Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 27 May 2018.
It would be so much simpler if it were only God and me with nobody else. For many this is where their spiritual lives lie, and so they interpret their relationship with God wholly on their own.
So – no clergy or doctrine, no church or liturgy, no companionship as they worship or ponder. Nobody there when there is doubt or difficulty and when the pressures to conform to the market or the latest fashion, or the latest craze in art or politics or anything else.
Looked at this way, it is a very lonely existence.
But then our lesson from Isaiah is about a priest or senior official in the Temple in Jerusalem who was already acting within a body of tradition and a custom of religious practice in life and worship.
Nevertheless, when he was given this vision of heaven Isaiah felt wholly lost. He was in far beyond his depth and left on his own, he was already floundering. Even for Isaiah, with his life of serving in the temple, to be on his own in the presence of God was not just daunting but potentially fatal.
To see the living God on his own was going to invite instant condemnation, for Isaiah was still a sinner and living within a community of sinners, even if they had the benefit of the law and the practice of Israel.
It was not just that Isaiah felt unworthy and unfit – he really was. This was not just a personal or subjective sensation – it was a devastating reality and Isaiah could go no further until he had been personally cleansed and forgiven and renewed.
Only then could his ears be opened to hear the counsel and the purpose of God as He sought out one to speak His words to His people.
Only then could Isaiah offer himself sacrificially in the service of God.
When we look at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus there is again an interaction between one who had grown old in the service of God as he knew Him in the Laws of Israel and the worship of the temple.
But again for all his learning Nicodemus could only understand and think as he had been trained to do, and yet Jesus was there to show him something else.
This time it was the proposition that to be born anew or born again. Some may bridle at the term ‘Born again’, largely I think because it is associated with a rather aggressive form of evangelism and is easily parodied as being judgmental.
But Jesus was not joking. He was speaking of a spiritual rebirth, in which a person enters a new realm of being and of existence. The body does not change but the soul does, and so in time do all other aspects of life.
For St Paul this was the crisis of a moment on the Damascus Road, but over the next decades of his life he grew into a deeper and deeper understanding of its significance. But let there be no mistake: Paul was a changed man as he was led into Damascus and life would never be the same again.
For others a lifetime immersed in the liturgy of the church, the study of the bible and its lessons in personal and civic life may seem routine until a personal crisis strikes. It is then that the spiritual resources of a lifetime will come into play:
Go forwards or backwards, trust God or self, allow hope and faith to define the outlook or yield to despair and cynicism? This is the point at which we may well come to know just where we stand in these things.
For each of us this point of faith and commitment will be different, but for all of us it points us in the same direction.
This is where we have the reassurance of Paul in his letter to the church in Rome.
His point was that while faith is personal it is also shared and held in common. It is personal but not individualistic, corporate but not collective. The personal life of prayer and of believing comes to life within the context of the community of faith, and it is here that the Holy Spirit seeks to give life and strength to each soul within it.
Yes, the Holy Spirit comes to each person at baptism and yet He also comes alive in a new way when a person is immersed in the fullness of the Spirit and this will normally be within the fellowship of believers and worshippers.
More than this, the Holy Spirit is the seal of Jesus’ betrothal to the church. Like an engagement ring, it is His gift and mark of commitment and salvation and it is there both for each believer and for each congregation. It is also what holds the church as a whole together and is strained and even wounded when the church rushes to disagreement over its innovations.
For the Lord desires the church to be a holy vessel and a royal priesthood. It is the people who are given the freedom to call God their Father when most other faiths encumber them with rules and prohibitions.
But God never intended to leave us alone with legal codes: His aim was always that we should come to Him and find Life.