Tag Archives: faith

22 July – Knowing and Believing

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Pentecost 9

1 John 4:1-6
Psalm 139
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

In a sentence:
Our knowledge of God must yield to God’s knowledge of us

Just between us I confess that, most of the time, I am not a very good believer. By ‘most of the time’, I mean those times which are not between 10.05 and 11.10 on a typical Sunday morning, (assuming that the Sunday service runs for an hour and finishes about 11.00).

For that 65 minutes or so I find that what I do and say and think is a matter of believing. It is ‘easy’ to believe here, because in this space we hear what it is to believe. For the rest of the week I am less a believer in God than an aspiring knower of God. I suspect that I am not alone in this, and so with John’s help we’ll consider today the difference between these two ways of being before God – knowing and believing.

As we have worked through the text of 1 John we have noticed that ‘knowing’ is something which pops up quite a bit. This is because of the approach to God which John’s opponents have taken, which is ‘gnostic’ in its tendencies. ‘Gnostic’ is a technical word in religious studies, and has a connection to our English word ‘knowledge:’ they both spring from the same Greek root (gnosis), to do with knowing. The Gnostics were those who ‘knew.’ If we aspire to know something about God, then John has something to say to us.

As a matter of course, we need to know things: where to find water, who our parents are or the difference between a red light and green one on a street corner. Such knowledge locates the world around us and renders the world safer. The one who does not ‘know’ lives in peril, which is why we spend so much time educating our children. Not to know what kind of world it is in which we live makes us unsafe, unable to fend for ourselves, unable to defend ourselves (‘fend’ being a contraction of ‘defend’). This is to say just what conventional wisdom has long known: knowledge is power.

Yet, in relation to God – at least, to the God of Jewish and Christian confession – this is catastrophic. We can, of course, know things ‘about’ God. But what we might know about God gives us no handle on God, no leverage, no influence. It is not like mundane knowledge which maps the world with its treasures and pitfalls. Knowledge about God does not work in this way because not because our knowing of God is deficient but because – to put it bluntly – there are no defences against God, not even knowledge.

Perhaps it is even surprising that we might want to defend ourselves against God. After all, as John goes on to declare in the verses which follow what we’ve heard this morning, God is ‘love’ – something which is heard much about the churches.

But the thing about this declaration is that it only makes sense actually to declare it if there was good reason to doubt it in the first place. ‘God is love’ is a powerful and reorienting statement for me if, in fact, I previously had good reason to think that God is not love, that God is a threat and so I would do well to smart-up in order to reduce the risk God presents. If God is a threat, knowledge of God’s weak spots would be more than valuable.

It is this kind of ‘smarting-up’ against which John writes: there is nothing you can know which will protect you from God. Faith is not about our knowledge of God but about God’s knowledge of us. My faith in God, properly, has to do with God’s knowledge of me – knowing that God knows me.

And so Christian ‘spirituality’ – the interest in God’s own Spirit – looks not like our knowledge of God or our spiritual techniques but is a confession that God knows us. In John’s own community, this was the difference between two live choices. One option was knowledge of the ‘mysteries’ of God. The mysteries were the knowledge of where God is, how God can be accessed – basically, God in a box, bound up in theological theory. The other option was believing that God had searched and known us in the person of Jesus – that the being of God entered into the very human life of Jesus.

God-in-a-box is attractive because, in the end, things in a box remain there until we open it – or perhaps the image of a genie in a bottle is more apt! It is good to know where God is, because then we can avoid God (tell ourselves that God doesn’t matter in this question, this decision, this action); or we can access God easily when a God seems to be needed.

By contrast, John says: in this is knowledge – not that we knew God, but that God has searched and known us (cf. Psalm 139 – heard also today). This has happened in the meeting of God with us in the person of Jesus; this is the test John applies for ‘orthodoxy’ in today’s reading. This orthodoxy – what we now call the Incarnation – is not mere doctrinal correctness. It is a word to our desire to bottle God up in a remote heaven, over against God’s free entry into the world on God’s own terms. An incarnation even to the point of a death on a cross is a free act of God which undermines all human aspiration to know or control God. Such an incarnation is a wisdom which looks foolish, a strength which looks like weakness.

In the end, the difference between being a knower of God and a believer of God is whether or not we hold that God is free. To imagine that we know something is to imagine that we have secured it, put it in its place, can get to it or around it as we need to. This is as much the case with God as it is with anything else we know about how the world works.

Yet in this place we pray each week: your kingdom come, your will be done, earth become heaven: provide, forgive, deliver. These are all impossible things for a God who is not free, who is bound by the rules we ‘know’ a God should follow. But we pray this because we believe that God is free – a freedom over against us in our desire to control but, because of the nature of God, a freedom which is also for us.

For God’s knowledge of us is not a confining, objectifying knowledge but a liberating knowledge, a loving knowledge. We are not objects which God could love or not. We are persons created for relationship with God. That this is so we see in the coming together of humankind and God in Jesus.

This is harder to hold to than might seem, because it is not ‘knowledge’ of the ordinary kind.

This is a knowing-in-relation. Our worship is just such a knowing, or should point to such a knowing. Here we do not discard all that we know, but let it sit in its right place – at the service of the God who will take it and make a means of revealing even more about himself.

To believe is to know that God is greater than what we know, ‘greater than our hearts’ (3.20). And because this is the case, we will be yet greater, for God knows us in order to bring us back to him.

For this grace in Christ Jesus, all thanks be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.

11 March – Snake therapy

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Lent 4

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
John 3:14-21

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.

For obvious reasons most of us don’t like snakes. We’re not the first to have this reaction. Our forebears in the faith first had to contend with snakes in their wilderness wanderings. We hear that they were rebellious with their lot: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” There is no food, no water. Then the story goes: the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them, and they bit the people and many died. Moses got the job of getting rid of them by making a bronze serpent, putting it on a pole, so that whenever a person was bitten they would look at the bronze serpent and live.

What do we make of that? Well, the story comes from a very early source in which magic and magical cures are prominent. But the form in which we have the story shows that it is now used to emphasize the capacity of a beleaguered people to discover a trust in Yahweh despite all appearances.

It is worth knowing not only that the snake was a well known reptile of the wilderness, but was, in fact, worshipped by many of the Hebrews’ neighbouring tribes. The crucial thing to recognise, however, is that, unlike for us, the snake represented not only evil and destruction but also healing and hope. This symbol of the healing snake is still alive for us in what you might recall as the physician’s symbol – once shown on a car’s number plate – which shows the snake entwined around the wand of Esclepius, the god of healing. The symbol of the snake was also associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god, who for the Romans became the god Mercury. A doctor in our not so distant past, who making home visits driving a Ford Mercury, was literally a god of healing!

To recognise this double significance of the snake is crucial, because only on this basis will we understand the gospel today: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.

The point is that Jesus now takes the place of the serpent. When the Gospel of John uses the phrase “lifted up” that is a synonym in the first place for the Cross. Somewhere else Jesus says: “I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all people to me “. Hearing this it is almost certain that we will assume that this being lifted up refers to his resurrection or ascension.  But for John being “lifted up” carries the powerful image of an immobile – but at the same time of a consenting – Christ, arms and feet pinned to the Cross, passively crucified, physically lifted off the ground by the imperial forces of Caesar with the connivance of the Jewish religious authorities. Immobile, but glorious in his immobility crying: “It is accomplished”.

So this “lifting up” carries the same twofold significance as does the bronze serpent. The man on the Cross, like the raised up serpent, represents not only evil and destruction, but also healing and restoration.  Jesus is bitten by human poison, yet is at the same time the antidote of that poison.

However, though the texts appear to be similar, there is yet this significant difference. The ancient healing of the serpent benefitted only the immediate Hebrews, whereas the healing effected by the raising up of the Son of man is to be universal.  This we are promised in the “whoever”: “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”, or perhaps the even better translation,” whoever believes may have eternal life in him”. The Hebrews had only to look at the bronze serpent to experience healing. The “whoever” – you, me, anyone – must also see, see now not with the eyes of the body since that is not possible because the lifting up of the physical cross is an event long lost in the mists of time. But we, too, must see – see with theological eyes. For John, this “lifting up” on the Cross is not for such eyes something that happened a long time ago in a far different place. Rather, the eyes of faith see the origin of the “lifting up” in the eternal love of God for his creation, and its intention as the healing of all who believe. For John, “to see” is in this sense “to believe”, and “to believe” is “to see” – really see in the very depths of what is happening here and now. What matters is what is happening in the present act of believing, not what happened however long ago.

How significant this insistence on the present is when we reckon with the fact that most people imagine that faith is about whether or not they can believe in the so-called facts of a long departed event. How can we get people to see this difference? In the final analysis, it is the basic task of mission today, yet it seems to be the hardest task of all. For our culture is mesmerised by the claim of facts, and as far as it understands Christian faith, past facts, once to believe them, increasingly to deny them.

This is why today’s text is so important. It could be as revolutionary in the 21st century as it was in the 2nd. What it offers is a gift that is open- ended. For the “whoever” is not merely someone else – it is held out again and again to contradict whoever has assumed that the decision of faith is something always to be settled once and for all. The “whoever” stands as a permanent potential destruction of the assumed gulf between insiders and outsiders. It calls in question all who have replaced the act of faith with a settled “belief”, whether that be positive or negative. That is to say, it calls in question all who are happier with the noun “belief” rather than the verb “to believe”. The gospel is always about verbs, not nouns. Nouns, you recall, describe a state or condition; verbs speak of action, always holding out a prospect of new possibilities.

Such we have here – whoever “believes”, not whoever “has” belief. We hear from time to time of someone who has, as the saying goes,
“lost their faith”.  What that really means is that they never had faith in the first place, since faith is something that, by the definition of the gospel, is not possible to lose. It simply ceases to inform one’s life.

Arguably the promise of this “whoever believes”, compared with the conventional view of belief as a noun, is responsible for so many indifferent, sad or angry people on the boundary. But it also might reassure anxious people at the very centre who, for example, unhappy with Creeds, are not quite sure if their belief is justified.

So it is salutary to have this text before us in Lent – this time of penitence and reflection. It brings the truth of God and the truth of our lives into a living union. “Who God is” is taken care of in the lifting up of the Son of man, in his own body imbibing our poison and achieving our healing. “Who we are” is taken care of in the “whoever” which invites us to this exchange in the always renewed act of faith, transforming the perishing, often poisoned, experience of our existence into a permanent offer of abundant life which nothing can harm.

So – have a renewed respect for snakes!