How can we know what God is like?
“As an Anabaptist community of God’s people,
We at Seattle Mennonite Church receive with joy and humility
The mystery of God’s grace, truth and love.
In response to God’s initiation, we make this covenant
With God and with each other, to join in worship, praise, and service.”
“How can we know what God is like? At some point, we all wonder. If God is not a ‘person’ and particularly not an old man with a long white beard sitting up in the sky somewhere, is God personal? Does God love me, as a person might – or better than some people do? Or is God an abstract force of the universe – just there, like gravity? Is God real, or is talk about God just a massive fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting folks? Does God act in the world today, or did God set the world in motion and then withdraw to observe the world from some icily neutral vantage point? If we have a spiritual experience, how can we know it is from God or from some other spirit? Is it even possible to know God, not just know about God?” These are the questions that Lois Barrett, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, names as both ancient and current in the life of the church. It is true that these questions are found throughout the Bible, in Hebrew Scripture and Gospel story, and the history of the early church is overwhelmingly obsessed with centralizing answers in creeds and confessions of faith.
These questions have been divisive, and quite frankly, have led the church in directions bordering on bizarre. This week I watched Frank Scheaffer’s 2014 documentary film, American Jesus, which explores the uniquely American effort to experience God. Cowboy Church, Surf Church, Mixed Martial Arts Church (and clothing line) – whose slogan is ‘Jesus didn’t tap out’, Biker Church, Snake Handling Church, XXX Church…the list goes on and on. Going back into church history, there is an easy read book called – Jesus Wars: How four patriarchs, three queens and two emperors decided what the church would believe for the next 1500 years – which is an accessible, but profoundly disturbing exploration of the bloody history of church leaders seeking control of the institution of the church and what it would hold to be the truth. Monks as thugs and assassins, killing off anyone who dared suggest an opposing view of God, such as whether Jesus was born of a virgin, fully human and fully divine, half human and half divine, fully divine and not human, fully human and not divine.. Your answer was literally a life and death matter. Denominational meetings were blood baths. We don’t always have great examples to draw on, to help us on our way, but that doesn’t erase the questions. They live on.
In these next few weeks of worship on the theme of covenant, as we explore the ties that bind us to one another as Seattle Mennonite Church, how we express and seek to live out our commitment to God and one another, we begin with questions and with mystery and how the Anabaptist Church has approached questions of faith…
The Anabaptist Church always has started with the Bible as central to faith and life. Nothing particularly unique about that, but to be clear the Bible is not a flat book for Anabaptist Mennonites. Not every passage or book has equal weight or authority. In our tradition the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the pinnacle of God’s teaching, central to our understanding of our faith and life, and the lens through which we interpret the rest of scripture. If there is disagreement or tension in different parts of the bible, go with Jesus…safe bet. This focus on Jesus revealed in the gospel’s is what informed the emergence of the Anabaptist Mennonite Church over 500 years ago. Jesus meant what he said and said what he meant, and we believe Jesus word and example is to be emulated – don’t skip stuff, leave out the non-violence, pick and choose from a menu of Jesus’ options. (We do skip stuff…) But as a church we keep returning and returning to Jesus, whose story helps us know what God is like.
In the gospel of John, which we heard from today, we are in the middle of Jesus’ farewell conversation, the moments before his arrest and execution, an exchange which is punctuated by questions from the disciples. In chapter 14 – Phillip is described as saying to Jesus “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responds “Don’t you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see God?” This idea comes through again and again in John, that no one has ever seen God, but Jesus has made God known. Back to Lois Barrett’s Anabaptist interpretation then, of how Jesus helps us know what God is like. “How is it that we learn about people whom we have never met? We read about them. We ask mutual friends about them. The friends might say, “Well, she is about Thalia’s height. She talks fast like Rex. She has a sense of humor like Jim.” We often describe people by comparing them to someone the person already knows. That is the way it is with describing God. Since we can’t see or touch God, we can learn about God by comparison with Jesus. In the Gospels we have a record of Jesus – who people said he was, what he said, how he acted. So what is God like? God is like Jesus.”
Over the last three weeks we explored how Jesus represents God’s economic character in self-emptying love, bold proclamation of a new creation, and generosity. In John 15 today Jesus says that ‘he has loved the disciples as he has been loved by God.’ To know Jesus’ love is to know God’s love.
● Jesus’ love in these verses is one that calls us friends, not servants. Not facebook friends, but real friendship that is mutual, intimate, and trusting – even when Jesus’ knew that his friends would deny him in a few days, or betray him within hours. If Jesus is a model of God’s love, we know then that it is love that is not earned, bought, or demanded – it is love already present, in which we are held, love that pulls us in, embracing us, grounding us, and rooting us. It is God’s default position, God’s initiative to love.
● The response that Jesus invites though is to name and claim what is already present, and demonstrated in Jesus. Verse 13 – love each other in the same way I love you. I feel like I have been hearing this word my whole life long, this is bedrock, basic, foundational stuff – but it is in this love that Jesus invites us to remain, dwell, abide. Never losing sight of who we are in the eyes of God.
● We talk a fair bit about this in the Community Ministry when we talk about addiction. Addiction is a complex issue, but one of the things that addiction takes root in is ontological shame. That is the belief about yourself as dispensable, deserving of pain and suffering, unforgivable, worthless, a mistake. The kind of self image that sees yourself as outside of God’s loving embrace. That level of pain, which is experiencing and truly believed is ground zero for addiction, which is all about avoiding pain, painful thoughts, painful feelings. Society certainly does its job is projecting ontological shame onto people in poverty, experiencing homelessness, immigrants, indigenous folks – and others who never feel up to snuff as a worker, professional, parent, spouse – we all have things we believe about ourselves that are not kind and loving, and we live in a society which sends us messages that we need improving or changing – or that we are disposable. We are all on a recovery journey of sorts, we all need to internalize that we are loved beyond measure, without exception – any messaging to the contrary is not of God.
● So even though God’s love revealed in Jesus is basic stuff, it is profoundly absent in the spiritual lives of many people – who just can’t or won’t believe it. If we have good news to share, it is accepting God’s love revealed in Jesus and to live out, practice, demonstrate God’s love in our daily lives. Today’s Adult Forum will be an opportunity to name the practices that we feel called to live in our unique setting and experience.
Jesus is so closely connected with God, so filled with God, so in tune with God’s will, that God is what we see when we look at Jesus. We don’t need to wonder about God’s character because we can take in the stories of Jesus. Does God’s mercy trump judgement? Does God become indignant with the unjust exploitation of the poor and challenge those who neglect the oppressed? Can God forgive those who do violence? Jesus is the body of God who answers these and many questions, and as a Body of Jesus in Seattle – our commitment to one another and the world in which we live – is our testimony as to what God is like, who God is. May we be filled with joy and blessed in our seeking to be a living body, a vessel of God’s healing and hope to the world.