Will the real God please stand up?
Lenten Reflection by Rev. Angie Wright
This sermon was preached by Rev. Angie last March at Beloved. As we approach Palm Sunday and then Easter, we are eager to hear your reflections. Please share your thoughts, stories or photos with Palmer!
We are made in God’s image, male and female. So says God in the first creation story in the book of Genesis.
Do we also make God in our image?
Maybe even more than we realize. The Biblical image of God seems two-faced: sometimes faithful, forgiving, peace-filled, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – just as we are in our best moments.
At other times, God seems just as petty, jealous, violent and destructive as we can be.
Made in God’s image – that can be downright worrisome.
How do we make peace with the warring images of God?
It’s tempting to say that the Old Testament God is all about vengeance and violence, that the New Testament God who is all about peace and love. The Old Testament God’s violence is legion: all but a small remnant of all living creatures condemned to death by flood, Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed, Egypt’s young children slaughtered, Hebrews massacred for idolizing golden calves, every person in Canaan ordered destroyed. This is a Scorched Earth kind of God.
But Scorched Earth is a twin, an evil twin, kind of like George W. H. Bush’s "evil twin" Skippy in the cartoon Doonesbury. The other twin is the Old Testament God concerned with justice and mercy.
Anyone who thinks the New Testament is all sweetness and light has never read the rest of the story. The Book of Revelation is as violent as the rest of the Bible put together, and the violence is from the hand of God.
We tend to see the Jesus of the Gospels as sweetness and light, offering promises of forgiveness and abundance of life to all of us. And yet, and yet…there is another Jesus. The one who announces that anyone who doesn’t believe will go into eternal fire, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The one who says he came not to bring peace but a sword. The one who said two swords are enough.
What are we to do with this Jesus? He is like the angry uncle I would never invite to dinner, the vengeful old boyfriend that no one even knows I have. With this Jesus I’m tempted to say, like Peter in the courtyard after Jesus’ arrest:
“Who, him? No, I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him in my life.”
How do we make peace with these warring images of Jesus and God?
There is a pattern in the Bible. First there is a divine message of a radically just, merciful and inclusive realm of God. But soon after, that radical message of unconditional love becomes interlaced with unmistakable human impulses of punishment and exclusion.
For example, the prophets Isaiah and Micah incite to nonviolence: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more." By the time we get to the prophet Joel, the message is warped into an incitement to violence: "beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say 'I am a warrior.'"
The same thing happens in the Gospels. In Mark, the earliest and most original gospel, Jesus advises nonviolent protest of any town that rejects the disciples: “if any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them" (Mark 6:11). Threats of violence are added in Matthew & Luke: "on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, and you, Capernaum, will be brought down to Hades" (Luke 10:12, 15-16).
When Jesus is asked for a sign, Mark reports "Jesus sighed deeply in his spirit, and said 'Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation'" (Mark 8:12). Matthew and Luke escalate the message with name-calling ("this evil and adulterous generation") and threats of condemnation (“no sign except the sign of Jonah”) (Luke 11:31-32, Matthew 12:41-42).
At times Jesus offers grace and salvation to all; at other times he threatens eternal fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth. This threat, however, is found not at all in Mark and only once in Luke. Yet it is tacked onto the end of five parables in Matthew. Matthew was written at a time when his Christian community was horribly persecuted. Is it possible that their inherited memories of Jesus might have been clouded by their human desires for vengeance?
Or was Jesus a flip-flopper like a crowd-pleasing politician?
Scholars agree that the most historically accurate sayings of Jesus are those from the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, be perfect as your God is perfect. If the Sermon on the Mount reflects the essence of who Jesus was, perhaps we need to judge the accuracy of the punitive and divisive sayings of Jesus by its light.
These incendiary and harsh sayings attributed to Jesus can also be judged against Jesus’ way of life. We could assume that if Pilate believed that Jesus was leading a violent insurrection, he would have arrested Jesus’ followers as he did the followers of the violent revolutionary Barabbas. But Jesus tells Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. (John 18:36). He tells Peter to put his sword away because “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
What about when Jesus says that two swords are enough - is this an exhortation or permission for violence? How could only two swords for eleven men be enough? Does that sound like enough for an armed resistance? No, but it was enough to fulfill prophecy, the grounds for Jesus to be arrested as a violent revolutionary.
If there were any question that Jesus would mount violent resistance at the time of his arrest it is answered when the disciples asked: “Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22)
What about Jesus’ words, “I came not to bring peace but a sword”?
Jesus was not advocating use of the sword. He was using the sword as a metaphor. He was the sword that divided families, some choosing to follow him, others choosing to stay behind.
Jesus describes himself as: the Bread of life, the Light of the World, The Gate, The Vine, The Good Shepherd, The Resurrection and the Life, and finally The Way, The Truth and The Life. None of these images carry the slightest hint of violence or vengeance.
Despite being denied, abandoned and betrayed, he ended his life with words of love and forgiveness: "forgive them for they know not what they do."
This is the essence of who Jesus is, and all other scriptural sayings of Jesus that seem to contradict this essence should be measured according to this true picture:
"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
Sounds like a God of unfathomable love to me.