Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
They think they’ve caught the Lord Jesus with a gotcha question. If he says Yes to paying taxes to Caesar he’ll offend one constituency and if he says No he’ll offend the other. So they think. But he’s a smart candidate and he turns the question back on them.
The Roman coin called the denarius was hateful to the Jews who had to use it. On it was graven the image of the face of Caesar, so it violated the second commandment, against graven images. Worse, Caesar claimed to be a god, so it made them break the first commandment. On the obverse was engraved Caesar’s mother in the image of the goddess Juno.
The Jews were forced to support idolatry because they were forced to participate in the economy of their Roman oppressors. And yet they will have treasured their denarii because to have them signified some value in their lives. Oppression is brilliant when it both oppresses you and makes you guilty in your oppression.
What does a goddess look like? What does a god look like? The whole of Greek and Roman civilization thought the question was no big deal. Depends on who your god is, take your pick. Against this was the lonely witness of Judaism that you may not picture God. There is no image of God that is not woefully inaccurate, no image that is not misguided and misleading, so just don’t. We don’t have the mental capacity. We are constitutionally unable to see God’s face. And so because you cannot picture God you may not picture God.
But of course we cannot help but imagine God. God did give us our imaginations. And if we are to love God, how can we not imagine God? Take the case of Moses in the Exodus. Moses has been dealing intimately with this newly rediscovered God of Abraham, after 400 years of silence, who kept surprising them and saying such remarkable things, defying every category of godhood assumed by all the ancient civilizations.
“Who are you really? All this time that we’ve been talking, you’ve been hiding in that cloud. Could you let me in? Could I take just one good look at you?”
“No, you can’t, because I would overwhelm you. You know you can’t look at the sun without injury, and to look at me would injure you worse, you wouldn’t survive it, you just don’t have the capacity. The best that I can offer is to let you look at me from behind as I pass by.”
And Moses was able to see God’s back. What this means is that we can see God after the fact, in the ways God moves and the works that God has done. You can see God from behind.
Recently one of you was telling me about a thing that happened in your life, a very difficult thing, and you said that when you were going through it you hated it, but now when you look back, you can see that it was good that you went through it.
Another one of you told me that during the last few years of your life, things turned out other than what you had wanted, and the doors you had wanted to go through had closed on you; but now, as you look back, you can see from behind that it was God. Yes, that’s how we see God, from behind. It’s true. But it’s not the only way.
This past August in Ontario I visited a family from the congregation I served there twenty-eight years ago. I had performed the wedding of the parents, Peter and Janice, to whom we had been rather close, and I had baptized the oldest child, but the three younger children I had never met, and they were now young adults, wonderful young people, about the age of their parents when I was their pastor.
Tragically, ten years ago their mother had been killed by a drunk driver. But on that August morning, when her children were talking to me, it was uncanny how often I would hear in their voices the distinctive voice of their mother. “Oh, you said that just like Janice would!” And how often in their body language, the way they turned their heads, I was seeing again the way that Janice looked and the expressions of her face. After twenty-five years I was watching her and hearing her within her kids.
Janice Wassink Oskam
Child of God, Rest in peace, and rise in glory.
I was seeing their mother after the fact, from behind, but even more, I was seeing her still alive, because these kids of hers had once been part of her own body. Not just their DNA, but the very energy of life, that mysterious energy of life that was animating their bodies had been generated by her life. Her life was living on in them, her kids, as they talked to me.
And so we are to see God not only from behind but also alive in the community of Jesus Christ. That’s the claim. That’s the claim that St. Paul is making in the reading from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, and he says it so obliquely we might miss how much of a claim it is. He calls them “a church in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s odd. What does he mean by “in”?
Well, I think it’s like those young people I was talking to were in their mother Janice. Janice was alive in them and they looked like Janice. So God is alive in us and we look like God. So if you want to know what God is like, God wants you to look at the community of Jesus to see God living there.
When the Russian cosmonaut, fifty years ago, famously went up into outer space and reported back that while he was up in the heavens he did not see God, the answer is, you dummy, you could have seen God in your old grandmother and her elderly friends as they prayed together in church. And you might say, Oh come on, that’s sentimental, and metaphorical at best, and St. Paul would say, Nope, get used to it, that’s exactly real, where God wants to be found and seen and heard.
Recently one of you privately and discretely complained of being let down by Old First, that when you were going through a very hard time, we failed to be a community of Jesus when you needed it. To hear you say this was difficult for me, of course, but I took it as honest and sincere. And I wondered, does this church really want to be a community of Jesus? Or is that just my own imposition on it?
Maybe that’s not what people want, maybe that’s not what people need. That’s not what Marble Collegiate is, that’s not how Fifth Avenue Presbyterian identifies itself. Maybe it has been a very wrong strategy for Old First to hold this up as our mission. Maybe what we should offer is the “Communion of Jesus”—you come, you hear the message, you get your communion, and you go home and get whatever community you need from your ordinary friends in ordinary life. We’re just not equipped to offer some more authentic sort of “community” than ordinary life.
But then I read a passage like First Thessalonians, and I’m convicted that a community of Jesus Christ is indicated, prescribed, expected, because we’re in that community that is God, the eternal and uncreated community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in three persons, blessed Trinity, the original community. Com-unity, combined unity, union of plurality, and in the middle of that community, their glory, is the crucified one, the abandoned one, the disappointed one, the failed one, the let-down one, the betrayed one.
There is a mystery here, I haven’t figured it out, that our disappointments with each other are somehow part of how God is to be seen in our community.
Our new draft mission statement opens with the language of our old mission statement: Old First is community of Jesus Christ. That’s a statement of identity, because our bodies draw our life from God’s life, but also of active mission, because God is exposing God’s self to the world through the body of our community of Jesus. God is saying, Look at me here, and when you look at me, you see that I am love—disappointed love, let-down love, betrayed love, but enduring love.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.