Sunday, 11 June 2017

The immensity of God - speech and silence

Trinity Sunday – Eucharist –

(Isaiah 40.12-17; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 
What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them?
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?

These are words from today’s Psalm - Psalm 8. Words about the majesty of God, the enormity of his Creation. But I’m afraid that even as I read them I couldn’t get out of my mind a song that has been taken up by the Messy Church movement:

My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.

The mountains are his, the rivers are his,
the stars are his handiwork, too.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do!

I think it’s what is known as an ear-worm, something you hear and then can’t stop hearing. That’s the point: the greatness of God and “nothing my God cannot do.”

But the Psalmist sees a problem with that. If the heavens and all that goes with them are so great - and now we know that the universe is far greater in its extent than anyone could have known at that time - then why should God be bothered about us, such a small part of Creation and so petty in all our concerns? We are mortal creatures, why should he be mindful of us? Mere human beings, so why should he seek us out?

Isaiah sees that to be an issue as well:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?...

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales…
All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

But that’s the remarkable thing. God is so great. We might be such a minuscule part of the sum of things that we don’t count for anything. But the whole point of what Isaiah writes is that in fact we do. The mystery of God is that he is so great, yet still he puts us at the centre of his concern. The nature of God might be beyond our understanding, but it’s our limited, mortal humanity which is of the utmost concern for God. As perfect as he is in himself, needing nothing outside himself to sustain himself - nevertheless he reaches out to us, poor human beings. That’s because of who he is, his very nature - and at its simplest that is to say that “God is love…”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with all of you.

These are the words with which St. Paul concludes his Second Letter to the Christians at Corinth. They’re the words with which we so commonly end our prayers: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore.” The love of God is at the centre of our faith and our prayer. But it doesn’t end there. It’s made known only through the grace of Jesus Christ - the way in which and the person in whom God reaches out to the world. It’s made real by his continuing presence with us by his Holy Spirit.

How can you know God? How can you express the reality of God? Rather unexpectedly, I recently found myself having that discussion at a wedding reception - with a philosopher. He was researching in metaphysics and epistemology and before long we were into talking about Wittgenstein. The one thing I can remember from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings is his proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Or - if you can’t put it into words then you should keep quiet. For many people, this has been taken to exclude any religious frame of reference or talk about God. And Wittgenstein’s first proposition is, “The world is everything that is the case.” But he himself came to be a critic of his own writings. And all along he had been saying simply that talk about God was not something for the realm of philosophy. It didn’t mean it could be excluded as a matter of ultimate concern. He’d said as well that philosophy could not explore ethics - but it didn’t mean that we can live without them, and his own life showed the importance of ethical action from the courage he had shown as a soldier to his giving up his professorship during the Second World War to work as a hospital porter and then a lab assistant at the RVI.

About those things of which we cannot speak we should keep silent… That might be the philosopher’s point. And I think Christians need to value silence more. When we come to meet God we need to do so in stillness, able to recognise the mystery of God. God is not a “thing” to be talked about. God is before all things, greater than all things: God is Being itself, and only in him do we have any being ourselves. So much talk about God is inadequate. Talk about God when it gets wrapped up with churchiness or personal agendas can be just superficial or glib.

But we do need to move from silence into speaking of God, because God speaks to us. In himself God is imponderable, beyond understanding, but he reveals himself to us - and a record of how he does that is found in the Bible. It uses human words, so they are always going to be inadequate. But they tell us something of God by showing how he has called a people to be his own and revealed his love for us in Jesus - and that he doesn’t leave it there two thousand years ago but continues to be our guide and strength through the presence of his Holy Spirit. That’s what’s there in the final words of Jesus recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

Jesus himself speaks of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s the way his disciples have known God. One God with one will and one purpose. He could exist simply for himself, but such is his love that he reaches out and beyond for love of the world he has made. You can discuss how God can be one God and at the same time three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and people have. Theology, talk about God is a vital thing. But remember always that talk can get you only so far - we need to be prepared to admit what we can’t put into words, ready to encounter the mystery of God in silence.

To know God is to affirm that God is love. St. John sums up what it is to be a Christian in one sentence: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”

Can we live knowing the truth of that statement? A simple faith is going to be demanding - and that’s true as we try to make sense of the world… as we try to make sense of God. What we need to do is to try and make sense of both together. We make sense of them when we know that God is love - and reveals that love in so many ways. We make sense of our faith when we respond in love to the God who first reaches out to us, and when we put love into action for the people around us.

David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, used to sum up Christian belief by saying, “God is as he is in Jesus, and so there is hope.” When God seems unknowable and distant, it’s Jesus who reveals who God is. And in our on-going relationship with God it’s Jesus who is the point of reference - it’s because of Jesus that we understand the work of the Holy Spirit. So, be open to encounter with God. God can’t be limited by human definition - the Spirit blows where he wills - but we can judge that encounter by reference to Jesus, and then we will begin to know something of God.

The danger on Trinity Sunday is that we get bogged down in all the talk about how God can be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons, yet one God,… and the end result is to leave us with a doctrine rather than a God who is alive and active. None of us can ever fully understand God, still less explain how he works. But we see him at work. What we do reveals God to others.  We may have far to go in working out the implications of that faith, but the promise is that God will travel with us. Do we want God as our companion on life’s journey? If we ask ourselves this question perhaps it will help us understand more about our relationship with God - and our calling.

No comments: