All Saints Benhilton
30 May 1999
During the first half of the Church's year, from Advent to Pentecost, we follow quite closely the events of our Lord's life from his conception, birth, ministry, baptism, passion and death; about his resurrection on the third day, his ascension into heaven and all culminating last Sunday with Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church
For the next six months, however, we have more freedom to explore particular aspects of the creed, beginning today with the Trinity and the nature of God himself.
It seemed a good idea therefore to use this visit today to look at the sort of language that we use in talking about God.
Anything we say about God has to be expressed in what is called analogical language.
Now don't let the word analogical frighten you. In fact you and I use analogies every day of our life, probably without realising that we do so.
For example, if we say "I see what you mean" to someone who has explained something to us, we are using analogical language, because we don't in fact see anything at all as we normally do, with our eyes. But "seeing what someone means" is rather like "having our eyes opened (that's another analogy we use to mean the same thing).
Or think of an electric circuit. We describe what happens as a current flowing through a lightbulb or a television set to make it work. But electric energy isn't really like water flowing down a pipe at all and in some ways its a thoroughly misleading analogy which if wrongly used might lead us to expect precisely the opposite of what happens in practice. However, since nearly everyone can visualise what water flowing through a pipe is like it's a useful analogy as far as it goes – and someone who knows that "electricity flows something in the way that water does" knows far more than the person who doesn't know what electricity is and doesn't care.
Much the same goes at one level for our understanding of what God is like. The person who "doesn't know and doesn't care" will know far less than the person who has some image of God in his mind, with the proviso that we remember that analogies have their limitations.
So what do we know about God? Well we know that he is a being who reveals himself. And no sooner have we said that than we are into another analogy. For "to reveal" means literally "to take the veil off something" and saying that God reveals himself means that whatever we do discover about God (analogy again – "taking the cover off") will be because it is his will that we should do so.
That's why those people who take an interest in what God has revealed to us stand so much better a chance of discovering yet more, whilst those who "can't be bothered" discover nothing at all. Those are the sort of people who complain that "religion is a bore" – but that's because they're looking at it from the wrong end of a telescope so to speak. You may indeed see something beyond the eyepiece, but the chances are it won't look very interesting. Whereas those who look at God through the telescope of faith, so to speak, find that what they discover becomes a consuming passion for them.
So how has God revealed himself?
Most people when asked that question think immediately of the beauty of creation and all its wonders and diversity. Let's give due weight to that particular approach. By analogy, creation and nature tell us that God is a God of order and not of chaos; that (by analogy) he seems to "appreciate" beauty, and that somehow he must "understand" it or "sustain" it in being.
But that's about all that nature can tell us about God. It tells us nothing about his goodness or badness; it tells us nothing about whether he is in the remotest bit interested in the human race; and it gives no clue whatever as to whether he or it has any purpose, let alone moral purpose in its creation.
So where do we go next from Nature to find out more?
Well, from earliest times there have been a sprinkling of people in the world whose contemporaries have recognized as being special in the sense that they are morally head-and-shoulders above everyone else. There might be nothing remarkable in that any more than some people are more or less tall, more or less healthy than others.
But the really fascinating thing is this: an overwhelming percentage of the morally exceptional attribute their motivation to their belief in some supernatural being or beings. In other words they tell us that their goodness owes its origin to a god or gods who are, in some sense, good as they are good, and that their goodness stems from their relationship with that god and not vice versa. "God doesn't choose us because we are good", they insist. "On the contrary, such goodness as we possess derives from him".
Again, don't forget that we are talking about analogy. The greatest saints who have lived all insist that God's goodness is so far beyond theirs that it's misleading to speak of the two in the same breath; furthermore they would say that whilst God is good through-and-through, their own goodness is compromised by sin.
Nature and the saints are two sources of our knowledge about God. For the next stage we have to look at a particular nation, the Jews, to whom God chose to reveal himself in a way and to an extent that he did to no other.
The Jews' understanding of God laid upon them the serious task of trying to work out how an all-righteous God could possibly relate to a sinful human race.
The answer which they came up with – the whole notion of sacrifice – was partly right and partly mistaken. They thought only in terms of animals, lambs, bulls, heifers, pigeons in connection with sacrifice. That was far nearer the mark, by the way, than the heathen nations round about them who practised human sacrifice; but it still wasn't the full story.
However, in the fullness of time God revealed himself by becoming part of his creation when God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a man in the womb of Mary.
He was born a Jew, amongst Jews, and yet they failed to recognize him. Somehow however that very rejection of him, resulting as it did in his passion and death, turned out to be the very central part of God's revelatory plan, since in suffering as he did, he became the means whereby God reconciled the world to himself. And to complete God's revelation of himself in the work of salvation, his resurrection, ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost are provided us as analogies of the mystery of God.
"Very well", you may say, "so we see that God has provided us with analogies which to a greater or lesser extent fall short of the the real truth. Is there no way, then, by which we can get at the Truth itself?"
The answer is "yes, there is" and it is expressed in the way that we order our worship in the Eucharist.
The first part of the Mass is what's called the Ministry of the Word. It's designed to focus our attention on all the things which God has revealed to us about himself. If we pay no attention to those then it's next to certain that the second part of the Liturgy, the Ministry of the Sacrament, will be nothing more than a meaningless ritual rather in the way that the Jewish sacrifices became because people had stopped learning about God's other ways of revealing himself.
But those for those who are prepared to take the trouble to learn about God, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood become the Real Thing: we get closer to him than anywhere else in the world. In it Christ is present. There we join in his Atoning Sacrifice which he offers for the sins of the world. There God is revealed in his majesty and mercy. There the Holy Spirit kindles in the hearts of faithful people the fire of his love. There for an instant Eternity meets with time, the veil is drawn aside and we behold his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
But the next moment we are back in the created world with all its limitations – but we shall return to it as people who have discovered that everything they have learnt about God by analogy has come to its fulfilment and fruition in what we have learnt about him in reality.
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