That’s the Spirit

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 2 April 2017

“I will put my spirit into you shall live” Ezek. 37.14

Ezekiel’s message is that something that was dead i.e. the disunity between the separated nations of the northern and southern kingdoms can be fixed. They can be re united and live again centring on the restored and revitalised city of Jerusalem and its Temple. He believed that God’s spirit can make that happen.

Do we believe that that same spirit can still bring healing and peace and unity to the nations across the world?

THE WORLD

As it was being applied to two ancient kingdoms can it still work? Can it be applied to North and South Korea? to Ireland and Northern Ireland? To Cyprus Greek and Turkish, can it still bring peace in the Middle East; can it reconcile Hungary and Serbia, between Spain and its Northern Basque territory? And yes even between Israel and Palestine?

Ah you say that’s too far-fetched. Not possible.

Well, tell that to Nelson Mandela as he rots away in his Robben Island cell recalling on every lonely and isolated day the two nations of South Africa, Black and white. Further divided by rich white and shockingly poor black. Ask him if they can ever be healed? At the same time ask Father Trevor Huddlestone, Albert Luthuli, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fighting for the end of Apartheid.

Well you might hear some say “even if it were possible, there would be bloodshed and revenge”. Then stand back and look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission demonstrating healing, and forgiveness and reconciliation. I think then you can see dead bones coming to life.

Then there was Rosa Parkes, forced to sit in the black section of the Mississippi bus and then give up that seat to a white person. Who, along with tens of thousands of other black citizens were told where to go to the toilet, where they could and could not eat, even who they were allowed to love and marry? Tell her that the spirit through her cannot change the world. Or that one day there would be a black President in the white house and tell that same thing to Rev Martin Luther King Jr himself inspired by Rosa Parks, a man who with the power of the spirit went on to change the world.

Offer that same pessimism to Angela Merkel who leads a country still living with the shame of the concentration camps, a country who itself within the last couple of decades was divided, East and West. Tell her that countries can’t change and listen to her words as she leads a country “Where nobody will be abandoned, and nobody excluded”. “To exclude groups of people because of their faith isn’t worthy of this country. It isn’t compatible with our essential values, and its humanly reprehensible. Xenophobia, racism, extremism have no place here and we are fighting to ensure that they don’t have a place elsewhere either”.

Tell Mikael Gorbochof that the spiritual influence of his grandparents has no place in breaking down the iron curtain and giving back liberty and freedom to millions of people across the then communist world.

No I truly believe that the spirit that dear old Ezekiel was talking about  nearly 3000 years ago is alive and well and continuing to change the world.

THE CHURCH

O but then there’s the church, the immobile, rock solid bulwark of orthodoxy totally intransigent to change. Immoveable and for centuries dictatorial to its poor followers and which for 1500 years was able to totally control its worshippers by conducting its services in a completely foreign and dead language. Well this year, of course, we celebrate 500 years since the Reformation began with Martin Luther hammering on the door of Castle Church Vittensberg his declaration of belief. “Here I stand I can do no other” and whose spirit dramatically changed the course of church history, enabling people to worship in their own language and to play an informed part in the church’s future.

That act truly shook the very foundations of the church. We celebrate it this year in an event that is presently being organised by Melbourne City Churches in Action (Federation Square). This was the spirit moving in the church.

But what happened? Well the church is very good at being stimulated, enthused, inspired and then, going to sleep. And so it did. And throughout its history its needed re- awakenings. (This is what Ezekiel was doing in about 600BC).

Church history is littered with people rattling the cage. People like Robert Browne who in the 1620’s stood up to the orthodoxy and bureaucracy in the Church of England and fighting for an independent spirit within the church gave birth to the Congregational or independent church movement.

And then of course there is John Wesley who with George Whitfield and Charles Wesley changed the face of the church worldwide. He was an Anglican Priest who got really fired up with the irrelevance of the established church to ordinary people. His spirit was set alight on the 24 May, 1738 when as he says his “Heart was strangely warmed,” strangely warmed it was a burning furnace. The Anglican Church wouldn’t let him preach in their churches, so he went out doors. Then they banned him from preaching in any parish even outdoors. He replied by famously standing on his father’s grave and claiming they couldn’t stop that. He addressed huge social issues including Prison reform and slavery, introduced social justice as a natural part of the work of the church and smashed much of the accepted church orthodoxy of the day like apostolic succession which he described as a fable.

His spirit inspired influence spread around the world like a massive flame. It is said that the British counterpart to the French Revolution was diverted because of Wesley. I continue to be inspired by his life and his words including” Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can , at all the times you can,  to all the people you can as long as you ever can.”

Yes, but of course, it didn’t take long before the very church which he founded itself had become an institution and it took other people in the 19th century like Hugh Bourne and William Clowes to break away from the middle class Wesleyan church which had become too formal and upper class controlled. So the Primitive Methodist Church came into existence which provided a birthplace and the nurturing of what became the Salvation Army, Pentecostalism, The Trade Union Movement and the Labour Party, all of which now no longer have the spirit and the energy where they began.

And so it goes on and on to today. Can this slumbering giant wake up?

Yes the church still needs the spirit to provide the wakeup call. It still needs the dynamism and progressive thinking of the best of its past to alert the present.  It still needs that spirit. In the NT the Greek word dunamis is used 120 times. It’s from this word that dynamo comes. Dunamis is the power or the energy of the spirit. It’s this power which is claimed by people such as Paul Tillech, or Martin Buber, or Rudolph Bultman or Soren Kierkagaard or Bishop John Robinson, or John Spong or Francis Macnab and whoever is next, to keep on keeping on.

And we have a role in our church. We have a responsibility to influence and engage with other churches outside and within the UC, to wake up this sleeping giant. We don’t want in a few years a few tired surviving remnants to wake up like Rip Van Winkel and discover that the church had slept through a revolution.

This is a task for us, to carry the flame of reason to keep that spirit alive for the whole church. We might be small but a bit like the pilot light on a gas cooker, the ignite button can be pressed and bring on full heat in a second. Let’s bring these old bones back to life!

And then of course having fixed the world and the church – what about US?

We are reminded of Jesus’ words to you and me. Very personal and direct: “I came that you may have life… life in all its fullness.”

So what does this spirit bring to our old tired bones?

I believe it is powerful. It is “dunamis.” It lies within each one of us. It’s there for us to find…not as an outward gift but as inward personal revelation.

As the Dalai Lama said “Happiness is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions”.

But we know, don’t we, that as we seek for this perfect new life, we come across pretty awful barriers in the way. The bones are a bit creaky and sometimes don’t work at all.

So what does the spirit urge us towards to really grasp this what Wesley called “The path to perfection”?

Well there are many many things and we will be considering them over the next few months.

Let’s just remind ourselves of a handful:

  1. Obviously the first one is relationships. We need each other. Not to be in each others pocket, but to get to each other story we need to make a conscious effort to find each other to share our own and to listen to others. Even in the church we can sit next to each other in the pew for years and only have a cursory knowledge of the lives of the people around us. Make an effort today to reach out. Move a little bit away from your familiar group and go find out stuff about one other person and in so doing you will be revealing something of yourself to them too. Relationships are being built and the spirit is moving.
  2. Personal Resilience. This is about meeting life’s problems not as stumbling blocks but as challenges and helping someone else to meet theirs too with confidence and courage.
  3. Create strengths out of weaknesses. Often what you might see as a weakness or a problem can be converted into a strength. E.g. what you might see as loneliness can be converted into the potential for meditation, or prayer or study, or remember my daughter Primrose with no script at the Nativity Play, she had  freedom to do whatever she liked. Claim that freedom.
  4. Inner strength. I believe we all have an inner strength… call on it. Destroy past negative feelings or mistakes made; dispose of guilt, opportunities lost. We need to separate ourselves from them and look forward, not backward.

We can do all this, calling on each other and the knowledge of others who have done it before us.

Then and only then can the world, the church and ourselves.

Dance, dance, dance to a new tune bring those old bones to life and Hear the word of the lord!

BLESSING: (From the Talmud, Rabbinic exposition on Jewish Scripture):

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it”

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