DON CUPITT

 

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)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... 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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Sermons from the margins


Now Gently Light

Religions succeed best when they get the right balance between change and continuity. Sacred sites - churches, memorials and the like - offer a good example of this. They represent continuity, and are used and re-used by successive religious groups, each with its own new angle on the worship of God, but each also wishing to draw on the millennia-long associations of the holy place. The same is true of holy times and seasons.

The settled inhabitants of Palestine before the rise of the Jewish religion observed a religious calendar based on the farming year. Their three great celebrations were all harvest festivals. They began with the barley harvest in the April. Then came the completion of the wheat harvest in late May or early June. And they finished off with harvesting the vines and olives in September.

By contrast, the religious traditions of the wandering Jews focused on the great historical events that took place under the leadership of Moses. First came the exodus from Egypt, then the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and last the forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

When the Jews settled in the holy land and themselves became farmers, they adopted the local agricultural festivals. That gave them a desired continuity. But each of the festivals was now associated with one of their own key historical events from the nomadic era.

The barley harvest became the Feast of Passover, when the exodus was celebrated. The wheat harvest, fifty days later (hence its Greek name Pentecost), marked the giving of the Ten Commandments and the whole Jewish Law.

And the harvest of the grapes and olives was renamed Tabernacles, a time when the people lived for a week in makeshift shelters to remind themselves of the years in the wilderness when they had no houses and no fields, when they were totally dependent upon God�s bounty and goodness.

Then a thousand or so years later came the Christian Church. It did a similar makeover, at least in the case of the first two festivals. Passover became the time of the year at which Jesus died and rose again. So the Spring Festival became the annual commemoration of those events - our Passiontide and Easter. This was an identification helped on its way by a fortuitous similarity between the words Passover and Passion, a pun that works in Greek and Latin as well as in English.

Pentecost was taken over by Christians as the celebration of the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. The connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit goes back at least to Luke, who gives his vivid account of the event in the Acts of the Apostles. But his is a lone voice among New Testament writers. John's Gospel times the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, and none of the other evangelists or epistle writers mentions a specific time at all. Nonetheless, it is an inspired linking of the old and the new.

First of all, it gave the early Christians something of their own to celebrate in the early days when their Jewish neighbours were rejoicing over the giving of the law. It was an excellent example of continuity and change in the religious calendar. But second - and more important - it underlined a theological parallel between the pairing of Passover and Pentecost in the Jewish scheme, and of Easter and Pentecost in the Christian scheme.

For the Jews, the exodus from Egypt meant freedom from slavery to the Egyptians. But that freedom was quickly abused - until the giving of the Ten Commandments, which were meant to teach them how to use their freedom rightly. In the same way, Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought us freedom from slavery to sin and death, but that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to use that freedom to live godly lives.

Luke underlines this link by describing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in terms of the same wind and fire that accompanied the giving of the Jewish Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. John Keble�s great Whitsuntide hymn "When God of old came down from heaven" is today not often sung, otherwise we might be more familiar with the verse which puts the matter very precisely:

The fires that rushed on Sinai down
In sudden torrents dread,
Now gently light, a glorious crown,
On every sainted head.

Whether the apostles actually experienced the wind and fire as recorded in Acts, or whether this is just Luke�s dramatic way of putting over the Christian understanding of the matter, the message contained in the story is beyond dispute. For the Jews, Pentecost is the celebration of the giving of the Law to guide God�s people. And for Christians it is the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to guide God�s people. So it is within the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" as Paul of Tarsus calls the Christian Church, that we should look for God�s guidance.

This does not just mean in the Bible, or in the teaching of the bishops and clergy, but in the Spirit-filled fellowship of the whole congregation. It is to each other, individually and corporately, that we should be able to turn and confidently expect to hear the Spirit�s voice.

But this will not happen by magic. It will happen only when a truly loving and faithful Christian community is built up.

Let it be our prayer that the Holy Spirit may so build up our fellowship and love so that we may - as a matter of course - turn to each other for advice, encouragement and guidance as we strive to live out our Christian calling in our daily lives.

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