Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Bearing The Truth About God


In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 16:12-15) Jesus said to his disciples, "Sorry, boys, but you cannot bear it now." On the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he still had much to tell them, but they couldn't bear it yet. Forgive me, Jesus, but that sounds a lot like, "You'll understand this when you're older," or "Once you become a parent, you'll understand what love really is." Actually, that's not at all what Jesus said, but I think Jesus will forgive me for making the connection to comments like those. As my beard gets grayer, those comments don't happen as much as they used to, but I can still feel the shadow of resentment spreading through me as I remember them.

In this case, though, Jesus wasn't saying that the disciples needed to grow up a little bit more before they were able to understand the truths about God that Jesus wanted to give them. He was standing on one side of his death and resurrection, and he knew that humanity could not comprehend what God was seeking to reveal until it had witnessed the Son of God die on the cross and be raised from the dead. Jesus' disciples needed to bear the loss of their teacher and friend before they could receive what he was trying to convey to them. That isn't ageist or ableist. It's theology.

I can't remember where I saw it, but I came across a survey about doing theology, and the question was whether someone who is not a person of faith is able to do it. I believe the answer is no. That's not because I think that only believers are committed to the pursuit of God, and it's certainly not because I don't like the conclusions that unbelieving academics reach. (There are plenty of people who identify as Christians whose writings I dislike.) Neither do I think that saying the Creed and receiving Holy Communion magically opens a person up to new and profound insights about who God is. Instead, I believe that true language about God is only possible for those who pursue a relationship with God that enables personal transformation. "Doing theology" isn't as simple as reading and writing about God--of surveying the relevant literature and proposing a new approach to old questions. It means to bring to light the inscrutable, unknowable nature of the one who is completely unknowable. Proper theology doesn't come from us; it comes from God. And only those who are available to God in a profound way can communicate of God like that. Otherwise, all one can do is research of secondary sources.

Whether an academic theologian or a faithful pew-sitter (or both), we cannot know the truth about God except what we know through relationship with God. As Christians, we don't get to know God (simply) by reading about God or by listening to sermons about God or reading blog posts about God. We get to know God by pursuing a deeper, closer, transformational relationship with God. And we do that, Jesus tells us, by dying with him and by being raised with him to new life. Baptism--not merely the sprinkling of water on a person's head in the name of the Trinity but the accompanying Christ into the grave and back out again--is the primary expression of our journey with God through death and into resurrection. The primary story of humanity's journey with God is scripture. And the principal language we use in this relationship is prayer--particularly the deep, Spirit-led silent or charismatic prayer that makes room for God to communicate to and through us.

God still has much to say to us. Can we bear it yet? Have we journeyed with Christ through death and into resurrection? Have we made space for the Spirit to speak to us and draw us into the divine life? It isn't a question of age or ability or circumstance. It's an issue of relationship--the kind of relationship that takes time and effort and, most of all, availability. How and when and for how long are we making ourselves available for God? Ten minutes here or there won't cut it. If we want to receive what God desires to say to us, we have to bear more than that.

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