A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 18th June 2023.                                 

“For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting” Ps. 100 vs 5

Tonight, we are going to reflect on our image of God. John Powell S.J. writes “Christianity has preached taught, and written about God for… two thousand years now. And certainly, God has been given many different faces.” There has been a long history of depicting God as angry and fearsome, with much talk about the “wrath of God.” But then there is the broader image of the God of mystery, who refuses to fit snugly into any simple image. Jesus tells us that God is love. So, what is the image of the Christian God that atheists are rejecting, and what is the image of God that the broken hearted are attracted to? What is your image of God?

Our first intriguing clue about the image of God comes from Genesis Chapter 1:27    “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”.

But what is this image? Who is God? What do we imagine this Divine Being is like?

Our image of God is likely shaped by a variety of factors, including the theology of the faith community if we were connected with one as we were growing up, the way clergy modelled themselves, our relationship with parents or significant adult figures in our lives like grandparents and teachers, and significant life situations and events. These can intersect with each other.

For example, we might have learned to view God as a father based on Scriptures that use this metaphor. This in turn is associated with our relationship with our father. If fathers who are distant or abusive, a picture of a harsh God might develop. Of course, this can be true of any parent figure, not just fathers, although the harsh father figure is that image that predominates because of its association with power.

Many of us also have impressions of God based on life circumstances. When tragedy strikes, we can become disillusioned. Does God not care? Why didn’t God intervene? Since we cannot see God physically, we naturally draw conclusions based on what we do know: our relationships and life experiences. The biblical authors did similarly. They described God using images from real life. God is a king ruling the land (PS 47:7-8), a humble shepherd in the field with sheep (PS 23), an impenetrable rock (Deut 32:4), a warrior in battle (Ex 15:3), a mother hen protecting her young (Matt 23:37). Then as Paul the Apostle usefully concluded, we are limited in what we understand now, because on earth “we see through a glass darkly”. (1 Cor 13:12).

Our ability to describe God in human words is limited. But this does not mean we are left only with an image of God which we have constructed. Just as the Israelites and early Christians encountered God, so also we can experience God.

There is no description which fully explains what God is like. We cannot see God; we cannot prove God exists. The Bible gives us glimpses of God and tells us about some of God’s characteristics, like his love, compassion, power and creativity. God is holy – perfect and blameless. But there are elements of God that we cannot grasp because God is Mystery. God exists beyond our understanding of time and space. Even so, Christians believe that we can know God personally, even intimately, and that this is what God desires of us.

In the beginning, the book of Genesis says God made us ‘in his image’. God has given us the capacity to be like God in as much as we have the capacity to be immensely creative and to love unconditionally; we too have a sense of justice, morality and a spirituality which sets us apart from other living creatures.

Christianity teaches that God exists as three distinct elements – the Trinity – which are in relationship with each other: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son is Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explained the closeness of his relationship with his Father, saying ‘I and the Father are one’. In the same gospel Jesus says, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’. We can get an idea of what God is like by looking at the life of Jesus in the gospels.

The gospels open to us the ultimate image of God. The writer of Gospel of St John is known as the beloved disciple, often depicted lying close to Jesus, demonstrating the importance of us having a personal relationship with God. In the first epistle of St John we read “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7).      Love then is the defining characteristic of God.

This image of God as a God of unconditional love, and justice, and peace is enormously attractive, and those of us who know the reality of that love as the foundation of our lives, are truly blessed.

But it would be naive indeed of us to think, that in the socially complex world in which we live, with so much pressure to come up with instant answers to unfathomable problems, many people will take time to get to know our God of love, let alone walk the difficult path of both joy and suffering, pain and delight, which it entails.

If a person’s image of God is one of a deity who seems oblivious to all the ongoing tragedies and suffering in the world, or who is somehow punishing them by letting them or a loved one suffer or die, of course they may reject that God of love, and do so with disdain and even anger.

Yet, disaster does not always turn people away from God. In fact, it is often those who have encountered or continue to experience very bleak times in their lives that are most aware of the graciousness, mercy, friendship, forgiveness, faithfulness and endless unconditional love of their Lord and saviour. You only have to go to a church in places like South America to see and feel the joy of the people when they gather together to dance and sing before the Lord with vibrant colour, in their churches – so different from the harshness of their everyday lives.

For some people, the idea of God is simply irrelevant. Advances in science are seen to disprove the story of Creation, and for some, a misreading of scripture in a fundamentalist way adds to the speculation that there is little reality in the scriptures.

We need always to respect an attitude of healthy agnosticism, knowing that we too may go through periods of doubt and spiritual struggle, and we must respect the decisions other people arrive at with regard to God.

The question for us is: What is my image of God? And associated with that is the question: Is that image of God life giving?

It is a question not just for each of us but for our Cathedral community, because it will lie at the heart of all we do and how we do it.

Returning to the image of God from St John.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear (1Jn 4:16a and18a)                                                                            

God is love, and we can only grow in our understanding of what that means as we grow closer to Jesus, though reading the gospels, reflection, and prayer.