What does God look like? If you’re a bit of a movie buff, this is a question which you’ve probably encountered one way or another. Whether it’s Rex Ingram in ‘The Green Pastures’, Morgan Freeman in ‘Bruce Almighty’ or Alanis Morisette in ‘Dogma’, the way in which we picture God says something of what we believe about God.
Maybe it’s a question you’ve played with yourself; centuries of western art have taken inspiration from the vision of God in the book of Daniel, giving us an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud.
As ever, though, the tricky theological questions are best answered by under-tens. A group of children were invited to draw God as they imagined God to be; a seven year old drew an old man with a long beard sitting on a cloud, with enormous earlobes. ‘So that he can hear everything we say’, she explained. Another child explained his picture: ‘God wears one side pink with a dress and one side blue with trousers.’ One child drew a surgeon, arms aloft with a scalpel ready to swoop into the exposed entrails of a person out for six on a hospital bed: ‘God is inside every living being, so my doctor has seen God when he cuts people open.’
In our reading from John’s Gospel this evening, we eavesdrop in on part of a long conversation between Jesus and his friends. Jesus knows that soon, he will die, and so he shares a last meal with his friends before the inevitable will happen, and pours out his heart to them, telling them all about the love that lays itself down for its friends, the love that the Father wants all people to know, and the Spirit who will come and live in the hearts of those who love God. In this conversation, Philip asks that same question; ‘Jesus, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Show us what God looks like, Jesus. If anyone can do it, it’s you.
I like to imagine Jesus sighing heavily and looking at Philip with that unique blend of love and exasperation that teachers and parents know all too well: ‘Come on, Philip. Do we honestly have to go through this again? Haven’t you got it yet?’
The translators tidy up the grammar of Jesus’ answer, but in Greek the hint couldn’t be any heavier: ‘So great a time I am with you, Philip, and you still haven’t known me?’ I am with you. There is it, the divine clue that has been dropped seven times through John’s Gospel; I am…the bread of life. I am…the true vine. I am…the resurrection and the life. I am. The resonances of this word don’t just serve as a reminder to Philip of all that Jesus has taught, though. The echoes go much further back, all the way to the mysterious encounter that Moses had at the burning bush when he asked the trepidatious question to the God who spoke of a freedom to which Moses himself would lead the people: ‘Whom shall I say sent me?’ The answer from the burning bush: I am. I am that I am. This is my name forever, and my title through all generations.
And now, in this last supper with his friends, this is the name that Jesus is taking as his own. I am, Jesus says. If you’ve seen me, you know what God looks like, because everything that is true of God through the great winding story of the Old Testament is true in Jesus of Nazareth. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.
I don’t blame Philip for not getting it, though; Jesus, the humble carpenter turned renegade rabbi, from an ordinary little place… If Philip had been expecting to see God in a dazzling show of brilliance, no wonder he missed seeing God in the dusty face and the knarled hands of Jesus. If he’d thought a little more, though, he might have remembered those poignant words of the prophet Isaiah, foreseeing the suffering servant who would take upon himself our sins; ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
The incredible, wonderful truth is that if we want to know what God looks like, if we want to see God, we don’t need to look for shows of dazzling brilliance; God, the creator of heaven and earth, the infinite power that loves more than we could ever possibly imagine – God chooses to be seen in the humble, little things. God chose to make himself seen in a dusty rabbi from the countryside. And the God who chose to make himself seen in the form of the humble man from Nazareth still chooses to make himself seen in the humble things of our lives today.
It was such a joy to be with Caroline yesterday at the Abbey in the very special service of ordination to the priesthood. One of the most solemn moments in an ordination service is when the ancient song ‘Veni Sancti Spiritus’ is sung; ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ The Bishop laid his hands on Caroline and prayed that the Spirit of God would come down upon Caroline to empower her for this priestly ministry which she will be sharing with you here at St Mary’s over the next few years. Then, later in the service, the Bishop celebrated with us the great family meal of the church, Holy Communion, and prayed: ‘Send the Holy Spirit on your people.’
Now ordination services are, to be honest, a dazzling show of brilliance – the bishops all have their best bling on, the singing is out of this world and the cathedral is packed with people in their Sunday best – but at the heart of it, are ordinary, humble things. Hands, bread, wine. These are the humble things which God uses to make himself seen. These are the things through which the Spirit of God comes into a world that is crying out to know where God is, what God looks like.
‘Show us the Father’, Philip asks. Jesus’ answer: ‘If you’ve seen me, then you’ve seen God’, goes for us here tonight, too, because the same God who made himself known in the humble face of Jesus makes himself known in our ordinary lives, too. A while ago, I took my church on a trip to the Coptic Cathedral at Stevenage, an incredible place with vast icons that are painted – or, more accurately, written – by a young Egyptian man. We all came away deeply moved and inspired.
On the return visit, I welcomed the Coptic Christians to our little church with an apologetic shrug of my shoulders: ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have any icons here to show you.’ The response from the Egyptian man was to clap me on the back and say ‘Of course you do! You have a roomful of the most beautiful icons. ‘Icon’ in Greek means ‘image’, and each one of you here is created in the image of God, so you have the most beautiful icons of all. You are all living icons of the living God.’
That’s a wonderful thing to say. But it’s not always easy to see it in ourselves, because it’s not easy to believe it about ourselves – who, me? A living icon of the living God?
This is why we need each other as Christians, to help us see God in each other when it’s not easy for us to see Him in ourselves. It’s why we particularly need priests. Priests are dedicated to helping us see God in us and among us. This is, at heart, what priests are for: to help us see God, and to see ourselves and each other as God sees us. All Christians do this in all sorts of wonderful ways, but this is what priests have given themselves to, hook, line and sinker. This what priests are about: helping us see the Father and ourselves and each other as He sees us, his beloved children.
Priests do this by caring, by being among people just like Jesus was. Priests help us see God in the humble, everyday stuff of our lives, in the good and the bad. They help us see God when we need him most, when we are bereaved or burdened, lost or alone. They help us see God in a world where God’s presence is obscured by sin. They help us see God in ourselves, as they pronounce absolution of our sin. They help us see God in each other, even or maybe especially in those whom we find most difficult. They help us see God in the simple gifts of bread and wine.
This doesn’t happen by magic, or because priests are more special than everyone else; this happens because of the gift of the Spirit that is given in ordination – Come, Holy Spirit. And it is not a gift to be squandered or spent on itself; this gift of the Spirit is given so that priests can pray, as the Bishop did yesterday and as Caroline will as she leads us in Holy Communion in just a short while, ‘Send the Holy Spirit on your people.’ Caroline is, as we all are, a humble, ordinary person. She will need your prayers, because the task of helping people to see God and themselves as God sees them is no easy one.
What does God look like? Well, friends, keep watching. You’re about to see.