Sermon: The Image of the Invisible God
The following is my transcript from a result sermon. It was the third in a series walking through Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, with this one covering Article 2: Jesus Christ. It has only been lightly edited to remove a couple names from our congregation, add an embedded video, and generally change to more web-friendly formatting.
Intro (2 min)
A couple of years ago, Emily and I had some friends over in our apartment. All of us were Christians, but with a variety of traditions and theological leanings. Somebody – I think it was Emily – asked everybody why they were a Christian. We had been sort of talking about forming a small group together, so it wasn’t out of the blue. Remarkably, nobody had the same answer. We heard the philosophical arguments, the historical arguments, their own experiences which they could only attribute to the supernatural. We heard a variant on Pascal’s wager, basically that if God exists, you want to be on God’s side. We heard somebody acknowledging their brokenness and need for a saviour.
My answer was that I am a Christian because of Jesus. All those other answers provided that night were probably true for me at some point or another, and they are all still true to some degree or another other than the Pascal’s Wager one. I’m not in favour of basing your faith on a starting point involving fear. But ultimately, I am a Christian because the person of Jesus has always continued to be compelling to me. It sounds kind of naïve, I know. I had a youth pastor once who joked that we should just always answer “God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Bible” because one of those was probably the right answer to the simplistic curriculum. But in this case, my real answer was the simple “Jesus”.
My feelings about the Church or the Bible have been much more mixed good and bad, but Jesus, Jesus I always continued to be drawn toward.
At the centre of what drew me to an Anabaptist expression of Christianity was the particular perspective on Jesus. The confession of faith article for today has a lot of big ideas. It talks about Jesus as king, prophet, priest, teacher, saviour, head of the church, Word of God become flesh, Lord, slain Lamb, coming again, sinless, and more.
Most of these things are shared with other groups of Christians, but Anabaptists have a few differences, sometimes just in emphasis and sometimes more significant differences. Because I only have about 20 minutes, I’m focusing on three of these: teacher, king, and the Word of God. Because I guess there’s still enough Baptist in me to like 3 point sermons.
Teacher (5 min)
One of the Anabaptist emphases is discipleship, the idea that we are supposed to actually follow Jesus’ example and teaching. In an interesting note in the commentary of the confession article, it points out that most Protestants only cite Jesus’ roles as king, prophet, and priest, while this one adds teacher as well.
Part of this teaching is the emphasis on peace, which is maybe what Anabaptists are most well known for. It’s not only some abstract peace with God after we die, but real practical peace starting now.
It’s interesting to compare what the Mennonite confession of faith says about Jesus’ life with what the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed say, two of the earliest Christian statements of faith. Both manage to go directly from Jesus being born of a virgin fully human to suffering and dying. They just wipe out everything in between, about 70% of what is recorded in the Gospels. Some Anabaptists have referred to the comma in the Apostles Creed after “born of a virgin” as the “Anabaptist comma”, because there’s a lot of stuff that happens in that time which Anabaptists usually consider pretty central.
I found one church online, Emmanuel Mennonite, which had added the following to the comma of the Apostles Creed:
Welcomed by shepherds,
Greeted by Magi,
Pursued by Herod,
Sheltered in Egypt,
Taught by Joseph,
Baptized by John,
Tempted by Satan,
Followed by disciples,
Heard by multitudes,
Understood by the simple,
Despised by clergy,
Praised by lepers,
Hosted by outcasts,
Seen by the blind,
Touched by the ill,
Rejected by siblings,
Rebuked by Martha,
Embraced by Mary,
Anointed by a prostitute,
Cheered by crowds,
Loved by John,
Hated by the Powers,
Abandoned by all,
Grieved in Gethsemane,
Betrayed by disciples,
Denied by Peter,
Arrested by Herod.
Phew. That’s a pretty significant chunk of the story that gets glossed over in a lot of church traditions and statements.
A couple of years ago Saturday Night Live did a fantastic bit they called DJesus Uncrossed, playing off the release of Django Unchained. They refer to it as the ultimate revenge fantasy, with Jesus coming back to life and exacting vengeance on the Romans who killed him. If you search the Internet for this skit, most of the results will be Christians being upset about it. I thought it was very clever, though, precisely because a lot of people do imagine this is what God is like. They completely overlook everything in between Jesus’ birth and death, all those teachings about peace and loving your enemy. That allows them to project anything they want onto the actual character of Jesus. It’s no problem that Jesus would go on a revenge fantasy if you do set aside everything Jesus said and did. A lot of people even think that’s what Revelation is basically about.
When I said earlier that it is Jesus that ultimately keeps me as a Christian, a big piece of that is the teachings. I am most compelled by Jesus’ teachings and miraculous actions. It’s more attractive than just some historical or philosophical arguments because seeing these teachings and miracles is what I want my God to look like. This is not your typical god of tribalism or nationalism or violence. This is not a god of personal responsibility, every person for themselves, or of individual gain. This is not a god who just offers some happy afterlife with nothing to do in the meantime.
This was a God who got their hands dirty for the sake of making their love to us clear as well as to empower us to love others. And not just those others who are easy to love. Jesus taught in his context to even love Samaritans, to love Romans who were oppressing them, to love tax collectors who cosied up to those Romans for personal gain, to love prostitutes, to love lepers, and on and on with the people who were often not loved. We could easily map these to marginalized groups within our own society.
Imagine what the world would look like if we all lived the kind of things Jesus taught. Even imagine what the world would look like if only those of us who identify as Christians lived these things consistently.
A Strange Kind of King (5 min)
This kind of teaching is important to keep in mind when looking at the next descriptor given to Jesus, that of King.
God seeks to establish a Kingdom. That much is clear repeatedly throughout the Gospels. In fact, Jesus’ most common way to describe his message was that the Kingdom of God was at hand. For many Jews of the time, this would be fantastic news because it meant he was about to lead an armed rebellion against the Romans, restoring the Holy Land – getting their nation back to God, if you will. Even today, that’s the way most of us think of the idea of a Kingdom – authoritarian rule over the people of a geographic area by somebody who was either born into power or who took it through violence. We usually imagine a rich guy detached from reality, dictating the rules by which everybody else must live.
So, there are good reasons why some theologians and pastors are shying away from the language of “kingdom”. Even the best kings and queens are still fundamentally operating on power over everybody else, and we don’t really want to put that image on God.
If this is the only image of a king we had to work with, that would be a problem to put on God. The same goes with the language of “Lord”. Both of those are also obviously male terms when we don’t believe God is constrained to maleness.
Fortunately, Jesus shows us a God who has a very different image of what being a king looks like. This is a king who serves his people, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty for their benefit. He preaches, teaches, and heals. He proclaims forgiveness of sins and peace. And he doesn’t do it by focusing on the rich bureaucracy or religious holy men, ruling from the top down. On the contrary, his focus is on the most outcast in society. If this is a Kingdom, it is the most upside-down and inside-out Kingdom that you could imagine.
I don’t think we can completely get rid of the language of Kingship until we have another way to capture this radical claim that yes, God has power, but uses that power in service, not to demand praise or stay detached in Heaven avoiding us. To simply say kinship instead as some have taken to doing erases that God does have authority. It would make it easier to think that God is just like one of us, doing the best they can with limited resources. Contrasting that, the confession puts it that: “As king who chose the way of the cross, he has revealed the servant character of divine power.” So, I understand people who say that “King” is a bad analogy, but since I don’t have a better one, I’ll keep using it.
I recently came across a good demonstration of this on the TV show American Gods. At the beginning of episode 6 is a fascinating cold open. We see a group of Hispanic people swimming across a river into the United States from Mexico. One of them we see has a tattoo of Jesus – not unusual, since most of South America identifies as Christian. After most have gotten across, one man kneels down, hands up in the air, praying his thanks to God that they made it.
One man at the back of the group was not a good swimmer, though, and begins to drown. A hand pulls him out and carries him to shore, walking along the water to get there. They have a moment of recognition and it might seem briefly like this will have a happy ending.
But then the pickup trucks roll up and the guns are pulled out, opening fire on the Hispanic people without any warning. While they scramble for their lives, Jesus steps in front of some, taking the bullets on their behalf before dying. The starkest part, though, was this pair of images: one of the guns has this very nice fancy engraving of the words “thy kingdom come” on it. Another shooter casually holds a cross necklace in the same hand as he uses to pull the trigger, murdering people he knows nothing about except that they came from somewhere else. These shooters literally kill Jesus, without knowing it was Jesus, in the name of Jesus.
They obviously were not trying for subtlety on the show, but this imagery was stuck in my head for the next week. I can’t think of any other mainstream TV show or movie that so directly contrasted two completely different understandings of what Jesus’ kingdom looks like. For one side, God’s Kingdom on Earth means getting rid of the wrong illegal people who would ruin everything. For the others, God’s Kingdom is one that brings rescue and perhaps eventually equality regardless of which country they happened to be born in.
This is an amazing example – not far removed from reality – that demonstrates how much theology does matter. Bad theology can literally kill people. Good theology can literally save lives.
Son of God, Revelation of God (6 min)
Ultimately, though, the most central claim to make of Jesus is that he is the fullest revelation of God.
The confession says it this way:
We acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Son of God, the Word of God incarnate. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. As fully human and tempted as we are, yet without sin, he is the model human being.12 As fully divine, he is the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. During his earthly life, Jesus had an intimate relationship with his heavenly Abba and taught his disciples to pray “Abba, Father.”13 He is the image of the invisible God, and “all things have been created through him and for him, for he is before all things.”
That last sentence – Jesus is the image of the invisible God – is a direct biblical quote from Colossians and it is one of those theological ideas that rattled around in my head for years, completely reshaping so much of my theology. There is no bigger question than what God is like, and Jesus answers that question for us. This doesn’t dismiss the rest of the Bible, doesn’t dismiss church tradition, doesn’t dismiss personal experience, but we filter all those things through the revelation of God’s fundamental character which we see in Jesus.
As the sermon said last week, we Anabaptists do have some tendency to overemphasize Jesus at expense of the rest of the Trinity. We might be tempted toward modalism – that is, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just different modes of the same person. Like saying that I am a husband, a website developer, and a podcast editor. Same person, different jobs. I do think we need to avoid this extreme; there are good biblical arguments for maintaining a Trinity. The tweet I added to the slide summed it up well: “As a Christian, God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.” I needed to make that caveat clear before continuing.
The prelude to the Gospel of John, which Emily read a part of earlier, talks about this from a big philosophical level. The Greek word here is “logos”, which we typically translate as the “Word”, but it carries more meaning to it than that. In Greek philosophy, the logos was the principle of divine reason and creative order. We get the word logic from how it is the basis of how things are, in some ways like God identifying themselves to Moses initially as I AM, which the sermon talked about last week. A word is also the fundamental unit of communication, so we could put it another way as “Jesus is what God has to say”.
For some, it is a radical concept that God would become incarnate as a human being. They might see a significant conflict between saying that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. But that betrays a lower view of humanity than the Bible and Jesus seemed to hold. Maybe whoever preaches on article 6, the creation and calling of human beings, will cover this, but the starting point for humanity is to be image-bearers of God. Broken image-bearers, but image-bearers nonetheless. So, in a sense, being fully human is to fully be that image of God, which is not a conflict with also being God. It only becomes a problem if we start going down the Greek philosophy emphasis on God being defined primarily by power rather than loving character.
Jesus as the image of God becomes a basis for understanding other areas of theology. I’m not going to try to answer some of these other big questions for a couple of reasons. For one, Anabaptists can go in different ways on some of these questions and me going through a lot of my own opinions would counter the point of doing this series on the shared confession of faith. For another, I’m running out of time. But some examples you might ask yourself about:
What do we do with the violent portrayals of God in the Bible if God is best seen as this suffering servant like Jesus on the cross?
What do we do with the idea of Hell, particularly the eternal conscious torment version of it?
What’s God’s attitude toward marginalized people today: women, LGBTQ, people of colour, the poor, and so on?
Even on things which Jesus didn’t directly comment on, we can get a pretty good idea by looking at the kind of things Jesus did and taught and how that reveals God to us.
I will conclude with reading a bit from Jessica Kelley’s book Lord Willing?. Jessica’s son Henry died young of a rare brain disorder and she tells the heart wrenching story in this book. Or you could also hear her speak by searching for more of her work online. We even got her on our MennoNerds podcast once and it was one of my favourites we’ve done – that’s a shameless plug, go find MennoNerds on YouTube. It’s not just because of her powerful personal story, but because of her ability to wrestle with heavy theological topics, in this case to do with free will and the problem of evil.
Included in the book, she recalls how she played a word association game. When she thought of God, she thought of things like all-powerful, jealous, mighty, judge, wrathful, and ruler. When she thought of Jesus, she thought of things like gentle, loving, miracle worker, and saviour. Not all of those are opposites and much of it could be reconciled together. But it does suggest there’s some work to do if you truly believe that Jesus is the full revelation of God while having different character traits than God.
So I’ll end with reading a bit from the introduction of the book, beginning on page 21, asking the question of how we see God:
[Read from Lord Willing pg 21, what does God look like]
I hope that is a question that we never stop asking.