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The Presence of God – Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

Sunday 29 July 2018 – 10am Sung Eucharist

Ephesians 3:14-21   John 6:1-21

I wonder if you can pinpoint times in your life when you’ve been most vividly aware of the presence of God. If you’re able to do so, I suspect you may struggle to articulate exactly what it was you were aware of. Words might seem inadequate. You might even be a little diffident in speaking about it, lest some people think you a bit weird, the kind of person prone to ‘that sort of thing’. The plain fact of the matter, though, is that since time immemorial, people of all kinds of background, culture and belief have experienced something that seems almost to compel them to speak of their experience, should they be inclined to do so, by naming God as the mystery in which such experience is grounded.

The difficulty in speaking about this kind of experience is that God isn’t simply one object among many in the universe. God’s the very reality in, through and from which the universe comes to be in the first place. In this sense, God’s a very different kind of ‘thing’ from anything else we know or can conceive. The very act of speaking about God necessarily limits or diminishes the reality and the mystery of God. And yet all sorts of people resort to language about God in order to speak of something profound and irreducible in their experience. It’s only by using language about God that they feel they can do justice to the sheer mystery of what underlies their experience, and yet at the same time God forever escapes being confined and restricted by the language we use about God.

So what kind of experiences might encourage people to speak of them as giving rise to a sense of the presence of God? More often than not, they have to do with a sense of our individual, limited, separate selves either being dissolved or expanded. It’s as if everything becomes whole. Fragmentation, disorder and disunity give way to a sense of unity and oneness. Underlying all this is an awareness of an all-embracing love or compassion pervading everyone and everything.

Such experiences typically come upon us unexpectedly and unannounced. It’s as if we’re taken out of ourselves by something we think of as being utterly beyond us and yet with which we’re more intimate than anything else in all our experience. We might, for example, be overwhelmed by the beauty of a sunset, or a landscape, or a painting or a piece of music or a liturgy or a person. It’s as if we see everything in a new way and we have a sense of the deep-down all-rightness of things, whatever else might seem to be happening on the surface. And while such experiences themselves may be fleeting and transient, the effect on us is long-lasting and even permanent. We wake up to the fact that the reality disclosed to us in these experiences is actually a permanent presence, whether we’re permanently conscious of that presence or not.

This sense of presence is what lies behind the whole Biblical revelation and which comes to be fully focussed and realised in the person of Christ. And it’s what lies behind the account we heard at the end of today’s gospel reading of Jesus coming across the water to his disciples in the boat and saying, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’. In the midst of the chaos of the sea and the storm, God is there, present and embodied in Christ right there, exactly where they are.

The real significance of what the evangelist intends to convey by the words, ‘It is I’, can actually be hidden by the very words themselves, for as is so often the case in John’s Gospel, there’s a double meaning. At one level it sounds like a perfectly correct use of English grammar. You ring someone on the phone and when you get through you say, ‘Hello, it’s me.’ Technically we should say, ‘It is I’, but that would sound horribly stilted, even if strictly correct. So when Jesus comes alongside the disciples in the boat and says, ‘It is I’, he’s really saying, ‘It’s all right guys, it’s me.’

‘It is I’ in this context has a much deeper resonance, though, one that will resound time and time again throughout the gospel, for the words could simply be translated as ‘I AM’. The Greek words ‘ego eimi’, which are translated as ‘It is I’, are the same words on Jesus’ lips when he says, ‘I am – ego eimi – the bread of life’, as we’ll hear next week, or ‘I am – ego eimi – the resurrection and the life’, or ‘I am – ego eimi – the true vine’, and so on. So when Jesus comes across the water and says, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’, he’s also saying, ‘I AM; do not be afraid’. When Jesus says ‘ego eimi’ here and elsewhere in the gospel, he’s deliberately evoking the unnameable name of God as given to Moses in the book Exodus. When Moses encountered the presence of God in the burning bush and asked for God’s name, Moses was simply given the name, ‘I AM’, and it’s exactly this with which Jesus identifies. To be make it abundantly clear, Jesus might just as well have said to the disciples, ‘It’s me, I AM, do not be afraid’. He was saying that the God whose presence was disclosed in the burning bush, and in the exodus from slavery out of Egypt, and in the return of the exiles after the destruction of Jerusalem, was the same God now embodied in him. He was saying that he was the very presence of God in human form. Most importantly, he was also saying that this presence was to be discerned in the chaos of the raging sea and, by extension, in the chaos of our lives. Suddenly being aware of the presence of God doesn’t happen upon us only in the beautiful things like a sunset or a landscape; it can occur in the midst of suffering, disaster and chaos. What else, after all, is the message of all the gospels, when they reach their climax in the accounts of the crucifixion, other than that precisely there, where God seems to be decidedly absent, God is most present and known as self-giving, all-embracing, limitless love and compassion.

This truth has profound consequences for our lives and for the way we live them. The times in which we live seem to be times of considerable chaos and uncertainty. Very little, if anything, can be taken for granted anymore. Not even what were once considered to be indisputable facts are universally respected as such by some any longer. Fake news and misinformation are becoming the order of the day for some. It’s as if everything’s threatened and up for grabs. So often our own personal lives can seem like that, too. The sudden and unexpected diagnosis of a serious, life-limiting illness can throw us into disarray, the breakdown of a relationship can seem like the end of the world, changes in the way things are done in the country, at work or even in church can make us feel very unsettled. Indeed, we can feel not unlike how the disciples felt in the boat as the storm blew up on the lake.

What reassures and steadies us, as it did them, is the sense of God’s presence, the sense that God is with us, not just as a one-off experience but in every circumstance of life, whether we consider it to be good or bad, desirable or undesirable. The one-off experiences certainly occur, but their purpose often is simply to encourage us to trust that what’s disclosed in and through them is true not just at that moment but always and everywhere, that God is the hidden mystery, present in all things. And this very awareness begins to restore a sense of balance and perspective. The knowledge that God is with us doesn’t remove the difficulties and challenges of life. Rather, it enables us to face them, knowing that we aren’t alone, and this makes all the difference. As Jesus says at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. Had he been John, he could just as easily have said, ‘I, I AM, am with you to the very end’.

The church’s vocation amongst other things is to discern, embody, live and proclaim the universal, reassuring, liberating presence of the God who loves us and who remains committed to us, come what may. This is partly the significance of the story of the feeding of the 5000, heard in the first part of the gospel reading. Jesus is aware that the crowds are hungry and on the verge of descending into unrest perhaps. He doesn’t abandon them, though. He stays with them and it’s his very presence and commitment to them which makes possible a transformation not really of bread and fish, but symbolically of our small, limited, anxious, grasping, narrow selves into the generous, giving, abundant, loving, compassionate, expansive selves we truly are and long to be. But that’s another sermon for another day.


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