A Sermon by the Rev. Canon Douglas E. Williams in St. James’ Anglican Church, Vancouver, BC on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 15, 2004 at High Mass, 10:30 a.m.
From this morning’s Gospel: “Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” 1 For centuries, Christians have taken the words attributed to our Lord by St. John, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” as a starting point. We begin with Jesus, and through him we come to see God. This is a natural starting place. As St. John says earlier in the Gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” 2 As the source of our being—our creator—God is so different from us that, at one level, there is no way that we can experience God directly. All of our senses— sight, touch, taste, and the rest—are designed to experience things inside space and time, which God is not. All of our words have acquired their meanings from things and events inside space and time, which God is not. We cannot experience God directly, and we cannot speak of God directly. So we focus on Jesus, and could hardly do otherwise, as a way of seeing into God. God has chosen not only to create us but to have a relationship with us. How could God better speak to human beings than as a human being? Humanity is what we know best, and God speaks to us in the humanity of Jesus. Jesus is the fullest and most essential way in which God speaks to us. In Jesus, we can most fully see how God is, in relation to us: creative, strengthening, supportive, merciful, forgiving, and loving.
John 14:8-9. John 1:18.
But if we focus exclusively on Jesus, we sometimes end up with a God who is too small: a creative, strengthening, supportive, merciful, forgiving, and loving—human being. Which is all very well. There are certainly few enough of them. But it is not enough. This is one of the reasons that the early Church refused to give up the Old Testament. There are certainly reasons why a Christian might be tempted to do so. As the Hebrews and the Jewish community set down in writing their experience of God and their struggles to understand that experience, faulty human perception sometimes believed that when—as it says—“they put everyone to the sword, men and women, young and old,” 3 they were doing the will of God. But this is not unique to the Old Testament. Christian writings throughout history, right down to our own day, sometimes echo such misperceptions. But the over-arching commentary that is the Old Testament nonetheless reveals a God who is creative, strengthening, supportive, merciful, forgiving, and loving, and on a scale beyond imagination. Take, for instance, God’s creation of the universe. The New Testament seldom refers to it. John, in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, speaks of it. Once. The Letter to the Colossians mentions it. Twice. In Revelation, the hymn of the twenty-four elders surrounding the throne of God refers to God as creator. Otherwise, there is seldom a mention in the New Testament of the creation of the universe. Without the Old Testament, the doctrine of creation would stand on very slim legs indeed. The New Testament mainly assumes it. And on what basis? The Old Testament. And yet the creation is God’s primary—some would say only—relationship with the universe, and therefore with us. It is the Old Testament that puts it right up front. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” 4 And so the story unfolds. Besides the
Joshua 6:21. Genesis 1.1.
opening tale, in the first two chapters of Genesis, the Old Testament is shot through with references to God as the creator. We often miss the significance of creation. First, we think of creation as something that happened a long time ago. But creation is not a once-upon-a-time thing. In the eighteenth century, a favorite approach was to see God as the great watchmaker, who had created the universe in the beginning and set it ticking. And now it ticks on, all on its own, while God is sunning himself somewhere on the Riviera, resting on his laurels. But God does not rest on his laurels. Everything in the universe is continually being created. Every moment of time and all of space, and everything in themâ€”including usâ€”is continually being created by God. If God were to cease creating, for a moment, the universe would wink out. The only reason that you are sitting in these pews at the moment is because right now God is creating you, and the pews, and this building, and Vancouver, and the planet Earth. Right now. The second reason that we often miss the significance of the creation is that we think of existence as the normal state of things. Everything exists. You can make a big deal of things by putting out a lot of energy. You can destroy a lot of things by putting out a lot of energy. But existing? That just is, so we think. But that is not the way it is. Think of the energy you put out doing things: moving a heavy trunk from one place to another; climbing the Grouse Grind; cleaning out the front hall closet. Think of the energy you put out keeping your children alive and well, or your pets, your aging parents, or your invalid brother. All of that energy just to move things around or to keep things going. Then think of the energy it must take to keep all of this in existence at all. The normal state of things is not existence; the normal state of things is empty nothing. If you think it takes energy to move a piano across the room, think of the energy it takes to keep the piano in existence at all.
And what is creation? Very simply, it is God’s loving that which has no existence apart from God’s loving it. You exist because God loves you; if God’s love failed for an instant, you would not exist. God is creating, even now, “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, … this fragile earth, our island home” 5, and us. Here and now. I always think, as I come to Mass, how small and puny we are, to attempt to offer worship to that God. And yet how amazing it is that God, even while continuing to create a universe, receives that worship and offers us even more in return. The Old Testament shows us God as creator. Reflection shows us what an infinitely powerful act creation is. By taking our eyes off Jesus for a moment and looking at the Old Testament background, we can come to a whole new appreciation of the fact that in Jesus God has entered human reality. When we come back to focus on Jesus, we do not end up with a God who is too small. We end up with a Jesus who is almost too large. But besides enhancing the Christian’s understanding of the significance of the incarnation of God in Jesus, there is another reason for occasionally focusing directly on God. Such a focus can open up positive possibilities in our relationships with the Jewish community and with Islam, and with other communities as well. Christians believe that the Messiah has come and that the Messiah—Jesus—is the personal presence of God in human reality; Jews do not believe this. This difference is not insignificant; it can make a great deal of difference in people’s lives. Nevertheless, the God whom Christians and Jews worship is the same God. The name “Allah” is not the name of a God foreign to Christians. The name means simply “the God” in Arabic, and is used not only by Muslims, but also by Arabic Christians, as a 5
The Book of Alternative Services, 201.
name for God. Christians believe that God has become manifest in a human life—in Jesus; Muslims do not believe that such a thing is possible. Muslims believe that the fullest revelation of God has come through the Prophet; Christians do not believe this. These differences are not insignificant; they can also make a great deal of difference in people’s lives. Nevertheless, the God whom Christians and Muslims worship is the same God. I am not advocating that we ignore or downplay Jesus. But in a society in which different religious traditions live side-by-side, it might be well to re-discover what—or, rather, who—we have in common. Jesus is a teacher, a healer, a compassionate human being. But most of all he is a window into God. Let us, by all means, focus on Jesus; but let us always look for the one who shines forth from him. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, said Jesus. Let us make sure, in our own relationship with him, that we do, indeed, seek the Father.