A Democratic God!
Someone I deeply respect suggested I put my sermon from today, for Pentecost on my blog unedited. So I have. If you are interested these are the readings we used.
Readings – Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-4, John 14:8-17, 25-27
Here we are at Pentecost 2019. I must admit, while happy to not participate in the joint service at the Anglican church, I then realised I would be doing the whole thing.
And the problem is, I have a really big problem with Pentecost. Not with the spirit, just with the festival.
Let me see if I can explain.
I have been reading a book lately, called “How I found God in everyone and everything”. I foolishly picked it for a bookclub book, and while I have found it fascinating, it is by no means an easy read.
It follows the spiritual journey of some major players in modern theology and philosophy, including Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, Keith Ward, Rupert Sheldrake and Phillip Clayton. How many of them have gone from a belief in a God out there somewhere, removed from creation and intervening now and then, called theism, to perhaps a belief in nothing at all, atheism, back to a belief in a divine presence but in a different form altogether, called panentheism. Panentheism means God in all and all in God. A divine presence within all things but greater than all things. This version of God leaves behind the external deity who occasionally zaps things for a God in which we all live and move and have our being, including the universe. It’s actually like returning home as we know the great mystics in all religious traditions have expounded this reality. It just seems we lost it for a long time.
Now I don’t want to get into all these theisms, but I do want to explore what it means to come back to God after having gone away because the traditional understanding is too hard to accept.
It involves looking at the world we live in, and the changes that are taking place in it.
I as you all know have been a scientist, not a very good one all my life, and yet I have never felt I was a materialist. A materialist is someone for whom science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry and biology. That science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless.
This is not what many believe, even scientists. Modern physics, focussing on quantum mechanics and cosmology, philosophy and evolutionary biology is taking us to a different more expanded place. More and more the subjective world, the world of consciousness explodes this idea that we are just a bunch of cells, that respond to externally driven cues. There is the presence of a subjective world, that is more than just the mechanics. We experience colour, rather than just seeing it, we experience our surroundings, rather than just responding to it as a machine, and we are conscious of ourselves as human being and of others who travel with us.
Equally many try to suggest consciousness or the mind is just a product of our brain cells, but more and more philosophers and scientists are again saying something different. That maybe all levels of creation are conscious, down to the smallest particles, or that there is a cosmic consciousness that we are all part of, that we are enveloped by. Hard to imagine, but on the other hand, when you look at each of us, and all the created order, how can it be any less. We are a marvel of creation and there are mysteries going on that are deeper than we can understand.
This sort of work, and I have had many a mind blowing conversation with Nathan who is doing an honours degree in philosophy of the mind, makes things so much more open ended, and exciting. As science moves beyond materialism Rupert Sheldrake would suggest we are recovering a sense of the life inherent in nature as a whole and in self organising systems at all levels of complexity. And producing new ways of connecting to our Christian roots.
Maybe the sense of awe we feel at the created order, or the beautiful music we listen to and are moved by, the sense of peace we experience at times when we are silent, the sense of connectedness to all things that rises up and greets us when we are working alongside others, loving others, the knowing we get at odd times, that there is something extra within and between us, doesn’t seem so radical anymore.
I have become increasingly convinced that the spirit of God is the presence within and around and through all that exists, from the smallest particular to the largest planet, a living breathing reality that we can know. And which gives life. And I am now open to the promise that we will never become separated from it. Because how can I become separated from my body. Or the ocean in which I swim.
So instead of seeing the death of God, we are seeing the death of a form of God, and the resurrection of a different, more universal God. And we have a responsibility to help that along.
So part of me doesn’t want to celebrate Pentecost in the 21stcentury. The story doesn’t seem to quite cut it today, with our expanded ideas about life and the universe. That the spirit comes down from somewhere while Jesus goes somewhere else, like they exchange places on a vertical ladder upwards. It doesn’t work when we know that if the spirit of God is in all things, and has been in all things since the beginning of time.
But perhaps I am being too negative.
As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, “when we look at scripture, we shouldn’t see it as the unchanging revelation of the one true god, but instead an extraordinary sacred archive of the evolution of human consciousness”. I love that, because it fits with our own lives in which we move and grow. In Jesus we see him throw off some of the past constraints, past rules and ways of seeing, to encompass the idea of a collective humanity.
If we look at the readings today in that sense we see an evolution of thought…
While Luke in Acts tells the story dramatically, like a movie director, the spirit coming as a rushing wind and descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame 50 days after Easter, that told by John is more personal. The risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers on the night of Easter and his spirit is a brooding presence in their hearts and minds. Both represent a watershed moment in the life of the early church. Both represent something about Jesus and his life and his call that his followers realised. Something dramatic. And they wanted to record it. It doesn’t mean that God’s spirit was missing somehow prior to this event.
To understand the story then we need to explore its past. Pentecost’s roots are in Judaism, for it was very much a Jewish festival before it was a Christian festival. Occurring 50 days after Passover it links Israel’s much older agricultural cycle to her religious history. It celebrates both the completion of the harvest as well as the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. As Marcus Borg says it was about the creation of a new kind of community, the way of living together radically different from life in Egypt.
The readings from both Luke and John reflect this history, building on what has gone before, while announcing something altogether new. It was about the creation of a new community in Christ. A community anointed by God’s spirit and in continuity with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A community that calls forth peace and justice and reconciliation in the world, here and now…
This reconciliation is seen in Acts. At the Tower of Babel in Genesis, in the reading we also heard today, God scattered the pretentious human race across the earth confusing them by having them speak many languages rather than one. At Pentecost God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, one that is able to bridge differences and value diversity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.
The followers of Jesus thus became a community of reconciliation and renewal through the presence of the spirit. A spirit they saw fully realized in the life of Jesus. They began to share everything they had, former enemies became friends and people laid down their swords and picked up a cross. As the book of Acts goes on to say, there was no needy persons among them. The movement had started. A movement which would become the church.
So it has been recorded as a pivotal moment.
Out of the constraints of power, and tribes and issues about who’s in and who’s out, comes a story about what the spirit brings out of chaos. Unity. Life. What Jesus brings.
Maybe this is the story of Pentecost for today!
You may wonder why we are not joining in at St Pauls this morning? While I understand worshipping with our fellow Christians is a good idea, the unity that Jesus speaks of is much wider than that. It’s time to greet the Jesus who himself was a great mystic, who calls us to a change in consciousness, a metanoia so that we see God is in all, and through all and empowers life at every level. Not just in Christianity.
We now live in the 21stcentury, in some ways the age of the spirit. The time has come, when we open ourselves to new ways of understanding what it is to be human, to be community, to be part of a creation that we can see, not only here in the tiniest of ways, but in the planets and stars of the universe. When evolution show us how connected we all really are.We in the West sometimes forget, with our focus on God as father and Jesus as son, that the spirit, God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit if you like, is the oldest expression of the creator at work in creation. It is the spirit which enlivens and empowers life at every level
So, as Diarmuid O’Murchu suggests, let’s start with the spirit. Let’s elevate the spirit, rejoice in the spirit’s presence in and among us, leading us towards fullness of life for all of creation, including humans.
God, the spirit of God, the breath of God, the divine presence, the energy that unities all things, whatever way you want to say it, whatever you want to call it.
And a God who is everywhere is every bodies. A truly democratic God. As Walt Whitman has said. For Whitman religion is democratic, its democracy extends to each listener, whatever ones race, ethnicity, rank, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or gender. A truly democratic spirit. Available to the least as well as the greatest. Available to those who know about Jesus and those that don’t.
As many in my book suggest, the Spirit which is in all of us, makes all of us mystics. We all are capable of reading and sensing the divine within the world. And equally seeing what we are capable of doing.
Maybe today we celebrate more than just an event in the past but a starting point to a future for us all..
I want to finish with a statement from Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, also a contributor to the book I started the sermon with.
“I have known mystical experiences in my life both as a child and in my adult years. They have entailed an intense experience of the presence and encompassing love of God, a love not of my own making; it is sheer gift, sheer presence. And it has seemed to me that this intensity of love fills all things, albeit usually incognito. It does not particularly matter whether or not it is recognised. It is love and presence that is simply always there, never absent, just at the other side of consciousness experience; sometimes, occasionally, graciously invading conscious experience. We are called not necessarily to seek awareness of that presence but just to assume god’s presence, and get on with our lives in ways that are more or less congruent with that presence. ‘Congruence” requires commitment to al all-inclusive common good, to a society that ‘seeks justice, loves kindness” and walks humbly with its various notions of God.”
We are people who have in us the spirit of the universe, we are a marvel of life.
We are to live with a belief and with a sense we are spirit people, sons and daughters of God each one of us. We are to embrace this spirit, this rushing wind, or whisper, this constant nudging from within and bear fruit in our own world, our own country. Here and now.
Note: “How I found God in everyone and everywhere”. Editors Andrew M. Davis and Phillip Clayton, 2018.