notre dame montreal


‘Who do you say that I am ?’

Sermon looking at Peter’s confession of faith and our spiritual capacity to know God

This week has seen the usual annual increase in examination results. Corinne was delighted that Bedford High School once again achieved 100% pass rate at A levels and congratulations to everybody who has done well in their A Level examinations.

In our reading from Romans today Paul encourages his hearers to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. I do not think that Paul was talking about educating ourselves about God in the way that we swat for exams. It is important to have clear rational thinking in our faith, to understand and be able to give an explanation for what we believe.
But this is not all there is to be renewed. We deliberately started our worship today with a verse which is taken from the Roman Catholic lectionary which today is Romans 11

'How unsearchable are his judgements, and inscrutable his ways'

If we think that God is to be known by learning bits of information, like we revise for an exam, then we will seek and never find. Here Paul acknowledges the awe and mystery of God, which can never be understood in the sense that we can know our algebra or our history of Britain.

The best things in life are never understood, they are the source of wonder and amazement. Have you this summer been able to wander and see mountains, or seas, sunsets and stars? These are things which we cannot understand any more than we can explain what love is.

The modern school curriculum is great for a certain level of learning, but there is a danger that it is more suited to turning out accountants than artists. Sadly the National Curriculum does not provide either the time or the space to help children to grow as they should in appreciation of the majesty of our wonderful universe. And so many teachers seem completely unaware of the importance of developing the spiritual, so that teaching is purely utilitarian. It advances the mind in so far as it needs to be able to pass exams, but it leaves the heart cold.

The most important kind of education is that which seeks to help capture amazement and wonder, such which led Paul to exclaim

'O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.'

Listen to what the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians. It is an expression which helps us to understand that he believed the most important truths were understood not simply by academic study, but with a different level of discernment .

Ephesians 1:17
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

In the marriage service in the Prayer Book, it speaks of ‘the mystery of one flesh.’ The word mystery is used of the way that two people grow together and know love in its many ways and know a special relationship.

The word mystery is an interesting one and it is also an entirely suitable way to speak about spiritual truths.

Mystery is a very spiritual world, but that doesn’t mean that the importance of such things is marginal. It is vital for our lives that marriage works and that two people are able to have that depth of relationship. At the heart of what it means to be human lie important spiritual principles of which we need to take heed. Indeed it is only when we discover the mystery of our spiritual being that we are able to be fully human.

If our lives only have regard for facts which can be measured, then we are reduced to machines. To describe great art or music only in factual terms is to miss the point. What makes Mozart special is a quality which cannot be expressed merely by analysis and it transcends our attempts at explanation. In the same way if we start to dissect a magnificent painting it will lose its spiritual quality.

Our five senses will take us so far, but beyond that there is another dimension, a more transcendent place. The German mystic of the middle ages, Meiter Eckhart, a Dominican Friar, spoke of a ‘transcendent abyss’ within ourselves. We are not machines but extraordinary people created beings made to know spiritually things not just physical ones. We have within us the capacity to go beyond that which is physical and know another level of existence. D H Lawrence wrote

‘The sense of wonder
that is the sixth sense.
And it is the natural religious sense.'

We can reduce ourselves to the physically reality of what we know, but if we do we loose the sacredness of our being, our spiritual selves.

This other dimension to life, is something over which we spend too little time. Everything that exists depends upon God for its existence, but so often we do not take moments to draw breath and know God’s presence in all that he had made.

God is not limited by his creation in any way, but undoubtedly the presence of God penetrates the universe. Isaiah wrote

‘the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’

The world is so much more than atoms and molecules. Gerald Manley Hopkins said that

‘the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God.’

God is the author of life and all of life bears his signature. God is everywhere. However we may fail to see God. God invites us, but he does not impose. God appears reticent, leaving suggestions of his presence to engage us and draw up deeper, not miraculous and compelling signs.

Julian of Norwich describes God as

‘utterly kind and unasuming’

The unique nature of Christianity is that it says that in Jesus this can be taken a step further, we can encounter God in a human person.

The Greek word mysterium is the equivalent of the Latin word sacramentum which began to be used about the third century. Mysterium means a hidden or a veiled reality. But the word sacramentum was applied to actions or things which helped us to approach the divine. It conveys the belief that material things can draw us into spiritual things, spirit speaks through matter. So it is that a ring may be a band of gold, but its meaning is so much more when used for a marriage.

This was how it was with Jesus too. The disciples could be with him, people could see his love in action and yet still recognise only Jesus the man. It was only as the disciples opened their minds to Jesus that they recognised who he really was. God’s self portrait in human form. We don’t really get from the NIV translation the full impact of the reply made by Jesus to Peter after the confession of faith. The NIV says

‘this was not revealed to you by man,’

The Greek from which it is translated said

‘‘flesh and blood did not reveal …’

The Christ who Peter confessed can be confessed by us too, but only as we allow our spirits to be open to the mystery of God. The majority of people do not take time to attend worship, read scripture or pray. It is through such spiritual exercises that we enter into an awareness of God. Our five senses alone, academic study, flesh and blood cannot awaken our spiritual sight. However we all have the capacity for inner spiritual sight by which we may discover not just the man Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago, but Jesus the risen Messiah who alive today.