Describe God, Record God as you will. God is only ONE, the only ONE, and every person on this planet no matter how they name God are children of the one Father and Family of the one multi faceted faith community.

Does that mean that we have to make one generic porridge God in the pot of global religious encounter? Definitely not! As Christ followers we have the standard of Jesus who made it very clear that it is by the fruit of love that we will discern how valid the other experiences and names for God are. Permit me to attempt such a check list, that may still exclude Molech but may include some of the more popular and populous names and experiences around. Perhaps, if we allow ourselves to risk looking at God though another lens, our Christ following will be enriched and empowered. This has been my personal experience.

So here is a discernment list for Inter Faith exploration:

  • Do the followers of this manifestation and experience of God reveal deep compassion for others even beyond their group?
  • Does this path lead to greater human unity and the diminishing of violence and segregation?
  • Does this name of God heal the planet?
  • Does this group have the ability to be self-critical and are they able to laugh at themselves (or even cartoons of themselves)? (In South Africa this week a Muslim judge set aside the Interdict application by the Muslim Council to have a Zapiro Cartoon of Mohammed banned) read the Mail and Guardian Article here
  • Does this path encourage selfless generosity and service for all in need?
  • Is this name of God tolerant of the many different ways of being human, sexually, culturally, economically, politically?

This is a very rudimentary list, and red-faced I have to admit that in certain very orthodox quarters of our Trinitarian faith there are groups that would not pass this discernment test. However I believe the list is descriptive of the unique revelation received in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is also descriptive of the founders and followers of many of the other World religions that I have encountered.

To return to my initial suggestion, I wonder if we are ready to amend our doctrine of Trinity of God being God, and begin dreaming of a doctrine of Infinity of God being God?

No matter how many names and manifestations of God we add together, the sum will always be ONE.

(You can listen to a podcast of how the sermon, based on these thoughts, sounded, by clicking here)

Listen for the whisper of the wind.

(You can hear a podcast of this sermon here)

John 14:8-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “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. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “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. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

That great Iranian Sufi mystic Rumi in his work “Mathnawi”, which some have called the Persian Koran tells this interesting story: (It is worth noting that Persia/Iran falls within the boundaries of the listed observers in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost)

A certain king used to persecute the Christians, desiring to exterminate their faith. His Vazir persuaded him to try a stratagem, namely, to mutilate the Vazir himself, and expel him from his court, with the intent that he might take refuge with the Christians, and stir up mutual dissensions amongst them.

The Vazir’s suggestion was adopted.’ He fled to the Christians, and found no difficulty in persuading them that he had been treated in that barbarous way on account of his attachment to the Christian faith. He soon gained complete influence over them, and was accepted as a saintly martyr and a divine teacher. Only a few discerning men divined his treachery; the majority were all deluded by him.

The Christians were divided into twelve legions, and at the head of each was a captain. To each of these captains the Vazir gave secretly a volume of religious directions, taking care to make the directions in each volume different from and contradictory to those in the others. One volume enjoined fasting, another charity, another faith, another works, and so on.

Afterwards the Vazir withdrew into a cave, and refused to come out to instruct his disciples, in spite of all their entreaties. Calling the captains to him, he gave secret instructions to each to set himself up as his successor, and to be guided by the instructions in the volume secretly confided to him, and to slay all other claimants of the apostolic office. Having given these directions, he slew himself.

In the event each captain set himself up as the Vazir’s successor, and the Christians were split up into many sects at enmity with one another, even as the Vazir had intended. But the malicious scheme did not altogether succeed, as one faithful band cleaved to the name of “Ahmad,” mentioned in the Gospel,’ and were thus saved from sharing the ruin of the rest.

What on earth, you may ask, has this story to do with the feast of Pentecost?

Well, the ending gives the key. Rumi refers to the one faithful band who cleaved to the name of “Ahmad mentioned in the gospel” I have never heard of Ahmad, except as a name for Muslim men I have met, so I was grateful for the footnote in my copy of the Mathnawi that states:

“John 14:26 “But the Comforter (parakletos) shall teach you all things.” Muselmans (sic) read periklytos, (praised) as referring to Mohammed” An interesting way of sychronizing ,or should that be syncretising, the Gospel with the Quran.

Despite Rumi’s little bit of triumphalistic proselytising, ( sometimes it does us Christians some good to be on the receiving end!) the story is a powerful one. The power comes from the fact that it is so true!

As a Protestant I am humbled and embarrassed that my “brand” is one of over thirty thousand Protestant denominations that have divided and divided and are still doing so at viral rates; all in the name of Jesus and claiming to be blown by the Holy Spirit!

Just like the lying Vazir we have clung to our dogmatic beliefs that our Bibliolatrous books and doctrine will save us and like the Vazir we have even begged to be mutilated in our self-chosen martyrdoms and then have licked our wounds with relish and believed we are suffering for Jesus. Yet just as in the story, the megalomania eventually withdraws, kills itself and leaves chaos and division in its wake. Just look at the number of churches on the streets of your town and you will see what I mean.

This was certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he prayed in John 17:21 “...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Jesus was very clear. The paraclete, the counsellor/comforter/helper would teach and remind us of all that Jesus taught. That was pretty simple to remember anyway, “Love God, Love your neighbour, Love yourself, Avoid violence, Don’t seek power, Remember the poor, Pour our your life daily” This is not difficult to recall especially when we have the helper, the Spirit of Jesus, his heart, his mind, his soul united to the Father and breathing in us every moment of every day!

It is here that Rumi’s parable delivers the killer punch. In the story, the Christians don’t listen to the paraclete, they listen to the Vazir.

A Vazir, eymologically means counsellor too. The word entered English in 1562, from the Turkish vezir (“counsellor”), and from the Arabic wazir (“viceroy”), āzara (“to help”), and the root wzr (“to help somebody”)

The word however came to mean Viceroy and Chief Minister to the Caliph, and was adopted to have only political and not spiritual meaning.

So instead of hearing the Paraclete whispering in our hearts to remember Jesus, we have come to trust the Vazir beguiling our heads to believe our suspicious fears.

We divide, we destroy, we deny that we are lost. Whatever we are doing, and for whatever reasons, it is not working! We have been listening to the wrong voice in the wrong place.

I think we need a breath fresh air.

Thank God, the breath of Pentecost is coming!

Up, up and INSIDE!

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum.

The indigenous people, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Mpondo et al, believed that “God” who they named Nkulunkulu (The Biggest One), Camata, Modimo or Vulindhlela (The Way opener) lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces which is why they were adorned with lithographs which in turn were animated by flickering fire in the caves. To this day the traditions of Africa see their beloved dead buried in the kraal, (corral). When an African is facing life’s challenges, a sacred ritual is to return to the kraal at one’s home and pour the froth of traditional beer into the earth before asking advice of the ancients who are buried there amongst their cattle.

The European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell (which African cosmology had no reference, or need for)  deep in the earth. The way they did this “preaching” was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, profoundly theistic people.

What the missionaries did not have the insight to examine in their time was how they, as Westerners had come to believe in the God of the sky. Our post-modern deconstructed age has given us that insight and we understand how those early, pre-biblical thinkers could have concluded from their environment that the earth was a flat disk standing on pillars in the midst of water. This water threatened the earth and was kept back at the shore and in the sky by a dome that held back the chaos and destruction. This theme has been interestingly revisited by Stephen King in his latest novel “Under the Dome” but this time the chaos comes from within the dome and not from outside!

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.

Coming with this middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it was easy to speak of him having “ascended” back to God. Back beyond the dome.

In 2010 it is not so easy to speak of the notion of the ascension.

I remember one of my sons as a junior school learner, looking at a globe of the earth and asking who had decided that the North Pole should be on the top. “There is no up or down in space” was his insightful comment. Of course he was quite correct!

Now that we know what we know about third millennium cosmology, to speak of Jesus ascending is nonsensical. Where is up from a ball? Also given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? Silly stuff.

As a concept the ascension is almost unworkable in our day. Thank God that there are only ten days between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost. Wherever Jesus goes dimensionally, it is only for ten days, and perhaps that is why Jesus, knowing the complexity of this phenomenon, blesses the proto-church disciples and tells them not to do anything until he gets back!

I am tickled however, by the African notion of the abode of God in the earth and not in the sky, so indulge me while I play with an idea that is every bit as speculative as the Ascension doctrine has been.

What if Africans are correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? He would then have descended on this Feast day, back into the earth from which he came. I wonder how that simple change of orientation would have changed our world history?

What if the Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialised siblings instead of the other way around? Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space”?

Of course, I have no way, and no mandate, to alter our doctrine nor our history, but I can’t help musing about the possibilities of a saviour who is earthed more deeply than the one I am duty bound to point to somewhere up there.

Perhaps after I have preached this Ascension Sunday I will go and have a beer in a kraal and wait for the Pentecostal breath to save our land.

Advocating Motherhood

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “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. 
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 
And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

For the past two weeks Jesus has been speaking to us from the context of the Upper Room. In this post-resurrection period, which the church calls Easter, we, like the disciples, are given a season to contemplate the mystery of what it could mean to live in a world where death is not feared and where love is able to replace fear as the primary motivator of human existence.

In these two weeks of speaking from the Upper Room, Jesus has been speaking about love. Not mere eroticism which we in our have allowed to eclipse love, nor the altruism of humanitarianism which can still be an extension of our egos. No Jesus has been commanding, yes a new commandment, to agapetos one another as he sacrificially and unconditionally loved us.

It was Alice Miller who died last month (April 12th ) who taught us that for the early years of a child’s life, parents take on divine status. For the child parents are gods, and when a child witnesses parents fighting and at worst witnesses domestic violence, that child may be scarred and scared for the rest of their life. Fortunately the opposite is also true. Because of the divine impression parents can make on small children, healthy parental relationships can imprint good, true and beautiful images that console and comfort us for all our lives and make us believe that we are wanted and welcome in the skins we inhabit.

I often refer in my thinking and writing to the fact that the gospels record only two moments when the Father speaks to Jesus, his baptism and his transfiguration. At both times the Father says the same thing, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased“. “Was it this“, I ask Alice Miller, “that got Jesus through all he had to face? Simply knowing that he was unconditionally loved of God?”

As the Ascension and the feast of Pentecost draw close, the church invites us this Mother’s day (in the majority of countries ) to reflect on the fact that a departing Jesus, will petition the Father to send an Advocate who will teach and remind disciples in every age, of what Jesus has taught.

What did he teach? The unconditional love of a parental God who wants nothing more than the wholeness and blessing of all God’s children.

I understand that Jesus, when he described the Spirit, used the word advocate (parakletos) to capture the idea of intercessor and spokesperson on behalf of another but in terms of teaching and reminding us of all that he taught of the self sacrificing, unconditional nature of God, he could just as well have chosen my mother as a metaphor.

She taught me my first prayers, she reminded me to say them and she intercedes for me in her devotions, this I know. Knowing that is as good as hearing God’s voice and seeing a descending dove.

Sadly, I realise that not everyone has the experience of Christ revealing, life affirming, parenting from their mothers, and for that I feel an unspeakable sorrow and pain. My work as a minister, listening to the stories of stunted lives caused by unskilful parents makes me realise that I need to speak carefully and prayerfully here.

Yet acknowledging the frailty of human mothers, is an added reason to celebrate how these ordinary women also are able, by grace, to be Advocates of God, teaching, reminding and interceding.

In my dark and dread-filled times (and there have been enough) it has sometimes been my only comfort, to know that there on her knees, and in my heart is a woman advocating my cause and my pain to God, and whenever I am with her. I have known that I fully belong, at least here in her heart and in God’s.

My mother is the Advocate and the Spirit’s gift of God.

Let not my heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.