St Etheldreda's

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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Seeing the Father

Posted May 19, 2014

‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’  Obviously,  when Jesus speaks of seeing the Father,  he does not mean seeing in the literal sense, because God the Father cannot be seen.  Jesus means that he reveals what God is like.  As St John says near the beginning of his Gospel: ‘No one has ever seen God: the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him.’  When Jesus says that he who has seen him has seen the Father, he means: he who has experienced him has experienced the Father, for it is the Father who is present and active in the person of Jesus.  When we experience Jesus’ love, it is the Father’s own love that we experience.

The saying, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’, is a truly staggering claim, both because of what it says about Jesus and because of what it says about the Father.   Consider first of all what it says about Jesus.  It is a claim about Jesus’ divine status.  Jesus is only able to reveal to us what the Father is like because he is intimately united with the Father in his very being and his most secret origin.   As St John puts it: He is in the ‘bosom’ of the Father.  So when St John says that Jesus reveals what God is like, he does not mean it simply in the sense that a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa shows us what God is like.  He means it in the unique sense that in the person of the Son who became incarnate, that ultimate mystery of love which is the origin of all creation has revealed itself to us.  ‘The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

The words ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’, then, tell us something about Jesus.  They tell us that he is divine.  But I want to reflect for a moment on an equally staggering implication of those words – one that is not so commonly grasped – and that is that they tell us something not only about the divinity of the Son but also about the humanity of God the Father.  By that, I do not mean that the Father became incarnate or that the Father is human in any literal sense.  What I do mean is that the eternal character of God is truly, albeit analogously, revealed in the very human character and comportment of the man Jesus.

I suppose we do not have much difficulty in accepting that Jesus reveals God’s eternal character when he has compassion on the multitude, or when he touches the eyes of the blind, or when he offers forgiveness to sinners.  But what is more difficult to accept, and what for me is in fact the most striking implication of Jesus’ words, is that Jesus reveals the Father’s character also when he asks the woman for a drink; when he weeps over the dead Lazarus; when he humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples; when he tells his disciples, ‘My soul is troubled’; when he meekly endures being dressed as a buffoon by the soldiers; when he is vulnerable and lonely and abandoned; when he asks the guard pathetically ‘Why did you hit me?’; when he cries ‘I thirst’ from the cross; when he comes looking for Mary of Magdala on Easter morning; and when he asks Peter ‘Do you love me?’  If that is what Jesus is like, then that is what the Father is like.  As Jesus says elsewhere in St John’s Gospel: ‘The Son can do nothing of himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’   In other words: ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’

The thought that God the Father can be humble, can abase himself, can be lonely and thirsty, can protest at being slapped, can go looking for love, is profoundly moving, and if you took it seriously it would change your view of God, and maybe change your life.  The thought that God reveals himself in Jesus’ humanity touches me more deeply than the thought that Jesus shares God’s divinity.  We have become over-familiar with the thought of Jesus’ divinity, but there is something in us that resists the notion of the Father’s ‘humanity’.

Why is this?  Perhaps there is something in us that tells us that to speak of the Father’s humanity somehow detracts from his infinite power and majesty, from his utter transcendence.  But for St John, the incarnation does not detract from the Father’s utter transcendence.  It only makes it more mysterious, more exhilarating to the mind and heart, to think that the Father in his utter transcendence reveals himself in simple human love and loyalty, in humility and self-abasement, in thirsting for my affection, in wanting to be assured of my love, in being troubled on my account, in wanting to suffer for me, in taking second place to me.  The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son who waited anxiously for his son to return and ran and kissed him when at last he did, tells me more about God the Father than all the thunder that shook Mount Sinai.

Speaking of Mount Sinai: I suppose another factor that prevents us from thinking of God in tender, homely terms is that we have been brought up to believe that God is always there with his rule book, always on the lookout for our misdemeanours, always ready to judge and condemn and punish: and that one day we must face a terrible judgement before a God whose righteousness we can never begin to satisfy, whose holiness we cannot face.

Did St John intend to deny all this when he encouraged us to see God through the prism of Jesus’ tender humanity?  I think he did.  But that is not to say that he made light of the moral seriousness of God, or denied that we are accountable to God for our lives.  We are accountable.  But we are accountable not to a fearsome judge but to someone who loves us intensely.  And that is accountability indeed.  I would sooner face a judge at a tribunal than someone who had been good to me and I had repaid them with evil, someone who was humble and I had rebuffed them in my arrogance, someone who loved me generously, and I had been too full of myself to care.  But that is what judgment consists in, and that is where we shall be accountable.  ‘The Father judges no one’, Jesus says in St John’s Gospel, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son.’  And then later (it is still Jesus who speaks): ‘I judge no one.’  ‘This is the judgement, that the light came into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil.’  It is not God who judges us but we who judge ourselves when we see what a God we have rejected.

Begin to see God as a friend who needs you, someone who feels for you, a lover who commits himself to you and is ready to pay the price.  In contemplating the human face of God, we shall become more like God.  That is to say, we shall become more human.

Fr Tom Deidun

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