Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign—John 10:22-30, Revelation 7:9-17
Even the strongest and most faithful believers in God, as God is understood by traditional Christianity, have moments of doubt. None of us are immune. I hope that doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, and that it might even come as a relief to some. In my own experience, and as I have spoken with others, the seeds of doubt often come in the form of the passing thought, “What if we’re just making all this stuff up? What if all religions, Christianity included, are just various forms of wishful thinking, crutches we lean on because we’re unwilling to face the cold, hard, realities of life?”
When we look at the history of human religious thought and behavior, we might be forgiven for entertaining such moments of doubt, such attitudes of skepticism. Our earliest ancestors had no reasonable explanation for such simple natural occurrences as sunrise and sunset and inclement weather and the change of seasons, so they imagined gods—powerful beings that they couldn’t see, who lived in the heavens, but who were able to affect what happened on the surface of the earth. This is what we might call “god of the gaps” theology—in other words, whenever there’s a gap between something that happens and our understanding of why it happens, we plug God—or a god, as the case may be—into that gap. There’s a thunderstorm? The gods must be bowling. It’s snowing? The gods must be having a pillow fight.
A natural outgrowth and development of “god of the gaps” theology is a view that might be labeled, “the gods must be angry.” Your neighbor gets sick? He must have done something to offend God—or a god. The corn crop fails? We must be praying to the wrong god, or praying to the right god the wrong way, or something. This is where the idea of sacrifice comes from. If we’ve somehow gotten ourselves on God’s bad side, then we need to do something to appease him. This response ranges from tossing a coin or two into the temple offering box to tossing a virgin or two into an erupting volcano. It’s the same concept, carried out in different ways.
About 300 years ago, as modern experimental science was beginning to come into its own, several of the “gaps” that God had previously been required to fill began to close on their own, as rational and scientific explanations appeared for phenomena that had previously been mysteries. So, in an attempt to salvage some dignity for God, to find a way to keep God on the payroll, so to speak, since he had served so well for so long, a kind of theology known as Deism developed. For a Deist, God is sort of like an engineer or inventor, who designs and constructs something, and then steps back and lets it run, without ever interfering or intervening. God is out there somewhere, but he’s an absentee landlord, and not all that interested in what’s going on in the world he made.
As scientific inquiry has progressed, more and more “gaps” have been filled, and it appears at times that even the God of Deism may actually be unemployed. People like Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan and, more recently, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, have popularized a sort of scientific atheism. With the “big bang” theory, God isn’t even strictly necessary to construct the universe before abandoning it, although one could argue that Somebody has to be around to pull the trigger on the Big Bang; apparently there’s still a teeny bit of a “gap” left. But some time ago I saw a science fiction movie on TV where one of the characters had traveled back in time from the future. When someone asked him if anyone in the future believed in God, he said, “No, that all ended in the year 2030, when scientists isolated the ‘religion gene’.” Let’s see, 2030 is what—14 years from now? Fortunately, I’ll be long retired by then.
But even though God may be laid off at the moment, there is still quite a bit of nostalgic attachment to the idea, at least, of God. So, a great many people who are neither atheistic science geeks nor particularly religious in a traditional sense, indulge in a sort of theology that I like to call “sentimental pantheism.” It’s what keeps the greeting card industry profitable—not much of particular substance, but a lot of very sincere emotion, a lot of feeling good about feeling religious, but without very much actual content that might give offense to anyone. God is everywhere and in everything and in everyone. God is whatever and whoever you want God to be. My “God” may not work for you, and your “God” may not work for me, but—hey—as long as we both have a God that “works” for us, what more could we want?
And alongside this sentimental pantheism is a strong current of apathetic agnosticism, made up of people who are just too consumed with partying or hooking up or making a lot of money or drifting down the stream of life doing whatever it is they do to give very much concentrated thought to the deep questions of why we’re here and what comes next and what it all might mean. They’re not religious, not even out of nostalgia or sentiment, but neither are they atheists or otherwise hostile to people of faith.
We all know people in each of the categories I’ve described. At various times, we’ve been in those categories ourselves. But at this moment, we’re in this place, as part of a community that has some specific convictions about God, and stands in a very definite tradition.
We are Christians. We proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will listen. And the essential claim of the gospel is this: Jesus—the man who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth and who died in Jerusalem, the Christ of the scriptures and creeds, who is the eternal Word of God the Father, who was with God at the moment of creation; who, if anyone pulled the switch on the Big Bang, it was him; the one who was raised from the dead and returned to the nearer presence of the Father and who will return to judge the living and the dead—this Jesus, is the sacrament, the outward sign, the visible human face of God. The essential claim of the gospel is that God has a face. When we see Jesus, we see God. When St John’s gospel tells us that Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” this is what he meant. Later on, the Church would develop all sorts of doctrinal fine points about the relationship between the divine and the human in Jesus, and those fine points are not at all unimportant or to be dismissed. But at the level we’re dealing with as we look at the pages of the New Testament, it’s not all that sophisticated. What Jesus is saying is as simple as this: “When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. I speak God’s words through my teaching and in my interacting with people and as I pronounce God’s forgiveness and bestow God’s peace. I do God’s deeds as I heal the sick and minister to the poor and the marginalized. God cares for you through me; I am the conduit of God’s loving care. God has entrusted you to me as sheep to a shepherd. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. In short, I give you full access to God; when you’ve got me, you’ve got God.” This is the first claim of the gospel: Christ is the human face of God.
The next claim of the gospel is this: the Church is the sacrament of Christ. The Church is that wonderful body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members. It is the whole community of those in every generation and in every nation who have come in faith to the waters of new birth. It is the community of those who live out their common life and mission in ordered relationships, as instituted by Christ himself. According to tradition, the same St John who was an apostle of Jesus also gave us the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation (and it is for that that he is known as St John the Divine—this is, St John the Theologian—the patron of this church.). In our passage this morning from chapter seven of Revelation, we see a vivid word picture of the Church, described as “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” The Church is the continuing manifestation of Christ’s presence among humankind. The ministry of the incarnate Christ among us was limited to Palestine for a brief period nearly twenty centuries ago. But through the Church, that ministry continues. As Christ speaks and acts for God, so the Church speaks and acts for Christ—forgiving sins, healing the sick, bestowing peace, ministering to the poor and marginalized, announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God is near. We would do well to train ourselves to think of Christian congregations, including this one, as “embassies” of Heaven on earth. You know how embassies work, right? The U.S. embassy in Nairobi, for instance, is a bit of sovereign American soil in Kenya, just as the Kenyan embassy in Washington is a bit of sovereign Kenyan soil in America.
When we come to the Church—including a consecrated church building, to be sure, but, more significantly, the worshipping community that inhabits the building—when we come to the Church, when anyone comes to us as the Church, we know we are on heavenly soil, holy ground, a piece of “home” away from home. As the Word is preached and taught, as the sacraments are administered, we know that we are meeting the living Christ in all the power of his ministry and all the tenderness of his pastoral care. And as we see Jesus as we see the Church, we are seeing the glory of God himself—not the God of human invention, the God of the gaps, the capricious and vengeful God of our own imagination, not the absent God of Deism or the harmless God of sentimental pantheism, but the God who has shown himself to us in Jesus. Alleluia and Amen.