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Reflection: 08-10

‘God is love’.

With those words in 1John 4, St John emphatically ‘changed’ the ultimate attribute and nature of God. Perhaps not ‘changed’ but ‘solidified’ would be a better term for how we should understand God. We have heard it used time and time again. But I don’t think we actually know what it means. I recently had dinner with a friend and we were discussing God’s ‘ultimate’ attribute. He stated that it was holiness and that all other attributes of God came from that. I countered that God’s ‘ultimate’ attribute was Love and cited that verse (1John 4.8 - like one verse trumps another verse). We went back and forth for a while and finally had to agree to disagree. Unbeknownst to me, this theme would keep coming up again and again.

With the month of August being full of activity (my daughter moving off to college, my wife beginning to teach a yoga class, a number of birthdays including my own), I thought I would settle on some ‘light’ reading. So this month, I selected The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God by Jürgen Moltmann (you can also get the digital version here). I don’t know if it’s just me or what but German theologians seem to be deeper thinkers than most people! When I started reading Bonhoeffer's Life Together, I remember thinking, ‘This is such a small book, it’ll be a quick read.’ Boy, was I mistaken! The same can be said for this month’s selection. I knew I was in trouble when I read, ‘As the transcendent ground of our sense of absolute dependence, God is one’. And that was on page three!

But this book startled me in a way I wasn’t expecting. So much so, that I couldn’t read further. I had to stop and just reflect on that section. Oh, I tried to go on, but I wasn’t really soaking it up. I was just reading the words on the page and not really ‘hearing’ what was being communicated. So I stopped trying and went back to that little section that has really been the only deep thing on my mind of late. For me, it’s a ‘game changer’ as the saying goes. It’s one of those things that we have missed in reading and studying and thinking and worshiping.

In chapter two, ‘The Passion of God’, section three is titled, ‘The Eternal Sacrifice of Love’. This section is roughly five pages in length and, if it gets in deeply, will (and should) change our understanding of God. The idea is that Love is about suffering. When we love someone, we open ourselves up to be hurt and hurt deeply. As another saying goes, ‘We are hurt the most by the ones we love’. So it is with God. But I never saw God that way. In my mind, and I think this is true with a lot of Christians, God the ‘Father’ is an all-powerful being (almost) without emotion. A very stern, but not strict or cruel (if you happen to be in the family), caring, but not really affectionate, commander in chief. A military type leader who doesn’t show a lot of mercy toward others. Now, I know that we all know the other stories of God where God is full of love and mercy. But, for some reason, we seem to think that those only pertain to ‘us’ - although we may have our doubts about this too, if we are really honest with ourselves.

But what Moltmann stated is just the opposite. In discussing C. E. Rolt’s book, The World’s Redemption, Moltmann wrote,

The sole omnipotence which God possesses is the almighty power of suffering love. It is this that he reveals in Christ. What was Christ’s essential power? It was love, which was perfected through voluntary suffering; it was love, which died in meekness and humility on the cross and so redeemed the world. This is the essence of the divine sovereignty . . . What Christ, the incarnate God, did in time, God, the heavenly Father, does and must do in eternity. If Christ is weak and humble on earth, then God is weak and humble in heaven (pg 31).

This . . . this is almost more than one can comprehend. And yet, it got me thinking about a conversation Jesus had with the disciples. In John 14, we read:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.”

“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do.

In other words, the life of Jesus was a reflection of the life of God. That is, in this part of the story, Jesus is stating that Israel has misunderstood what and how God is. Even after the disciples had walked with Jesus for (at least) three years, they still didn’t get it. They still saw ‘the Father’ as something other than Jesus. They envisioned God as that same omnipotent, all-powerful military leader or extremely stern parent. But Jesus said that his life, his very existence,  is a true reflection of who God is. And this is where the vertigo starts.

I have read N. T. Wright state that, ‘The writers of the New Testament and early Christians didn’t take the Old Testament view of God (the military king/stern parent) and try to force Jesus into that understanding. They started with Jesus and had to re-define God based on their experience with Jesus’ (paraphrased). This is what Moltmann, through Rolt, is stating. We have gotten it wrong. Again. Or, perhaps, still.

‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father-Mother.’ What do we see when we look at Jesus? Do we not see someone who exemplifies service? Didn’t he continually put others before himself? Do we not see someone who constantly gave completely to others? Every where he went, Jesus was mobbed much like a modern movie star or rock star gets mobbed by paparazzi or fans. Did he gripe and demand his way? No. He gave. He continually emptied himself (Philippians 2.6-11). Like a good shepherd, he always put himself in harms way to protect those he loved (John 10.1-16). And Jesus said if we have seen him, we have seen the Father-Mother. So the question is, ‘Have we seen Jesus’? Or, perhaps, have we seen him as he is? Too often we create God in our own imagination - what we think God must be. What we think we want or need God to be. When we are wronged, we want God to punish the evil doers. When we are poor, we think we want God to make us rich (and this usually means that we can have lots of money and buy more stuff). When we’re rich, we think we want God to help us keep our wealth and not give too much of it away or let it get taxed too badly. So, we create all of these things that we think we want God to be; that we think we need God to be. Therefore, we have not seen God because we have not seen Jesus because Jesus shows us what God is like. Over and over, Jesus showed the rich that they are held to a higher standard because they should be sharing their wealth to those without. He showed us over and over to put the needs of others above our own needs. He showed us not to be violent people. That the road of violence only leads to more violence for all of creation, not just people. But we don’t want to see that. We want God to be far away so we can act the way we want. And, in the very act of doing that, God suffers. Continually.

This is such a profound thing. To think that God’s sovereign rule, God’s omnipotence is revealed in the suffering of Christ. That the image of the cross is the truest image of God.

Back to the conversation with my friend. We were both right, obviously. But we were both looking at it from different angles. God can not be understood completely by us. We can recognize God in all of life, but life is not God. Granted, ‘in God we live and move and exist’ (Acts 17.28). But ‘life’ as we know it only reflects God’s Life, albeit in a broken sort of way. Likewise the attributes of God that we, mere human beings, categorize are there to help us try to come to terms with this thing, energy, emotion, divine person, we call ‘God’. This ‘Other’ that is so utterly ‘other’ than ourselves. And yet, at the same time, we glimpse ‘It’ in each other and all around us. The problem comes when we try to pit our favorite attribute as the ultimate attribute over against someone else’s favorite attribute. All of them are needed for us to grasp God. Without any of them, we will miss something.

‘But’, St Paul wrote, ‘the greatest of these is love’ (1Corinthians 13.13). Why is that? Because, over and over again, the New Testament writers stated that love, not holiness, nor wrath, nor justice, nor any other attribute of God, is the foundation of what makes God god. Love is what defines God. And, by extension, love, God’s love working in and through us, is what defines us as God’s children (1John 3). St John wrote that it was love that ‘caused’ God to become a human being (John 3.16). It was love that Christ showed to his followers and ‘showed them the full extent’ of that love (John 13.1, footnote) - even when they betrayed him (Luke 23.34).

So, while I am still trying to wrap my mind around this image - the image of God suffering - I am reminded of something I did a few months ago. In wrestling with this concept of God being love and what that may look like, I read 1Corinthians 13 and substituted God for Love. I found it very moving and profound.  When we take what St John wrote and combine it with what St Paul wrote, we get this:

God is patient and kind. God is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. God does not demand her own way. God is not irritable, and keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. God never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

It’s amazing to me how we have no problem with substituting ‘Jesus’ in that passage. We read that on every page of the Gospels. That is they way Jesus is portrayed. That is what the New Testament writers were wanting us to grasp. But Jesus said ‘The Father-Mother and I are one’ (John 10.30) and ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father-Mother’ (John 14.9). What we see in Jesus, what we know about Jesus, we also see and know about God the Father-Mother.

I think that this is a revolutionary concept. One that has not been given enough ‘air-time’. I know that, for myself, I have a long way to go before this image of God ‘over-throws’ the prevailing image I have. My prayer is that this image of God, that God is Love and that God suffers with us and for us, will change our thoughts and prayers and lives.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack+, LC

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