Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Me and the Holy Spirit

On Sunday I preached a very poor sermon on Acts 2:37-41.  I really shouldn't bother listening to it if I were you; you have better things to do with half an hour.  To explain why it was so poor, let me give you a bit of background info about how I write sermons.  On the whole, I don't spend a whole lot of time sitting down studying.  I read the passage towards the beginning of the week, maybe take in a couple of light commentaries, and then put it to the back of my brain to turn over and over during the week.  If something tricky comes up, I'll go find a more technical commentary; if something interesting pops into my brain I make a mental note.  Sometimes whole paragraphs of a sermon are written and committed to memory whilst I am walking up the hill to work.  On the whole, I find that I spot structures to passages, and craft structures of sermons, pretty early on in the week; the flesh to go on the bones might not come until Saturday.  Or, let's face it, Sunday.

Anyway, the structure for this passage seemed clear.  Peter mentions two conditions: repentance and baptism.  Then he mentions two blessings: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In between stands the name of the Jesus Christ, through whom all these things are possible as in repentance and baptism we identify with him.  Simples.  Conditions, blessings, Jesus.

But when I came to put on the flesh, I got stuck.  I can talk about repentance, goodness knows I can talk about baptism, I can and will wax lyrical about the forgiveness of sins.  But I don't really know what to say about the gift of the Holy Spirit,  Oh, don't get me wrong: I have a fine pneumatology.  My doctrine is straight.  I could lecture on the subject of the Holy Spirit.

But from the pulpit - as God's word to his people about his Spirit - I don't know what to say.

And that one failing became a black hole which dragged the whole sermon down into it, in my mind at least.  Because it seemed to me that the central question had become 'where is the answer to this promise?  Where is the gift of the Holy Spirit?'  Shouldn't we be able to see that more - if God were here, amongst us?  Shouldn't I have something to say about this?

So this is where I got to: I am not satisfied, not satisfied at all, with my current experience of God.  I was saying to a friend on Monday that my dissatisfaction is almost at a level where I feel it might overcome my laziness and fear.  Laziness because I know that, although I cannot work my way into a deeper experience of God or strive my way into his favour, I will need to seek him with my whole heart, and that sounds like hard work.  Fear because as long as I can blame my lack of zeal, God himself is not put to the test, but if I really seek him and he is not there...

I guess I'm praying, in so far as I can be bothered and in so far as I dare, for more dissatisfaction that can be satisfied with this gift of the Holy Spirit.

And in the meantime, I will try to write a better sermon for next Sunday.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Just a little Protestantism

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics is helpfully read as an attempt to outline Evangelical (meaning, Reformation) theology in contrast with Roman Catholicism on the right and Liberalism (what Barth calls Neo-Protestantism or Modernism) on the left.  Barth sees Rome and Schleiermacher as being, despite their many differences, very similar at the end of the day - or at least similarly opposed to the fundamental basis of Evangelical doctrine.  That fundamental basis is a free Bible, a Bible which shows itself to be the Word of God, which does not have to be defended or to have its authority discovered in another place.  For Rome, the authority of the Bible derives (in practice, if not in theory) from the church, which claims the exclusive right through its teaching office to offer interpretation of Scripture; for the Neo-Protestant, such authority as the Bible is thought to have is tied to the religious self-consciousness of the reader.  In neither case is Scripture regarded as free, self-authenticating, and able to stand over against the reader as the Word of God.  (It is, of course, all these things despite the way in which it is regarded, and God is able to make it evidently all of these things even within Romanism and Modernism.  But it is not so regarded).

In contrast, Evangelical theology points to the Bible as its very basis, on which everything else if founded.  "That is to say, we have not in any sense or in any way to answer for it that the Bible is really God's Word...   We can say no more than this, that the Bible can answer for itself in this matter".

But the key thing for me is that, in contrast to the pre-suppositionalist apologetics of today, Barth does not see this position as a strong one.  It is desperately weak, and throws one open to all sorts of accusations.  Is it not utterly arbitrary?  If it is not, that does not depend on us but on God. Where does our assurance come from?  We cannot say, but then we do not want to build on our assurance but only on the thing itself.

Is it perhaps a special spiritual experience that has led us to this?  Is this "a secret appeal to a special grace"?

Not at all - "this opposition [to Rome and Schleiermacher] seeks to be nothing of all that, nothing special, no prophecy or apostolate, just a very earthy, harmless, ambivalent matter, devoid of all mystical splendour or mystery, just a little Protestantism, a sign to which we can give no signifying power, which may in fact be opposed or totally overlooked or misunderstood, and about whose unimportance among all the other signs in which the world and the church are so rich we have no illusions."

And the irony is that we are talking about the very power of God for salvation!  But that power, that Word, is not under our control, cannot be advanced by us, can only be pointed to as the sign which God is able to turn into that which it signifies, the word which he is able to make into the Word.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Must preach

Krish Kandiah wrote a couple of posts on preaching last week, which are well worth reading - it's debate prep, so he gives both points of view: is preaching dead or alive? It has got me thinking about preaching, so here are a few of my somewhat disjointed and unpolished ponderings.

1.  Preaching is liturgical before it is educational.  If you take a glance at Krish's piece against preaching, many of the reasons have to do with educational theory.  Now, I don't have much time for that sort of thing anyway, but I especially don't want to see it applied to preaching.  The primary point of preaching is not the education of the church, not the impartation of knowledge.  The main thing is to lift the eyes of the congregation to Christ.  It is about speaking, and hearing, the Word of God - which means more than explaining the Bible.  It means speaking as if pronouncing the very oracles of God.  This is part of worship, and only secondarily is it a matter of catechesis (something which the church needs to do elsewhere).

2.  The gospel is news.  News is announced, not discussed.  One of the most frustrating things about the contemporary presentation of television or internet news is the apparent feeling that it would be a good idea to democratise the news by inviting comment from the ignorant public.  This is not the way news works.  News is not a conversation, it is an announcement.  Preaching is the only form that matches up with the content in this sense.

3.  The gospel is a monologue.  It is not that we are not invited in or involved - we certainly are.  But only really as hearers, as recipients.  In so far as we are doers, it is because we are hearers.  This is what grace means - God does it all.  Not only does he achieve salvation by himself without us, he announces salvation without us.  Preaching in the church is a sign of that - we listen to the preacher, who trusts that God takes up his preaching and makes it a genuine announcement of the gospel.

4.  Preaching is the centre of the church's life.  What else could it be?  The gospel announced calls the church together, and drives the church out to announce the gospel.

5.  God accompanies the faithful preaching of the gospel, and makes it powerful.