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Unity Of Love

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
August 5, 2001

Colossians 3:1-17

Marcus Borg, historical Jesus scholar and Oregon State professor, asserts that images of Jesus matter.  In other words, how we picture Jesus, whether as a teacher, a miracle worker, a Divine Savior in human form, etc., has an enormous impact on our faith and to a very real extent, our entire lives.  I couldn't agree more.  This morning, however, I want to focus not on Jesus but on God.  My argument is essentially the same:  that our images of God matter and have a dramatic effect on our faith, our lives and even human society. That how we picture God impacts the way picture ourselves, the way we treat one another and, most importantly, what we envision the church,  the people of God,  should be.

To illustrate my point, I'd like to read some letters written to God by children.  As you listen to these letters, think about the image of God that lies behind them:

         Dear GOD,
         Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a
         puppy. -Joyce

         Dear GOD,
         Please send me a pony.
         I never asked for anything before, You can look it up.  -Bruce

         Dear GOD,
         It rained for our whole vacation and is my father mad!
         He said some things about You that people are not supposed to
         say,  but I hope You will not hurt him anyway. Your friend.
         (But I am not going to tell you who I am)

         Dear GOD,
         Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much
         if they had their own rooms.   It works with my brother.  -Larry

         Dear God,
         Did you really mean "do unto others as they do unto you"?
         Because if you did, then I'm going to fix my brother!  -Darla

Do we picture God like Joyce and Bruce, the giver of all things who gives us what we want when we are good or perhaps only what we need or is good for us, substituting  baby brothers for puppies?  Is our God the divine judge who punishes us for being bad?  Or perhaps God is the wise parent who knows when to separate murderous siblings as Larry envisions and Darla needs before she gets a hold of her brother.

 The image I like comes from Nan who wrote:

         Dear GOD,
         I bet it is very hard for You to love all of everybody in the
         whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can
         never do it.  -Nan

What is Nan's image of God?  Nan sees God as the Great Lover whose job it is to love everyone in the whole world, a task she cannot begin to fathom because she cannot even love the other three people in her family at the same time.  But, Nan knows she should and she is trying.  Why?  Because that is her image of God, One who loves everyone, no matter how difficult.

In our text for this morning from the third chapter of Colossians, Paul gives a list of vices to be avoided, including such things as fornication, indecency, evil thoughts, greed, anger, wrath, malice and lying.  These are old habits from a former life we have given up, hopefully!  We have become, in Christ, new people.  And then Paul says this, in v. 10,  you are becoming more and more like your Creator.

 Why?  How is that that we become more and more like our Creator?  It is very simple, very natural really.  It is because we emulate that which we worship.  Worship money and you will seek to become wealthy.  Worship success and you will put climbing the corporate ladder above all else.  Worship sports and you will aspire to be an athlete.  Worship your pastor and you will become handsome and intelligent...  :-)

We emulate that which we worship (reason enough why you should not worship your pastor!).  The folks in Colossae are becoming more God-like because they worship God, more Christ-like because they follow Jesus.  So you see, our image of God does matter, and it can make an enormous difference in our life, our community and the church.

Before I get back to Paul's image of God as expressed in this letter, I invite you to reflect a bit with me on one of the traditional ways in which we portray God and how that impacts society.  The most prominent image of God among Christians is what?  God the Father, a decidedly male figure.  What are the implications if we see God primarily as male?  Men as head of the household, male-only clergy, male-dominated society, etc., in one way or another can each be linked to an image of God as male.  The extreme, but natural result of such thinking can be seen in the final verses of the Gospel of Thomas, a second century collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in Egypt in 1945.

Simon Peter said  [to Jesus], 'Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life.'

Typical male-chauvinist talk, right?  What else can you expect from a guy who spends the whole day sitting in a boat fishing with the other guys.  Listen to the answer Jesus gives:

'Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.  For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.'
       Thomas 114, SV

There you go women, to get into heaven you just have to become like us men!  Any questions?  Aren't you glad the Gospel of Thomas didn't make into our Bible?  In defense of Thomas, I do have to point out that in his culture, this was a pretty radical statement because it challenged the male-only club that was taking control of  the church in the second century.  Thomas' Jesus rejects Peter's request to kick Mary out of this male-only club.  Granted, it is a rather perverted rationale, making women male, and that is my point.  When you start with an exclusive male image of God, eventually, maleness becomes a criteria for citizenship in God's realm.   I could give you a dozen more citations from leading church thinkers throughout the ages but I think you get the point.

Images do matter, and our image of God matters the most.  Genesis 1 tells us that we are created in God's image.  So what is that image?  The first thing we note from Genesis 1 is that humankind is created male and female in God's image.  But most perplexing in those verses from the first chapter of our Bible is not this dual-sexual nature of God, but the pronouns used for God.  Listen, reading from the CEV, to Genesis 1:26:  God said, 'Now we will make humans and they will be like us.'   Have you wondered about that verse?  Weren't you raised like me to believe that there is only one God?  So what is this 'we' business?  Reminds me of the time the Lone Ranger was surrounded by Indians and he says to Tonto, 'Looks like we are surrounded, Tonto.'  Tonto replies:  'What do you mean "we" white man?'  I want to ask, what do you mean 'we' God?

At the church I served in Fresno I had a very creative typist.  I asked her to put an announcement in the bulletin for the six-week course I was teaching on the prophets.  She did, substituting an 'e' for the 'i' in six.  Think about it.  I have yet to figure out just what a 'sex-week' is but it was the best attended course I have ever taught!  Now you can stop thinking about it because it has absolutely nothing to do with this sermon.

Well, on one Sunday we used the Hebrew Shema for our call to worship.  The Shema, you may know, is the heart of the Jewish faith.  'Shema' comes from the Hebrew verb 'to hear'.   The Shema is taken from the preface to the Ten Commandments and reads 'Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one.'  Well this time the flying fingers of the secretary hit an extra key, an 'n', strategically placed before the last word.  Thus  the congregation stood and with great affirmation and conviction, read, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is none.'  That is what I call 'Reductionist Theology'.

This statement from Deut. 6, the Lord is one, I find just as perplexing as the 'we' in Genesis 1.  The Lord is one what?  Typically we take 'one' to mean 'alone', i.e. there is only one God, YHWH, the God of Israel.  The New Revised Standard Version even translates this verse that way.  Such a reading, however, that YHWH is God alone, only complicates the plurality of the divine in Genesis 1.

The other possibility is that 'one' may mean 'united', just as we sing 'We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.'  In fact, at various points throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God appears not alone, but as part of a divine council.  In Job 1 heavenly beings present themselves to the Lord to hear the accuser, the Satan, and God dicker over the fate of Job.  In I Kings 22  God presides over a heavenly brainstorming session to decide what to do about king Ahab.  In Proverbs 8 we read that Wisdom, described as a divine being apart from the Creator, was the first of God's creations.  And she, Sophia in the Greek, a feminine image, assists God in creation.  In the New Testament, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit appear as a divine triad that has been the source of theological controversy and confusion for the last 2000 years.

Put it all together--the divine we at creation, the divine council in Job and Kings, Sophia in Proverbs, the Trinity in the New Testament, and you see that God is not alone, that God is not a singular being.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, male and female, Creator and Sophia, Judge of the Nations, Liberator of the Oppressed, Healer of the Ill...   God is all of these and more.  Each and every one is a distinct reality of the divine and yet part of the one whole that makes up God.  Forget the Trinity.  We Disciples have never been big on it anyway.  Who are we to limit God to just three persons?  God is so vast and has so many forms in which the divine spirit is present in some way that we cannot begin to name them all. In Islam there are 1000 names for God of which 999 are known.  One remains unknown to symbolize that we cannot know all the names and manifestations of the divine.  What are some of the names we give to God?  Creator, Redeemer, Judge of the nations, Healer of all ills, the Great I am, Lover of the universe....  There are many ways to portray God so whether one thinks of God as living in all things or in the more traditional Christian Trinity, the point is the same:  God as three or God as many, united as one is the model for humanity.  This is the image in which we are created, a united God, a relational God, a God in community, a God as community.

In John's gospel on his last night with his disciples, Jesus gives this prayer:

I am not praying just for these followers, I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me.  I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me.  I also want them to one with us Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.  I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other as we are one.  I am one with them, as you are one with me, so that they may become completely one.
      John 17:20-23a, CEV

Our calling from Jesus as the body of Christ is to restore the oneness of humanity by demonstrating that oneness in the community of God's people.  We do this not because it would be nice for Christians to get along with one another or because we will be a more efficient organization as one, united church.  We do it, or I should say strive to do it, because it is at the essence of who God is and what it means to be Christian.  Thus at our General Assembly last month we joined the United Church in Christ as the last of nine denominations to become a part of the new Churches Uniting in Christ, which is not a merger of our churches but a new way of working together in partnership.  You will be hearing more about that in the next year.  Paul goes on to say in v. 11 or our text,

 It doesn't matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not.  You may even be a barbarian [someone who did not speak Greek] or a Scythian [people known for their cruelty], and you may be a slave or a free person.  Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. 
      Colossians 3:11, CEV

It doesn't matter if you are male or female, it doesn't matter if you are generation X or generation gray, if doesn't matter if you speak English or Arabic, it doesn't matter if you are European, African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or Martian, it doesn't matter if you are DOC, RCC, UCC, UMC, UFW, NBA, NFL, NHL, PGA, AFL-CIO, CIA, CEO,  GOP or NAACP!  Christ is all that matters and Christ lives in us, all of us.  We may have different skin colors, we may have different national origins, we may be different sexes or a different sexual orientation, we may vote differently, we may live differently, but if Christ is in us, we are part of the same body.

Jeff Miller noted last week that not everyone in this church agrees with me.  Shocking, I know!  Our folks in the first service like music with a beat, people in the second service prefer more traditional hymns and pipe organ.  Some of us are pro-choice others pro-life.  The majority of us are straight, but a few in our midst are gay or lesbian.  We are affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.  Two blocks behind us are the Catholics, two blocks in front are the Episcopalians and three blocks to the north are the Southern Baptists.  If each and everyone of us share belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world, then who can exclude anyone of us from the fellowship of God's people?  For all of these differences have been overcome in Christ.  To act any differently is to defy God and to belittle the gospel.

Listen what Paul says on how we are to live as God's people:

God loves you and has chose you as his own special people.  So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient.  Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.  Love is more important than anything else.  It is what ties everything completely together.
       Colossians 3:12-14, CEV

Paul's model for how we are to live as one is Jesus Christ.  We are to forgive and to love others as Christ forgives and loves us.  God's love is defined in the relationship of Jesus Christ with us.  Whether we speak of God as three in one or God as all in one, God is a community of love.  That love, says Paul, is what ties everything completely together, be it God, the church or the world.

To worship God, the divine community of love, is to seek to become like our Creator.  To follow Jesus, the embodiment of God's communal love, is to make that love real and present in our world.

Finally, hear this last affirmation from Paul:

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace.
       Colossians 3:15a, CEV

You, people chosen by God, are called to live as one just as God lives as one, one people, one body of Christ, one faith in the God who is One.  Worship this God, praise this God, and you will become more and more like your Creator, a Unity of Love.


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