How big is Your God? Last week we considered how big Paul viewed God – utilising the words of a hymn known to his listeners we heard how Paul’s God – was the God of Universe – constellation and field, mountain and valley, continent and atom. Yet this God, came to our humanity as one of us – this Universal God resides in us. In that truth we become a people of potential – with God working in and through us.
How big God is to you – how capable, how dependable, how actively life and word-changing – depends on how big you think the Holy Spirit is? How big God is – depends on how we view the work of God’s Spirit in the world and in our life – how expansive the Spirit’s powers are.
That’s what I want us to consider today on Pentecost Sunday. This is the day on which we celebrate the birth of the church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is truly a day for rejoicing.
Sometimes on this day we have think of the image of the Birthday Cake and give thanks for the birth of the Church in the world; sometimes we think of images of fire and flame as symbols of the potent energy of God’s activity in the world – present at creation, then reignited after Jesus resurrection, as God uncovered the work of His Holy Spirit to, and through, Jesus followers.
As I reread the story of Pentecost this week, particularly in the light of the additional passage from Philippines, it is the way in which Pentecost expands the work of God that excites me; it the fact that the borders of God’s work and activity are stretched out (indeed removed all-together) – it is the fact that we are given reason to believe that God’s potential becomes limitless in range and potency.
Here in Philippi are two women leaders, workers for the gospel, indeed Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers, those whose names are written in the book of life. This is extraordinary. I really want us to understand this.
I know equality is not all the way balanced in our world yet – we’ve reflected on this before and prayed that one day male and female, old and young will one day be given fair and equal opportunities.
Not there yet – but when we see how far the world has come towards an acceptance of equal rights over the last 100 years, 1000 years, 3 to 4 centuries into the narrative of our Old Testament, we recognize how extraordinary it is for the times that here, Paul comments on two women workers in the church as his ‘co-workers’.
This is an image of a new type of society, a more egalitarian community in which the social divisions of gender and class are not treated as definitive.
Like the Spirit of God bringing a gust of new life to disciples in need of encouragement and enthusiasm, the small but important mention of Euodia and Syntyche is a taste of the new wine of the kingdom – the expansion of God’s activity through the work of the Holy Spirit. Things are changing, things are afoot if we let the gospel be freed. This is worth ‘rejoicing, always’ (in the words of Paul).
Each year, at Pentecost it is good we remember the moment of intense vitality when a moribund group of followers and disciples found themselves unleashed by God for the ministry and mission that awaited them. From their anxiety and fear of the future, they found a new peace which surpassed all understanding, a new focus on the divine reality of a new Kingdom that allowed space for the likes of Euodia and Syntyche, Mary and Susanna, Joanna and Priscilla to exercise their ministries. This was an explosion of Faith and activity; the broadening, the expansion, of God’s work in the world – both directly (as the breath of God works in creation), and through the activity of the Church and the faith of followers of every shape ad size, gender and type.
Some years ago (1950s) English Bible Scholar, Bible Translator, Writer and Clergyman J.B. Philips wrote a book called ‘Your God is too small’.
In the opening of the book he writes,
‘The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static’.
I wonder if at times we create a box for God that contains God too much. Very often our organised religion, or denominational structures, our human-made priorities for keeping the ship (that is in our case the Church of Scotland) afloat have the effect of limiting the potential of God and hindering the freedom of God to be let loose in His work in today’s world.
Philips went on to describe some of the limitations we put on God as we create him in our minds eye and unconsciously enclose him in boxes that might have labels such as:
‘Resident Policeman’, ‘Grand-Old Man’, ‘Meek and Mild’, ‘Parent to be obeyed’.
Philips says the mistake we make is to limit God in our thought and in His work. What he said was (and still is) needed is to let God out the box. He writes:
‘[open] wide the doors and windows of our minds [to] make some attempt to appreciate the “size” of God…. He must not be confined……It is not, of course, physical size that we are trying to establish in our minds. It is rather to see the immensely broad sweep of the Creator’s activity.’
At the start of the General Assembly Week as always thee is much for the Church to discuss. One major report to be discussed is the writing of and presenting of a strategic plan for the church that has caused a lot of controversy. It has a huge list of things stated the church needs to do to survive. Yet it suggests a timescale of decades to get the job done. And that timescale is where the controversy lies for I have yet to find a colleague who is happy with that – those like me on the ground, working away in parishes, and within Presbyteries find it is easy (and scary) to see the problems of decline, relevancy and very shortly a shortage of resources – both finance and people. Most people say we don’t have decades to put things right. Most people say we have God in a Box of our own making and its time now before it is too late to let God out – to let him burst out with Pentecost Flame and be released to do radical work of reshaping the priorities and focus of the church that it is less centralised, restricted and safe and more local, unencumbered and ambitious.
Pentecost is the reminder that God expanded His work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. No longer was there a single tribe that was the focus of God’s influence in History and attention in life.
Suddenly it wasn’t just about Jew – it was about gentile and Jew.
Suddenly it wasn’t just about the institution of synagogue and Temple – it was about local followers, house groups and churches. People like Paul and Timothy, people too like Euodia and Syntyche, and many other men and women, who fired by the Holy Spirit unleashed the power of God in the world – expanded the borders of God’s potential and influence.
As we come to an end of this season of post resurrection activity in the establishing Church of Paul’s day. Let us hear loud and clear the challenge of this story for our own. We are the church today. Do we contain God – or do we free God. Do we limit God or let him expand His work in us and through us? Are we ready to fan the flames of Pentecost and ignite God’s desire and work for and in the world.
The Lord is near. Let not anxiety stop us. Let us be bold and courageous and trusting of God who knows no limits to what He can do when we let Him.