On Thursday we celebrate forty days after the resurrection of Jesus, and the event called the Ascension. For those first forty days, Jesus spent time with his disciples teaching them; almost certainly he went over lessons he had taught them before, but which they had not been in a position to understand until they experienced the wonder, the miracle of his resurrection from the dead. It was a process that would continue to the present day, as each generation has sought to come to terms with the reality of Christ’s presence with us.
Jesus said that we would not be alone in this endeavour. After he had returned to the Father, God would send to us another just like him, but with one important difference – he would not be limited by having a body. He would send the Holy Spirit who would reveal to each of us, from the inside, the reality and the love of God, to all who would accept him.
In the past weeks we have looked at the difference that Jesus, risen from the dead, can and should make in our lives. Two weeks ago we looked at the life of the church, last week we looked at how we need never fear death again, because Jesus is risen. And today I want to look at a subject that many find troubling. How can we know God? What certainty is there?
Allied to that is another question. I have a friend who is a vicar who is deeply troubled about baptising infants. So often parents appear who ask for their child to be ‘done’, who are happy to go through the outer forms of religion, and yet do not seem to connect with the inner reality of the words they have said. Would it not be better to only baptise those who are old enough to fully comprehend what they are saying and doing in being baptised?
It is undeniable that baptising children, christening them, has been part of our culture for generations. If every family who had a child baptised here kept coming regularly to share in our worship and communal life, we would have space problems (but I would not be troubled by that!). We pray for each family we baptise, and invite them back, but it does seem that their understanding of what we are about is different from ours.
But that is a potential situation that we face with every person who walks through the door. Each of us here is on a pilgrimage through life, exploring what we believe. As you sit there, you may have very different views about who God is, how we should respond to him, how to make sense of the events that have taken place in our lives already.
The good news is that it is not my job to control what you think or believe. Which is good news for me, because I do not have that power, and good news for you as you try to make sense of it all.
What we can all do together is accompany each other on the journey and seek to make connections and share any insights we have picked up on the way.
We see some of this in the way that the apostle Paul got on in Athens. After being persecuted and threatened in other parts of Greece, he has been sent to the capital and told to lie low. He has wandered around looking at the statues and idols, and realised that here is a culture that has a lot of religion, but they do not know God. He goes to their equivalent of Hyde Park Corner and is invited to speak to them about what he believes.
He picks up on the variety of different worships going on – the Athenians would like to know God, but do not know how. Having erected altars to all the obvious gods, they also have one TO AN UNKNOWN GOD, just in case they have missed one out.
Well, Paul says, this is the god I have come to tell you about. He is the one who created the whole world, and each and every one of us. This is the God of all peoples, the God not distant from any of us, the divine being present to all. He then quotes Aratus, a pagan poet, from his poem Phaenomena, written about 270 BC in Athens. “In, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being: for we are his family.” It’s as if I started to quote Leonard Cohen to talk about God. The point Paul is making is that God reaches out to every one of us, and that all human experience, all culture can be a doorway to know God.
But, and it is a big but, we are not given freedom to imagine God just as we would like him to be. We cannot just choose the God we want. Some might like him as a metal statue safely locked away in a temple, but he is greater than that. The challenge is rather for us to be as he would like us to be. God reaches out in love to every person, but this not mean that religion is reduced to the lowest common denominator of what we can all agree on. One day we will each be called to give an account of ourselves, to be judged according to the standard set by the one whom God has raised from the dead, Jesus.
The question is therefore not “Will God reveal himself to us?”, but rather, how will we respond to the fact that he is already doing so? For some, the wonders of creation give an inkling of the divine. For others, it is art. For others, it is the message preached about Jesus. But in every case, it is the Spirit of God working within us unseen, and we can choose to cooperate with him, or not.
It is that cooperation with God, which leads us to make sense of him and his message of love and reconciliation. Jesus says that if we love him, return his love, and keep his commandments, which are chiefly to love, then our Father God will give us another Counsellor or Comforter, the Holy Spirit of truth. In John chapter one, we are told that some would not receive Jesus, but to all who do receive him, he gives the power to become children of God. Here Jesus tells us that there are some who choose to inhabit a rival authority structure, the world, because they are not “tuned in” to the Spirit.
How can we respond in a positive manner to God’s invitation to know him and love him?
First, you have to want to. God would never force himself upon us. In principle, each of us needs to be open to at least consider the possibility that God loves us, and wants the best for us. We can explore, learn, debate, doubt, but above all risk getting to know God.
Second, you do not have to do this alone. A bit like singing in church, it is actually easier if we do it in a group with others. They may seem more familiar with the tune than we are, or at least more confident in their mistakes, but we can let ourselves go if the people around us are joining in. So, for you to seek after God on your own in private is absolutely your privilege. But you may very well find that you make more progress if you share the process with others. You may also find that you are a blessing and a help to someone alongside you.
Third, trust Jesus to help you by his Spirit. He is the one who will give understanding, and insight. He will help you forgive yourself when you get it wrong, as you inevitably will. He will give you confidence to share God’s love with those around you. When parents and Godparents make promises on behalf of a child, or when any of us commit ourselves to be disciples and servants of God, we can only do so by trusting in the mercy and power of God to help us and make it possible.
Questions for Discussion
The wonders of creation. The good news about Jesus in the bible. Experiences of worship. What have been the doorways for you encounter God?
St Michael’s has a Purpose Statement: To Encounter God and Grow in Him. What examples can you give of things that have helped you to encounter God?
Do you prefer to explore these things alone or with others?
What are your hopes and fears about the journey?