Sermon: Second Sunday of Epiphany
Sunday 15 January 2017
The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Yesterday morning I cycled round town and found myself exposed to various missionaries and evangelists round the clock-tower. I don’t necessarily mind what the other faith traditions do, I find it amusing to see the Hari Krishnas, but I find the Christian expression acutely embarrassing.
I am sure it is very well meaning, but I it does absolutely nothing for me when people bellow out lots of certainties. My access to faith is a very different one, and probably I need to learn from those who are more outspoken about their faith experience, but I struggle with what it says about God if all is neat and certain.
Today’s readings confront me with people who did manage to speak about their experience of God in such a way, that it made a huge impact on others:
They shared what they knew – each from their own perspective.
John – the prophet – with his own following, his own disciples – he pointed to Jesus and told them, “behold the Lamb of God – who takes away the sin of the world.” Andrew – the fisherman – who at John’s bidding, turned to Jesus and listened to him, he understood immediately that Jesus was special and went and told his brother about him, saying to him – “We have found the Messiah.” John the Baptist and Andrew, and later Simon, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel, John, Luke, Paul, and all the rest, found something, discovered something, knew something, something important to them, and they told others about it. Without them and their willingness to proclaim, and to point out, and to teach and to share Jesus with others, we would not be here today. We need evangelists and missionaries.
But there needs to be a balance here.
Scripture and theology agree that God is in essence unknowable, he is the one who is totally different as St Thomas said, he is the one who is not sufficiently described by any human term or concept. For example the assertion of the 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena wrote: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything [i.e. “not any created thing”]. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” When he says “He is not anything” and “God is not”, Scotus does not mean that there is no God, but that God cannot be said to exist in the way that creation exists, because that God is uncreated. He is trying to express that God is “other”, ‘different’. So the only thing we can really say about God is what he is not: he is not evil, he is not limited, he is not created, he is not defined by space or time, he is not ignorant. If I say something positive about God like God is Wisdom, I arrogantly imply I know what “wisdom” means on a divine scale, whereas I only know what wisdom is believed to mean in a confined cultural context.
This way of speaking about God and being extremely hesitant about making any claim or statement about him which is likely to be too narrow is known as apophatic theology, and in prayer it stresses the importance of simply being in the presence of the unknowable and mysterious: “Be still and know that I am God Psalm 46 says” (Ps. 46.10).
There are two parallel streams in spirituality: one is about knowing God through words, symbols, images. But it always has to be balanced by the apophatic, which is knowing God through absence, silence, darkness and mystery. There are many things about faith and God where language is completely insufficient.
The first question which arises is how can human beings know about a divine being which defies all our human categories?
The answer theology gives is that God has created us in such a way that we are open towards him. He has planted in us an openness towards him and created us in relation to him. We can know him because we are created open towards him. Another big word: that’s called transcendental theology.
So how can I proclaim the God who is essentially hidden, mysterious, unknowable and totally different?
My personal view is that this happens in several steps. If human beings are open towards God then they need to find a place or a situation where this openness, this God shaped hole to put it crudely becomes tangible, uncomfortable or even painful. The proclamation is first to pose the questions so that people search for the answer.
Usually life poses the question, often in very harsh ways. I notice quite regularly how this building works in that way: there is a massive big tomb over there which screams at people that their life is limited, fragile and short. That’s when a conversation may arise. All of us experience moments which draw us to God – I was and am drawn again and again by music and architecture.
If I am asked, I then tend to point people to places where God can be experienced because he himself acts: the unknowable God who defies language can be communicated through the sacraments, through a well-celebrated Eucharist.
In this service God himself acts. I am not here to experience Sunny, Rosy or Neill, however interesting that might be – the reason they are wearing vestments is to hide their individuality and to show that this is an act of God. We don’t publish who presides because it is totally irrelevant.
I couldn’t care less whether it is done in English, German or Latin, but I become very agitated indeed if the only thing I can experience is the person who presides. I hate emotional presidency because it takes away all my own space for experiencing the God who cannot be squeezed into language and form.
There are different forms of mission and evangelism as there are different ways of spirituality, but I think a lot of it is lopsided towards the wordy and certain – there is a lot to be said for silence, to be still and to know that God is God.
I am in the blessed situation that by what I do and what I wear I am a living question mark. People do ask me why I bother with this nonsense when I could do a proper job instead. And that sometimes leads to an interesting conversation.
I am in the blessed situation that I can conduct and plan services which are in itself question marks, which sometimes make people feel, think or cry. I love working in a building which is awe inspiring and poses a question why it is here because without God it is completely useless. And out of the questions may come a need, and out of the need the answer can arise: “We have found the Messiah.”
My guess is that the conversion stories of the Bible are highly condensed and that they summarise a journey. Faith is not a moment in time – it is a journey of a lifetime and beyond. God is greater than our heart, greater than our understanding, and utterly mysterious. If he were not, he wouldn’t be God. I don’t believe that this God can be communicated in words – which is why some of the clock-tower preaching annoys me so much. But I believe he can be communicated by what he does in the next hour.