IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

Sermon delivered on Whit Sunday, the 15th May 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21     Romans 8:14-17     S. John 14: 8-17, 25-27

S. John 14: 9 Jesus said to Philip, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?”

One of my recollections as a schoolboy is when I was a sergeant in the school cadet corps. The platoon I was in charge of on one occasion was about to “fall out”, i.e. be dismissed, when one or two of the boys started to move away before I gave the command. That sign of disorderliness was about to spread through the platoon, to disrupt the orderly dismissal and to threaten my authority. All of a sudden I found myself rounding on the miscreants with considerable spirit, and even before I had shouted any command or rebuke, they were scurrying back into line, and I was able to dismiss the platoon with due order. I wondered what had got into me to give me the authority that was needed on that occasion, and believed that it must have come as a gift from outside myself. Looking back on the incident I see it as giving me a certain self-knowledge in relationship to God as a reality experienced, that I had not had before.

One can sense pain in the Lord’s expression when he exclaimed to his disciple Philip that after all the time he was with them, they still did not know him properly. It reminds me of what can happen in a marriage that is confronted by an act such as one of disrespect, infidelity or domestic abuse. The aggrieved party, say the wife, begins to think that the person she thought her husband was has disappeared, and the man she married seems to be turning into someone else. Who or what is the true reality behind that appearance, which more and more seems to be a mask? Does she really know him any more? And indeed in one way or another every one of us undergoes changes as we age, but still should want to find some constancy of personhood behind those changes. Jesus characteristically says that if his disciples really look into him, by his character and all that he has accomplished, they should discern the Father from whom he came and by whose authority he healed and taught. They should know him beyond a shadow of a doubt, because with him there is no mask, but, rather, an underlying constant reality.

We can compare our developing self-knowledge as youngsters, and the true knowledge of one another into which we are supposed to grow in family relationships, marriage or in friendships or common pursuits, to the Spirit-directed and Spirit-sustained life that the Church and her members are called to walk. From the very Birthday of the Church, the day of Pentecost after the Ascension of Christ, it is clear that this walk is all about communication and relationship. In Acts chapter 2 the rush of a mighty wind and the tongues as of fire are manifestly a communication from heaven. The effect of the unique event is to make the disciples both understanding and understandable. Others understand them telling of the mighty works of God, and they through their spokesman Peter understand their own situation in terms of the prophetic "last days", seeing very starkly that the Jesus the people of Jerusalem crucified, was truly being demonstrated as the Lord and Christ exalted at God's right hand, and now pouring out the gift of the Holy Spirit, that on His exaltation He had received authority for from the Father. And we must notice that St. Paul in Romans 8 speaks of the Spirit that directs and sustains the Church and her members as the Spirit of sonship, and contrasts this with the spirit of slavery. It is the Spirit of sonship that enables us as sons and daughters of God to address Him as "Father", indeed as "Abba", a familiar, though adult and respectful term, for our Dad. It is St. Paul too who reminds us, as Jesus so often did, that this filial relationship with our Father, our being sons and daughters of God, comes with a cost. St. Paul regards it as normal and inevitable that a son or daughter of God is going to be a co-sufferer with Christ, God's Son. But this is normal and inevitable on the road to being co-glorified with Christ.

The Feast of Whit Sunday is the closing day of the great 50 days of Easter, which includes the climactic 10 days of Ascensiontide, and we can think of the great outburst of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the Jewish feast of Pentecost after the Resurrection of Christ as the pouring out upon the earth of the fruits of the whole drama of the ministry of the incarnate Son of God. The long time of preparation had come to fulfilment. A body of disciples had finally been prepared to be apostles, walking in that knowledge of God that mankind had forfeited from time immemorial. In the last stages of that preparation it had involved the coming of the Son of God Himself, and then His rejection, the taking upon himself of the burden of man’s disobedience and estrangement, His death, and then forty days during which he appeared, risen from the dead, to chosen witnesses. By the time of His visible departure - the Ascension, Philip and Thomas and all the rest truly knew him, in contrast with their failure to “know” him before. Thomas, indeed, after he had finally seen the risen Lord, exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” The stage was set for the word of the knowledge of God to spread first to the nation of Israel and then to the whole world. The word of the Gospel that is spread is the word of the knowledge of God. In Jesus, God has walked with us and shown us God’s face. In Jesus the divine character is fully manifested. As St. Paul says in Colossians, Christ is the image of the invisible God; in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Whit Sunday reminds us that we are called as children of God, to go forward in understanding, communication and trust in Him. If it is only fear of God that we have, we have not yet loved Him in the way we should, as His sons and daughters, just as a child that only cowered before his father and his mother would not have begun to love them in the way that should be taking place. We should pray that we and the whole Church listen to the voice of God's Spirit and walk as God's children, and be willing to suffer with Christ, so that like a child walking in parental love, like a husband and a wife walking in the joy of their knowledge and love for one another, and like friends and colleagues walking in the pleasure of shared interests and concerns, we also may be glorified with Christ, in the knowledge and love of our Father and our God, who through Christ has brought humanity back into His heart.