Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Who is God?

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 7 June 2015

Who is God?

John 14.1-14   "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  2 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?  3 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.  4 And you know the way to the place where I am going."  5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"  6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  9 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'?  10 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.  11 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.  12 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.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Exodus 3.13-15  But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"  14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"  15 God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

You can listen to this sermon here

It may be a function of my line of work,
            but it seems to me that a lot of people
                        seem to spend a lot of time talking about matters of belief.
            ‘Do you really believe in God?’, I’m asked,
                        often by people who are struggling to understand the perceived inconsistency
                                    of an apparently rational and sane human being
                                    believing something that appears irrational, and quite possibly insane.

Sometimes the question is more nuanced,
            and comes from a place of personal questioning:
                        ‘Do you believe in miracles?’,
                        ‘Do you believe in the power of prayer?’
                        ‘Will you pray for me?’

Sometimes the question feels designed to test me:
            ‘Do you believe in the virgin birth?
                        In the resurrection? In the Trinity?’

And sometimes the question seems designed to trap me:
            ‘Do you believe in the ordination of women?’
            ‘Do you believe in same-gender marriage?’
And so I could go on…

Do you believe…?
            Do you believe…?
Or, perhaps more pertinently:
            ‘In what do you believe?’
Or even,
            ‘In whom do you believe?’

This is an important, and surprisingly contemporary, issue.
            And our passages this morning take us right to heart
                        of this question of belief.

We come to this question today,
            as part of our post-Pentecost sermon series,
in which we’re looking at what it means to be ‘the church’,
            and, perhaps more specifically,
            what it means to be ‘this church, here, in Bloomsbury.’

Last week, Ruth started the series
            by inviting us to consider what it might mean to say
                        that ‘God calls a church’
And today we’re taking a step back from that,
            to ask the question of who this God that calls us might be,

I mean, it’s all very well speaking of the church as ‘the people of God’
            but if we don’t have at least a working hypothesis of who God is,
            we’re going to struggle to work out what the church of God might look like.

And whilst at one level, this might seem like a straightforward enough question,
            at another level it’s a very difficult one to answer.

So, Who is God?

Or, perhaps even more basic than ‘Who is God?’,
            we might just start by asking ourselves, ‘Is God?’

‘Does God exist?’, says the person from their death-bed?
            To which I will say: yes, I do believe that God exists.

The questions of what God is like, of who God is, and of how God can be known,
            are, it seems to me, subsidiary questions
            to the most basic question of whether God is.

It’s not without significance here,
            that when God was revealed to Moses,
            the name of God was revealed to be ‘I Am’.

God is;
            and what God is, is not just the first person of the Trinity,
            but the first person of the verb ‘to be’.

‘I Am’, said God to Moses,
            ‘and because I am, you are.
            ‘And so is he, and she, and they, and we.’

The God whose name is ‘I Am’ is a first-person God;
            the God of first principles.

If God is, then all else follows.

So, for me, belief in God is my starting point for faith.

Let me put this another way…

It’s a bit like the John Wyndham novels I used to read as a teenager.
            I don’t know if you’ve read them too?
                        Books like The Day of the Triffids,
                        The Kraken Wakes, and The Midwich Cuckoos?

Anyway, the thing about John Wyndham’s stories,
            is that they are all incredibly logical outworkings,
            of one initial basic conceit.
As a reader, you’re asked, fairly early in the story, to believe one thing that isn’t true,
            and then everything else follows logically.
All that is needed for his stories to work is that one initial leap of faith,
            and then all else falls into place.

And for me, belief in God is that one initial leap of faith.
            ‘Is God is, or is God ain’t’, as Louis Jordan might put it.
For me, God Is.
            ‘I Am’ said God to Moses, inviting him to believe.
And that same invitation to faith echoes down the millennia to us,
            inviting us to make the same leap of faith,
            to see where it gets us.

I have long concluded that it is only my belief in God,
            my focusing on something outside of my own existence,
that keeps me from being the utterly self-centred, self-absorbed, person
            that I know I have the capacity to be.

It is only my conscious decision to worship the God that is other to me,
            that challenges my tendency to the sin of idolatry,
It is only as I offer devotion to the God who is,
            that my desire to place myself, and my own concerns,
                        at the centre of my universe
            is confronted.

But who, or what, is this God?

Part of the problem with trying to articulate the nature of God
            is that all language about God is inherently metaphorical,
            and therefore also inevitably provisional.

God’s essence cannot be captured in finite human language,
            and no words can do justice to the infinite heart of the divine.

God is a verb, not a noun,
            and so God cannot be defined by a proper name.
The description of God as ‘I Am’, is a statement of God’s activity;
            it is not a name by which God can be summoned.

But this God who ‘is’ can, it seems, be experienced.
            God’s actions can be encountered
            more surely than his name can be known.

And I think that it is in the love of God,
            that God is most surely to be encountered.

‘I Am’ says God to Moses,
            and what God is, is love.

If God is, then God is love.
            And to assert this is to speak a powerful counter-testimony
                        to those who would speak into existence
                        the many gods of hatred, violence and division.

The mystery of the God who exists in love,
            is made known to us through loving relationship.

And this, of course, is the mystery of Trinity;
            the insight of the early church that the God who is, and the God who is love,
                        is also the God of eternal community.

The first person of God, the ‘I Am’ of the leap of faith,
            is not the end of the story,
because the ‘first person’ sits alongside the second and third persons.
            God is not just divine Father, but also eternal Son and living Spirit.

The God who is beyond us, is know to us:
            in our world and in our lives,
            speaking salvation into being in our midst,
as the word that was in the beginning, calling all into being,
            becomes the word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

And it is through a living, loving relationship with Jesus Christ
            that I believe God is to be most fully known,
            as the Spirit of Christ bears witness to God-made-flesh
            in the stories of our own lives.

This is where our initial leap of faith takes us,
            certainly within the Christian tradition.

Of course, people believe for all sorts of different reasons:
            some of us have simply inherited our belief system,
                        while others will have arrived by a process of conviction,
            some of us have latent belief, which we’ve not quite managed to lose yet,
                        while others of us, myself included,
                                    have what I can perhaps best define as ‘reluctant belief’.

It can all be very troubling, very confusing, very divisive,
            and that’s before we even start to address the question
                        of whether some sort of belief is necessary for salvation.

Well, says Jesus in John’s gospel,
            ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.
                        Believe in God, believe also in me.’
It seems that, for the author of this gospel at least,
            belief in God is intimately connected to belief in Jesus.

How do we know God?
            We know him through Jesus.
And how do we know Jesus?
            We know him by his Spirit at work in our lives.

Belief in God is not based on belief in creeds, confessions, and catechisms.
            Neither is it based on security, stories, or scriptures.
Rather, belief emerges as the outcome of a lived relationship
            with the one through whom God is made known,
                        and in whom God is revealed.

Belief is the product of a relationship,
            it is not the outworking of a theological conviction.

And here I think it’s important to take a moment to clarify something significant:
            Not all beliefs are equal.

Sometimes, the concern for ‘balance’ in our post-enlightenment society
            means that we end up giving equal weight
                        to very different orders of belief.
So, for example, on the television news
            the scientist representing the weight of scientific opinion,
                        may find themselves given equal billing
            with the lone representative of the minority view that disagrees with them.

It’s the same with matters of faith and belief:
            Asserting belief in God as revealed in Jesus,
                        is not the same thing as, for example,
                        asserting belief in the effectiveness of homeopathy;
            despite the best efforts of some new atheist polemicists
                        to equate belief in God
            to the equivalent status
                        of belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Francis Spufford makes this point eloquently.
            He says:

‘Whether God exists or not is unprovable,
            so for an individual person,
            whether He exists or not is always going to be a matter of belief.
But at the same time, quite independently,
            he either exists or he doesn’t,
            irrespective of whether He’s believed in.
He’s a fact, or a non-fact, about the nature of the universe.
            So if you believe, you’re making a bet
            that God exists whether you believe or not.’[1]

So it is that Jesus says:
            "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.”

Here, we meet Jesus offering the readers of John’s gospel
            a new and radical path to God.

The Jews of the first century believed that the way to God
            was to be found in careful observance of the Jewish Law
            as revealed in their written scriptures (Pss 86.11; 119.30).
While the Graeco-Roman religions of the time
            believed that the complexities of the pantheon
            revealed the path to divine knowledge

Over against both of these, Jesus offers something new, something radical.
            The way to God, says Jesus, is to be found through lived relationship
                        with the one in whom God is revealed,
                        and through whom God is known.

God is not encountered through obedience, observance, and ordinances,
            but through relationship, friendship, and revelation.
Jesus opens the way to God
            because in him is to be found life in all its fullness,
            and in him is the truth that shatters all our defences,
            and disarms all our pretences.

In Christ there is nowhere to hide,
            because in Christ we are most fully known,
            even as we come to know that which is most fully other to us.

When we open our eyes to see the revelation of God in Christ,
            we are united with the life and the truth
                        that is at work in this complex, fallen, broken world,
            drawing all of creation into God’s loving eternal embrace.

When we join our voices in worship, and name Jesus as Lord
            we do it not to make God feel good about himself,
                        but because we are sharing with Christ in the re-centering of creation.

When we pray to Jesus, we do so not to abase ourselves before the almighty,
            but in order to align ourselves, our lives, and our world,
                        with the one in whom all earthly principalities and powers
                                    find their completion and fulfilment,
            and in rejection of all other claims on our lives
                        that might otherwise demand our allegiance.

Belief for belief’s sake is, frankly, pointless.
            But belief that emerges from a lived relationship with Christ,
                        sustained by his Spirit at work in our lives,
            is something that changes the world.

[1] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, p. 77

No comments: