What if God was one of us...

NOTE: My Sunday morning notes again - with some fun music/video connections, too. After worship this Sunday, we will leave again for western New York to hold memorial services for Dianne's mother. Blessings to you all... and if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please stop by. Oh yes: I am indebted to Douglas John Hall's work, The Cross in Our Context, from which most of my quotes come this week. Great stuff!

When I was a young man of faith, I was always curious – and sometimes angry – about the lack of spiritual depth in popular culture: why was it so vapid and devoid of spiritual depth? Why were both the concerns of the wider world and the inner journey conspicuous by their absence in the world of everyday life? And why, indeed, was Jesus obscured or even forgotten by the music, films, television and drama of that era?

It was maddening to me – and then came Bob Dylan - and the Beatles started to mature and before you could say “subterranean homesick blues” or “sergeant pepper’s lonely hearts club band” the voice of our still speaking God was being heard on car radios and home stereo systems and eventually even Broadway, too.

+ Dylan claimed the mantle of the bewildered Jewish prophet railing against injustice and war; the Beatles were the mystics of popular culture who were looking for God “within you and without you;” while the Byrds gave the words of scripture a back beat on Top 40 radio with “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me.”
+ It was a heady moment: from the joyful gospel proclamation that “all you need is love” to the wailing lament of “while my guitar gently weeps,” a marriage was taking place in Western society as the inner and outward expressions of faith took up residence in popular art, politics and culture.

All of a sudden, you could hear a black gospel choir singing praise to the Lord in Jesus’ name in your car: remember the Edwin Hawkins Singers doing “Oh Happy Day?” Mary Magdalene was sharing love songs to Christ in Superstar, a medieval prayer of centering – the great “Day by Day” from Godspell – became a Top Ten hit record and George Harrison of the Beatles found himself offering alleluias on “My Sweet Lord.” In the blinking of an eye, everything was different. And there was one song that came to symbolize this change in American culture more than any other…

Do you know it? Combining a classic blues riff with the passion of gospel music, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” cranked things up to maximum volume and became an anthem for the spiritual revival that was sweeping across the country at the end of the 60s. And for those who loved it back then, it still brings a smile when some golden oldie station sneaks it back into rotation every now and again. Maybe you can sing a little bit of it with me?

Well, my friends, in case you haven’t guessed, today we’re going to be talking about Jesus: specifically I want to consider what the Cross of Jesus Christ has to tell us about God’s love and our humanity in these early hours of the 21st century. Theologian Douglas John Hall writes that: The cross of Jesus Christ represents simultaneously a high estimate of the human creature, a grave realism concerning human alienation, and the compassionate determination of God to bring humankind to the realization of our potential for authenticity.

Did you get all that? In the tongue of popular culture, we’re going to think about three essential insights in the Cross:

+ God’s deep love for us as beings created in the Lord’s image

+ The profound pain we cause through our alienation

+ And the relentless compassion of God’s grace

Are you with me? Love, pain and grace – or as Hall writes – our experience of being created, fallen and lifted: a new/old encounter with the Cross of Jesus Christ for our generation. So let’s see where this conversation might take us, ok?

Western Christians – conservative or progressive – often forget a spiritual insight that our cousins in Judaism regularly celebrate: namely, that as women, men and children created in the image of God we are just “a little lower than the angels” as the Psalmist tells us. We are NOT sinners first – sin is involved in our human experience – but we were never created in God’s image as sinners broken and wounded.

+ How does the old affirmation put it? God don’t make junk!

+ Have you ever seen the sunrise? Or sunset? Have you ever walked in the gentle, cooling rain? Or seen a rainbow? Have you ever kissed a baby? Or been present at a birth – human or animal? Have you felt the warmth of the sun on your face? Or even the embrace of one who forgives you?

That is all a reflection of God’s original blessing – and it applies as much to you and me today as it does to the whole wide world, Adam and Eve or all the rest of creation. God don’t make junk!

Sadly, and I believe incorrectly, most of Christian tradition has focused on our fallen and sinful relationship with God. And God knows that sin is real – any newscast or newspaper is documentation – but we have forgotten that alienation and separation from the Lord is not our primary condition. Rather, “the Hebraic/Jewish origins of our faith teach us to respect the goodness of creation and the promise of human life.” (Hall, p. 94)

Blaise Paschal, the 17th century French physicist and religious philosopher, suggested that loving Christians adopt a dialectic of grandeur and misery to keep us from acting too proud or too stupid. We like to make life seem either black or white he said – we tend to emphasize either optimism or pessimism – when in reality it is always both. At the same time, however, we must remember that the balance between these:

…two polarities is an asymmetrical one. The two sides of the dialectic – the yes and the no – are not equal. The weightier of the two is the first – the grandeur, not because humankind in itself and as such is so grand, but because we are God’s creation, created for a purpose that entails and affects all creation.”

The first insight the Cross of Jesus offers us is that we are the beloved of the Lord – created in God’s image just a little lower than the angels.

+ What do you think about that?

+ Does that surprise – shock – encourage – or offend you?

You see, the reason why it is crucial to reclaim this sense of humanity’s high calling through the Cross of our Lord is because in the post-modern world people no longer think too highly of themselves. Rather, we are obsessed with failure: banks are failing, families are failing, jobs are failing and our social safety net is failing.

The future shock that Alvin Toffler correctly analyzed as part of the present Zeitgeist in the most so-called developed societies is a palpable reality today. And it only takes a passing reference to any of the great instabilities with which we live – terrorism, AIDS, the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming and the worldwide collapse of the economy – to conjure up in the minds of most ordinary people a vast and fearsome darkness that has no place any longer for hope. (Hall, p. 97)

To be the church of Jesus Christ – the body of our Lord alive in the world today – demands that we start with an affirmation of our original blessing because God don’t make junk. “It is imperative for Christians to counter defeatism… in a sane and nuanced way” for we were created by the Source of ALL creativity.

That is the first insight from the Cross – we have been created by the Creator as a little less than the angels – the second is this: sometimes we despise this truth. If the story of the scriptures tells us anything it is that many times we don’t want to be LESS than the Lord: we want to BE the LORD. Douglas John Hall says it best:

The Scriptures of both Testaments demonstrate that humankind from the mythic Adam of the first Garden to the historic Adam of the second Garden, Gethsemane, “cannot stand God.” Even Jesus pleads with God to “remove the cup,” to take away the destiny of his vocation. And in between the two gardens every one of the prophets tries valiantly to resist his or her calling. Israel itself, as the name suggests, “struggles with God,” contends with the Unnamable... because our election is not a privilege but a responsibility. Even in the New Testament, where the central image of the kingdom of God is depicted poetically as a great banquet feast… everyone wants to flee from it. Even St. Paul himself, the most articulate and fervent of all the apostles of the early church, could only be brought into the sphere of Christ’s lordship kicking and screaming! (Hall, p. 101)

Isn’t that right? That the whole testimony of the Bible points to the fact that while God loves us we spend most of our lives running away – not towards – the Lord? If nothing else, the Cross of Christ shows us what it looks like when we keep on running: we wound and destroy the very heart of love itself. The Cross, you see, is not about God’s will, it is about what happens when we choose to flee from the responsibility of love.

To put forward the events of Holy Week and the Cross as a kind of divinely predetermined Oberammergau play whose author and director is none other than Almighty God is to have substituted fatalism for Biblical faith. Because the crucifixion is no more the direct will and plan of God than the fact that a million innocent children were slain in the Holocaust. (Hall, p. 103)

The Cross exposes the consequences of broken relationships – it makes clear for all with eyes to see what life looks like when we run away from our deepest commitments – and it is a sad and ugly picture. No wonder Jesus speaks to us of a vine and its branches: we are all connected. The disciple, John, amplified this when he told us:

If anyone boasts, "I love God," and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both. God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we're free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ's. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. So we are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first." (I John 4)

First we are created a little less than the angels. Second we have fallen and run away from the responsibilities of love. And third we are lifted – raised beyond the filth by God’s compassionate grace – that like the old American hymn tells us, “is a love that wilt not let me go.” We may get tired – we may feel lazy or beaten down – but God’s grace endures for ever.

· Let me say that again: God’s grace endures – and searches – and lifts us up over and over again because God’s love endures for… what?

· Forever! Remember what St. Paul told us? Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother's breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. (I Corinthians 13)

There is a brokenness in the world, an incomplete aching in our hearts, and the third insight from the Cross is clear: the only way through it is with the grace of God that gives us a strength from the inside out. It cleanses. It heals. It renews us over and over again so that we can be fully human.

+ We’re not called to be God – we were created to be human – fully human – by grace we are humanized.

+ By grace the word becomes flesh and dwells within and among us.

+ By grace, we are made whole.

Not the same as God – that would be arrogant and stupid – but only a little less than the angels, too. One of the best expressions of this truth in popular culture came from the soul singer, Joan Osborne, who put it like this in a song called, “One of Us.”

Martin Luther, the father of our Protestant tradition, told those who had ears to hear in the 16th century: “Christian living does not mean to be good, but to become good; not to be well, but to get well; not being but becoming; not rest, but training. We are not there yet, but we shall be. It has not yet happened, but it is on the way.”

… and that way is love - a love exposed paradoxically and honstely on the Cross. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.


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