January 18, 2015
One of the joys of being in a parish filled with so many smart people, many of them engineers, is that whenever there is a problem there is no shortage of ideas on how to fix it. We who were all raised in the “can do–get ‘er done” culture are ready to jump into figuring out how to fix whatever is broken. This attitude is great for fixing leaks and lighting, but not so great when it comes to issues of relationships or issues of the soul.
The reason is that the mind that is experiencing some personal or relationship problem is the same mind trying to fix the problem. In biblical terms we’re trying to heal our fallen mind with our fallen mind. It’s like a blind ophthalmologist operating on his own eyes.
Therefore, when things get really bad it’s a good thing that we may be willing to ask someone for help. I say, may be willing, because my father was of the generation that said, “anyone who sees a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined”.
Two hundred years ago people in distress would go to the parish priest or minister for counsel, but that mostly stopped because it became apparent that clergy don’t have the necessary training to give psychological help like a well-trained psychotherapist.
In the 1960s liberal protestant clergy went through an identity crisis as we tried to figure out just what did we have to offer people. Many clergy got psychological training and started acting like psychiatrists, sporting beards and smoking pipes, and answering every question with a question.
Underneath this crisis today is the question, “what does the church really have to offer people?”
For a time clergy and congregations lost their nerve so we tried to imitate the world. If we offered designer coffee and smiling faces maybe a few broken people would still come to church and help pay off our debts.
Then, we put our “can do—get ’er done” attitude to work and decided we did have at least three things to offer the world: we could offer moral training for children, because that was no longer part of the school curriculum. We could provide a caring community for adults, because that wasn’t available at Starbucks or the gym. And we could offer a way for a person to serve others, because the American dream of unrestrained consumerism left people sitting in front of their flat-panel televisions surfing 1000 channels feeling hollow.
Now, however, the church in many places and in a variety of denominations is recovering her nerve to face THE fundamental question that is at the heart of the New Testament and the first 1500 years of the church: It is not a “how” question, it is a “who” question: The question is: who is Jesus Christ?
It’s the question in our gospel reading today. Philip hears Jesus say to him, “Follow me” and he becomes convinced that this Jew from Nazareth is not just a man, but God’s Man, and the fulfillment of God’s plan in the Bible. After three years of following him Philip would say to Jesus at the last supper: “Lord, show us the father and we will be satisfied.”
To which Jesus replies, “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?”
When the Holy Spirit is poured out on Pentecost Philip would know that Jesus Christ does indeed share in the inner life of God in such an intimate and personal way, that Father and Son are not two but one. He would know that it is precisely because the Triune God desires to share this union of love and mutual indwelling with humanity that Jesus enters our darkness and becomes fallen humanity, even to the point of dying for our sin on the cross, so that the whole human race can participate in the divine dance of Father, Son, and Spirit.
After listening to Philip, however, Nathanael, trapped in the fallen mind that lays a judgmental grid over everything, says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
We share in that same fallen mind that judges everything and enjoys nothing. And in addition to that some of us have been burned by Christians who told us that we have to get our lives cleaned up, and work harder at this religion thing, if we expect help from God. God was presented as Cinderella’s stepmother who said she could go to the King’s ball only if she got all her chores done first—and then kept adding chores.
Some of us have tried doing religious chores for years because we believe it all depends on us—on my faith, my success at parenthood and at work, and my ability to pray and read the Bible.
And then one day we fall off the ascent up the sheer face of the demanding god.
But then, by grace, we meet the real Jesus in the New Testament. This Jesus “crossed all worlds” to enter our darkness and through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to take us into the fellowship with his father in the communion of the Spirit. This is the grace of the triune God to us, here and now. As Paul says, your life is hid with God in Christ. (See C. Baxter Krueger)
Our faith doesn’t make this so, our faith accepts that it is so and lives in this truth.
So what does this mean? It means we have to rethink everything.
Retired Systematic Theology Professor James Torrance tells of a Friday afternoon at New College in Scotland when a distraught student showed up at his office. Torrance had spoken with the young man earlier in the week and knew he was in the middle of a domestic tragedy and was very depressed, even suicidal. The man said: “I’ve been down in the chapel trying to pray and I can’t pray.”
Right here the fallen mind wants to step in and give him the ten things he needs to do to fix his problems. We might tell him to go back to the chapel and to pray harder. In other words, we’d throw him back on himself, with a list of things to do, when there is precisely nothing left he can do.
What Professor Torrance did was quite different: Torrance said, “you are not alone in the sanctuary, Jesus Christ is interceding for you and the Spirit hears the groaning and cries of your heart. You are not alone. And look to Jesus Christ and he will carry you through all this time and all your domestic troubles.”
“We are so eager to tell people how to do it, if you do this, if you repent, if you say this form of words then you’ll get through. Oh dear, that’s not the New Testament, is it?” Recorded Talk “Prayer and the Triune God”
If we don’t have the “who” question right then all our “how” questions will throw us back on ourselves and we will sink deeper in the fallen mind.
But Jesus is our great High Priest so he says to Peter at the Last Supper: “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:32
That’s why Paul says in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[a] with sighs too deep for words.”
Once we know this—know this, like we know a chair by sitting in it, we know the peace that passes understanding, because if Father, Son, and Spirit is for us who can be against us!