Tag Archives: light

5 August – The spacious God

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Pentecost 11

1 John 4:13-16
Psalm 78
John 6:24-35

In a sentence
God does not have context but is a context

Believers generally have in common with unbelievers a sense of where God would be, if God were anywhere. What is held in common here is not the particular place or time of God, but the thought that God might be ‘there’ – anywhere – at all.

‘There-ness’ – a location – seems a sensible thing to propose about God. Our religious language is loaded with this assumption: God is ‘in heaven’. It doesn’t matter precisely where heaven is, only that it has an implied ‘there’ which matches our ‘here’. With more sophistication, we might say God is in the ‘future’ – a ‘there’ which matches here-and-now. Or, more lamentably, God might be in the past – yet another ‘there’ which is located in relation to here.

Of course, that God is somewhere is how belief tends to put it. Unbelief understands where God might be in the same way, and simply asserts that, in fact, God is not in any such place.

Yet, the real difference between belief and unbelief is not that belief insists that God is there and that unbelief insists that God is not. The difference between belief and unbelief is that one holds that God does not have a ‘where’, and the other holds that God must have. Perhaps it will come as a surprise that I say that it is unbelief that holds that God must be somewhere, to be ‘related’ to, if God is to be all. Belief – Christian, trinitarianly-informed belief – does not require God to be ‘anywhere’.

How can this be so? The problem with a God who is ‘somewhere’ is that such a God tends to be either too small or too big.

Such a God is too small because if God exists in a space, there must be space ‘around’ God – a not-God space. So if, as believers like to do, we were to ‘meet’ this God, it would be like meeting a friend in a café: indeed we meet, but neither of us is the café. The meeting space – the ‘café’ – is a kind of ‘neutral’ zone in which we and God meet; think of God meeting Adam and Eve in the Garden after the Apple Incident.[1] The difference between the believer and the unbeliever on this understanding is that the unbeliever knows that she can drink coffee on her own and that sometimes coffee is better that way. Whether God is ‘there’ or not becomes a matter of mood and taste.

This is not a God to be taken seriously, which is why unbelievers and believers alike do not. Unbelievers don’t take such a God seriously because moods come and go but taste is eternal, and they have no taste for God.

Why believers don’t take the small God-in-a-space seriously is seen in the way that this God seems to want to grow bigger, threatening to take up too much space. We feel this whenever we sense that we are in competition with God for our lives in the world. When we rationalise to ourselves why we should be able to do or say as we would like – despite what someone might tell us God requires – we seek to limit God to God’s own proper space. Believers also find that coffee is often better enjoyed alone.

The God who is ‘there’ – the God ‘to’ whom we might relate at a place between ourselves and God – begins to look not much different from a questionable moral upbringing, a nagging conscience, a cultural formation which might have been different – an isolatable, dismissible thing.

But the properly Christian confession is that there is no space ‘around’ God. God does not have a context, has nothing by which to locate him. God, rather, is a context. God has no ‘where;’ God is a ‘where’. And this brings us, finally, to our reading from 1 John this morning and once more to John’s language of ‘abiding.’

We noted John’s interest in abiding a few weeks ago. We focussed then particularly on where we abide: the options we have to locate ourselves, and the call to rest in the present, in God. Our thinking this morning about the ‘where’ of God touches upon God’s abiding: Where does God abide?

The only answer of interest to the church is that which John gives: in us.

God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 

God is not located abstractly in space or time, to go to or come away from as we or God choose. There is no Godless place from which God might be absent, or to which God might then become present. God is located in relation to us: where we are, there is God.

This is dangerous talk, of course, on account of the risk that we now turn God into what we are. This becomes not ‘God is love’ but ‘love is God’: how we love being how God loves. If we cordon off your community or bulldoze your homes, if we strand you on a distant island, or beat you, or limit your options for a full life, it is because God requires it, and this is God’s love for you.

This is not the faith of the church. To say that God abides only in relation to us is not to say that whatever we manifest is the manifestation of God. But it is to say that we need a shift in the metaphors which dominate how we think about our relationship to God. The metaphor of God in a space is what gives us the notion that God ‘sends’ – sends the Son, sends the Spirit, sends the church in mission. This gives us the notion that there are places where God is not, and that God comes to meet us or we go to take God somewhere new. This is the possibility of the heresy against which John writes – that the world, the body of Jesus, is not a place God can inhabit.

But let’s take up the thought from a moment ago – that God does not have a context but is a context. This is to say that God is not in a space but is, rather, spacious. God is not in the world somewhere; the world is in God.

It might not look that way, but this would change how we experience the world and what we understand the call of God to be. The world ceases to be a godless place; it is a place in God and so inherently Godly. And mission – being called to God and calling others to God – ceases to be about going to a place where God is not and bringing God there. Mission becomes ‘turning on the light’, that we might see what space it is which, in fact, we inhabit.

‘…this is the judgement,’ we hear in John’s gospel, ‘that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (3.19-21).

Our deeds are done in God. Our lives are lived in God, whether they are yet capable of reflecting the divine light or not. We do not see God because God is not ‘there’ to be seen; we see by God. God is the eyes by which we see. These ‘eyes’ are the gift of God’s own Spirit, which speaks to us the meaning of Jesus, and so our very own meaning – who we are, where we are, the space we inhabit. This is much, much more than we have yet to see.

The call of the gospel – and its promise – is life in all its fullness: opening our eyes and conforming to our divine habitat, coming to be in the world as Jesus himself is – as light, as promise, as hope.

Let us, then, open our eyes to catch that quickening ray which is the light of God’s call and promise – this to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

[1] It is noteworthy that the mythological presentation of God in a space (the Garden) takes place after the Apple.

6 May – The blood of Jesus and the joy of God

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Easter 6

1 John 1:5-9
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

Prelude: Reading a biblical text

It might be helpful to begin this morning by saying something about the way in which we are engaging with the first letter of John. We are not doing is taking a blow by blow, verse by verse account of what John says and why that might matter to us to. This is because a lot of what John says quite simply does not make immediate sense. He often seems to go in circles, makes logical leaps which are not obvious to us, seems even to contradict himself on quite important things. A ‘straight reading’ – a ‘literal’ reading, if you like – can simply lead to confusion or uninformed rejection of what John has to say. This problem with the letter springs in part from the fact that it is a letter (or similar) – that it addresses a known community and known circumstances which we don’t know and in cultural and linguistic ways quite different from our own. We have to infer from what John says why he says it – a process a little like trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your own bootstraps: never straightforward.

But there is another challenge, more important than the historical one. This is the gospel itself. John is not just a cultural or historical ‘other’ to us; his words come to us as ‘scripture’ – as ‘the word of God.’ We listen, then, for where John contravenes what we might have in common with those to whom he wrote: where does he say it ‘wrong’? These are the most interesting, engaging points. Where we find ourselves in agreement with the text (if we can be sure that we are), we simply affirm something we already know. But it’s the apparent cracks in the logic of the Scriptures which let in new light.

– – – –

One such crack appears in our reading from 1 John today, which we’ve heard now for the third time (there’s a lot going on here!):

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

‘If we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another.’ This is the reverse of how we typically understand fellowship or communion to work. For us – as a political theory, and in our common experience – it is communion which brings light. Dialogue brings understanding and illumination. Get the warring parties around the table, have them share of themselves, encourage understanding and empathy, and peace will follow: fellowship, communion. This is peace conceived in terms of strategy. And we know that it works. Seeking to live in communion can bring light.

But John says it the other way around: light brings communion – if we walk in the light, we have communion with one another. This is not accidental, a passing slip; the logic pops up right through the letter (see, e.g. 1.2; 2.11; the ‘externalising’ of love in the work of God, rather than our own work [3.6, 4.10]).

Communion is possible because of the light. This is not to diminish the importance of whatever light might spring from what relationships we might dare to enter into. We are only ourselves by virtue of our relationships to others; we can expect to grow and be illuminated by those relationships we already enjoy.

But John’s vision is larger than what we know and are comfortable with. This is implicit in what he adds to his remarks about communion and walking in the light:

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

There are two things we note here. The first is the reference to the blood which washes sin away. Here the strangeness of sacrificial logic is invoked, upon which we touched a couple of weeks ago. But we notice this logic first of all to bracket it to one side. Sacrifice is one way of interpreting the cross and not a final explanation for what God does with the cross.

Nevertheless John is saying – and we can’t simply bracket this out – that the cross of Jesus is the light which brings fellowship. The cross overcomes un-fellowship, un-communion – the darkness of sin.

And yet, behind this and at the same time, the cross is precisely the opposite. A crucifixion is a radical excommunication, a rupturing of communion with the executed criminal. So the cross both the sign of un-communion and makes communion possible.

This apparent contradiction is only resolved by the identity of the one on the cross – that Jesus is the Son of the Father who sent him. At the beginning of John’s gospel we hear, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1.11). If Jesus is the Word, the Son of the Father, then in the crucifixion of Jesus is the relationship of all relationships broken: that of God to God’s people and so of God to God’s world.

This, of course, would be catastrophic on any account except that of the gospel. For the gospel may be put this way: the people of God do not cease to be the people of God for having crucified the Son of God. We do not define our relationship to God; God defines that relationship. That definition is that we are God’s people; this is the ‘essence’ or substance of this relationship.

But, while we do not determine the substance of this relationship, but we do give the relationship its form, its shape. That form is most fundamentally the form of a cross. The substance of our relationship with God – that we belong to God, regardless – takes the form of the cross. And so the love which is the substance of the relationship is now not ‘mere’ love – formless affection or attraction – but a love which has overcome, a love which is forgiveness, a love with a history.

The cross saves because it is the shape we have given to our relationship with God, which God has honoured without changing the essence of God’s own intentions with us: to be our God.

Here we come close to the meaning of another text we’ll meet later in John’s letter: we love because God first loved us (4.19). The ‘first’ here is not so much a chronological priority, that God ‘got in’ first, and our love follows. It more a matter of God ‘out-loving’ us. We give the God-relationship the shape of the cross, and God reveals in response just how seriously he takes us: the cross as a sign of excommunication is made the sign of God’s communing love for the world (John 3.16f).

We noted in our first reflection on this letter another ‘crack’ in his logic which let in gospel light: the surprising rationale John gave for writing the letter: ‘We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’ John desires the joy of fellowship. But this unexpected thing – that he evangelises as much for himself as for those he addresses – is also not accidental. It has its basis in the gospel itself. For the gospel is that God insists on being the God of these people, even if that relationship takes the shape of a cross. For we are God’s joy, and God refuses to have his own joy denied. The crucified Jesus becomes the love and light of the world, in order that God’s own joy may be complete.

This is to say that, with this God, nothing is insurmountable.

It is also to say that, for a people so loved, nothing is insurmountable. If we walk in this light, then communion comes because nothing can finally keep us from each other; the blood of Jesus washes un-communion away from us (1.7).

Let us then, walk in the light by which God’s own joy is complete, that ours – and everyone’s – might yet be.