Years ago I was the pastor in a small Texas community called Fannin. We were studying a book called, “Dear Church: Letters from a disillusioned generation,” by Sarah Cunningham. As we read through these letters we found some ideas that were foreign to the members gathered around that day. Or at least they were foreign in the context they were used.
Many of the people gathered there were well into the later years of life and so they had experienced many words that have had meaning changes over the years. I remember reading a passage from the book of James in the New Living Translation, and one person looked toward me with a very puzzled face and exclaimed, “What kind of Bible is that!?”
Language is quirky at times. Today there are many words that have multiple meanings, and are not always connected to a specific meaning they had sixty years ago. An example of this could be the word queer. There are those who remember queer meaning odd or strange, but today it is about gender and sexual identity.
One part of the book, Sarah writes that there are some that will not go near a specific church simply because of the label (denominational label) it bears on the sign. I mentioned that I wondered what the response might be in the community if we stripped the name off, left it dormant for a couple months and bring in a new sign with a name like, Fannin Community Church.
As I made that comment the room changed, the atmosphere went from warm to ice cold. We might say the tension was so thick we could cut it with a knife. What happened? I was immediately the object of scorn and discontent. It turns out that years prior they had a pastor that tried to get them to leave the denomination, so when they heard me talk of changing the name, all of the hurt and heartache popped up like one of those moles in the infamous Whack-A-Mole game.
Eventually when they were able to express to me what they heard in my comments we were able to bring warmth back into the room. It was a lesson I don’t think I will ever forget. While it was intense at the time, I can now look at it and chuckle a little bit.
The opening line of the Bible is… In the beginning God… Re’ Sheith Elohim. In the second chapter of Genesis there is a distinct change and the word Jehovah is placed in front of Elohim. In our reading from Genesis today the translators have used Lord by itself and Elohim in a descriptive sentence as the God of Abraham.
Every ancient culture had a god or gods. There are ancient works that speak of the various Egyptians gods. They had many. You can actually trace back to see that the various plagues done in Egypt would have been seen as a battle of the gods, each time the God Moses was proclaiming won, and eventually the Exodus happened. We look around our world today and ask a variety of people they would give different answers. Even people within the same religion, even the same denomination, have different opinions of what we mean when we talk about God.
I have had times where I was like Jacob, waking up to a realization that God has been here among us even when we didn’t know it. In our Wesleyan heritage this is called prevenient grace. But what is God doing? Proclaiming and calling Jacob into a new reality. Calling Jacob forward to something new and giving the promise I am with you, I will protect you, I will bring you back, I will not leave you.
One question I have to ask is this, “What was it that gave each ancient culture the idea of something beyond themselves?” They believed in some sort of higher power, various groups may have split the god duties up among many gods, but there was definitely something beyond them they hoped was there and on their side. They all believed in some spiritual force alive and working in the world. Sometimes for their good, while others to their demise.
The native peoples of the Americas were God fearing people. They may not have used the same name we do, but the Great Spirit was over all. There is something to our spirituality, we are spiritual beings, its the one thing that science cannot prove.
Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.
1 John 4:
So for the writer of this Epistle, notice what is said. Not God is like love, but God is love. What then is love? Can you see or touch love? Is love an object? No, love is not a noun. Love is an emotion. It is something that transcends the material.
To be clear, I am not using the word love here like I love a good cheeseburger, or I love to ride the Harley, or I love to go fishing.
Stick with me here, and I will bring this together after a little side trip.
A number of years ago Linda and I were given the opportunity to go to the Holy Land. There was these pictures in many locations, maybe you have seen these...
SHOW ICON PIC
These are called Icons, or iconography. This particular picture is from an Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. When we went I had not been through one particular Seminary course that taught about these. When I saw them I thought things like, why do they have these idols. I thought why do they have all of these up here in the front. In many of the temples and churches there they had these with candles below that you could say a prayer and light a candle, drop a donation in the box.
This is how I would imagine most people would interpret the scene. Many have made fun of the Catholic church in various ways for their prayers to the saints, when we good protestants have a direct line to God through Jesus.
So what is going on in this place? While these are designed to be looked at, you weren’t allowed to handle them. There were other beliefs that in many ways still happen today. These have to do with idols. So what is the difference between an idol and an icon? I am glad you asked. An idol is something we forge into an image that we can see, touch, that we use to represent God. Quite frankly that is what I thought would be going on. There is a story in , maybe you have heard this before, about the people getting restless while Moses was up chiseling out the instructions for how the people were to live. Aaron, Moses’ brother, persuaded by the people into action has them donate their gold and melts it all together and creates a Golden Calf.
Something to represent God, that is part of God’s creation. While this may seem like a nuanced, miniscule difference between the two, the two function in very different ways. The Golden calf was an image they knew and understood, something they had control over. The icons, on the other hand were a symbol to help people enter into the life of those who have gone before.
That is also the difference between my love of cheeseburgers and the love I have for my wife. If my cheeseburger isn’t good, I quit liking that one. If I find out my wife has a flaw, it draws me closer to her and I find I love her more.
People look at Icons to join into the life and struggle of the person represented, imperfections and all.
When Linda and I started dating many years ago we had actually known each other a little bit for a few months, she would come to where I worked, or I started working where she used to go and ride horses to clear her mind of the challenges in her life at that time. I still put up a front of what I would have called the perfect me, the me I wanted the world to see. As we grew together and began finding out more about each other she gave me a gift. A gift that at the moment I didn’t want, the gift was a transparent heart. I didn’t call it a gift back then, I called it a book. It was the truest Linda she could give me. It wasn’t easy for her to write it.
It was a gift I didn’t know I wanted. An intimate picture of the skeletons in her closet. A heart wide open, not to anything material, but to the sublime.
Let’s go back to the idea of God is Love.
Love is not an object, love cannot be reduced to sex or romance, real love is something you give yourself to. There is no end product. The only way to understand it is to give yourself to it.
This, to many people today, is like a bait and switch. The Devil kills Jesus thinking the fight is over, but because the pure sacrifice it blows up in his face, and we get into heaven scot free.
Pete Rollins, writer and philosopher, on a podcast recently conveyed the idea of a perfect gift.
Lets start off with a gift you give someone. You know you have given the gift and they know you gave them the gift. The problem with that is that you feel great, I gave a gift, and you get the thanks in return, so you are getting something out of it.
Jesus on the cross is a picture the outcome of th
So maybe a better way is to give them a gift anonymously. You find a way to give it to them without them knowing where it came from. That would be better because at least you are not getting the thanks back. You can still go home and revel in your brilliance to give this wonderful gift without the other knowing. Wow, look how generous and fantastic I am. There is still an exchange and you are getting something back.
What about a gift that the person doesn’t know they receive it, nothing is given, and you don’t know you’ve given it. That would be the perfect gift because you are not getting anything back in return.
What would that look like? What about the gift of forgiveness? Where nothing is given, you don’t see it, can’t touch it, the person doesn’t know you have forgiven them, and in some ways you might not know you have forgiven them. You have just become the kind of person that just like a heart beat you forgive, You may not even know you have done this.
That is the picture of what a God of love is.
So when we use the word God, what are we trying to name? That of ultimate concern? that which nothing greater can be conceived? Ground of being? Source? Spirit? What ever language we try to use for this.
When you turn God into an object that we can poke, prod, analyze, and stood at a distance from we create a subject/object discourse. Dividing it from my god vs. your god, or this is better than that, or my god can beat up your god. yours is fake, mine is the real one.
This becomes a different discussion than looking at how we experience God. Do you experience joy? Do you experience meaning? Do you love? Are you generous?
There is something surging within us, that ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, is it on fire or is it dead? Something that looks out at the world and explores and asks questions.
In ancient Judaism there a key understanding that our beliefs aren’t in our head, they are in our heart. So to be honest we may not know what we believe, but that is OK. Can we name that inner something that over time has changed us from an unforgiving person to a forgiving person.
So when we use the word God, what we are really talking about is a spiritual reality bubbling up from within our very being.
Paul and Barnabas walk into Lystra, , There was a crippled man there that Paul healed, all of the sudden the crowd goes wild. They believe Barnabas to be Zeus and Paul to be Hermes. So the priests of the temple of Zeus gather a bunch of bulls to sacrifice to the Gods before them.
When the Lord’s messengers Barnabas and Paul found out about this, they tore their clothes in protest and rushed out into the crowd. They shouted, “People, what are you doing? We are humans too, just like you! We are proclaiming the good news to you: turn to the living God and away from such worthless things. He made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them.In the past, he permitted every nation to go its own way. Nevertheless, he hasn’t left himself without a witness. He has blessed you by giving you rain from above as well as seasonal harvests, and satisfying you with food and happiness.”
We have been called by this spiritual presence within us, that overwhelms us, that allows each of us to see a better world and calls us into making that happen.
God is Love.