What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it?… So while God in his fullness is far beyond our comprehension, who God is can be known through the revelation of the Cross, by which we mean cruciform love, by ‘laying down his life’. Love is not merely one of God’s attributes. Love is who God is in his very nature. God is Love in a way that exceeds character qualities. God is living love. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel
My wife and I were in Chile almost six years ago to visit our daughter and her partner. One night, we went to a barbecue. They don’t do it the same as us!Smouldering coals are laid in a shallow pit; big slabs of meat are placed on a griddle over the top, and the meat is slow cooked. So, what do you do at a Chilean barbecue while you’re waiting for the meat to be ready? You drink red wine and you talk.
I introduced myself to the man who was making the barbecue. He spoke good English, which was a relief. My Spanish is still a bit ordinary six years down the track. He asked me what I did, and I told him I am a pastor.
‘So you believe in God?’ he said, his eyes wide like saucers. I said I did. ‘I don’t believe in God,’ he replied, ‘I’m an atheist’. I asked if we could talk further, and he agreed.
So before we settled down to talk I went and fetched a bottle of red wine. What else could I do? When in Chile …
As it turns out — as it turns out so often! — my new friend had some very good reasons for his atheism.
The ‘god’ he doesn’t believe in hates LGBTIQ people. The ‘god’ he doesn’t believe in condemns all non-Christians to an eternity in hell. The ‘god’ he doesn’t believe in gives shelter to paedophile priests.
As it happens, I don’t believe in that god either. I don’t believe in the god he doesn’t believe in. If that were the only god in town, I’d be an atheist too.
Thank God it’s not. My friend was surprised that I said I knew LGBTIQ Christian people. And that I said God’s grace is wide enough to welcome non-Christian people into God’s presence beyond death. ‘Do you say that in church?’ He asked. I said I do. And I am.
He’s still an atheist as far as I know, but you know, I think he might think about visiting here if he were ever in Brisbane.
My friend cannot believe in a god who excludes certain groups of people just because of who they are. But there’s more.
He, along with many Chileans, has been scandalised by the way the majority Roman Catholic Church has failed to deal with widespread paedophile abuse by priests and by bishops. At least one of these abusive priests was a progressive social justice warrior who had resisted the fascistic regime of Augosto Pinochet. I find that distressingly, heart-achingly, sad.
It’s all a mess. It’s a fertile breeding ground for atheism as a moral reaction to the church’s unfaithfulness to God, I should think.
It was the Day of Ascension last Thursday. How — if at all — can the ancient story of the Ascension of Jesus help us here?
To see if it can help, we’ll need to look at the story. And accept that as literal history, it only works with a flat earth and a heaven just out of sight, above the clouds.
I mean, if heaven is a place ‘up there’ Jesus would presumably have to go at the ‘warp speed’ of science fiction to get there. I mean, if he only went at the speed of light he’s still just 2000 light years away. That’s not much in galactic terms; the Milky Way Galaxy is about 100000 light years across.
So what can the Ascension mean for those of us who are not members of the Flat Earth Society?
The difficulty my Chilean friend has is to believe in a god who is not as good as he is. A god who will cancel whole groups of people, who will turn a blind eye to sexual abuse, a god who will coerce faith and limit human freedom and dignity. A god who looks down at us from on high, but doesn’t deliver justice.
But is that who the Scriptures call ‘the living God’? Look at Jesus who ascends to ‘the right hand of God’. Who was he? Has he become the new benevolent dictator of the earth?
Jesus — let’s remember this! — is a recently-crucified criminal. This is the human being that God takes into God’s presence. Still scarred. He is the risen crucified One.
He lived as a healer and teacher, but he was judged as guilty by the world. Note: the world judged him guilty, not God. He wasn’t there to satisfy God’s ‘wrath’, but to show the deep, heart-love of God for us.
Why was Jesus judged guilty by the world? Because he was also on the side of the poor.
The whole life of Jesus teaches us to look from the edges, from the underside of existence. Sadly, too many people expect to find an absolute dictator when they go to God.
For more insight, why don’t we go to the Book of Revelation?
In Revelation, John sees a vision of heaven. Who will be at the throne of God? He’s expecting a powerful lion, ‘the Lion of Judah’. Yet, he says
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered …
John expects a mighty lion, but instead he sees a lamb. A freshly-slaughtered lamb, but standing up.
What kind of God is this? I doubt that my atheist friend from Chile would be impressed by this bloody lamb. What could it possibly achieve?
This lamb, as we know, is the representation of Christ, the risen crucified One.
This is what God offers the world: an inexhaustible love that eternally spends itself in caring for the creation. Love that seeks the best for the beloved, even at great cost, even at the cost of the cross.
Sometimes we need poetry to help us to draw close to deeper realities. We’re going to sing a hymn soon. It may be new to you; let’s hear some of the words now.
It’s called ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ and it was written by William Hubert Vanstone. It begins by speaking of the gifts God has freely given which can be openly seen by anyone: gifts like the sunrise (morning glory), a starlit sky, the flight of birds, autumn leaves.
It goes on to say
open are the gifts of God,
gifts of love to mind and sense;
hidden is love’s agony,
love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
Can you relate to that? We hide the anxieties and cost of loving another so much. And others may not see into our souls at all. They may be unaware of the cost.
We shall sing
Love that gives, gives ever more,
gives with zeal, with eager hands,
spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
ventures all, it all expends.
Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.
‘Weak in giving power to be.’ Parents know something of this. Teachers know something of this. Actually, any leader in God’s church should know something of this.
This is how God brings into being the realm of justice and peace we call the kingdom of God. God’s Spirit gives power to human creatures, that they (we!) may do God’s work on earth.
Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
And finally … on the cross:
Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love,
aching, spent, the world sustain.
God doesn’t force us to have faith. God loves the creation. Where people expect a god who is a powerful lion, God comes as a wounded lamb.
God reigns as never-ceasing and always-giving love.
I see my Chilean friend as — so far — rejecting a false god, an idol who doesn’t exist. I trust that one day he’ll welcome the living God, who reigns by enabling the creation to live and grow and rejoice in love.
And I hope that here in West End we may bear witness to this God, revealed as one with us in Jesus of Nazareth.
West End Uniting Church, 16 May 2021