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which is as if it were an out of body experience, which is me waiting to get into our car and standing there speechless, in some intellectual catatonic state. I think for days I barely spoke. It was akin to a religious experience. 

In contrast to that two months earlier, around Easter, Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth, staring Robert Powell came out on television as a mini-series.  I suppose like Star Wars we had seen nothing like it before. I think my family were struck at how I was glued to the set which was a bit strange perhaps for a nine year old boy.  I cannot say that there was any buzz in the classroom over this but quietly I was deeply moved. When at secondary school the RE teacher used to wheel out the television to play VHS extracts I used to want to die it because I did not want classmates to see my tears and then get the social suicide that came with that. Zeffirelli in his portrayal did something like an Ignatian meditation which puts the viewer into the center of an imaginative spirit-led experience.

Though Star Wars was every kid’s dream film it did not move me in the same way as the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.  Star Wars director George Lucas proposes in his space opera a mystical all-binding spiritual entity called the ‘Force’. To quote Alec Guiness’ character Obi Wan Kenobi: “The Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things, it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” I would suggest that in many ways this popular piece of sci-fi mysticism fits our culture very well in that modern secular spirituality abhors a personal God.  There is something in the culture which prefers a Force to Yahweh-Jehovah and this maybe because a an all-binding energy field is safer and more controllable than a deity that has a personality. Of course, past generations have misrepresented God at times as an angry distant father figure who enjoys annihilating heretics and watches our every move with a divine-like CCTV. Though I want to deal with that image in another session I would like to us assume that this is monumental misreading of the Old Testament. The effect however is that modern men and women, themselves the product of the Enlightenment and consumerism crave their own independence do not want a God (or any other power) that seemingly seeks to be their overlord. So the baby goes out with the bath water and we ditch the personal God for the Force. Therefore we can all say ‘I am spiritual but not religious,’  seeing religious as some backward philosophy of a bygone age that we do well to grow out of.

In this I am haunted by the motto of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1890) who spoke of  our relationship with God, as Cor ad cor loquitur - heart speaks to heart. Or, perhaps a well known hymn verse could be employed.

There is a place of full release
Near to heart of God
A place where all is joy and peace
Near to the heart of God.

It is this I would like to explore of more in the next part of this session.

The Experience of the Heart of God.

Theory is great but on its own dry. I suggest most of us benefit more from knowing, feeling and interacting with God. Though the God of classical theology is ultimately unknowable His heart moves towards us. Indeed, his heart must be one of the facets of being made in his image. (Genesis 1.26) In loving we are doing something that is Divine. The contemporary wedding liturgy begins with the quote from 1 John 4.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Love – the positive communication of the heart is either of Divine origin or it is nothing bar a biological mirage. Either the universe is moved towards love or it is an atomic accident where love, meaning, justice, bliss, beauty are things we have invited to make life cushier. What we cannot have is some middle of the way agnostic position which fudges this. Love is either something or nothing. If love is nothing there is no point to anything and running an extermination camp or manage children’s hospital are morally equivalent because morality is simply a human construct. So if we take the theological view to love is to experience something of the mystery of God. In Heaven God does not talk English, Latin or Hebrew, but love.  In saying that I am trying to push something robustly intellectual rather than sentimental. Indeed, I suggest that the current fashionable atheism is sentimental and is a project of the rhetoric rather than the intellect. They become the fundamentalist they so abhor.

The God of Old Testament

There are more instances of God’s compassion in the Hebrew Bible than we might imagine. It is all to easy to have, as I mentioned earlier, a caricature.   Little things can be missed as for instance the fact that God made Adam and Eve clothes when they left Eden these were made from animal skins. In other words one of God’s living creature had to die for humanity’s new condition.   In parable-speak this is communicating that sacrifice and loss are going to be a significant part of God’s understanding, his heart, and the result of our disobedience.  Perhaps it also foresees the mass consumption, the processing of billions of animals and other resources, that underpin our economies.   In the same book we also read of Abraham bartering with the Almighty for the lives of the righteous in Sodom.  It is as this conversation has been prepared by God as a means to test human compassion. Moses’ conversations with God at the burning bush also demonstrates the Divine imperative for justice and the underdog.

Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.   (Exodus 3. 7-9)

We easily forget that the mythical pagan deities had no heart for human life and the lowest castes were abandoned to their own pitiful fate.

The experience of the compassion of God evolves in the Old Testament and becomes more explicit in more recent texts, the Psalms, the Wisdom literature and the Prophets. Isaiah for example recognises that his own have walked in darkness and later on sees that the fasting that the Lord seeks is not ritual but a reaching out to the marginalised. This is also played out in the prophecy of Amos. (Isaiah 58:5) The most outlandish of experiences of God’s big heartedness is given in the prophecy Hosea who speaks of God pleading for his spouse, Israel, to return to him.  God is not worried about her sins but just wants her back.

Jesus as the Expression of God’s Heart

In the incarnation of God, in the person of Jesus, we encounter the heart of God in all its fullness. Here Jesus presents himself as the one who is gentle and humble in heart, whose yoke is easy and burden light, and who invites all who are weary and heavy hearted to come to him.  (Matthew 11.28) He is the one who summons us to forgive seventy seven-times and when faced with the woman caught in adultery does not judge.  It is him who cries over Jerusalem as we heard in last Sunday’s lectionary (Luke 13:34).  It is the same Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus giving us the smallest verse in scripture – Jesus wept (John 11.35).

Jesus’ death on the Cross is the final demonstration of the his love for humanity. ‘’ Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘For God so loved the world that He did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (John 3.16) And, the Church is to model this love and Jesus prays that Christians may experience the unity that exists between the Father and the Son (John 17) in their own fellowship.

So much of our hymnody is wrapped up in the magnitude of God’s heart. One particular favourite is an ancient prayer/song of St Anselm of Canterbury (1109).

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
  You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
  tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
  in sickness you nurse us,
  and with pure milk you feed us.

The Spirit who lifts us into the heart of God

Paul (and this is verified by the Tradition) speaks of our experience of God’s heart as driven by the Holy Spirit.  It is God the Holy Spirit that makes this possible. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8.26). Prayer at its highest vocation becomes our union with Jesus Christ, his prayers become ours. This Eastern Orthodox prayer best sums this up.

“In unexpected events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me the physical strength to bear the labors of this day. Direct my will. Teach me to pray. Pray in me. ~Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

We so often think prayer is about us sending our concerns to God but this prayer reminds us that it can also be about our union with Christ’s prayer. This is what the Franciscans mean when they talk of contemplation in action. That the more we deepen in prayer, the closer we come to the heart of God. In this mystical writers have described experiences of coming to know the weight, both in its joy and its sorrow of Jesus’ love for humanity. That this “knowing” is transformative and like the Transfiguration experience leaves us seeing the world in a different way.

Group Discussion

1.  What part of the Bible most touches you?

2.  Can you think of a hymn which speaks of God’s heart?

3.  Can we get to know God in prayer?