SERMON: Encountering the Mystery of God

Encountering the Mystery of God – a Sermon preached by Graham Low on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2 June 2019 at St Mary’s 

Today’s passage from John’s gospel is about welcoming God into our lives and sharing that with others. It is a deep and mysterious passage which has been much studied down the ages. Until quite recently people would have turned to priests, prophets and specialists with their questions about this passage, the bible, and more widely about the nature and way of God, and the Christian faith. But now Christians and others wishing to understand and to make contact with God are increasingly doing this through Amazon’s Alexa, which nearly a fifth of us now use. Although we haven’t got one, our children and grandchildren are regular users. You can ask Alexa to say a prayer for you or you can ask theological or biblical questions using a Church of England voice-controlled app called Alexa Skill. If you ask Alexa: “who is a Christian?”, the answer is “Belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is at the heart of our faith. You can find a summary of what Christians have believed since early times.” You will also be told where to find your local church.

I am not so sure that Alexa is ready to take us deeper into our lives and into John’s reflections on the mystery of God and how God may be encountered or what God’s nature may be like. Instead we continue to rely upon commentaries on Biblical texts, such as today’s, where we are offered some pointers about the trinity. We may see the trinity as a kind of hierarchy: father at the head with son doing what he is told and the Holy Spirit obeying them both. If that is our picture then this may also be our picture of how the church is arranged: strong, unchanging,authoritative. It is a model that offers certainty. It has strong associations with long-held views on the authority of scripture and tradition. But does this model fit John’s words: “one as we the Father and the Son are one?”

Another way of looking at the Trinity is to see the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one of intimacy and equality, in which all barriers have been banished. Some have likened this to a dance, with no one head, no one way of being, but each part remaining distinctive. That model of the trinity embraces and celebrates difference: loving debate over differences may be the fruit of diversity. Perhaps this model fits today’s text better.

But I think we need to think about following another and deeper way in seeking to engage with God. We begin this alternative way by acceptingthat we are very largely self-centred beings – this is hard wired into our boards at birth. There is no experience that we have had that we have not been the centre of. Seeing and interpreting everything through the lens of self is our default setting. Learning how to think is about going beyond listening to ourselves, and finding ways to control to some degree how and what we think, to choose what we pay attention to. So how do we go beyond our comfortable, and respectable life, in which we are often a slave to ourselves, and often dead to whatever and whoever else is around us? One way is by learning to choose what we give our attention to. By doing this we open ourselves to being less anxious and more compassionate. Then we can begin to question ourselves, and to begin to think about how life might be for us on a wider horizon than the self-centred one. So how may all of this happen? Sooner or later we shall find ourselves worshiping something, and for us here today we have come to worship God. 

A great author of short stories, Flannery O’Connor, once wrote “I do not know you, God, because I am in the way”. This is the heart of the Christian predicament. Although this author is speaking to God with whom she has a loving relationship, she has come to realise that she is getting in the way of deepening the relationship. So the question for us is: what gets us in the way of our relating to God? Part of the answer is that we tend to cling onto what we want and reject what we don’t want. And so we may not allow ourselves to move on to an inner world of silence, of contemplation, of prayer. 

But we cannot enter this inner world of silence by ourselves. We need grace, which is constantly poured out by God. Grace frees us to enjoy God coming to us, especially in transcendent moments. Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual prophets of the 20th century, recognised that by choosing to give our attention to something other than the monologues in our own minds, we can become less self-centred and more compassionate. He said that to do this we have to go deep into uncharted lands, beyond our thoughts, and into an awareness of God’s direct presence, and become more open to God’s overwhelming goodness and love. Merton tells us that without this contemplation, this awareness of God’s presence, we shall give others nothing but the contagion of our own obsessions, our ego-centred ambitions, and ourdelusions.

Developing a sense of God’s intimate presence at all times is something that spiritual writers down the ages have centred on, and it is our central call. Augustine famously wrote of God “You are closer to me than I am to myself”. If we cannot face up to this then we shall never be at home within ourselves, and we will never realise fully that we live in the house of God with its many dwelling places.

The call for us is to de-clutter our minds. This is about release, letting be, letting go, not clinging. This is a long-term, indeed a life-long process. It is a process that does not follow the way of the world. It does not focus on our own progress, growth, and development. If we still focus on ourselves, we shall remain contemplating ourselves, rather than entering the luminous vastness of God’s love. This theme forms the heart of Martin Laird’s new book An Ocean of Light which I commend to you.

The love of which Jesus spoke in today’s gospel is about living into and out of the luminous vastness and Trinitarian nature of God. As our collect says, it is a love strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and which will exalt us to the place where Christ is gone before. At this joyful season of Ascensiontide may we be among those with Jesus, in his glory. Amen.