Monday, May 21, 2018

Truth and Love

A Sermon preached on Whit Monday (May 21 2018) at the  „Gottesdienst International“ in the Marktkirche, Wiesbaden on Ephesians 4: 11 - 16

The word or phrase that jumped out to me and that I want to talk about is in verse 15: “But speaking truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head.” In the German, at least in the Lutherbibel it actually sounds quite different: “Lasst uns aber wahrhaftig sein in der Liebe und wachsen in allen Stücken zu dem hin, der das Haupt ist.” The ultimate aim, the head, is the same, the path sounds different. I have to go the Genfer Bibel or to the Einheitsübersetzung to find something similar to the English: “Von der Liebe geleitet an die Wahrheit halten” or „In einem Geist der Liebe an der Wahrheit festhalten.“ Who would have thought that Geneva and Rome were so close theologically ….. 

As an aside – this is a great example of how every translation is also an interpretation and why we have to be very careful when someone says they know exactly what the Bible is telling us to do … except for me of course, in this reflection.

The call to speak the truth in love is I believe a key quality for all Christians. It is what builds up the body of Christ that is the church, it is what is required on our part to bring about God’s kingdom. But it’s difficult. Too often we do one and not the other. When John the Baptist calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers, (Matthew 12:34) I’m not hearing the love. Even Jesus seems to miss the mark sometimes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind fools,” (Matthew 23:13, 17) sounds to me as if his impatience at their inability to understand who he was, why he had come, and who had sent him, was getting away with him. So, don’t get too worried if you do not always manage either. Just keep trying. 

There are two problems if we only speak the truth without any moderation. For one thing, if it is too aggressive, too loud, and too strident, people won’t hear what we are saying. They will clam up. They will close their ears, they will go into the defensive. The other problem is that it is not Christian. The truth of the God of love cannot be commended by loveless speech.

On the other hand, speaking only in love, at least a misunderstood form of love, could mean not calling people to account, not criticising at all – because everything is OK, not warning about harm, including the potential to self-harm, and not using our prophetic voice to say what has to change so that we can all grow into the full stature of Christ.  

How do we speak truth in love, how do we manage what is an inherent tension between love and judgement? 

Even when we disagree violently with another person we must never forget that they too are made in the image of God, they too are fully human. To take two recent negative examples. Talking about immigrants, Mr. Trump said ““These aren’t people, these are animals.” On the same subject, Alice Weidel from the AfD referred to „Kopftuchmädchen und alimentierte Messermänner und sonstige Taugenichtse.“ Both of them are plain wrong, both are dehumanising others. They have a right to criticise what they see as mistakes, but they have no right at all ever to use these terms. However difficult it may be, and in the case of those two persons I find it difficult, I must nevertheless always respect the person, just not their cause or their case. 

When we speak truth in love this also happens at a personal level, one-to-one, it is not just a political matter. One aspect is to know not just how to speak truth, but where to do it. The Bible teaches us to confront someone privately (Matthew 18:15), not publicly. But nowadays we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Personal confrontation on social media or via mass email will never be speaking truth in love. 

One of the virtues which made the early Church so revolutionary was how its members treated one another. “See how they love one another” is what the Romans are supposed to have said about the early Christians. Everyone has a place at God’s table, all are dignified reflections of our creator. If we think someone has sinned, we confront them humbly, with genuine concern and strong conviction. 

Most of all speaking truth in love is always constructive. It is a gift, just like the various functions the author mentions. But its sole purpose is to promote the church’s and the world’s growth in building itself up in love (Eph. 4:16). If it does not do that, it is either not the truth or not in love.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Initiation by the Holy Spirit

A Sermon preached at Pentecost, May 20, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 22 – 27, John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4b – 15

Today is not only Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit and often also called the birthday of the Church, but also a celebration of Baptism. Philipp George will be initiated into Christ's Body the Church by water and the Holy Spirit.
According to our prayer book, “Holy Baptism is especially appropriate at the Easter Vigil, on the Day of Pentecost, on All Saints' Day, and on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.” Why these days? Because each of them highlights one aspect of what Baptism is about.
The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, which is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, is when we remember Christ’s own Baptism in the water of the Jordan river and how God’s spirit, in some accounts in the form of a dove, came down upon him confirming for Jesus and all baptised that we are God’s children, God’s beloved. Having a Baptism on that day is a re-enactment, the making present and alive of an event in Jesus’ ministry that is also part of our annual cycle of services during the church year.
At the Easter Vigil, the focus is on Baptism as regeneration, and renewal, and as an outward sign of the promise that just as in the waters of Baptism we are buried with Christ in his death, so Baptism also enables us to share in his resurrection. On that night we hold up Baptism as the sacrament of new life.  
On All Saints' Day, the particular emphasis is on Baptism as making us part of the Church, as part of the mystic Communion of Saints past, present, and future. As a baptized Christian Philipp shares with us and with all Christians everywhere and everywhen (if that’s even a proper word) in Christ’s eternal priesthood.  
Last and not least, at Pentecost, today’s celebration, we pay particular attention to the gift of the Holy Spirit. All four aspects are of course present at every Baptism, but nevertheless today’s focus is the Spirit.
And we have heard a lot about her and her gifts today. Thanks again to everyone who contributed their language skills to help us relive that first Christian Pentecost when the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) In that dramatic reading from Acts, we heard how the Spirit enables the disciples to not only be able to speak about God’s deeds of power, especially as revealed in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but empowers them to be understood in many different languages and contexts. That is the power we will need if we are to fulfill our Baptismal promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” particularly today when more and more people just do not understand the language of faith. We need God’s Spirit more than ever if we are to overcome such barriers.
Then in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we heard about another gift of the Spirit, about how she assists and enables prayer. This is something else we promise to do in our Covenant, to “continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers,” and it is comforting to know that we do not always have to formulate our prayers. As liturgical Christians we can always use the many set forms, from the Lord’s Prayer through to all the collects and prayers for various events and occasions in our prayer book. And when we have a need just so deep and painful that we cannot put it in words, we can, Paul tells us, I think from his own experience, rely on the Spirit to intercede on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words” and to trust that “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints, for us according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
Finally, in John’s Gospel we have a whole list of things that the Spirit, whom Christ will send from the Father, will do. The Spirit will testify on Christ’s behalf – but through us. The Spirit gives us the words we need, as we heard happen to the disciples in the Acts story. As that part of God that remains in and with us, the Spirit acts as a comforter. Jesus knows of the sorrow in his disciples’ hearts at his impending departure. But you should rejoice, he says. Only if I go, can the Advocate, the Spirit come and help you overcome in and bring true justice and righteousness to the world.
In this, and in all we do, God’s Spirit is our guide. The Spirit is the power that enables us to persevere in resisting evil, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. You are not, and never will be alone, is my main take away from what Jesus has to say about the Spirit in this passage. And that is a good thing, because he wants a lot of us.
We are also not alone, because the Spirit not only connects us to God but with one another. The life in Christ is a shared life, not a solitary life. The Church whose birthday it is today, and who Philipp will now become a member of, is the means by which we share our joys and sorrows, our faith and doubts, and most of all in all we are called to do and be in this world.