This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.
If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.” In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.” This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.
Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference. Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again). In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe. Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.
The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.” Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’? We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty. We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind. This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances. It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better. The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world. How could God possibly bring good out of it? Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years. If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.
I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God. When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense. Modern people are obsessed with power. In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of. We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny. We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power. When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power. Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent. It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”
However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late. The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology. The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification. The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.
The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems. I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.” How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world? Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now. The problem I want to focus on is a relational one. There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude. Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship. This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.
This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today. God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…
The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness. Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible. This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people. In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God. One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell. As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.
So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power? The answer, in my opinion, is yes.
I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant. So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”
Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships. His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.” Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense. They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives. It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.
Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love. He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance. He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” His love for them is a free gift of grace.
Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments. Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love. “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on. And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.
What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love. The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion. It is divine. Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality. Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God. For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud. The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that. The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.
If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep. Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors. Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you. As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”
This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power. According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God. Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle. This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”). The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God. Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.
Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society. In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever. We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes. We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption. But Jesus shows us that there is another way. There is more.
Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships. When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more. We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.
I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life. Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors. Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies. Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.
If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church. We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try. Come and get involved. See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples. Get involved and help us look for God in these little things. Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree. These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.
These relationships are sacred. Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself. Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This is the secret to living well. This is the fullness of joy. This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)