It’s the start of a new year - although it might perhaps not feel very different than the last one at the moment, and so it seems appropriate to be thinking about beginnings! Both of our Bible readings today speak of beginnings: The first one being, literally, the beginning of everything in Genesis 1, and the second being the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.
So with ‘beginnings’ very much in mind, let me ask you a question or two…
Here’s the first:
What is your earliest faith-memory?
I wonder what the first thing you can remember is related to church, or to faith, or to God? For many people that might be a different answer than the one you might give to my next (similar) question:
I wonder what your first memory of actually believing and trusting God is?
If, like me, you were brought up to go to church, you might find that your first memory of anything church or faith related is not actually all that positive – even a memory of boredom, or incomprehension, or perhaps fear.
But if you are hearing (or reading!) this, then you are quite probably a person of faith yourself, and therefore at some point you would have come to make a positive commitment to follow the way of Jesus. At some point, you yourself would have started believing, or become a Christian, or been born-again (or whatever language best describes your particular experience).
This is what I am really interested in today as we think about what lies at the beginnings of faith. What was at the beginning of your faith?
Was it a memory of a vivid encounter with God, Damascus road style? Or perhaps a memory of an answered prayer? Perhaps a memory of a sense of God’s presence, that brought hope. Perhaps it was a difficult memory, a sadness or even a trauma, but one which was coloured by your cry to God being heard, and by God’s comfort received?
Whatever it was, I would guess that for most people, what lies at the root, at the very beginning of our faith journey’s, one way or another, is an experience.
An experience, in some way, of God.
Why do I say that? Surely we might presume that at the root of most people’s faith would actually be something else; perhaps understanding, or belief, or teaching, or truth, or even doctrine. After all I’m sure there are many who would say that their faith is built on sure and sound doctrine; in other words, on believing the right things. Believing the truth, we might say.
Well, that’s as may be. People may indeed say that, and I don’t blame them. But I would dare to suggest that for most people, most of the time, what has caused us to believe is not ideas or truths or explanations, but rather experiences. For most of us, I would dare to say, we believe what we believe because it makes sense of our experiences of God and even our experiences of life.
In his extraordinary book ‘Unapologetic’ the writer Francis Spufford attempts to defend Christian faith against its critics from the New Atheism movement (Critics of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins). He does this not by defending doctrines or ideas, but by showing that he (and many others) believe in Jesus, and the Christian Creeds because they make sense of their experience in a profound way – their experience of themselves, their experience of the world, and their experience of God.
The Theologian William Dyrness agrees. In ‘Poetic Theology’ he writes movingly of being told, as a young Christian, that the secret to staying on the ‘narrow way’ of belief was get three things in the right order. These three things were Facts, Faith, and Feelings.
He was told, he says, that in order to keep moving forward on the path of belief, you had to place Facts first of all – facts about God, and the truth about Jesus. Then because you had the facts right, Faith would follow on, and then because faith followed on, one’s own subjective Feelings would follow. If you are a Christian of a certain age you may have come across this illustration yourself, the Chinese Christian leader and teacher Watchmen Nee certainly used it…
There is undoubtedly some wisdom in this: We certainly don’t want to make our faith reliant always on our feelings! This is because, as we all know, our feelings come and go. But Dyrness argues that for most people ‘Facts then Faith then Feelings’ gets things in the wrong order. He argues that, rather than place feelings last of all, we should recognise that it is a felt experience of God, in some way, or some form, that brings most people to the place where they can say that they believe.
This rings true in terms of how we understand the Bible also. What else is the Bible, Old Testament and New, if it is not an account of people’s experiences of God? Theologians point out that all of the New Testament was composed because people experienced Jesus, whether by knowing him themselves, or by prayer, as the Son of God. People realised that when they were with, or when they prayed to Jesus, they were experiencing and connecting with God. At the heart of all of the Christian faith, in that sense, is an experience of God, through Jesus.
Of course, Christians have long described that experiential sense of God working in us in terms of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God that Jesus promised to send to his followers. And interestingly, in our readings today we encounter two mentions of the Spirit of God being present at the beginning of something.
The first is of course in Genesis 1 – in the first Biblical account of the beginning of all things (there are actually two creation accounts in Genesis if you look carefully – contrast Gen 1 with Gen 2.4-34). Here we read of God’s Spirit being present before creation, and bringing created order from the waters of primeval chaos. In the beginning, we might say, was the Spirit of God.
And in our Gospel reading, Mark 1.4-11, we read of the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus ‘like a dove’ and marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
In that beginning as well, we might say, was the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit. At the start of Jesus’ ministry was an experience of God, through the Holy Spirit.
So whilst we may want to agree that we shouldn’t base our faith entirely on subjective feelings – or at least I would hope that we would agree with that – I want to encourage us all the recognise the crucial role that an experience of God, through the Holy Spirit, has in building and renewing our faith and other people’s faith.
Why is this important? Well, for a few reasons actually. One is that, at the start of this new year, we are talking about a new Vision…
The PCC have recently approved a vision document that helps us express how we are responding to the challenge of being God’s community in this time and in this place. I really hope that it will be useful for us to have a clear vision of how we are going to go about being God’s church in the next months and years.
Having a clear vision will help us mould and shape what we do in order to effectively witness to God’s love in our community. It will allow us to be clear about the sort of community we are trying to be, and will allow us to describe our church succinctly and clearly to others.
The vision document is available to read on our website, and I will be talking more about this in the next few week. But for now, I will share the short vision statement with you – which is, that we at St Pauls want to be a place where people can:
Engage with community.
Or to put it in an even simpler way:
As I say, I will share more about this in the coming weeks – but for now, I just want to point out that at the very heart of our vision as a church, at the very beginning of our vision as a church, is Experience. We intend to be a pace where people can find an encounter with, an experience of, God. Because it is that experience which so often is at the root of faith.
How do we do this? Well, a bit like I was saying last week, one way is to imitate the Magi, and Worship! To be a community of Worship – to keep on, individually and corporately making that costly, but wonderful journey into Worship.
We need to make encountering God through the Holy Spirit a priority, and one way of doing this is by making worship a priority. Last week I challenged you to think about how you can find new ways of entering into worship this year, and that is something that we want to do, also as a church.
So this year, we will start, when Covid permits, a new service on a Sunday evening – initially monthly, which will be a place to come dwell in the worship of God, with music, with prayer, and with silence.
But we want to be a place where we can explore different ways of experiencing the touch of God in our lives. At home, and at church. We want to be a place where different styles of worship from the contemplative to the Charismatic are welcomed and celebrated, because what matters to us is not how people experience the presence of God, but that people do experience the presence of God!
We want to try and resource us all to find new ways of worshipping, and new ways of experiencing the presence of God together. We want to experience the power and the presence of God in our lives, because then our faith will grow, and be refreshed and renewed, and we will see other people come to faith.
Let us seek God’s presence together!