He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God. (John 1.11-12)
Mountaintops and Thin Places
Yesterday found me with way too many kettles on the stove. In addition to my “real world” responsibilities, I’d taken on all sorts of activities that frustrated me. Some were noble, others trivial. But they all left me with the sense that I was banging my head against the wall. And since I’m not a big fan of “rules for living”—all those truisms that make the short lists in self-help books—I offer the following less as a rule for living than an observation: If you’re mad at the world and enjoying your crankiness, don’t attend a Bible study. Because nothing puts the kibosh on holding a grudge against humanity like discussing God’s promises with people of faith.
Heading off to my weekly study group last evening, I was in full-blown lather. I nursed my churlishness down every block between my apartment and the church. Arriving a few minutes late, I took the first seat I could find at one of the tables, and asked, “What are we talking about?” The young lady beside me pointed to Question One on the evening’s discussion guide: “Some people call them ‘mountaintop’ experiences. Others call them ‘thin places.’ Share about a time when you experienced the presence of God.” I had to rejigger my head. After a day like I’d had, mountaintops and thin places couldn’t have been farther from mind.
Something Greater Than Us
The question drew us to consider that we all—at seemingly random moments—experience God’s presence. It may come in the company of others, in watching unforeseen blessings fall into place, in quiet appreciation of nature, or in a passing comment, sometimes from a stranger, that reminds us God is ineffably with us. And the bigger point behind the exercise was setting aside presumptions that God’s presence is made known to us because of us. No one group or person can corner the market on God’s presence. Christians are no more apt than anyone else to discover God’s presence in unexpected ways. Nor for that matter are people of faith—any faith—exclusively entitled to these experiences.
Whether or not we believe, God becomes known to us in ways, and at times, when we need God. We don’t have to call it “God” for it to be God. We may call it serenity, an epiphany, good luck, or what have you. But in every human life there are inexplicable moments when something greater than us announces its presence with us. In Philippians 4.7, Paul calls this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” Try as we might to explain it, rationalize it, and limit God’s presence to some rather than all, Paul essentially admonishes us not to bother with trying. It’s more basic than not getting it, he says. We’ll never get it.
God's Vision Statement
Since Paul is a Christian writing to Christians, he adds that this amazing peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Belief in Christ heightens our sensitivity to God’s presence in our lives. That’s all there is to it, which is why Paul finds awareness of God’s presence a no-brainer. We find what mystifies him about God’s interaction with humanity in Ephesians 1.9-11: “God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s good pleasure that God set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of God Who accomplishes all things according to God’s counsel and will.” (Emphasis added.) The mystery of God’s will is the unity of all things, a desire that puts an end to selectivity, labeling, and religious and social exclusion. We have also obtained an inheritance, Paul explains, inferring what we find in Christ isn't unique to us.
And we should note that Paul’s fascination with this prospect—which he addresses consistently in his letters—is not unique to him. It was the Early Church’s driving principle and sustaining hope. First-century believers lived every day for the day when God’s abiding presence would be enough—when the love and power embodied in Christ would explode and encompass all of humanity, when being called a Christian, a Jew, a Greek, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on would no longer be relevant. The thesis statement John presents in his Gospel’s opening chapter verifies this: “He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.” (v11-12)
In this text, “He” is “The Word,” God’s vision statement, spoken before the dawn of time, without bias based on our ability to understand, accept, or agree with it. Indeed, John—taking a jab at Jewish leaders, who ousted early Christians from their religious community—says The Word, made manifest in Jesus, was distinctly misunderstood, rejected, and defied. Those who received and believed The Word, however, were given power to become children of God. Not merely to become “Christians.” Not even “people of faith.” This vast diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations, and religious heritages would come together as children of God. “A plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth,” Paul says.
Jesus “didn’t come to start a new religion,” Rob Bell asserts in Love Wins, and we’re hard-pressed, I think, to dispute him. When Jesus sanctions “the Church” in Matthew 16.18, He uses the word ecclesia—i.e., a gathering of people around a common purpose, both to perpetuate it as well as deliberate its meaning and function. If anything, the Church was meant to blow the doors off of religion. That’s why its earliest members avoided religious identification. According to Acts 11.26, “Christian” was a term invented by non-believers to label Jesus’s followers. Within their ranks, they used terms like “disciples,” “believers,” and familial handles to denote their unity. And they called their purpose “The Way”—not, “God’s Way,” “Our Way,” “The Only Way,” or “The Best Way.” Just, “The Way.”
Lent’s affirmation of The Way leads us to the cross. But if we’re to grasp Calvary’s meaning to the fullest, I believe it’s vital that we divest it of all religious connotations. Jesus did not submit to a criminal’s crucifixion for the sake of branding the Church or its people with a members-only trademark. The cross is a milepost in God’s plan to gather up all things—and all people—in God. It’s where God’s presence at large in the world is boldly displayed, the moment when God irrevocably blows the doors off religion. It’s the entry point for God’s incomprehensible peace to enter our respective stories. Wrangling, as always, with this mind-bending mystery, Paul writes in Roman 5.8: “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” That’s The Way—power to all, opportunity for everyone to become and be seen as children of God, as proved by God’s great, gathering love.
Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. Nor was the cross intended to brand the Church or its people with a members-only trademark. To fully grasp the mystery of God’s love, we must divest Calvary of all religious connotations.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/03/28/power-to-all/.
Postscript: New Questions
What must we overcome to open ourselves to the expansive, all-encompassing nature of God’s love?
When we divest the cross of its religious—specifically “Christian”—connotations, what do we see?
How does seeing the cross as a milepost in God’s gathering plan, rather than a symbol of our faith, alter how we view our faith?
Many would charge that Christianity has lost its way as “The Way”. If this is so, how do we return, as individuals and a church/ecclesia, to The Way?