Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Being Present to the Presence of God (Revd Neville Watson) 27.4.2008
Readings: 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:15-21

It’s taken me seventy years or so but I think I am starting to see what the Christian faith is all about, why the Church is dying and what we should do about it. It may take more than ten minutes to explain it but if I can’t give you a rough idea in that time the idea probably isn’t worth much anyway.

My starting point is a statement by James Lovelock – the brilliant scientist whom we considered at our First Sunday Forum. ‘It is time that theologians shared with scientists their wonderful word ‘ineffable’, a word that expresses the thought that God is immanent but unknowable’. In response to this I want to make three points:

(1) Firstly, God is by definition formless. When we speak of God we can only speak in metaphors. The only way we can speak of God is in terms of what God is like. To do this we use a metaphor, a word picture.

Now the thing about metaphors is that the speaker and the hearer be able to share the picture, the experience, being presented as a metaphor. If they don’t then there will be no communication. The phrase ‘the blood of the lamb’ may well have meant something at the time when animals were sacrificed in worship. Today it means little. As John Carroll bluntly puts it ‘The waning of Christianity in the west is easy to explain. The Christian Churches have comprehensively failed in their central task: to retell their foundation story in a way that might speak to their times’. We cannot allow ourselves to be imprisoned by doctrines and concepts that were found in a completely different kind of world to that which we know today. ‘The world in which these explanations were developed has died and so have the explanations.’

Point One. We need to update our metaphors of God

(2) Secondly, we must ‘surgically separate the experience from the explanation’. These are Bishop Spong’s words and he is very strong on this. ‘It is the validity of…experience and not the way it has been explained, that is, I believe the irreducible basis on which the future of Christianity rests….. The distinction must be grasped between an experience of God, which I regard as both real and timeless, and any subsequent human explanation of that God experience which is always compromised and transitory. In our generation it is our God explanations that have become bankrupt, not the primary experience which called these explanations into being.’

Second point: it is the experience of God, not the description that is all important.

(3) Thirdly, the question then becomes how do we express the Christian faith today – remembering that it is about experience rather than explanation? I have the feeling (an interesting phrase in itself!) that we must immediately stop thinking of God as a being who invades our world to accomplish his purpose. Paul Tillich gives us a lead when he speaks of God as ‘the ground of our being’- God present in the being of everything. It is the experiencing of God that is the issue. Jesus then becomes ‘a defining life in the divine human encounter…. a way to experience the God presence that surrounds us’. Jesus is about the immediacy of God. As Tolstoy says in his classic War and Peace: ‘Life is God. Everything changes and moves to and fro, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the Godhead. To love life is to love God.’ – which is very close to my current metaphor for God: ‘The life force within and among us seeking to bring peace, love and fullness of life to us and our world’.

Let me now spell this out in the light of the scripture passage we just read and Tolstoy’s phrase ‘joy in the consciousness of God’.

"Consciousness" is the in word at the moment and a question that has come to some of us of late is "Does consciousness survive death?" The answer of course depends on what you mean by "consciousness". Some scientists like Nicholas Humphrey say that consciousness is the brain reacting to stimuli: seeing red, wriggling to the stimuli of salt etc. He sees consciousness as the brain asking the question "What is going on?" If this is so then obviously consciousness does not survive after death.

Others say that this is too simplistic. Science deals with facts. What I am thinking now is not a fact. The subjective side of us is not a fact and I was interested to hear the eminent scientist Charles Birch say that for him the most important thing is his feelings; the feelings he had in the past, the feelings he has now and the feelings he is anticipating the future. He maintains that to deal with the subjective side of life you need to be a philosopher of some sort. He is very critical of scientists ‘who think about their subject as bank clerks think about theirs’. And then he says something that I think is of huge importance – and the point of what I am trying to say today. ‘God only works through subjectivity’, that is, religious faith is not believing certain things about God. It is experiencing the nearness of God.

This is what our scripture passage is trying to get over. ‘The Spirit of truth dwells with you and will be in you. You in me and I in you. The world neither sees nor knows the Spirit of Truth but you know him.’ ‘How come,’ says one of the disciples, ‘you disclose yourself to us and not to the world?’ ‘Anyone who loves me will heed what I say. Then my Father will love him and we will make our dwelling in him’. Let me say it again. It is so important. Religious faith is not believing certain things about God. It is experiencing the nearness or the absence of God.

This is what Dawkins and the other militant atheists fail to recognise. They see God in terms of intervening in the world, controlling the world, an all powerful God who is responsible for all that goes on in the world, tsunamis and all! Dawkins and Co attack the fundamentalist God – and I have no problem with that. Many of us have been doing that for longer than they have! But when it comes to a God who works through personal relationships they have nothing to say. They may well attack the idea of God making the world in seven days – that is well within their terms of reference and all strength to their arm. In so doing they are attacking an understanding of creation that has been rejected by many of us for centuries. Creation is not a thing of the past. It is ongoing. The future is open. The so called Kingdom of God, the kind of world that God wants, is present, is at hand, but it lies in the future and depends upon the responsiveness and creativity of humans for its fulfilment.

I recognise, of course, that everyone will not agree with me – and that’s OK. I can do nothing more than present how I see things. But if you say, ‘The Bible doesn’t agree with you’, watch out! It is full of the ‘experience not belief’ idea. We cannot let the bible do our thinking for us but we must not disregard the issues put before us in the bible. The bible remains our sacred text and we disregard it at our peril. What I am suggesting this morning is that the bible is about experiencing God rather than defining God.

Let me give you some instances of this ‘experience not belief’, or ‘nearness of God’ idea. The Old Testament has a number of motifs along this line.

Think for a moment of the word ‘Ruarch’. This word translates as ‘wind’ ‘breath’, or ‘spirit’. We cannot see the wind but can experience its presence. Life began for the Hebrews when a baby took its first breath, and ended when they ceased breathing. Life was in the breath, the presence of God. The idea of the Word is ‘the communicating breath of God.’ Ruarch is the wind, the breath, the Spirit of God that permeates our world, unseen but known by its effects.

This concept of the presence of God reaches its fulfilment in the New Testament where the nearness of God takes a personal form in Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament is full of this idea of relating to the presence of God - not only in passages like the one set for today but in others like the vine and the branches with its ‘abide in me and I in you’. The first commandment is in effect a direction to relate to the presence of God.

What is the point I am trying to make? It is that the Christian faith is not about believing things about God. It is relating to the presence of God. The Christian faith is about experiencing God rather than defining God

As I mentioned earlier, in the middle of the last century there was a theologian who picked up this idea of responding to the presence or the absence of God. His name was Paul Tillich, a man who is sometimes described as an ‘experiential’ theologian. Tillich’s basic idea was that we are more than the circumstances into which we were born. He distinguished between ‘existence’ and ‘essence’. We experience God at the heart of our existence and we are called to become who we really are. The names of his books are very expressive. The New Being’, ‘The Courage to Be’. God is not an optional extra to our lives. God is ‘the ground of our being’ and we are called to become who we really are.

At the present time there is a writer who picks up this idea of responding to the presence of God, of experiencing God rather than trying to define God. Her name is Val Webb. She insists on the ‘formlessness’ of God and her latest book has the intriguing title ‘Like catching water in a net’. She maintains that ‘we have become so saturated with Divine images of a being separate from us with human characteristics and feelings that for most of us it is almost impossible for us to think of God apart from this’. She picks up Hildegaard’s ‘Feathers on the Breath of God’ and speaks of God as ‘the wind under our wings’. It is a superb metaphor and for me far more meaningful than ‘the ground of our being’.

So what is all this about? I simply return to the statement with which I started.

The Christian faith is not understanding things about God. It is not believing things about God. It is relating to the presence of God. It is being present to the presence of God.

I finish with a story I heard years ago, and incidentally which is in Val Webb’s book. The peasant used to go into the Church for about an hour every day. One day the Priest said to him. ‘What do you do in there? Is something troubling you, my son?’ to which the Peasant replied. ‘Nah, ev’ryfing is foine. Oi just sits wi’ im and ‘e sits wi me and we are "appy".

And from that relationship, from that experience, everything else flows.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands