20 May 2018


Welcome and Intimations

Call to worship

Hymn 152 Praise the Lord his glories show


Introduction to theme

Hymn 125 Lord of all being

Readings: Exodus 3: 7-15; Luke 15: 11-24                                                                                               

Sermon: God is relationship
See below for full text

Hymn 622 We sing a love that sets all people free



Hymn 96 You are before me Lord, you are behind



God is relationship

 Readings: Exodus 3: 7-15; Luke 15: 11-24

Today is Pentecost Sunday when traditionally we remember the spirit of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entering the Church.  I intend to talk this morning about how we think about God and about how that relationship is a living one, which is the fruit of Pentecost. How we believe, what we believe and how we describe and talk about God.

Martin Buber was a German theologian and writer. (German theologians tend to be worth listening to).  He was commissioned to write a book about God and the title of the book is one of those titles which captured the meaning of the book precisely. It was entitled “I and Thou”. In other words, God is relationship. We cannot talk of God as if he is a “thing”, I’m not entirely sure what is meant by a “Being”. And when we talk about Him (or Her) we are using a very human metaphor, and we should be aware of that.  

We often think or talk of God as a person, but I often feel happier to talk or to think of God as personal.  My friend Isabel Smyth the Roman Catholic sister who came to speak last year about interfaith Scotland, says and I am very comfortable with it, she says she believes in God rather than a God.  To use the word “a” seems to make this God smaller and more limited.

The Hebrews of the Old Testament were always reluctant to give God a name for, I believe, the same reason. In our first reading we hear of God’s rescuing activity in the freeing of the slaves in Egypt and of the generations, but when Moses asks for a name he is told simply “I am that I am”.

When Stephen Hawkins the great scientist who did marvellous work despite illness, was asked what he believed, he said at one point that the idea of the universe did not for him require a creative being behind it all, but then when he described the ultimate task of trying to understand  everything he described it as learning” to know the mind of God.”  He did seem open to other possibilities.

I had a friend when I was working in the NHS who enjoyed asking me difficult questions. Her name was Hina Sheikh and she was secular though from a Moslem background.  She once said to me, If a person needs constant reassurance about what a wonderful and great person they are – then we are looking at a very needy person with psychological problems. (One could example a couple of today’s world leaders who might be a bit like that.). Why do Christians have to constantly say or to tell God how wonderful he is?   I can’t precisely remember what my answer was, but it should have  been something like  : because God is the undefeatable power of vulnerable love, and because this is something which does not always or obviously appear to be so , in difficult lives and in the life of the world, then what we are doing is reminding ourselves and reinforcing  our faith in that truth. That vulnerable love is what gives life meaning and as we try to live this out and act as such, that this is what is ultimately in control and is ultimately meaningful.

And as Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, says in a controversial recent book, “the aim of life is not happiness but is to search for its meaning, happiness is always short lived , life is hard but can be meaningful.”

When we think about Jesus, orthodox Christian theology has said that Jesus is “very God and very Man”. What is known technically as the “hypostatic union” – but you don’t need to remember that. But what does this mean?  Taking them the other way round, “very Man” means that Jesus was human – he was not like superman with magical powers, his knowledge was limited, culturally, scientifically to a person of his age and time.  He was an incredibly thoughtful teacher, a story-teller, a healer, who challenged false hierarchies as in the beatitudes, and the religious /political authorities of his day. But why does the church say he is also “very God”?  For two reasons I think; to try to understand the cross and what Jesus achieved, and because it is our way of saying that Jesus is authoritative for us, he is vulnerable love grounded. There is a lot of complicated theologising about the cross, a lot of which I find very difficult, ideas like: that God sacrificed Jesus for our sake; that Jesus’ death takes our sin  away; that he reversed the Fall of Adam. More meaningful and positive to me is the statement of Paul “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. Why do we think or perhaps need to think of Jesus as God?  Because God on the cross is the only way we can cope with the idea of a suffering world and the God of love.

A Jewish theologian called Victor Frankyll was himself a survivor of the holocaust and Auschwitz. His writings have been very helpful for healthcare and hospice chaplains when dealing with suffering. At one time in the concentration camp, where people and even children had been hanged, he was asked by a fellow prisoner, “and where is God now?”  His only answer could be,” he is hanging there with the child.”

Why the Church calls Jesus “very God and very Man”.

So, God is relational, not so much a thing.  God is personal perhaps more than a person.

The Old Testament is very clear when it says that Man is made in the image of God. Secularists and secular psychologists would say – we make God in the image of Man, and that God is merely wishful thinking. We can only use human images of God because that is how we as humans think. But we have to recognise that these are metaphors. 

Jesus parables often began “God is like…  and then described a vineyard owner, a shepherd looking for lost sheep, or like a father staring down the road, hoping and yearning and waiting for his son to come home.

Jesus called God “Abba” which means father or dad – for example at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer. I was really struck while in Israel last autumn to hear the children at family gatherings call their Dad “Abba” all the time.  It’s a helpful picture but it is a metaphor. (And it doesn’t mean that God is masculine – or feminine – these are human characteristics)

God is that vulnerable love which doesn’t give up on us, despite what we are like.  In one sense we are all prodigal children, loved despite ourselves rather than because of ourselves.

Sometimes the most profound answers are also quite straightforward.  My Mary told me the other day a short story told her by Gerda or it might have been Angus ,  Speaking to Guillena she asked  her what or who do you think God is: ”Is he an old man with a long white beard sitting somewhere up in the sky?” “Of course not”, said Guillena, “God is love”.  I think that sums it up rather well. (The preacher at yesterday’s big wedding was saying much the same.)

Amen and may the God of vulnerable love be with us in all our living, thinking and doing.