Sometimes, when people say they don’t believe in God, the right response is to ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. When they do you may find you don’t believe in that God either. It’s important for those of us who proclaim or rely upon faith in God to remember that God is not the same thing as our idea of God. The being we imagine or project isn’t the same as the being that the word “God” or the name “Jehovah” names.
I have sometimes thought that I’d like to start using God’s name more in worship and in preaching, to remind us that the Lord we meet in the Bible and in our life as the Church isn’t an abstract idea, an entity known only by deduction from what he does, but a person, a someONE who chooses to enter into relationship with his people. But then I remember that we do use his name, we use it a lot. God’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one anointed. Jesus, the orthodox and historical Christian faith says, is God.
The classic statements are from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which are the first full council of the Church on the one hand and the last one recognised by most Protestants on the other. The Church was being torn apart by arguments about who and what Jesus was, how his followers should understand him. So in 325 AD all 1800 bishops in the Church were invited to Nicaea to decide whether Jesus was of the same kind, the same nature, as God the Father, or had been created by him as he created everything and everybody else, which was the position of a popular teacher called Arius. Arius held that while Jesus was greater than all other creatures, was the Son of God, unique and supreme, he was other and less than God the Father. Arianism denied that Jesus was God and asserted that there was only one true God. At Nicaea this position was decisively rejected and the full divinity of Jesus affirmed.
This caused no end of subsequent difficulty, though, since it was also agreed that Jesus was fully and completely human. He wasn’t just God in disguise as a human being he actually was a human being. At the Council of Chalcedon 126 years later in 451 AD the bishops were assembled again, for the fifth time in fact, to decide how we should make sense of Jesus being both human and divine. Various positions that were felt to allow one of these natures to be lost were rejected and a formula agreed that would keep them both.
Nicaea said that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and Chalcedon added that he was also human in exactly the same way as you and me. For many people this remains a puzzle and a stumbling block. What can it mean to say that a particular man and nobody else is God? This seems absurd and ridiculous. If we arrive at acceptance of the existence of a God of some kind this God will probably be something quite different from us, all present, all seeing, all powerful, unchanging and perhaps rather distant, at any rate not much like a fragile, limited, mortal, human being.
For me the importance of the Nicene-Chalcedonian teaching on Jesus isn’t first of all what it tells us about him, although that is important. It’s what it tells us about God and about our ideas of God. It tells us that our ideas about a distant God who is separate from us are wrong, that God is not a distant and indifferent, super-rational and remote being above and beyond our concerns and our problems.
If we want to know about God we shouldn’t start from a set of abstract thoughts inside our own heads, we should accept that God has always cared about human beings, has tried and tried to establish the relationship with them that he wants, that we are made for, that we need if we are to realise ourselves and be happy as we should be happy. The story of human being is the story of a covenant, almost of a marriage. At every stage God is reaching out to us and if we want to know about him we need to pay attention to what’s revealed.
This is true from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, through the people of Israel to Jesus, through the apostles to the Church, with its councils and structures, to this place here and now. God is striving to find and to form us, his people, to show us his love and his way and to shape humanity to represent and relate to him in creation.
The climax of this effort is God actually coming to meet us, to become one of us, the Word made flesh, Jesus. In Jesus God shows us what God is, fully reveals the divine. It isn’t that we should try to work out how we can make the divinity of Jesus fit with our idea of what the Father is, it is that we should try to work out what God’s telling us about himself and about us and about how we stand in regard of one another by being Jesus. What must God be like if God is like Jesus?
Well first of all God must really care about us a lot. If God is willing to suffer our fate, even death on a cross, as the letter to the Philippians says, in order to help us out he must feel that we matter.
Secondly God must be involved with the history of the world and struggling to make it come out right. The God who comes in Jesus simply can’t be the almighty sovereign who pre-ordains everything. Jesus doesn’t look like that at all. God must be a healer and peace maker who wants justice and abhors war. God must be passionate and vulnerable, feeling pain and hurt by the suffering of others. God must be prone to outbursts of anger, to periods of doubt, to sorrow that leads to tears. In the Bible we see all of this in Jesus and Jesus is God.
Thirdly God must have the power, still, to overcome failure, suffering, even death. In the resurrection we see that God can take a human being past death into new and transformed life, into triumph and glory. It isn’t that at the end of the story Jesus sheds his human form and returns to being God. The resurrected Jesus, to be Jesus, must still be human. In him we see what God can do and will do for us.
Fourthly we see that God has now given us a way to be united with him in a real and very complete way. Through the life of the Church, through baptism and the communion meal, we can be united to Christ, can be in him and he in us. The God who is present in history didn’t go away when Jesus ascended to heaven (whatever that might mean to us, a subject for another day). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised still to be with us and so he is.
All of this is hard to reconcile with our usual picture of God, but there it is, that’s how he is revealed to us in Christ. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians:
Christ Jesus: being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.