Sermon by David Shepherd, October 1995.
Still looking for America?
One of the most disputed facts in history is whether Christopher Columbus discovered America. Some say he did; others claim the Vikings — or even St Brendan — got there first. But whether he made it or not, the fact remains that the part of America he discovered was infinitesimally small — no more than a few square miles. Just a mere corner. There was an awful lot of America that Christopher Columbus didn't discover.
Even today, when a modem traveller can see so much more, a package holiday or even a Greyhound bus gives us no more than a series of snapshots of New York, Washington, Dallas, the Rockies, San Francisco. What we see is merely the fleeting impressions of people passing through. Four hundred years on, it would still be a brave man who could really claim to know America.
This is my starting point when I try to explain the mystery of the Trinity. We are talking about God — but it is a God that even the cleverest theologian scarcely begins to know. When you think of the vastness of the mind that created the Universe — everything from the big bang to a primrose, or an amoeba to a pit bull terrier, it is inevitably far beyond the ken of mortal men.
To say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is fine as far as it goes. But that is only as far as our experience takes us. Only as far as God has been revealed. To say that God is only the Holy Trinity is for some people a very blinkered statement.
I am sure there is much, much more to God. But he remains immortal, invisible and largely unknown. He prefers it that way. He likes to keep us guessing. He has a great sense of humour.
If God were not so important, it might be better to ignore him. To say — as some people say about America — that it would have been a lot better if Christopher Columbus had left it the way it was. Undiscovered! But whilst America is a 'thing', God is a person. And human experience has shown that, in a variety of different ways, God is seeking to establish a personal relationship with each member of the human race — not by pushing himself forward — not by treating us like puppets; but by so exercising our imagination and faith, that we begin to want to discover him. However impossible the task, we set foot on one corner of the divine continent.
Different parts attract different people. Those who like trees, hills, skies, rivers, animals and nature latch on to God as Creator. As Joseph Addison's hymn says:
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator's power display,
and publishes to every land,
the works of an almighty hand.
That part of God's creative power is there for everyone to see. It can be enjoyed, explored, developed and understood. Through it, the nature of God can be perceived. But it is only a front window. It is the easiest way in to the mystery.
Those who are inspired to create themselves, discover a different aspect of God. The Spirit who gives gifts to men and women. Gifts that range from music and writing, to inventions and theories, wisdom in its most brilliant forms. The talent to make things work. The power to speak, to think, to be able to listen, to manage, to teach, to administer. So many millions of gifts given to us all. Where do they come from? What are they all for? Why was that gift given to her? Why has my gift been given to me? Exploring the gifts of the Spirit leads us directly to the Giver; raising the question of why he should wish to dispense these gifts to us. For what purpose? Once again, we are led deeper and further into that continent of brightness and light.
Understanding Jesus is perhaps the hardest way up the mountain. At first sight, it seems easy. After all, we know what a baby is like; we can put ourselves in the disciples' place. We can hear the words of Jesus; we can look over their shoulders and watch the healings and the miracles (even if we don't quite understand how they were done). It is just about possible to see Jesus. And yet, who is this Jesus? Is he God; or is he Man? In what way do the two come together? It was precisely this question which troubled the Early Church and caused them years of disagreement and division as they tried to put together the Creeds — those statements which enshrine our beliefs. How could God become less than God?
What sort of God is it who wants to suffer and die? To be on the receiving end of creation — rather than the giving end? How can we begin to understand a God who wants to lift sinful men up to Paradise — to be with him for ever — to share his presence for eternity? Why choose us?
We know from our experience that each of us is built up from many different facets. We can be a computer engineer, a keen bowler, a husband, a father and perhaps at the same time be a nonstipendiary priest. In each facet, we show ourselves to others in different ways. And yet, we retain an inner unity. Which is the real man or woman? Is it one part? Or is it all of us?
Very often, when I am preparing for a funeral, I discover so much more about the person who has died than I ever knew in his or her lifetime. Lots of little pictures that do not always add up. There is so much more to every human being than we realize. Each one of us is a Trinity of persons dwelling under the same roof.
Presumably, that is what the book of Genesis means when it says that God created us in his own image. It does not mean that God looks like us — although, in Jesus, we see God in human terms — in a form that we can understand and picture. It means that, in each of us, God has created a mystery, a continent waiting to be discovered. A territory where God is present — but where he is not immediately seen.
It follows that the search for God is both external and internal. In the depths of space — and in the innermost recesses of our minds. To find him — each in our own individual way — is perhaps the greatest discovery of all. Fortunately, as we start looking for God, he is looking for us. And when we do meet, it will be his joy just as much as ours.