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God as Community
A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013, at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
By Ed Knudson
The following sermon was given on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013, at Augustana Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon. Due to time the last section of the sermon had to be removed.
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
“Grace to you and peace, from God our creator and redeemer, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Over the years I have had many conversations with people who try to tell me that they do not believe in God. Whenever somebody says that I like to ask them, “what God is it that you don’t believe in? How do you define that God?” They usually stammer and stutter saying that everyone knows what God it is, but that is not true at all. There are all sorts of gods, ideas of god, concepts of god. One of the most prevalent of those ideas in our society is that god is a supreme being, that is, a big powerful individual who is free to do anything that he wants. Every society tends to think of God as a projection of how that society views its most important people. And we tend to think of our most important people as free and powerful individual persons. So that’s how many people tend to think of God, and then some people say that they don’t believe in that God. Well, I agree, I don’t believe in that God either.
I. God as Community
Our gospel text in John today presents a much more complex picture of God. At least, it seems complex because Jesus is explaining to us how God is not one individual person, not one person, but three persons. So sometimes we Christians have a difficult time explaining to others the concept of God as we understand God. I have come to think that it is easiest to just say that God is not an individual person, God is a community of persons. God is one community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And they have relations with one another. Jesus says today that “I am in my father and my father is in me.” This seems a strange way of speaking, it seems to be a mystery. But it is not really so mysterious. Sometimes when I am looking at my wife she will say to me, “you look just like your mother.” She sees my mother in me, especially in our eyes. I have the eyes of my mother. So, I can say my mother is in me and I am in my mother. Sometimes when I laugh really loud my wife will say to me, “you laugh just like your father.” I always like that because I remember my father being able to laugh out loud, enjoying life. So I can say too, like Jesus, my father is in me and I am in my father. This helps me know who I am as a very specific individual, I am not just any individual, I am the son of my mother and father, they are in me and I am in them, along with my three siblings. We are one family, a set of social relations. It is all very complex, and it is, indeed, mysterious, but we can begin to understand God as Community simply by looking at our own families.
We know today from modern biology that there is something called DNA in every cell of the human body. There are about 100 trillion cells in the human body and each cell contains this information code called DNA which tells each cell how to relate to the other cells of the body so that the body can function as one body. The DNA from parents is passed along to their children. So I can say that the DNA of my parents is in me and I am in part in my parents. It is all very complex and despite increased scientific study this whole process is extremely mysterious even on the level of basic biology.
When we move into social relationships things become even more complex. Jesus tells us in the first verse of our text that the relations of his father and himself are transmitted to human beings through “the word”. This is a very important clue to how all this works. Human beings relate to one another through language, words, and it is through the word that God has communicated God’s Trinitarian reality to us human beings. The word is known in the flesh as Jesus Christ himself, present to the first disciples in person, and present to the disciples following them through the word. John is writing about sixty years after the time of the time of Jesus and is concerned to show how the word of Jesus gets to the rest of us human beings. That’s why you and I are here today, listening to the word of God. Jesus prays in the text today that all may be one in the Community of God. Jesus prays that we today may be one with God, one with one another, one with the earliest disciples, one with all the disciples through the history of the church. Just as DNA contains the information by which each biological body knows itself as one body, so the word of God contains the information by which the church knows itself as one spiritual body.
II. A Community of Love
But this oneness of the church is not for the sake of its own internal unity. The community of God is not just one big happy family feeling good about itself because it feels like it is unified. Human beings have a tendency to want to identify with social groups to try to distinguish themselves, so we have groups today based on where they live, what race they are, their religion, how much money they have. I was talking recently with the wife of a man who invests in mortgages internationally. She was new in town and she and her husband were looking for a home. She said she told her real estate agent to look for a home where the doctors and the lawyers lived. She wanted to live in an exclusive neighborhood; she wanted to feel at one with other wealthy people. These are the kinds of communities human beings tend to want to create on their own, exclusive communities, communities that are defined by who is left out of the community, hierarchical communities, communities which are based on standards of who is highest and best and better than others. This is not the community of God.
There is a particular code in divine DNA which holds together the persons of the Trinity. There is a particular content to the word of God which binds together the church as a spiritual community. It is not just any unity for the sake of unity, it is following the word of God which makes the difference. And that word is a word of love, God is a community of love. Jesus prays for unity “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” He even says that God the Father: “loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Wow! That’s a lot to think about. But I ask now that you think about this with me. If you grasp this it might mean a big difference in your life. We are talking here about who God is, how God is revealed in the bible through the words of Jesus. We don’t finally get to know what God we believe in by contemplating this ourselves, from lightning bolts in the sky or even the designs of nature. We learn about God from the words of Jesus. So what is he telling us? Jesus the Son existed with the Father before the foundation of the world along with the Holy Spirit. So God is three persons in one community characterized by relations of love. But God was not satisfied to be an exclusive divine community. God’s love is so great that it overflows outside of God’s own set of relations to others outside of God. God creates human beings! God creates that which is not God. God turns to that creation in love and becomes part of that creation in Jesus Christ who shares the divine DNA of love. Here are, again, the words of Jesus: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they (all the disciples) also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
So God is not a big powerful individual, an abstract supreme being. God is not as in Greek philosophy an abstract, unchanging God who is the prime mover. God is a dynamic set of relations of love, each person of the Trinity equal to the others, each as important as the other, overflowing with so much love that the world is created, human beings are created. And God loves this world, not only people inside the church, but those outside as well. The church is to be a community of love acting like God, overflowing with love to others.
Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about. My wife and I moved to Portland in 1983. That was a time when a grand religious experiment was taking place. The Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh, an India guru famous for his meditative teachings, had come to Oregon to set up a new religious community on the eastern side of the mountains. Thousands of Americans joined the movement to experience the unity of this holy community. But then something started to go horribly wrong. Some of the leaders and members of that community began to believe that those outside their community, the people living around them, were trying to destroy them. So they began to arm themselves with guns, they even tried to poison government officials. They came to hate everyone outside their own community. In the end their hatred destroyed themselves and their community. The Bhagwan had to leave the United States and died in 1990.
This was not a community based on overflowing love. You see, when you come to this church you hear that God loves you as an individual person, you hear that God loves the one sitting next to you here on a Sunday morning, but you also hear the word of God that God loves those who are not here, God loves the people outside of our own community here, in fact, God wants us to go to those people with words and deeds of love and compassion. God’s word is not that we are better than everyone else. God’s word is that we are to do what God does, go love the ones who are different from us. Go do what Jesus did, love God and neighbor, the one different from us. I believe this is why the church still exists after some 2000 years. Despite the fact that the church in its history has failed in so many terrible ways, the best of the church is known when the church follows the words of Jesus. The world needs to know God’s love. It makes a difference what God it is that we believe in. We believe in a Triune God of overflowing love.
III. A Righteous Community
Finally, Jesus uses another word to define who God is. He refers to God as “righteous Father”. Jesus prays that the whole world will know through his disciples the righteousness of God. This is a very big word like the word “glory” that Jesus also mentions in this text. I remember a speech by the great Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler. He said the word “glory” is a not a minnow of a word, it is a great big whale of a word. Jesus tells us today that when we follow his word we are doing the glory of God. We bring glory to God when we do what God wants us to do, to love the neighbor as ourselves. And this love must be characterized by righteousness which can be understood as justice in the world.
So love is not some sentimental kind of love, it is love with justice. The world dos not know this God of righteousness and justice. It is the mission of the church to bring the word of this God into the world. Since this is Mothers’ Day let me talk about this by telling you about two things I learned from my own mother. She grew up on a farm a few miles south of the town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, not far from the Red River of the North (which is threatened with flooding again this year). She attended a small, rural congregation called the Rosendal Kirke. When I came home for holidays during the time I was in seminary I would ask her about her life growing up in that church. I asked her once what were the major issues she remembers being discussed. She said there were two.
The first was about whether the banker in town should be allowed to take communion. This was during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The banker was foreclosing on the mortgages of local farms. This meant people would lose their incomes, lose their homes, they would become destitute. And this would happen due to no fault of their own but because of a breakdown in the financial system of the time. My mother knew that the God worshipped in church was a God of justice, that the banker should not be allowed to have his sins forgiven if he just goes out and continues to foreclose farm mortgages. My mother knew that the righteous God she worshipped sided with those being oppressed by an unjust financial system.
Now, we know that the question of what makes for economic justice in our own time continues to be complicated. But we cannot avoid the issue. We follow a righteous God who demands justice in the world. In our time we have witnessed a nearly total breakdown of our financial system that has created untold misery and loss and tragedy for millions of Americans. We need to stand with those who have suffered innocently from this breakdown. The love of money in this society has grown so dominant that it is now threatening the very future of the earth as we know it.
The second issue my mother heard debated in her congregation growing up had to do with “God and country.” Her pastor had told her and the congregation that they should never attend the “tent meetings” that occasionally came through the neighborhood. All they preached at those tent meetings was “God and country”, not the gospel of Jesus Christ. My mother’s pastor was right. Lutherans have historically been wary of any preachers who associate God with patriotism, as if God is an American God and not the God of all nations. Those tent meetings were part of the revivalist movement in this country which has a tendency to put love of country over love of God. The tent meetings were sponsored by such groups as the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists, including the revivalist campaigns of Billy Graham. When you actually listen to the content of television preachers today you hear a great deal of God and country talk. One of the major political parties has been trying to use this kind of talk to win elections and promote military supremacy in the name of their nationalistic god. My mother’s pastor would view that as wrong, a false understanding of the true God, a God of love and righteousness for all the people of the world.
So the oneness of God or the divine DNA does not have to do with claims to be better than the other guy or with military victory of one nation over another or amassing more and more wealth for one’s self. The true God is God as a community of love and righteousness. Jesus invites you and I to be part of that very community so that we may be in God and God may be in us.
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