"What We Talk About When We Talk About God" by Kevin Georgas
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
11 But as for you, person of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
We’ve got people in this room who come from a lot of different backgrounds when it comes to church. Some of us grew up in church and never left, some people grew up in church and did leave—maybe because you were hurt and angry, maybe because, like, what’s the point—and some of us who are here have spent very little time in churches but are interested in what this church is doing around debt and labor. So now that we’ve spent a few weeks talking about our practices, the things that we do together, John and Heather and I wanted to explore the theology that emerges if we believe that God is calling us to do those things.
Because as we’ve said, we are a church. We talk about God, we read the Bible, we confess sins, we ask for salvation. There’s a lot of churchy words that have been floating around for 2,000 years and if you grew up in a certain tradition and then you come here and hear the way we use those words you might find yourself quoting Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that means what you think that it means.” Sometimes at Jubilee we talk about God and salvation and sin a little differently, not I think because we’re doing anything that new, but because hopefully we’re reclaiming very ancient ways of talking about God that have been forgotten. This reminds me of another pastor who a few years ago told me that one of his church members came up to him after worship and said, “I miss the old songs, why don’t we sing them anymore.” This pastor was confused, they’d just sung Be Thou My Vision which is a thousand years old and All Creatures of Our God and King which is over seven hundred years old, but when he said that to the church member who was up in their eighties, they replied, “No I mean like the Gaithers, like the music I grew up with.” Sometimes the things we grew up with (that get called traditional) are actually quite new; they just seem old to us because they’re all we know. So over the next few weeks, we want to reclaim some older understandings, maybe some different understandings, of God and salvation and heaven, that are deeply traditional, that go back thousands of years, but that might sound a little strange in the world of American evangelicalism.
I also want to say that as we talk about these statements, they aren’t litmus tests to prove whether or not you belong at Jubilee. My hope is that they’ll be starting points for future investigations, that they’ll give us some language to work with that helps us talk together about what kind of God would call us to forgive each others debts, to struggle in solidarity, to gather for healing and restoration. If those are the things God is calling us to do, if those are ways we come to know God better, what can we say about who God is?
Jesus is God
So if you’ll look in your bulletin, you might notice a half sheet of paper with some words printed on it. They say: “We believe in the God who is three in one and one in three, whose mysteries are revealed in the poor, dark flesh of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Let’s start in the middle of that. In the story we tell as a church, we know what the word “God” means through the flesh of Jesus, not the other way around. When most people hear the word God, they think of the greatest possible thing they can imagine: a king on his throne sitting on top of a mountain, a mighty warrior ready to breathe fire or throw lightening bolts at the slightest provocation, a being that is beautiful because they’re whole and perfect and pure. “God” is whatever we think of as great thrown onto a cosmic scale, judging us: strength, beauty, power, surveillance type knowledge.
And so, those things as we find them in our world become the measure of godliness. If that’s who God is, then we know who’s blessed: the rich, the property owners, the white, the straight, the thin, the men, the able, whomever has the biggest army, the centralized family with 1.7 children and a dog. And we also know who’s cursed, who God hates: the poor, the workers, people of color, the fat, the queer, the single, the weak, the sick, the disabled. If we start with a god who is our conception of greatness writ large, we are inevitably divinizing what passes for normal in our world—and there are many who must be sacrificed to that god.
But if God is who we come to know in the flesh of Jesus, then we get to realize that “God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.” We can’t just fit Jesus into our idea of what a god is; if Jesus is God, then his flesh empties that word of any content we’re familiar with and asks us to reimagine what is ultimately real. Jesus shows us who God is. Jesus is not just a technology that God deploys—a flesh machine God needs to sacrifice to secure our salvation—so that the content of his life is subordinate to his death. Instead, Jesus’ death only makes sense in light of his life and his resurrection, so that every aspect of his life—his ministry, his miracles, his arrest, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension—show us not only that he is God but who God really is.
When we say that Jesus is God, we’re saying that when we hear the word “God” we don’t think of a king on a throne; we think of a poor Jew who heals and feeds their neighbors, is executed by the king on the throne, and then rises to keep feeding and healing; we’re saying that that kind of life is a more ultimate reality than the machinations of those in halls of power. God is beyond what we think of as great in a way that joins us below when we are lowly. That is the content of Jesus’ life.
So, when we say that Jesus is God we say that God identifies with workers, not the financiers who do no work and eat but with all who struggle to work and don’t get to eat; God has joined you. If you want to know who God is, you have to be in solidarity with workers against capitalism. That’s how God shows up in Jesus.
Or when we say that Jesus is God, we’re not saying that God is a man in a patriarchal world (God exceeds gender, too). In that world the performance of masculinity was bound up in being a faithful citizen, a great warrior, having lots of children, being rich, or being a skilled orator. Jesus is tried for sedition; refuses to take up the sword; Jesus is celibate; Jesus was poor and OK with it; and Jesus usually just refused to argue whenever someone asked him a question. Jesus queers gender which is to say that God identifies with the queer. If you want to know who God is, you have to be in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community and women against patriarchy and normativity. That’s how God shows up in Jesus.
Or when we say that Jesus is God, we’re saying that God is the one whom the powerful of this world disdain and find threatening; we worship a God who was crucified by a lynch mob in concert with a police state. That’s getting at what the theologian James Cone meant when he said that Jesus is black, that God takes on not just any flesh, but dark flesh that is policed and chained because it is dark. If you want to know who God is, you have to be in solidarity with people of color in working to dismantle white supremacy. That’s how God shows up in Jesus.
Or when we say that Jesus is God, we remember that even in the resurrection, when Jesus rises in a glorified body, a heavenly body, that flesh still bears the scars of the crucifixion, which is why the writer Nancy Eisland has called Jesus the disabled God. In her words: Jesus Christ the disabled God, is consonant with the image of Jesus Christ the stigmatized Jew, the person of color, and representative of the poor and hungry – those who have struggled to maintain the integrity and dignity of their bodies in the face of the physical mutilation of injustice and rituals of bodily degradation. That’s who God has joined, and if you want to know who God is you’ve got to join people with disabilities. That’s how God shows up in Jesus.
That’s who God is. I’m afraid that a lot of people believe that Jesus doesn’t show us who God is, but that Jesus saves us from who God is, like God is this nuclear bomb ready to destroy all of us and Jesus stands in between us and God so that that happens to him not us, but God is still fundamentally the one who wants to incinerate you. That’s not the story the Scriptures tell. The grace that Jesus shows is also the way that God looks at you, however this world is pressing upon you and telling you otherwise.
Life in the Spirit
Jesus is God in the flesh, showing us how God is at work in the world. Which means that that is the kind of life that we’re invited to live, too. I think this is what Paul is talking about when he says “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires…But as for you, Beloved, shun all this. Do good, be rich in good works, be generous, be ready to share…so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.” I think he’s saying don’t fall into the trap of measuring yourself and organizing your life around what passes for great in this world, because you’ll always be chasing after the approval of a ruling class that hates you. And that’s not really living.
Jesus doesn’t just join us below so that “above” and “below” can be left as they are. Jesus joins us below to set those arrangements in motion for us. This is why Jesus breathes his Spirit upon the disciples. When the Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, everyone thinks that the disciples are drunk, because they’re acting so out of custom. In the words of my teacher Willie Jennings, “a body in the Spirit, is a body that cannot be controlled.” The Holy Spirit breaks chains, raises the dead, heals the sick, calls centurions to leave behind their swords and calls Phillip to sit beside and embrace a gender-fluid Ethiopian. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, continuing to stir up the kind of life that Jesus embodied, a life that joins the lowly and raises them up.
And the Holy Spirit goes to work in our midst so that wherever two or more are gathered in the name of the poor, black, disabled crucified God to confess our own struggles, Jesus is with them. Jesus lives among us and calls us to join the lowly, to be together as lowly, and to lift each other up from whatever presses us down.
That’s who we mean when we talk about God: the beyond who exceeds our imaginations but meets us below in the flesh of Jesus to raise up the lowly in the Spirit. Life poured out, life overflowing, life drawing us into its own source, one God, now and forever. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about God. Amen.