Through mercy, love, we dwell in God

  • June 7, 2011

Trinity Sunday (Year A) June 19 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

What does God look like? What would it be like to be in God’s presence? The Book of Exodus answers the question in several ways. In some passages, the vision of God is so awesome and terrifying that no one can look upon God and live. Another passage relates that Moses spoke with God face to face as with a friend. In this passage God descends on a cloud, passes before Moses and speaks to him. All of these represent different traditions in ancient Israel that are woven into the narrative of Exodus.

God was very real for ancient people, but God does not have human form; God does not walk through the garden in the cool of the evening. We do not speak face to face with God, at least in this life. But the theological truth of these traditions is clear. In the tradition of ancient storytelling these traditions reveal that God is deeply personal and not an abstract concept. This passage also reveals important characteristics of God: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. This is the image of God that the Israelites clung to throughout their long history and from which they drew strength. It is the gift that they gave to Christianity. Not only that, it is an image we share with Islam — at the very beginning of the Quran God is described as the merciful and compassionate. It is an image of God to which we should all return constantly and strive to imitate for when we depart from it the results are grim and painful for everyone.

As Moses begs for God’s continual presence with the Israelites and for adoption as God’s people he is very realistic about human characteristics. Human beings are notoriously weak, fickle and selfish — and that makes it very difficult for us to live up to our end of the relationship with God.

The Gospels insist that we must be merciful and compassionate if we wish to receive the same. In a similar vein, Paul exhorts his community to live in peace with one another. This is not just because it’s “nice” but an absolute necessity if they wish the God of love and peace to be present. Creating societies, families, work places and church communities where peace and love are practised is the most effective tool we have for overcoming the “absence of God” in the world. God does not dwell where God is not welcome.

The compassion and love of God are expressed so well in probably the most well-known and stirring line of the New Testament. God holds back nothing — not even God’s only son — in His desire to save the world and give life to humanity. But there is a somewhat sinister note in the verses that follow. Although insisting that the purpose of the incarnation was not to judge the world but to save it, John goes on to say that those who do not believe in the Son have condemned themselves through their refusal to believe. As anyone who has ever received a fundamentalist religious tract knows, this is unfortunately taken quite literally by many. According to this view, only card-carrying Christians — usually of a particular variety — are destined for heaven while all others are condemned to hell.

But it is important to note that John believed that the people to whom Jesus spoke were receiving a face-to-face, direct communication from God. To hear and see Jesus is to hear and see the Father. Rejecting a direct and immediate manifestation of God is quite different from belonging to a different faith or having no religion at all. He was not speaking in a modern context and no one today is privileged with a revelation of that nature. This passage should not be used to exclude, threaten or condemn. God continues to speak to all people in many different ways — that is God’s nature, compassionate and patient.

If Jesus is the way to God, there are many ways to Jesus. Once again, our focus must always be on the mercy and compassion of God. When we reject mercy and compassion we indeed bring condemnation on ourselves, but when we walk in mercy and love we dwell in God.