God-talk

Download a pdf of this sermon suitable for printing.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B — 22 August 2021
Rev'd Martin Johnson

Joshua 24-1-2a, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Amen.

Nicholas Lash the English Catholic theologian who died last year, once wrote the word ‘pain’ on the blackboard and asked students for their response. Sorrow and loss, trials and disappointments were their response. ‘No’, said Nicholas. ‘Why do you assume I was speaking English? I was speaking French. It’s bread!’

What we need to do sometimes is write or think the word God and then see what our reactions are. Like a word association game, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind. It’s a really important thing to do, because suddenly lots of assumptions come to the fore. The first assumption is the existence of God, does God exist? Professor Lash thinks it is a great mistake to think that God exists – that’s coming from a theologian! He does qualify this by saying that he doesn’t believe that God exists in the same sense that you and I and everything else does.

What’s brought this on, you might ask; why am I thinking about this now? Perhaps the lockdown is giving me too much time to think! Clearly our news bulletins are crammed with the issues of the day, perhaps that’s the problem: climate change, the ascendency of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, the COVID pandemic and lockdowns, I could go on. They are issues that have the potential to upset our ideas about God. We might well ask, where is God, or why doesn’t God do something? The problem of God’s inaction is often called the rock on which atheism is built. But God’s seeming inaction is also a problem for those who hold to a rather naïve view of God – the God who quite randomly intervenes in the world. The Jesuit Karl Rahner is quoted as saying that ‘both atheist and those who hold to a naive form of theism labour under the same false notion of God, only the former denies it, while the latter believes it can make sense of it.’

I have long tired of trying to make sense of ‘belief in God’ as a matter of supposing there to be, over and above the familiar world we know, one more large and powerful fact or thing that we try and argue into existence. What we need to do is grasp an understanding of God and engage in God-talk that speaks not about what exists, but what we should value. Can we say that the name for God revealed to Moses at the burning bush is not in fact a name, but a term for what we have our hearts set on, and worship, this changes everything. It should help change our rather naïve ideas of God, and perhaps even disarm our vocal atheist challengers.

Today’s passage from John’s gospel contains one of those encounters between Jesus and Peter that I recollect often. When things become tricky because of his teaching and people begin to drift away, Jesus asks the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ to which Peter responds, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ This encounter resonates with me particularly when I am tempted to ask, where is God, when I wonder about the efficacy of prayer. For me they are times that I am forced to consider my image of God, they are times of renewal.

For some however these moments can drift into aridity, accidie or spiritual flu as one monastic called it. These are times when faith is hard, difficult and some drift away from the practise of the faith completely. For many these times arise when their God seems inexplicable, when the weight of the world’s worries is too great, when disappointments overwhelm or the pain of grief is unbearable. These are pastorally demanding times when a gradual reimagining of God is called for.

Of those close to Jesus many clearly held to a rather naïve unsustainable view of Jesus and his message, it all became too difficult. Many of them had seen the feeding of the 5000 and they followed Jesus. ‘You are seeking me because of the bread aren’t you’ says Jesus. These folk saw Jesus, they saw the bread, but they couldn’t see where it pointed: ‘the flesh is useless’ says Jesus, ‘it is the Spirit that gives life. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’ This Spirit within each of us, is what we need to nurture, and this spirit, this God with us, is nurtured by worship. Indeed it is not until we worship that we can begin to sense the stirring of the Spirit within us. We cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, arguments are futile; God is not a question to be answered, but is that upon which we have set our hearts, that which we worship, where our treasure is… this is our God.

Moses in Deuteronomy tells his followers ‘Choose life,’ Joshua says to his followers: ‘choose this day whom you will serve.’ Jesus asks those following him to choose ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ If we are firm in our faith in what we value, then there is no choice. Worship is not a choice. It is not matter of choosing worship among the many other things in our busy lives. Worship is the very language, the grammar, the essence of our faith. Worship is not just one part of Christian life among many others, it is Christian life, the words of everlasting life. Nicholas Lash used to keep a poster from the Second World War on the wall of his study. ‘Careless talk costs lives.’ For him it became something of a mantra in his theology: ‘Careless God-talk corrodes faith!’ God-talk begins and ends in worship; when you are asked that question ‘what is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word God,’ what will it be? Amen.

St Philip's Anglican Church
Diocese of Canberrra & Goulburn, Australia.