The Vision of God
Ordinary Sunday 4: 30 January, 2011
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Matthew 5: 1-12
In this morning's gospel we heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, this collection of Jesus' teachings which St Matthew gathers together in chapters 5, 6 and 7 of his gospel. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, these brief sayings, very familiar, each beginning with the words 'Blessed are... ' This morning I'd like to look at just one of the beatitudes, the sixth: 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.'
The vision of God, the beatific vision, has been one way of talking about the bliss of heaven, our future life in the world to come. This is expressed in the final verse of a well-known hymn: 'Father of Jesus, love's reward, what rapture will it be, prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee.' (NEH 410) But like all the beatitudes, this beatitude is not only about the future; it has a here and now meaning as well. Through Christ, already in this life, we begin to know the blessedness, the happiness, the joy, of the kingdom of God. Here and now we begin to experience the vision of God. In some sense we're able to see God now, in this life.
Of course we can't see God literally. As with all language about God, when we speak of 'seeing God' we're speaking metaphorically. 'To see God' is a metaphor which points to a deep knowledge, a close and personal relationship with God.
Our vision of God is through Christ. 'Show us the Father', Philip asked Jesus. And Jesus replied, 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.'(John 14:8,9) And Paul writes, 'It is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness" who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.'(2 Corinthians 4:7) It is in Christ, through the Spirit, that we see God in his glory. When we are in Christ our seeing is transformed.
The prerequisite for seeing God, Jesus tells us in the beatitude, is 'purity of heart'. What does it mean to be 'pure in heart'? We tend to think of the heart as the seat of the emotions, the feelings; we say we're 'broken-hearted' when we're very sad. But in biblical thought the heart is more than this: the heart refers not only to the emotions; the heart is the inner, essential person, the source of all activity and thought. My heart is my innermost being that shapes my entire life. My heart is what I am deep down in myself, the real me. This means that to be pure in heart is not just about avoiding sin, about being good. It's a matter of the direction of our lives, a matter of our motives and intentions, what we focus on, what is most important to us. 'Blessed are the pure in heart' means 'Blessed are those who have a pure source of life within them, whose inner principle is pure.'
Purity of heart is closely related to Jesus' call to repent, as we heard in last Sunday's gospel: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' This call to repentance means making a much greater change in our lives than simply being sorry for what we've done wrong. Repenting as Jesus meant it means making a fresh start, having a change of heart, a deep down change of our inner selves, a change which affects our whole lives. To repent means making a change in the direction of our lives: we've been going in one direction, following our own interests. To repent means we turn around and go in the opposite direction, do a U-turn, now following Christ. We make a fresh start, a new beginning, with new priorities. To repent means that we see everything in a different way, because now God is the centre of our lives. This is purity of heart.
It's not something we achieve simply by our own efforts. It's God who is to be the source of life within us. 'Create in me a clean heart, O God,' says the psalmist, 'and put a new and right spirit within me.'(Ps 51:10) To be pure of heart is to be constantly renewed and recreated by God. It is to be those whom the Holy Spirit fills, like a spring of living water, ever welling up within them to eternal life (John 4:14); those who can say with St Paul, 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.'(Galatians 2:20)
And then, Jesus tells us, if our hearts are pure, if the source of life within us is God, then what we shall see is God. When God becomes the focus of our lives, we are more and more aware of his presence with us at all times; we begin to see God in every situation, and know his presence at every moment.
One of the classics of Christian spirituality is a small book entitled, The Practice of the Presence of God, by Br Lawrence, a 17th Century lay brother in a community in Paris. He speaks of how he was habitually aware of God's presence with him, so that he turned constantly to God from moment to moment. This experience can be ours: an awareness of the presence of God from moment to moment; seeing God in every situation as Br Lawrence did. It's something we need to develop in ourselves: this simple awareness that God is here, as it were, in the depths of ourselves. It's not a matter of having to reach out to God a long way away. It's a bit like being in a room, when we think we're there by ourselves; but all of a sudden we realise we're not alone in the room; there's been someone else there all along. Even if we don't talk to them, we're aware of their presence; and if we do talk, we know they'll hear. So it can be with each of us and God. It's not that we're each in our own little empty room alone: God is always here with us, and we can live our lives aware of this, even though we're not actually thinking of God all the time, and we can turn our consciousness towards God at any moment. And so we can echo the words of Psalm 73, 'I am always with you, Lord, you hold me by my right hand.'
If this is going to happen, we must be prepared to work at deepening our relationship with God. We must take time to put down deep roots into God, deep within us, so that our faith, our relationship with God, isn't shallow and superficial, so that we grow in purity of heart, so that we see God.
Jesus used to stay in Bethany with his friends Mary and Martha. On one of his visits, Mary was sitting with Jesus, listening to him as he talked. Her sister got upset because she wasn't helping with the chores. But Jesus replied, 'Martha, Martha, you're fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best, and it will not be taken away from her.'(Luke 10:41-42)
Jesus here speaks to each of us, calling us to do what Mary was doing: simply being with him. So we need to make provision in our daily lives to have times when we stop being busy, stop activity, times to be still, to let go of distractions, to be quietly with God, spending time in his company. For our relationship with God to grow and deepen, we need to take time to be in his presence like Mary. There are various names given to this kind of prayer: meditation, contemplation, or just quiet prayer. And there are various ways in which we might go about it. But the basic aim is just to do as Mary did: to be with Jesus, in his company. Not enough time to do this? Too busy? When Desmond Tutu was Archbishop of Capetown he would spend an hour in prayer at the beginning of every day. Someone expressed their surprise that he had time to do this in such a busy life. His response was to say that he was far too busy not to have to spend an hour praying each day.
'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.' This beatitude has determined how countless Christians have sought to live their lives, seeking the vision of God. It is a beatitude which lies at the heart of Christian life: without the vision of God our Christian lives are likely to be shallow and superficial, and we'll miss out on the happiness of seeing God's face. 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.' This is a beatitude we must listen to. But important though it is, it is only one of the beatitudes. We must also hear the others, which call us to be merciful, to be peacemakers, to be meek, and so on. Our call is to love God and to love one another, to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are to look for God, to see him, at every moment, but not only in prayer and worship and contemplation. We're to see God as well in our fellow human beings, especially the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the needy. And unless our prayer, our seeing God, leads us to a deeper compassion and love for others, then we may be deluding ourselves; it's probably not God that we're seeing at all.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.