Saturday, 28 May 2011

6th Sunday of Easter: The unknown, known, unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

John 14:15-21
Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’

Sometimes when I’m writing a sermon I give it a title and so it is with this one which, in my own mind, I’ve called the ‘Unknown, known, unknown God’. Confused? You wait... No, but seriously I want us to think primarily about what Saint Paul said to the residents of the Greek city of Athens about the altar they had to an unknown God.

The Areopagus was basically the high court in Athens and St. Paul had been taken there to explain himself because of what he’d been preaching in the city. The address that he delivered is based on his desire to end their ignorance. You see the Athenians had numerous pagan deities with altars and idols. It was rather as if they wanted to be absolutely sure that they worshipped every god there was so that none could feel left out and ‘smite’ them! So to make sure no one was forgotten they had an altar to this unknown god’.

Now St. Paul could have simply stood up there and told them they were ignorant and wrong, but that would have accomplished very little. We all know that if someone just tells us we are wrong about something, all that is likely to do is entrench our own views. So instead he looks for a way in to their culture, something that they say about themselves, something which will give him a way of explaining the good news of Jesus Christ.

And essentially they give it to him on a plate by having this altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown God’. In their eagerness not to miss out any gods they provided St. Paul with a hook line for his sermon so that he could preach about this God and about how it was possible to know him.

Reading what he says resonates even two thousand years later because St. Paul’s words remind us that in the hearts of most people there is a recognition that there is something going on behind the world, there is a Great Unknown that transcends everything else. Research has just been published, after a long study, that declares that being religious is something common to all humanity. We are spiritual beings by nature.

Our job as Christians is to essentially do what St. Paul was doing, to make this God known to our friends, colleagues and families by how we live and, if possible, by explaining.

However, and you just knew there would be a however, it is not as simple as making the unknown God known to people, because there is nothing more annoying than the arrogance of a know-all telling you that they can explain all about what God is like to you. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you are positive that you know what God is like, maybe you need to do some more thinking before you speak out, and that’s why I’ve called this sermon the unknown-known-unknown God.

Let’s see if I can explain what I mean. If you're reading this, imagine I'm holding a leaf. Let’s start with the easy questions. What colour is it? Do you know what kind of tree it’s from? And what kind of seed did it grow from? Those are all fairly straightforward questions. But how about a more difficult question: do you know where the tree is from which I took this leaf?

And if you can guess that, do you know where its parent was growing? Do you have any idea how old the tree is? So you know something about this leaf, but not everything.

Or how about the people we think we know well? Later this week Alison and I will celebrate our 22nd wedding anniversary. I’ve been married for almost half my life now and for all that time we have shared on an emotional, social, spiritual and physical level

I know Alison better than anyone else in the whole world. But if you were to ask me what she was thinking about at 5.00pm yesterday afternoon I wouldn’t have a clue. I know her, yet there are vast depths to her about which I know nothing.

It even works on the level of the most fundamental physics. Some of you might have heard of something called ‘Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle’. This makes the point that in quantum physics it is impossible to know with certainty both the position of a particle as well as it’s mass and velocity at the same instant. The more precisely you measure one, the more uncertain the other variables become.

It seems that God has written the unknown into nature at the very deepest level. How then can any of us be arrogant, as St. Paul seems to be, in saying, ‘I know God’? If we can’t know even the simplest things about our universe, or even our husbands and wives, how can we say we know God?

And yet, and yet, Jesus said these words to the disciples: ‘If you have seen me, then you have seen the Father’. And more than that, in the Gospel reading for today Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit who will come and dwell within us. In other words, if we invite God in, then God will take up spiritual residence deep within us.

That then is the beginning of the knowing of God, not because we can seek God out but because God has sought us out, offered himself to us, and then come and lived within us if we invite him in. I can’t know Alison completely because she’s in another body, but if God is taking up residence within my body that opens up a whole new wealth of possibilities.

I think that this is what St. Paul is getting at. Jesus, the Son, has made the Father known to us. ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ Then the Holy Spirit of God, at our invitation, takes up residence within us so that this revealing of the nature of God, this grand unveiling if you like, can take place deep within our very selves.

This is how St. Paul can say that he can make known this unknown God. But remember, I said that this is about the unknown, known, unknown God. There is more yet, because I would have to say that even though I am aware of the Spirit of God dwelling within me, and on some fundamental level I know God, yet I also remain hugely ignorant.

When I was going through the process of examining a call into the priesthood, one of the things that St. Alban’s Diocese insisted upon was that I had a spiritual director who would guide me on a journey into myself. One of the roles I have in this diocese is in interviewing potential priests. Both my story and their stories of journeying towards ordination includes journeying into self-knowledge.

Whenever I am interviewing candidates for ministry, and when I myself was going through the process, it was essential that we had a degree of self-knowledge. What are our motivations for wanting to do the things we do? I was surprised at some of the things I uncovered within myself, and it sometimes happens with candidates for all sorts of ministries that they uncover hidden motivations which undermine their sense of vocation.

What I’m trying to say is that we are not even fully in the know about our own selves. If we spend time in counselling, therapy or in the simple spiritual self-examination that we should all do, then we uncover things about ourselves that we don’t know, and we live in our own heads! So just because God dwells within us is not enough to say, ‘I know God’.

Certainly I know something of God, and I’m amazed at the depths of love he has for me, and you, and all of us, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, but the deeper I go, the more I find that I’m like a swimmer whose only just discovered that the ocean is deeper than the bit I’m swimming on the surface of.

And so comes the challenge to us all. How deep do you want to go? Do you understand God? I don’t. I’ve seen the tragedies in my own family and in the lives of many others around me. I watch the news and meet people from other countries who face difficulties I cannot begin to comprehend. Yet God created this universe.

So I want to know him more deeply. I want to spend more time in his presence. Last week Rachel talked about silence. We need to switch off the telly. We need to walk away from the computer. We need to find some alone space, preferably every day. Within each of us is a vast deep ocean of the presence of God. Isn’t it time we stopped swimming on the surface and started deep-sea diving?

That need is one of the reasons why we started putting on services like The Well on the first Sunday night of the month, to give us contemplative space to explore the depths of God. So I invite you all to put on your spiritual aqualungs and go deeper, for it is only in acknowledging in all humility our ignorance that we can get to know God better. Amen.

5th Sunday of Easter: Inclusivity and Exclusivity

Acts 7:55-end
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

John 14:1-14
Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Our Gospel reading today carries two of the most iconic and controversial passages which I think are linked together. The phrase, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’, is deeply ingrained in our culture to the extent that it is often the first choice for people when they are thinking about funeral readings. But we cannot have that phrase without the next one, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’

We live in what is one of the most liberal and multicultural societies in the world. In my lifetime I have watched a sea-change in our understanding of the other ethnic groups who live in this country. As a child I remember the popularity of shows like ‘Love thy neighbour’, a comedy of its time, the 1970's, all about how a white family come to terms with a black family moving in next door.

The two stars of the show were inevitably the racist white husband and the long suffering black husband next door, and if I remember correctly, their two wives had no problem whatsoever in getting on! And then allied to that was the racist humour of numerous stand-up comedians such as Jim Davidson. And Britain laughed so much at such things. But no more.

Now, a generation on, we have become much better at recognising and valuing the many different cultures which have intermingled in Britain. Of course we’re not perfect, and I continue to be shocked by some of the comments I sometimes hear from people. But in general we’re getting used to the idea, and hopefully valuing the richness that such diversity can bring to this country.

But allied to that is a knowledge that the religions represented in this diversity differ greatly in their understanding of God. There are the three main ‘Religions of the Book’; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three are monotheistic, yet each recognise something different about God. The Jews have many names for God, and a sense of racial intimacy. For the Muslims their relationship with God seems often to be defined by the name of their religion, Islam, which means ‘To submit’.

And once we begin to look further afield we find other diverging views of God. Hinduism, for example, seems pantheistic, believing in many gods, although a good friend of mine in the company I used to work for, who was herself a Hindu, explained that at its heart Hinduism is ultimately also monotheistic with these many gods being different faces of the one God, although she acknowledged that in general practice that wasn’t how many treated their belief.

Once we begin looking to the modern rebirthing of the old nature religions such as druidism, neo-paganism and so on, we find an even wider plethora of views. Some druidic beliefs do seem to have a revealed trinitarianism to them and amongst the many strands of neo-paganism there can sometimes be found a faith in both mother earth as the goddess but also of a male deity too.

Back in the old days of the unenlightened 1970's we could have dismissed all of these religious cultures as being simply wrong. We would have said that, since they didn’t worship God through Jesus, then according to that verse, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, they were lost and simply ignorant of what God was really like.

But now we’re having to change our opinion somewhat, because our experiences are beginning to show us that the contrary is true. In fact many of the followers of these other religions that we get to know are in fact quite devout worshippers who are most definitely holy. In fact there are many people who have converted to these religions away from Christianity because they have found something special there that they have found lacking in the people who follow our faith.

Now whilst that must be a sad indictment on Christianity, and the way we often don’t take our beliefs seriously enough to be challenged to grow in holiness through prayer, the fact that we are finding holy religious people of other faiths must surely come as a challenge to this apparently exclusivist statement by Jesus. Or does it? Remember that I did say at the beginning that the two halves of this statement must be linked, and I think in interfaith work is where we find that link.

All of the different religions have something unique about them, but what marks Christianity out is this statement about not coming to the Father except through the Son. Now Jews of Jesus’s era were just beginning, in some places, to talk about the Fatherhood of God, but not in the terms that Jesus used. When he prayed, and as he taught his disciples to pray, we should use the words, ‘Abba Father’.

Abba is similar to our word for Daddy, although with more respect than we usually include. Abba is a term of deep intimacy between a child and his Father, and that is the relationship we are encouraged into; one in which we are in a genuinely paternal relationship with God. The only way that can happen is if we are in Christ, as members of his body, because he is the true Son and we are invited into the kind of relationship that he has with God the Father.

That’s what makes baptism so very special, because we are baptised into that relationship with God of a child with its parent through Jesus. That’s why he was able to say, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’. But what, then, of these other religions? To some, calling God Father seems blasphemous because they think we’re putting ourselves on a par with God, rather than understanding that what we’re doing is accepting an invitation we don’t deserve.

But, and this is the key point, not calling God Father does not preclude them having a relationship with God on some other level. I happen to think that the relationship that Jesus bought for us through his death and resurrection is the deepest most wonderful thing we could yearn for, but I also believe that other monotheistic faiths worship the same God as we do.

And so it is possible to learn from people of other faiths. We find holiness there because these are also people who worship God. Their understanding may well differ sharply from ours, but that doesn’t devalue their faiths, even if we can yearn and pray for them to experience God as an intimate Father. And this, I believe, is perhaps a part of what Jesus meant about his Father’s house having many rooms.

Through Jesus we have been invited into the inner sanctum, a place where have no right to be except through him, but let us also learn to listen to what other faiths have learned about God. We might be surprised to discover much colour worth appreciating in the rooms that God has prepared for them too. Amen