John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
At different times in my life I have found some attributes of God more important than others. If I were to ask you to brainstorm a list of the words you most associate with God, I guess we’d cover quite a lot of paper.
Here are just a few of the things about God that have been significant for me at different stages and in the varied circumstances of my life.
· at times God has been like a parent;
· at others like a companion - intimate or close;
· sometimes though, God has been totally other, transcendent, even remote.
· I have known God as loving, as weeping, as causing me to judge myself;
· and equally I have known God as one who carries me along, supporting and sustaining me.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity exists in part because of this variety, in a sense to try and give expression to it, for God is not simple, but is many faceted and complex – a bit like you and me really.
Of course, the doctrine itself is couched in the language of the philosophy of the third, fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, and seeks to express in concept and in metaphor, in words that have changed their meaning subtly or significantly over the centuries – both in the original languages and in translation – a mystery. Which is why you’ve heard all those sermons about interlocking squares, circles and triangles; or shamrocks; or three pin plugs; or water, steam and ice. All attempts to explain a mystery. And what is a mystery? Well, perhaps it’s not something we don’t understand, so much as something that the more you explore the more you discover there is to explore.
This is what Isaiah is grappling with:
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counsellor has instructed him?
Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
This is also, of course, what Job explored; and the great justification of God with which that fascinating and troubling book ends is not an intellectually satisfactory point by point explanation of all Job’s woes but an account ‘out of the whirlwind’ of the majesty and creativity of God, which silences Job and results in his repentance before the sublime mystery of the creator of all things.
Not that our intellectual curiosity, our desire to understand as much as we can of God, is necessarily bad. But it can lead us into arid valleys and deflect us from the sense of mystery. So rather than struggle with the intellectual puzzle today, let’s simply concentrate on three things, because thinking about God isn’t the only, or the best, way to know God.
Firstly, learn to live with, love, and enjoy the mystery. Learn to let go of the rationalism sometimes and to be enfolded in something which we can know but cannot always explain, something we can sense in all sorts of ways, but recognise and accept as not being in our control. For who has directed the spirit of the Lord? Enjoying the mystery sounds a wee bit hedonistic, and of course religion’s not about enjoying ourselves, is it? Well, that’s another thing to learn to let go of.
But the enjoyment in learning to love the mystery of God is the enjoyment that comes with forgetting ourselves, losing ourselves in someone else – a bit like those moments of being in love when we so utterly give ourselves to the loved one that it is only later that we realise that for a time or a moment we had lost ourselves; or like the first few days of amazement and tender love of parents for their newborn baby Of course, sometimes experiencing the mystery of God is so awesome and overwhelming that it lands us on our penitential knees; but it can also gather us up and wrap us around with the mystery that is the creative, redeeming, sustaining source of all that is.
Secondly, remember that though we rightly struggle with proper understanding, in the end, our understanding is not what God is worried about. What God seems to require is that we accept the gifts of grace, love and fellowship which God the Trinity offers us. These are the gifts which mean we don’t have to prove our faith or our intelligence or be able to write a treatise on the nature of God. We simply have to accept God’s grace.
Thirdly, recognise that though we only see through a glass darkly and, as humans have an imperfect relationship with God – nevertheless we do know quite a lot about the nature of God and have experienced some of the layers of the mystery because God has revealed Godself to us in many ways – in creation, in scripture, in Jesus and through the Spirit. And recognising this, make use of these ways into God so that God can make ways into us and through us to others.
At the end of his gospel, Matthew has Jesus addressing these words to the disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
This Great Commission, as it is known, is given not because the disciples were knowledgeable, intellectual, and had their doctrine sewn up. They were called to baptise and preach because they had the honesty to ask questions and make mistakes – remember, even on that mountain, right to the end, some doubted! They were sent because they knew something inside themselves about the nature and the mystery of God and had accepted for themselves the grace, love and fellowship which was offered to them by God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Source of all Being, Eternal Word and sustaining breath of life.
Don’t give up on grappling with the difficult questions; always try to learn more. But in the end it’s the response of the heart to the mystery and grace of God which counts. If you are somebody who primarily thinks about God – then go and feel him, enjoy her. And whatever you do, take hold of grace and go and share the glorious, exciting, loving and lovely mystery of God as a life-changing, life-enhancing, gracious treasure with the people with whom you walk your daily lives.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
I am with you always, to the end of the age.
So may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.