Eucharist Sermon - 17 January 2021

The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Revelation 5:1–10; John 1:43–end
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity


There’s a style of painting that came out of the Impressionist movement which is usually referred to as Pointillism, because the images are made up of thousands of individual dots of colour. If you stand close to the painting all you can see are random spots; if you stand back they somehow fall into shapes, evoking people, buildings, landscapes. Above all, they capture not only the solid objects but the light, the heat, the shifting wind, the atmosphere. Looking at Seurat’s famous painting in the National Gallery, you can see not only the bathers by the river but also feel the oppressive mid-day heat, the blinding sun, the stillness – and you imagine the sound of the boy in the river calling to someone on the far bank, the coolness of water, and you begin to long for a glass of chilled wine. It is a tantalising vision; an escape in the midst of a dark, damp northern winter and what feels an interminable lockdown. All of this is the creation of thousands of spots of colour. We see the scene and we don’t see it; we see – but more importantly– we sense what it is like.

There were heretics in the early Church who thought they could name God; that there was a way of referring to God which captured and defined precisely what the divine nature is. Others objected that whatever we call God, and whatever names we might use, we can never really know what God is, only what He’s like; they insisted that there are no words or names that can fully express God, only ‘ways of speaking’ which can tell us how He acts and what He is like. So, in terms of the image with which I began: against those who thought that naming God was like looking at a photograph, they insisted that the names we use of God are like the experience of looking at thousands of individual dots of colour: the names evoke Him, give us a sense of what He’s like, invite us to relate to Him, but they can never fully and finally capture Him.

Scripture is full of many different names for God: ‘El, Elohim, I am Who I Am, I Am He who Is; the Holy One, Almighty, King, Lord of Sabaoth; the Creator; the Just, the Good; the Righteous; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’. None of these names capture the nature of God but they do allow us to sense Him and glimpse something of Him, even if we can never gaze directly at Him. As one early Church Father, Basil of Caesarea, comments: ‘God said that he was the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, for this is my everlasting name and my memorial to generations of generations (Exodus 3:15). Yet God did not even disclose his name to these saints, namely, to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob, and much less did he reveal what his substance is! For he said: I am the Lord, and I appeared to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, as I am their God, and I did not disclose my name to them (Exodus 6: 2-3). Clearly he said this because his name is too great for human ears’.

The first chapter of John’s Gospel, the end of which we heard as our gospel this morning, is also, I think, partly about how we can name God. It begins with the famous Prologue, in which the eternally begotten Word of God is identified as the one who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word incarnate isn’t immediately named Jesus, however; John simply tells us that He is God; He is life and light; that He reveals God’s glory and is full of grace and truth. So, like the dots in a pointillist painting we see the Word not as He is in his Godhead, but as he has been revealed to us in his manhood; as the light, life, grace and truth that illuminates, vivifies, and sustains us. He’s only finally given the name ‘Jesus Christ’ by John in verse 17. Chapter one continues in very much the same way: John the Baptist resists being named or identified, except as a voice that points to a reality beyond itself: he denies that he is the Messiah… Elijah… the Prophet’ and cries out only that he is a voice, making straight a path for the ‘Lord’. He identifies this ‘Lord’ as the one on whom God’s spirit will come down and rest; the ‘The Chosen One’. Later on, as Jesus passes by, John proclaims ‘There is the Lamb of God’. The disciples call him ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher’. The first to follow Jesus, Andrew, tells his brother Simon Peter that he has found the ‘Messiah’. In the passage we read this morning, in which the next two disciples, Philip and Nathanael, are called, Jesus is given even more titles: overcome by the fact that Jesus had recognised him before he had even met him, Nathaniel answers, ‘Rabbi…. You are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel’. Finally, at the end of the chapter, Jesus identifies himself as the ‘Son of Man’. All of these names and titles, dispersed through chapter one of John’s Gospel, like the multicoloured dots I’ve described, evoke for us a sense of who the Word is that has become incarnate for us; what he is like; how he acts; what He is to us. No name can fully comprehend Him; instead we are given glimpses, a voice, titles from the Old Testament, from philosophy, from everyday Jewish life, which together point towards the eternal Word who has made Himself known to us in becoming man, but who can never be fully grasped in his divine Godhead.

So names are what we might call ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ words: they are a beginning rather than an end; they can’t fully capture what they name but they do evoke some characteristic aspect or quality. This is as true of human names as of divine names. When Andrew’s brother Simon (Peter) is brought to Jesus in the same first chapter of John, Jesus looked at him and said: ‘You are Simon son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ that is, Peter,, ‘The Rock’. Peter’s name, too, is one that tells us not what he is, but what he is like’.

When Augustine reflects on the impossibility of ever naming God, he has God say: ‘If you fail to grasp what I am to myself, you can grasp what I am to you’. I think he means that although we can never fully know or grasp the divine nature, we can relate to Him as He has revealed Himself to us – and the first chapter of John’s gospel makes clear how this happens when the Word of God becomes incarnate and appears to us in a multitude of different names which, like dots of jewelled light, can never contain, capture or define him but do refract Him, allowing us to see and know Him, not so with our mind and reason, as with our heart, as the light, the life, the truth, the one who saves.

We can never what God is to Himself; but let us give thanks and praise that, through his gracious incarnation, we can know what he is to us.