The Living God – Accept no substitutes!
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord . . .’
While Sarah was away, folk may possibly have noticed that I was a little more disconnected than is usual. That’s because I was incredibly busy. In her absence I gave every spare moment I had to writing a book about her. It includes some of her life story told from various angles, some of her funny saying, and some poetry I wrote to her. Of course I didn’t have to stop there in this age of technical magic – I put some photos in there as well. And then I got in touch with Netflix and asked if they could make a movie for me about her life, and having read my book they happily concurred. It was a bit of a rush job and I’ve been sat in front of my screen watching the final edits over and over and am really looking forward to when it’s on general release and I can binge watch over and over and over again. In any spare moments I have now, I go back to the book and re read that over and over . . .
At which point you might gently tap me on the shoulder, or perhaps Sarah herself might and say, excuse me, but I’m here . . . ‘Please don’t disturb me! I’m reading and look at this great movie about you! . . .’ Yes, ,you would think me mad, and rightly so
The other night I stood out in the garden for over an hour observing the near total eclipse of the moon. Others might have stayed in bed and assumed correctly that they would be able to look at the photograph the following morning . . . we live in a world where increasingly we confuse representations for reality. If you ask me to picture The Queen, I find it very hard to get the image of Clare Foy out of my head. The other morning I watched the sunrise and found myself thinking – it’s as beautiful as a watercolor . . . Increasingly surrounded by dead representations we lose touch with LIVING Reality. And this perhaps above all is the reason why the contemporary culture has lost touch with God.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday comes with beartraps for preachers. Notoriously, Vicars decide to take this Sunday off and allow someone else to preach, lest they get caught in their words. Of course one trap is Heresy, that you might say something wrong about God – like for example the clearly heretical statement at the beginning of one of our prayer book liturgies – but the fact that many people think this is the biggest trap is a sign of what I’ve just said. That we have substituted a representation of God, our words about God, for God. The real trap is the delusion that we can substitute words and thoughts about God, for the living and the lived reality of God.
I chose those words carefully and I’ll repeat them ‘The real trap is the delusion that we substitute words and ideas about God, for the living and the lived reality of God’
On December 6th Thomas Aquinas went to mass . . . Thomas was The Great Scholar of the church. He had over the years written perhaps the great systematic theologies, the Summa Theologica. That is what he is remebered for, but were he here today, I wonder if he might be going around saying, No! No! Because on December 6th something happened to Thomas. He came home from Mass and said to his servant ‘all I have written is straw’. He’s been born from above. He had had some kind of experience of God for which all his words were utterly inadequate.
He never wrote another word and died the following March
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
One of the habits I find increasingly difficult is how people say ‘God’ this ‘God’ that, ‘God’ the other, to justify themselves, or in the church a particular policy . . . This is taking the name of the Lord your God in vain, to try to USE God . . . The people of Israel had a not dissimilar practise – they would cry out ‘this is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord . . . Jeremiah 7. They had God contained – they thought they knew what God was about, and he lived in the Temple they had built, against God’s explicit prohibition . . .
Isaiah Sees the Lord – and the bottom edge of his robe fills the entire Temple building – the largest structure anyone in Jerusalem would ever have seen, and the seraphs declare ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts – the whole Earth is full of his glory . . .
To paraphrase St Paul’s letter to the Romans – God is Obvious! Why do you not see him as Isaiah did? Why are you strangers to him, and he to you? Why are you blind? Why do you use God substitutes and then just get on with your lives as if the Living God was somewhere else? Why do you talk about him, in a way you would never talk about a person who was sat in the room with you? Words, words, words . . . “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” As Job says ‘but now my eyes have seen him! I repent myself in dust and ashes
The Christian Life is the Life of God or it is nothing. It is the Lived and living experience of God in the world which cannot be reduced to words. It is not even ‘a faith we live by’ for to reduce it to any kind of formula is to kill the life. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life!
So to come to Paul again – For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. That is the mark of the Christian – not that they ‘live out their faith,’ a way we have come to say, but that they are born of God’s Spirit – and act in accordance with his movements.
Let me give you a simple example of this, which is very clear. As everyone is aware here, I face East during the Great Thanksgiving, and at other points in the service. Why? Because the Spirit of God in me compelled me to. I could do no other. It wasn’t that I had as it were figured out that I had to, rather the other way round. I was racing to keep up with God. My theology had to straighten itself out in the slipstream. I could give you now some reasons, but the danger would be that you might think I had figured it out ahead of time. I rarely if ever figure things out ahead of time and then put them into practise. ‘He does it because he believes this that or the other’
When I was called to ordained ministry I thought it couldn’t be right. Why? Because of my theology
When we were called to New Zealand I came up with loads of really good theological reasons why this couldn’t be right
When I first faced East I did so having for years thought it was theologically wrong, and still wondering, but I could do no other.
Isaiah stands in the Temple and all his God words are dust, straw . . . I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips . . . the letter kills,
but the Spirit give life
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God
For those who Know God – God is their life. That is what it means to call God your father – that you are born of God
And this is for the entire people of God. I was so so dismayed when I received a communication from a member of the clergy which embodied what is called the Spirit of clericalism which is horribly alive in so many ways
The church has a patchy history of caring for its clergy, and burn-out and other health issues too often feature in the lives of passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ
What??? Apart from the huge issue of people getting burnt out following the one who rpomises that if we are with him we will be given rest – whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light . . .
I wonder if you heard that? Were you indignant? I kind of hope so. If I believed for one moment that as a church we thought that the whole people of God were not ‘passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ’, or that somehow I was moreso, I would have to resign my orders. This is precisely what always troubled me about ordination and it does to this day. That it created a ‘passionate and committed class’ amongst the half hearted and patently wobbly laity . . .
Part of the reason for East facing I think, is that the priest should be anonymous – simply one of the people of God oriented towards the life of God coming to us in and through Jesus. Perhaps like one who sees pointing the gaze of others but certainly no more. Anyone who sees God can be a priest
Anyone can be a priest if the Spirit of Christ dwells in them, if they are born again and can See the Kingdom of God. If they have no desire to deal with dead representations of God, with books or movies – because God is Real to them . . . Anyone for whom God is not only a living reality, but their lived reality, Christ in them Alive!
Think for a moment as we close about someone you dearly love. Perhaps they’re sat beside you, perhaps you wish they still did for they have died. If I took them away, or if they had been taken away and I said – ‘don’t worry here’s a book about them’, or ‘here’s a movie we’ve made of their life with an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to them’ Can such a thing subsititute? If that is true for the one you love, how much more true is it for God. Know God, If you Know Jesus – no substitute will do . . .We know we wouldn’t accept a book about a loved one – we know that it is no substitute. Stop accepting substitutes for God
We believe in the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but do not think for a moment that God can be reduced to a formula which the scholars can dissect, for to See him is to die to our own agency and life our own definitions, our theologies lie in the dust. To Know God is to be animated by his life – and the Spirit blows . . . where’er it will – we follow in his slipstream, chasing to catch up.