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Sunday 21 May 2023
Seventh Sunday of Easter

13 February 2023

Knowing God
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-16; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

By Roger Spiller
Chair of Trustees, College of Preachers

Context: a committed, enthusiastic town church congregation

Aim: to stimulate debate on key issues around knowing God

‘We have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is not this but the living God.’ So said the theologian, F.D Maurice in 1872, the same year that Marx declared religion to be the ‘opiate of the people’. But it’s even more pertinent to us today. A book of essays by theologians a few years ago, ‘Dare we speak of God in public?’ suggests the awkwardness and reserve we feel in talking directly about God. But the hope of fullness of life depends upon it. In a family conversation between God and Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel, John says: ‘This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’.




It’s knowing and being known that make us alive. Knowing someone is far more than knowing about them. I need to know about my doctor or lawyer, but I don’t need to know them. It may be unhelpful if I did. In the Bible, knowing is usually a euphemism for personal, intimate relations with another. Knowing about God or Jesus, collecting information, will make little difference to me unless it opens the door to knowing God.




We might imagine that we can know God as a result of our own experiences or our love of nature. But nature and experience in themselves are ambiguous. We can have experiences of God, without recognising or knowing the God we experience. Whether human or divine, relationships can’t be established by the changing, episodic character of experience. We know God only by faith, that is trust, which is more than experience, although we can expect moments of inspiration and elation.

God alone can reveal God. Knowing God can never be the result of human seeking and exploration, nor can we attribute it to any virtue in ourselves. Knowing God forces us to own our dependency upon God’s sovereign freedom to act as God chooses, not at our command. God can reveal or conceal his presence as God wishes and we can’t imagine that we can deny God that same freedom that we exercise in responding to other people.

We are encouraged to seek after God. But in our enquiring and searching after God as the object of our quest, we find that God is searching after us. He is the living subject, and we are the object as we try to search him out and get to know him. God is searching us out in the midst of our searching for him. And when we know him, we discover that he has been accompanying us throughout our lives.




John records that we are invited to know ‘the only true God and Jesus Christ’, who, with the Spirit is a ready-made trinitarian community. We know God, if at all, for the relationships God has. Jesus illuminates and revolutionises our knowledge of God. We might expect Jesus to uncover and make plain the mystery of God. But Jesus won’t oblige. He teaches us to know the encompassing presence and activity of God. He also shows us that knowing God involves reckoning with his mysterious otherness. But then, can we at least rely on Jesus to make his own person, teaching and actions crystal clear to us? No; the life of Jesus is mysterious, elusive. Knowledge held by the Father is hidden from him. The parables hide as well as expose his message. Jesus himself literally hides, during his ministry. But far more, we believe that God is in Christ hidden in sufferings and the cross.



How then, does God provide for us to know Godself? John says that what leads us to know God is being drawn nearer to Jesus. ‘No one comes to me’ says Jesus, ‘unless the Father who sent me draws him’. This is the divine mutual attraction of lovers. God has provided the perfect pedagogy through his entry into the human lifecycle as a baby. We too enter his story and let Jesus grow up in us through the vicissitudes of his life and ministry, kindling our own self-giving responses of love.

Might we be too consumed by the relentless demands of religion, its organisational needs, the pressure to make ourselves relevant, new projects and initiatives that become displacement activities?

Augustine said: ‘To fall in love with God is the greatest romance, to seek him is the greatest adventure, to find him is the greatest achievement’.

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