what is God like?

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

John 14:8-9

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

Hebrews 1:1-3a

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2

When we think of God, what comes to mind? Do we think of a God of judgment, ready to catch us in our latest misstep or sin? Do we think of God as an angry wrath-full God, with whom sinners should be on more than edge, even shuddering? Or maybe we think of God as something like a complacent Teddy Bear who doesn’t care and with whom everything is fine. Or maybe God is just something we haven’t given that much thought to. Perhaps we chalk it down to mystery, and just don’t know.

We find out that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but that he fulfills time and time again prophecies which are attributed to God as if he were God or God was in him. And we find out that indeed it’s all of the above.

Jesus spoke about the Father again and again, particularly so in John’s gospel account. So for Thomas to inquire about just who this Father really is in a way is not surprising. I can picture myself doing the same, and in my imagination see myself in Thomas at least to some extent. But Jesus seems surprised and makes it clear that when Thomas and the others, and all of us see him, they see the Father.

We might well say that Jesus is God’s final word. He is after all “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

That doesn’t mean we don’t take into account all of what Scripture says about God. But it also means that we interpret all of that in light of Christ, who comes both to fulfill it, and as its fulfillment. And how he did that was more than a surprise, not anticipated at all. They expected God to send the Deliverer to a faithful Israel who would overthrow the Romans, the pagans, the godless, and set up a kingdom which would rule with an iron rod over all the nations, all of this according to the Pharisees, and one of their own, Saul of Tarsus (later to become Paul) with resurrection power.* So it should be no surprise at all when Christ comes and does completely different than that, that people wondered. Yes, there was no way to ignore him and what followed, but it just didn’t add up with their understanding, their interpretation of Scripture.

And then at the end, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross, thus under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So there was no doubt that something was amiss here.

Oddly enough though, I believe that’s where we understand at least the heart of God and I believe who God is by looking at the cross and Jesus hanging there. God shows God’s self by becoming one of us in the Incarnation, faithfully lives and teaches and acts to help us, and then suffers the worst death of that time, the death of the cross. Suffering physically in an excruciating way, emotionally and spiritually over the feeling of being rejected by humans and abandoned by God. And all out of love. And all who put their faith in him are forgiven and receive new life, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are taken into a new existence by the Spirit, into the new creation beginning even here and now in and among us in Christ. A life for us now which paradoxically in resurrection power means taking the way of the cross, becoming more and more like Jesus in his death, and therefore more like God was and is and forever will be (Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 13:8).

And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the climax of all of this. Jesus is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, thus “lion” once in that book, and how? By being a lamb (28 or 29 times) right up to the end, on the throne with God. Coming with his robe dipped in his own blood with his faithful, the victory through his own death and the sword coming out of his mouth, in other words the word of his mouth, what he says. That’s how he unexpectedly fulfills God’s promises (Revelation 19:11-16).**

How do we understand God? Who is God? I believe we see it in a man hanging on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago. And all else must be interpreted and seen in that light. Otherwise just like the Jews of old, we’ll indeed miss it, as I believe many are today.

In and through Jesus.

*See Tim Gombis’s most helpful book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry.     

**See Michael J. Gorman’s most helpful book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.

the one constant

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Scripture points us to Jesus, and God’s fulfillment of all things in and through him. One might want to say that Scripture is the constant, and it’s certainly central in all traditions of the Christian faith, of the faith itself, as we might put it. But it points beyond itself to Jesus.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that we shouldn’t pay close attention to all the details in Scripture, because indeed we should. Pre-Christ, during his time on earth, and post-Christ we might say, meaning after his ascension. Jesus made that clear:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

And what is accomplished includes everything. The church should be the light in Jesus which both exemplifies the beginning of that, as well as speaking out on it by those who are pastors and theologians and lay people who learn from such and are so gifted.

Jesus is the one forever constant, and God’s will fulfilled in him. To bring us into the fullness of God the Source of All Being, the Eternal Word, and the Holy Spirit. To right all wrongs and make all things new.

And the church is central to the beginning of this now. In and through Jesus.

blessedly slowing down to gather one’s thoughts (and more)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Ecclesiastes is one of those books of Scripture which has always fascinated me, but also on which I struggle to get a handle on. The writer, mostly “the Teacher”- Qoheleth, takes us through a whirlwind of life experiences “under the sun,” with the conclusion that in the end none of it really satisfies. The book makes it clear that we should give ourselves fully to whatever our lot is, and enjoy the simple gifts of God. With the conclusion in the end that when all has been considered we’re to fear God and keep God’s commandments, with the realization that we will be held accountable for the choices we make.

All of us live in experience, even when we’re trying to understand Scripture texts. If we approach that correctly, it seems to me that it all has to do with life, yes life “under the sun” as we read in Ecclesiastes, as well as life in the context of God’s kingdom come in Jesus, present now, and to be consummated into its fullness on the renewed heaven and earth in the life to come. To want to escape from experience is not a good place to be. Instead we need by God’s grace to begin to get a grip on reality, on the true basics, we might even say basic basics. And set ourselves to live in that.

Fearing God is perhaps the most basic starting point of all. It’s simply the realization that God is the “Source of All Being,” the “Eternal Word,” and “Holy Spirit.”* We owe our existence and everything else that is good to God. And with that privilege to us humans indeed comes responsibility.

Jesus fulfills what none of us can accomplish ourselves, so that we can slow down, and blessedly let God catch up with our feverish, often misdirected steps. So that we might gather our thoughts so that we can begin to settle down on what is most important and what will bring us life. Out of the whirlwinds of the world and of our own making. Into the grace and peace of God. In and through Jesus.

*From morning and evening offices in Voices Together hymnal. 

what new world is opening up for us today?

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:36-42

When Jesus came, he opened up an entirely new world for any who might listen and be open. Israel was moved by story, and Jesus and the story he brings by his life and teaching, death and resurrection, really does upset the apple cart. It essentially turns the world as understood by the people of his time, specifically Jesus’ own people, Jewish, it turns their world upside down. Instead of a Messiah who would conquer by conquest, or by God thundering out of the sky to destroy the enemy, this Messiah would be condemned and nailed to a cross, the sure sign to them that he was no Messiah at all. On top of that, under God’s curse no less (Deuteronomy 21:23). But we know the end of the story. On the third day God raised Jesus to life. Then after forty days of appearing to his disciples and other believers, he ascends into heaven at the right hand of the Father. And through him, the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter speaks, pointing to a fulfillment of Scripture with a story which you can find hints of in the Hebrew Bible, but nevertheless is new. And an entirely new world is completely opened up, now within the apostles grasp because of the coming of the Spirit. And Peter articulates that.

The reaction from faithful Jews present who were living according to the story of Judaism in which they were raised, and we can say for all intents and purposes were largely faithful to God, or at least their understanding of God and God’s will is nothing short of shock and stop. They are ready for change, an adjustment of course which would be abrupt and radical. The story in which they had been raised was now seen to be incomplete. The story of Jesus brought a sense of fulfillment, but also even displacement of the story which they had understood, in which they had been raised. This doesn’t mean for a second that the story in the Hebrew Bible was not important for its place and time, nor that it no longer had anything to teach God’s people. It just meant that what it pointed to was fulfilled in Jesus. In God becoming human in Jesus in complete identification with humanity, so that humans could be identified with Jesus and find the new story which he brings, in which they’re forever to live, beginning even now, the only story that never ends.

For me this is most helpful. We don’t live according to any of the world’s norms, nor even the norms of God’s people of old except where those correspond with the new vision Jesus brings. We see everything along with all of life in terms of Jesus. And that brings nothing less than the beginning of an entirely new world opening up to us. One we get to be participants in as followers together of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all is great or easy afterward, that we’ll have it all together, as we see clearly from the New Testament. It does mean that there’s an inevitable movement of the Spirit through the church to bring God’s light and love into the world in and through a cross-shaped, love-for-all life. The beginning of so much to come even in this life. In and through Jesus.

Correction in Saturday’s post, Jesus’ freedom proclamation (Juneteenth in the United States): “May the Lord help us, and lead us to see how we white folks can help people of color to live as equals among us, most importantly how people of color can help us in this.”

Three books I referred to which influenced this post, all highly recommended: Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings. Acts by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel by Justo L. González.

 

Augustine: Love, and do what you will.

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5

The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love—love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.

1 Timothy 1:5; MSG

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Augustine

Augustine’s quote is taken to mean that one can do whatever they feel like and want to do if they love God. But that’s not precisely what Augustine meant, and can open us up to misunderstanding. His point in the context of his sermon was that whatever we do is to be done out of love. Love for God and love for neighbor flowing together. As revealed in Christ in his fulfillment of God’s will. And then everything we do if done in that way will be good.

I think a good way to assess our actions and thoughts, indeed the fruit of our lives is to ask ourselves whether love for God and for our neighbor is our motivation and animating impulse, what moves us. If so, then we’re living in God’s grace as God intends for us in Christ. If not, then we’re living in something else, foreign to that grace. Sometimes we may simply be struggling to accept God’s love and then live in that love at all. God understands those times. We should still try to love, even when the sense of it is far removed from us. But make no mistake, the God who is love as John points out elsewhere and Paul as well, wants us to live in love, in everything we think, do and say. In and through Jesus. 

breaking new ground

While Jeremiah was still locked up in jail, a second Message from God was given to him:

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

“This is what God, the God of Israel, has to say about what’s going on in this city, about the homes of both people and kings that have been demolished, about all the ravages of war and the killing by the Chaldeans, and about the streets littered with the dead bodies of those killed because of my raging anger—about all that’s happened because the evil actions in this city have turned my stomach in disgust.

“But now take another look. I’m going to give this city a thorough renovation, working a true healing inside and out. I’m going to show them life whole, life brimming with blessings. I’ll restore everything that was lost to Judah and Jerusalem. I’ll build everything back as good as new. I’ll scrub them clean from the dirt they’ve done against me. I’ll forgive everything they’ve done wrong, forgive all their rebellions. And Jerusalem will be a center of joy and praise and glory for all the countries on earth. They’ll get reports on all the good I’m doing for her. They’ll be in awe of the blessings I am pouring on her.

Jeremiah 33:1-9; MSG

Jeremiah was in prison, and it was not a promising time. God’s judgment had come and was coming, and the people neither liked that, nor the messenger of it, Jeremiah. God’s promise here though is to see beyond that judgment to God’s restoration. Not that we should brush off the judgment as unimportant, or just a necessary nuisance until we get to the good part. Judgment is actually a necessary prelude to God’s blessing. What the passage is referring to is God’s judgment of the wicked to prepare the nation for what is just and good. In our own lives, God’s judgment comes in the form of loving discipline, to clean house in our lives in ways which we may or may not understand, and certainly we have yet to enter at least fully into that experience.

Breaking new ground is about God’s change in our minds, hearts, and lives. That’s the groundbreaking I’m thinking of here. It requires a commitment before God by us so that God can see that through with the least resistance from us, even cooperating with that insofar as God helps us do so. Again, the prayer God encouraged Jeremiah to pray is applicable to us here:

‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

Jeremiah 33:3; MSG

And later in this passage we see what we now know to be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s answer to Jeremiah in Jesus:

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Breaking new ground we can see from this passage begins with God’s word, God’s promise, and prayer. We have to expect God to answer, but not dialed down to our own expectation. But instead with answers and blessing we would never arrive to on our own, not even in a million years. In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

“Jesus says/said” or “The Bible says”?

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.

Matthew 5:21-22; MSG

Jesus’s words here are so powerful, especially in the present days when words are so cheap, and word hits on others seem like a dime a dozen. But that’s not what this post is about. We know the well known exclamation from Billy Graham, I can hear the words ringing from him: “The Bible says!” Someone recently quoted someone else suggesting that this is a weakness within evangelicalism, a downplaying of Jesus’s words through an emphasis over and over and over again on what the Bible says.

I do like the idea of getting back to the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And really studying our Lord’s teaching, yes, what Jesus said. As well as his life. After all we’re supposed to be his followers. Are we steeped in his words, his example, his call to us? Of course preceded by Jesus as God’s gift to us. We can’t follow his example apart from the gift Jesus is to us.

I know some of the criticism. We don’t need red letter Bibles because every part of God’s (written) word is important. I’m not crazy about red letter Bibles, maybe for other reasons, and believe all of Scripture is important for us even to understand Jesus, to see his life and teachings in proper context. So every book has its place, even if its directions are not for today, a good case in point being most of the book of Leviticus.

It seems to me that it would be healthy for us to start examining our positions on issues in the context of Jesus’s teachings, and what follows in the New/Second Testament with the backdrop of the First/Old Testament in consideration. Yes, Jesus sheds more light, after all he said he was present to fulfill Scripture, to bring it to its intended conclusion, however precisely that’s done. Sometimes in direct analogy, but other times showing something better to the point that the other is really not analogous.

So yes, maybe we do need to adopt more of a stance concerned with Jesus’s words. But not over the Bible, but within the context of the Bible. Eugene Peterson’s rendering above I think brings that out. Jesus was not at all telling his hearers to set aside Scripture, or even a saying in Scripture, but rather pouring his light onto it. It had its provisional place in time, and the letter of the law may still apply. But Jesus was getting at the heart of it. The truth of everything revealed in Jesus himself, what he said and did. Who God is and what God is about found in and through Jesus.

losing one’s focus (and one’s mind)

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:34-38

The call to follow Jesus is singularly one of focus and then acting accordingly. Certainly within the entire picture is all of Scripture, sorting out what is Jesus-like and in accord with the fulfillment Jesus brought from that which is not. Just because some person of God did something in Scripture does not make it right, or at least not right for us today. Remember Elijah calling down fire from heaven, and Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting to do the same?

How Jesus’s words to his disciples during that time translate into our day is no small order, though I think there’s surely some direct corollary. We don’t have crosses now, but we must embrace the path of suffering for following Christ, and not just in some kind of western religious, salvation kind of way where nowadays so much about that at least expressed is about religious freedom. No, the way of Jesus can often strike right in the face of religious leaders, and certainly runs against the grain of the world’s way of thinking and action. Might doesn’t make right in God’s kingdom in King Jesus, nor lording it over others. Sacrificial, even suffering servant love wins the day in God’s eyes.

I have to ask when I see the mess today: “Are we losing our collective minds?” It’s so easy for us to lose our focus. And then go off on all sorts of directions other than where the Lord is going.

If we’re going to be true followers of Jesus, we need to learn to put first things first, get back to basics in what we’re focusing on, thinking about, and then practicing. It’s a matter of unswerving devotion to Christ, nothing else having that same place. It is also about being changed by the renewing of our minds so that we do not live in the ways of the world. We are called to follow Christ with the difference God’s kingdom brings- into our world, into all the world. In and through Jesus.

not seeing the forest for the trees

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 12:8

It’s easy, as they say to miss the forest for the trees. We can get so hung up on this or that detail, seemingly important to us, maybe even important in their place, but in doing so we often fail to see the big picture. And the matter of us seeing is about perspective.

If you’re like me, you can become easily lost in this or that detail of life. Some good, bad, or maybe in some gray hard to see area. And we struggle to make heads or tails of things, to even do well or be well because we’re so honed in on the one matter, be it a problem, or maybe even more subtly dangerous for us, what seems good. 

We might do better, might start moving in a more healthy direction if we would step back and try to see the larger picture, even the big picture. Only God can help us do this. We need discernment when considering details, to hopefully begin to see them in light of the larger picture.

Qoheleth, translated “the Teacher” spent a lot of time looking at not just one detail, but many, “everything…under the sun” (8:9, 9:3). And what probably he could make out from it all was that it added up to no sense at all, “utterly meaningless” (1:2).

The one who shared Qoheleth’s thoughts then moves the readers/listeners to something more of the bigger picture. What can get lost in the details needs to be brought front and center. When we do that, then maybe we’ll see more clearly so that the details themselves begin to have a new meaning to us in light of the whole, maybe even more clearly understand the details themselves. Their place in God’s painting.

here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

That is truth, but as Christians we can’t, we dare not stop at the end of Ecclesiastes. We have to see even that in light of the fulfillment, the light that has come in Jesus. Only God can make that reality, but in faith we have to step into that possibility. When we do, we’ll find a God of all grace as well as truth who helps us begin to see, then live in what is given to us as the fulfillment toward the final end- in and through Jesus.