In recent weeks, I’ve asked us to consider whether we have our notion of God, remotely, right? I’ve suggested that the startling thing about Jesus is that he asks us to forget everything we ever thought we knew about God and simply look at him. As John’s Gospel tells us, “No one has ever seen God, the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known”. In short, his whole life, his death, resurrection and ascension are absolutely everything we need.
And not only is Jesus the revelation of God he is also the active agent of God. He is the one who, as Paul says, “reconciles the world to himself”. Something very significant has been done for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves!
So, I’ve put it to you that if the way of faith sometimes seems somewhat dry and lifeless; it’s often because we haven’t started here, with Jesus. As I explained, we’ve come along with a whole range of pictures of God and if Jesus figures at all then he’s expected to fit in with them. This is why certain unfortunate phrases easily trip of our tongue. I mean, how often our perspective on faith is “It doesn’t meet my needs” or “I didn’t get anything out of it” isn’t it?
And this isn’t just consumerism masquerading as faith it would seem that as far as we’re concerned, the whole point of having God is to make my life turn out right. But we’ve put ourselves at the centre. And if this God doesn’t, fit in with our perspective and understanding of how my lived reality is going then I’ll take my business elsewhere, thank you very much.
Now, I exaggerate for effect but this is essentially the game we find ourselves playing. And so last week I suggested that the writer of Psalm 139 gets things the right way around. When we pause with those words: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me” we realise that God is not a ‘problem’ to be solved. No, what’s at stake is not our belief in God so much as God’s belief in us. The Christian is one who is simply open to the foundational truth that we are created, loved into being, addressed and called into a non-anxious loving response.
This is one of the reasons why we have those four Gospels. This is one of the reasons why people will often tell you that the ‘model’ or template for what a Christian, looks like is the disciple. Because it’s in the disciples that we see what it’s like to engage with the God made known in Christ. I mean, if we look at their experience, we see people who are, on the one hand intrigued, fascinated, excited and frankly, bowled over by Jesus and the things that he says and does. That’s an authentic experience of God. But on the other hand, they are also startled, perplexed and outraged by him. He says and does things that puzzle and amaze them. He doesn’t dance to their tune. This too, the Gospels tell us, is what it’s like to be drawn into his friendship.
It’s illustrated beautifully again, in John’s Gospel, at the point where Jesus has outraged everyone by telling them that have to eat his flesh; “I am the bread of life”. Hundreds of them walk away in disgust and Jesus turns to the twelve and says, “Are you going to leave as well?” And Peter says, “Lord to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life?” You have to be able to feel the ‘heart’ behind that particular remark. They have left everything. Banked everything on Jesus and his vision of life. They can’t live with him; they can’t live without him, it would seem.
And so it begs the question, when the lumps and bumps come along; are we going to throw a pity-party and claim that “I never bargained for this?” or will we continue to trust that he is the real deal? Yes, but we “just want a bit of peace”, we say. But did you notice that tantalising promise in today’s Gospel? Jesus tells us: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives”.
When I was about seventeen, I got involved with my local Church youth group. I’d had little to do with Church until that point but one day around that time, I bought a book which has proved foundational for me. The title says it all. It’s called “Yes to God”. The heart of what I’m trying to convey is an invitation to get off our pedestal. To see things from another perspective.
Somebody said, “You have to learn to let go of the ‘ego-drama’ and see yourself as one who is caught up in the ‘Theo-drama’”… the story of what God is doing. Or, to put it more bluntly, your life is not about you but about what God desires to give you and to do in and through you. So, the point is making every day a “Yes” to that. A “Yes” to the movements in and around us of the one Jesus promises will be with us; the Holy Spirit. Today, Jesus tells us that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
You see, just as last week I suggested that (perhaps contrary to what we might imagine) the important thing to note is not so much that we know God but that God knows us. So, in the same way, we have to learn that the prime mover in the life of faith is not us but the living God.
Earlier this week I was involved in thinking about the programme of courses and other things we’ll be hosting at Rydal Hall in the coming year. By coincidence, so to speak, I came across an article in the Church press which was reporting on what other similar places are doing just now. Now, interestingly, the theme running through all of them was ‘self’. I was told about a whole range of new-fangled Courses designed to get people in touch with their true ‘selves’; days and weeks focussing on ‘self’-improvement or becoming their best ‘self’.
Now this is hardly surprising with so much (appropriate) focus these days on mental health and well-being; so, don’t misunderstand me. But my hobbyhorse is that this stuff, this nonsense masquerades as “spirituality”. But this stuff, this nonsense is actually, just another iteration of the ego-drama. Me. Me. Me.
And it’s such a far cry from the radical words of Paul: “You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God”. Or “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”. But such radical humility is hard because, as I say we have become adept at using ‘God’ for our own purposes rather than surrendering to his.
You might like to spend some time pondering today’s Old Testament reading. We heard about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley littered with bones. It was a national tragedy; a defeat in battle so bitter and devastating that no one was left to bury the dead. But it was also a deeply moving metaphor, for how God’s people experienced life. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
But into this tragic scene comes the breath of God’s Spirit. Indeed, breath and breathing are perhaps a helpful analogy. After all, we all, I suspect, (to a greater or lesser extent) understand the sensation of being able to breathe freely and easily but equally how constrained and limited we can feel when ‘shortness’ of breath takes over? Well, maybe we will inevitably experience faith as a rather laboured and ‘breathless’ affair for as long as we think the onus is on us; and for as long as we ascribe to the “God helps those who help themselves” mantra.
Words that don’t appear in Scripture at all by the way; and they misrepresent our God entirely. No, our God helps those who cannot help themselves. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” says Paul. No, we might actually say that a moment of ‘helplessness’ is almost a precondition for faith. Just as the Lord says to Ezekiel, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ and he answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ So perhaps we also need to pray with those “God only knows” moments? Paradoxically, it might be then, that we are at our strongest because we let our God have his way. The message of the Easter season is that resurrection begins now…..
Archbishop Michael Ramsay put it this way: “(Resurrection) was a mighty act of God. That is the emphasis. When things are down and out, God acts. It is this, which colours the whole Christian idea of faith. Beyond hope and calculation, something happens. It is this too which colours the Christian idea of the spiritual life. You do not consciously grow better and better. You find yourself down and out in penitence and the confession of guilt and failure. (But) God acts and the self who was broken is the self, restored, with a new centre that the self could not devise.”