Sermon by Fr James Heard at St George's Church, Sunday 8th May, Easter 7 with Ascension Celebration

Sermon by Fr James Heard at St George's Church, Sunday 8th May, Easter 7 with Ascension Celebration

What would you say to someone if they asked you, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I wonder how you might respond. At first glance, such a question requires a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. ‘Yes I do’, ‘no I don’t’, or ‘it depends on the day or week’. The former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, suggests one response that I’ve found helpful. What do you mean by the word ‘God’. The word ‘god’ can be loaded with all manner of ideas, many of them quite awful: jealous, petty, vindictive, angry, intolerant, to name just a few. When I hear new atheists describing this sort of god, I want to affirm that I don’t believe in that sort of god either. This raises a further question: how might we describe God?

We started our United Tuesdays course on the Christian Mystics two weeks ago. One of the important themes that recurs throughout the centuries in Christian thought is the mystery and essentially ‘unknowability’ of God. Of course, being human, we can’t help use what we have, words, metaphor, art, music, at an attempt to understand by mystery of existence. But God is beyond any human concept, beyond words, beyond pictures. God is the love that is to be experienced, not the God that is open for a scientist to, as it were, test and dissect as one thing amongst other things in the universe.

One way this has been articulated is through apophatic theology. Apophatic is the grand word for ‘negative theology’. It isn’t possible to express the essence of God, to say what God is, because he (note the personal pronoun ‘he’… of course, God is not a he or a she, but we don’t want say the impersonal ‘it’, so we have tended to use ‘he’). God is mystery beyond understanding and we can only really say what he is not. This is how one of the early church fathers describes it, Clement of Alexandria:

‘[God] is ineffable, beyond all speech, beyond every concept, beyond every thought. God is not in space, but above both place and time and name and thought. God is without limits, without form, without name. He is anonymous.’

Perhaps, like me, you find this approach appealing. It has been recognized throughout the world, and can be found in Sufi mysticism as well as Zen Buddhism. But it also makes many people rather uneasy. One commentator (Thomas Biggs) says that Clement has made God the everlasting ‘no’, and has through the process of stripping and abstraction, ended up not with God but with nothing at all.

In response to such critique, it is possible to reflect upon two images, the onion and the statue. Is the process of stripping away like removing one skin after another from an onion? If it is, then you’ll eventually, as you peel one layer after another, end up with no onion at all. Or does the apophatic approach more resemble the action of a sculptor chipping away the stone of a block of marble so that the latent image gradually emerges. The sculptor chips away at the stone, a negative action, but its aim is positive, to reveal the form within.

This is what the apophatic approach is attempting, chipping away our human ideas about God. And then, slowly there will emerge before us, by God’s grace, true vision of what God actually is. But this is something we can’t express in words. And so we are left, not with an absence, but with a presence.

That’s the first dimension, the essential otherness and unknowability of God. Clement then goes on to give a distinctive Christian perspective in his stress on the incarnation. The unknown God makes himself known to us in Jesus Christ. This sort of counter-balances the negative way, although even within the incarnation, there is the sense of beyond, the sense of mystery, the sense of wonder (Kallistos Ware).

Through the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the disciples lives had been turned upside down. They had experienced the presence of God in the person of Jesus, a person completely transparent to the very being of God. A person who challenged injustice and hypocrisy; who touched ritually impure lepers; who brought God’s healing touch to the sick and those of unsound mind; he absorbed the anger, violence and hatred of the world and responded with self-giving love. All this they had seen and participated in. But from the Ascension, which we have celebrated this week, things are going to be different, uncomfortably different, for the disciples.

This unknowable God, having briefly become present, withdraws again, and the disciples are left alone. Or did he withdraw? And are the disciples left alone? Well, Jesus certainly withdraws physically: he is no longer physically present to the disciples, nor is he to us. And, despite artistic representations, God is not ‘up there’.

A man in white, the astronaut Yuri Gagarin, reportedly said: ‘I went up to space, but I didn't encounter God.’ But had he listened to the two men in white who spoke to the men of Galilee, he could have saved himself the trouble of seeking God up in space. ‘Why do you stand looking [up] into heaven?’ (Acts 1:11). We won’t find God down in the grave nor up in the skies. Whilst Jesus is beyond the perceptivity of our senses, this doesn’t mean that God is thus absent or non-existent, as Gagarin supposed.

Because in the person of Jesus Christ, everything has changed. Heaven and earth united, the physical and non-physical is transcended, inner and outer are interfused. God is all around us. At Pentecost the disciples encountered God all around them: fire, wind, God’s Holy Spirit bubbling up, not only around them, but within them. And we may experience the Spirit too. But that’s a sermon for Pentecost.

So, whilst many have had profound experiences of God, a strong sense of God’s presence, whilst acknowledging all this, many Christians throughout the centuries have also described how they also have experienced a disturbing sense of the absence of God. It’s when prayers feel empty, or as RS Thomas describes it, ‘Prayers like gravel / Flung at the sky’s /window, hoping to attract / the loved one’s/ attention’. It’s when Church feels like an empty meaningless ritual.

In our journey towards the experiential oneness with God, described in our Gospel reading, we will encounter seasons of darkness. John Bunyon described the challenging and varied path of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. During these seasons, God is teaching us to walk by faith and not by feelings or sight. The mystics suggest that in these ‘night seasons’, God initiates a purging, a cleansing and a purifying of our souls from everything that’s not of faith. Such times become our own Gethsemane.

In conclusion, how might we bring these thoughts together for our journey of faith today: holding together God’s absence as well as presence? During Holy Week our speaker, Carys Walsh, reflected on the poetry of RS Thomas, a remarkable Welsh priest and poet. His gift was to reveal a richness and depth to our life of faith. Thomas, in his life of faith, allowed a sense both of God’s absence as well as presence. He made space for the human experience of faith, recognizing it as often ambivalent, and all the richer for it. His gift was poetry which could hold faith, doubt, tension, darkness, pain, acceptance, uncertainty and expectancy. RS Thomas is the story of a questing soul, never satisfied with easy answers, constantly questioning God’s way with humankind, and our struggle to know a God at once loving and intimate, but also mysteriously other and distant.

The reason Thomas is content to call himself a Christian is because the Christian belief that God has taken suffering into himself is the most profound and satisfactory answer to the great problem of suffering. This is expressed in this poem, which I shall with:

The Coming
    And God held in his hand
    A small globe. Look he said.
    The son looked. Far off,
    As through water, he saw
    A scorched land of fierce
    Colour. The light burned
    There; crusted buildings
    Cast their shadows: a bright
    Serpent, A river
    Uncoiled itself, radiant
    With slime.
    On a bare
    Hill a bare tree saddened
    The sky. many People
    Held out their thin arms
    To it, as though waiting
    For a vanished April
    To return to its crossed
    Boughs. The son watched
    Them. Let me go there, he said.