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How do we know God?

Just for a little while Anna came to our church as an intern. She had just left school, was rather quiet but at the same time so sure that she wanted one day to be a priest, so prayerful and determined, shy but confident of her faith. I asked her “How have you come to know God so well?” She looked at me puzzled; my question made little sense in her eyes and in its essence her answer was “It just happened.”

Michael LEUNIG who is an Australian cartoonist explains (in Rowan William’s book The Edge of Words) that as a child he first understood God from his parents, as they wandering about the house might say things like:

“Where in God’s name is the hammer?”, to which Mrs Leunig would often reply “God only knows.” Which leaving aside any special prescience about hammers suggests that God is mysterious and inexplicable. So Anna and Michael Leunig start from the same place, running of language to explain what their experience of God has been.

Now the disciples were all together in one place, drawn together by their belief in Jesus, in his teaching, suffering, resurrection and ascension. Together they experienced something that they could not easily describe but which excited them, which they shared totally and the power of which drew them to outdo themselves giving us that unforgettable picture of Peter, a simple Galilean, fisherman, speaking eloquently and persuasively to an international crowd of visitors to Jerusalem.

I went recently to see Patrick playing in an intervarsity ice hockey final at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield, a resounding indoor stadium where almost 8,000 spectators had gathered, partisan for their teams they were cheering and chanting the roof off. Watching my boy play you could see how uplifting this all was for him he played well. There was a moment when a fast moving puck came speeding in the air towards the goal; somehow he stretched out his arm and plucked it from nowhere into his catcher. I might have thought it out of reach, too fast, too well on target, too hard to see but no there it was safely in is gloves. There is a mystery known to all sports men and women that an occasion can buoy them up, propel them to special performance beyond even their own expectations and I suggest this was the sort of feeling experienced by the disciples, that day in Jerusalem.

The crowds gathered at the sound of the wind and each one of them heard the disciples speaking to them. Uplifted by their experience the disciples, probably 120 or so, were all talking about the same thing: the wondrousness of God, that they had felt and known.

Those Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and others all came with different understandings of God. The starting points were and are individual, Anna’s and Leunig’s, mine and yours are not the same and it is really difficult to explore because we run out of words to convey the indefinable. It is altogether too complex for a single moment of truth which is why we need and have the Holy Spirit. We cannot work from Leunig’s parents “God only knows” nor from Anna’s “It just happens,” we need God to be shown to us personally, continually and from where we are.

“When the spirit comes, he will guide you into all truth” said Jesus as we heard a moment ago in John’s Gospel.

We often talk at Pentecost about the miracle of speaking many languages but perhaps the miracle is of the many hearers. There is a thirst in all of us for knowing and the Holy Spirit is revealing. God is not waiting silently somewhere for us to discover Him but he actively sent the Advocate, Counsellor, Paraclete, Holy Ghost, the Spirit to meet each one of us, to meet us whatever our starting point, whatever our language, to buoy us up, to excite us and to guide and lead us to know God as well as we possibly can.


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