Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Comforter

1 Peter 3.21-22 ... Jesus Christ, who has gone to heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

he Epistle set for today finishes by reminding us of the Jesus who has "gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him". This type of monarchical theology would have spoken clearly to the populace of the time because, of course, kings had absolute rule.

What is so intriguing is that it has held sway right down to the present day. Congregations still happily declare Jesus to be "judging all men/women", and prayers are still offered to him who is "reigning with the Father and the Holy Spirit". It all seems a long way from the Jesus who "came to serve, not to be served". It would be tempting to dismiss this kingly talk out of hand, but there is something much deeper going -on here.

The recent display of affection for Elizabeth the British Queen Mother on her death, is a reminder of how deeply-rooted the desire for monarchy is. Even if nations take the republican or communist roads, they still tend to create dynasties. In short, humans want others to rule over them and to set boundaries, because deep down we know that laws pertain to order and peace. And we like continuity, because change carries risk.

Yet although we recognise the need to be ruled, we wish the ruling to be on our own terms. Hence, we invite someone, or some party, to make the rules, and call it a democracy. The height of democracy, a constitutional monarchy, has the paradox of having all power - and none!

Jesus falls into this same category. In Christian theology he has all power, indeed is the creator of all things and the heir to all things. Christ reigns supreme, co-existent with the Father and the Spirit, but his power is directly linked to the will of his subjects. Christ has no power except the power we choose to give him through our own lives. When the Christian talks of "letting Jesus into our hearts" and similar platitudes, we are inviting and convincing ourselves to "take on the mind of Christ".

It is not a path that many take to readily because they know that they are deliberately choosing a path that is not natural to the human psyche. In doing so, like Christ, we opt for servant-hood, and to actually opt for servant-hood, rather than have it thrust upon us, is not easy. The opening verse of today's gospel reading "If you love me you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15ff) is a rather frightening reminder to us of what servant-hood entails, for after the directive to love God, we have the even more simple - yet overwhelmingly difficult - commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself".

The early church and the first disciples were no different from us - perhaps different in mind set, but not in nature. We all know that to love our neighbour is easy as long as they don't live too near or get in our way, because at heart the monarchical side of our nature, not the servant, is the dominant factor. 

We like to be in charge. 

It is why we know that we cannot fulfill this commitment in our own strength, and it is probably why Jesus said he would send "the comforter", the Holy Spirit, because he knew that his simple commandment of love is beyond all, save the occasional saint. The choice of wording for this spirit - "the comforter" - is far sighted, for that is precisely what belief in the Holy Spirit achieves; He comforts us, gives us strength for the task, and will convince us of the truth of our assertions.

Whether it is really possible to think of God, or Jesus, as literally "sending" this spirit to the faithful is a difficult one. What isn't difficult is to believe is that faith in such a spirit can move mountains, and give us comfort and reassurance as we go about it. It is no wonder that the Spirit of Pentecost is depicted in the scriptures as a rushing wind, as a babble of language, as tongues of flame; belief in the Holy Spirit, that we are led into all truth, can indeed be inflammatory!

I personally find it very difficult to separate the spirit of God from God himself, or from the driving nature of Jesus.

What I do know is that to dwell on eternal matters through prayer and meditation is the gateway to finding God. No one can tell us when we have found him, but we somehow know ourselves.

And when we do so, we know the reality of "the comforter", the Holy Spirit.

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