Monday, September 29, 2014
Tests: Exodus 17:1-7 ; Philippians 2: 1-11
Warning: This sermon will map out some biblical concepts of God in ways that may not immediately seem practical. But our concepts of God shape who we become. We cannot be better than the god we serve. Lest the self-identified and much-loved atheists among us feel exempt from this exploration, I suggest that whatever you hold up as most worthy of your life IS, for the purposes of this sermon, your God.
Warning: The former English teacher in me will make a brief appearance in this sermon.
So to kill all expectations you might have had for a riveting sermon, let’s note the prepositions in today’s scriptures—a start to understanding biblical depictions of God. You remember prepositions, don’t you? Those everyday words that show relatedness? (Children offer some examples of prepositions.) I can use prepositions to tell you about my glasses when I tell you they are on me or above me or beside me. These preposition show how one thing relates to another.
We learn one biblical concept of God when we read in Exodus 15 that God is with Moses, and travels as a cloud above the people and goes before them to a source of water. The people experienced God’s presence with them, above them, before them. Prepositions reveal this tradition’s understanding of the way God relates to humanity.
Earlier in the book of Exodus, we learned that this same God initially self-identified to Moses as a God OF certain other persons: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God OF Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).
This God of Prepositions is therefore a God of relatedness. But the relationships vary. God might be over us or all around us or before us or beside us. What would be your favorite preposition to express your experience of God? Why do you prefer this preposition for your relationship to God or your understanding of God?
RESPONSES FROM THE CONGREGATION
So one way we express what is sacred to us and worthy of our lives is through the language of relationship. But let’s extend that idea. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber believed we know God through relatedness. We grasp reality only through some relationship to some thing or some one. God—Ultimate Reality, the realest of the real, the Ground of All Being—can be grasped only through relatedness. In fact, God is the inbetweenness of you and me. Something sacred happens when you and I are rightly related. God is not some third party to our relationship; rather, God is what flows between us. When scripture speaks of God AS love (I John 4:8), God is neither the subject nor object of love but is the action of love. God is not the one who loves; God is the love between us.
God might also be the love within us—to pursue now another preposition. In the Christ poem we read in Philippians, God is in us. More specifically, the God we have experienced in Christ is in us. God is more obviously in us when we “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). This is quite a different way of imagining the sacred and our relationship to it: the divine not as out there but in here. For Paul, the God we see in Jesus is the indwelling, incarnational, immanent, intimate, inner God. Because his followers saw God IN Jesus, they could imagine God’s light, that divine force, within themselves as well.
Perhaps the God Within, in contrast with the God Out There, was a God humanity could posit only at a later stage of religion’s evolution. Even in our own individual spiritual development, we probably came late to this idea of the God Within. Long after we had been praying to the God Way Above, long after we had reverenced a God Far Beyond Us, we timidly considered the divine within. It has taken me a long time to accept the image of God within me. How about you? Is that idea something that comes easily to you? Why or why not?
RESPONSES FROM THE CONGREGATION
If Jesus had indeed made this evolutionary leap and lived fully as one made “in the image of God,” then we followers of Jesus can likewise claim our innate sacredness while also, like Jesus, “in humility [we] regard others as better than [our]selves” and “look not to [our] own interest, but to the interest of others” (Phil. 2: 4). The God Within is a challenging metaphor. Especially for our youngest children.
Although my childhood Sunday school teachers often said that Jesus lived in our hearts, child development experts caution against sharing that metaphor with very young children. Children can be overly literal. Take just a moment to picture a literal image of Jesus living in your heart and you’ll understand how that phrase can confuse or even disturb some little ones.But how important it is to teach children that their lives are precious and sacred!
The God Within is both a simple and sophisticated idea. A religion—or an individual –usually reaches that metaphor after a long period of cultural evolution or personal maturation. In contrast, the remote and anthropomorphic God developed early. The God Above Who Lives in the Clouds and Controls Earth’s Events existed in our minds long before the God Within could be conceived.
Fortunately, the rich Judeo-Christian tradition accommodates the paradox that God is both within us and far beyond us.
Remember that in Moses’s earliest God encounter the concept of God who is finite complements the concept of the God who can’t be pinned down by any description. Moses hears God speaking from a burning bush in words that are audible and highly specific. This is a god of the particular, a God communicating very specifically, a God manifest in the material world. But when Moses asks for the name of God, God reveals almost nothing about the divine identity. The deity dressed like a shrub replies cryptically, “I Am.” No prepositions in this epiphany. No action verbs. Because the divine is named simply “I Am,” the sacred might be understood as Is-ness itself. God is what is. Panentheism we might name that theology today.
In Jesus the Christ we encounter both a particular person (the historical Jesus) and an irreducible mystery (the Christ Event). The Jesus of history shows us a self-limiting God entering space and time. He “emptied himself” to be “born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). But the Christ of faith that animated the life of Jesus behaves more like a force or energy that continues to transform individuals and cultures to this day. The Jesus of the Gospels was a flesh-and-blood human who died. But in the language of faith we can say that his luminous life in some way continued past his death, and down through the centuries the Christ enlightened and transformed others who experienced that still-vital spirit.
Christian theology put together the God out there with the God in here. The resulting Christian paradox described God as both immanent and transcendent: God is at once intimately familiar and completely unfathomable. To me, a healthy Christian spirituality sees the sacred as both far beyond us and within us. But in our daily lives we may move back and forth between these ideas of the divine, depending on our needs.
Having pulled together key biblical notions about God from today’s readings, I want to get more practical. Let’s examine not only what it means to have the mind of Christ but also what it means for a faith community like ours and for Christians in general to share the mind of Christ. For Star Trek fans like me, sharing the mind of Christ sounds like becoming part of the terrifying Borg collective. Is Paul’s beautiful hymn about the Christ in Philippians a directive to give up freedom of thought?
Not at all. Philippians 2 is not an appeal for uniform thinking. When Paul says, “Let this thinking (phroneite in the Greek) be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” Paul is not against independent opinions. Michael Joseph Brown explains that phronesis was a “practical wisdom in ancient philosophy” that emphasized “a way of being” in the world. (Sound familiar, you followers of The Way?) The Apostle Paul was calling for a shared outlook or “disposition towards the world.” *
Paul was not dictating doctrines to the church members. However, for the Philippian church to be united, they needed to follow Christ’s example of an humble mindset and a commitment for the common good. Unity—not uniformity—was Paul’s point. Having the mind of Christ meant they were to adopt a way of life in which they would look not “to [their] own individual interests but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Warning to liberals: Paul did not think PC thinking would hold the community together.
Warning to conservatives: Paul did not think a faith community could be bound together and enlivened by enforced doctrine.
Paul believed that Jesus modeled for us a communal way of being that puts others first. In this kind of community you and I can experience the God we see in Christ Jesus—and in one another. In this kind of community we can think independently but work together for the common good. How different our world would be if all shared that commitment, if all bowed their knee, so to speak, to the one who humbled himself and whose mindset put others first.
Have you noticed I usually sign my weekly updates (emailed when the technology gods are smiling!) with a closing signature that is some variation on “In Christ”: In Christ’s hope, In Christ’s service, In Christ’s peace. I do so to remind myself—if not you—of a spiritual discipline that adopts Christ’s mindset, Jesus’s way of being in the world. Being “in Christ” lets us think independently but work collectively toward the common good.
Here’s a final word about the grammar of today’s scriptures. Some of my former students assumed that grammar was all about memorizing the parts of speech and observing the rules of formal English usage. But grammar is not really about rules that bind us; it’s a system that facilitates expression and connection. When the church shares the mind of Christ—the immensity of the Cosmic Christ—our way of being in this universe opens us up to a fullness of our human potential. God’s grammar/system is not about rules. Sharing the mind of Christ connects us to one another, to the humble Jesus, and to Ultimate Reality that is a Grammar of Grace.
* Brown, Michael Joseph. “Commentary on Philippians 2: 1-13” in Working Preaching, 1 June 2014.