Is God Real? – (Acts 17:24-28)
“Is God real?” This is the central religious question in our modern culture. When I use this question as the title of today’s sermon, I do not mean the question about whether God exists or not. But it’s more about how we “see” God – how we think of God. This is a very important issue in our lives, because how we think of God affects our sense of what the Christian life is about.
Before we go on, I just want to make this clear… Though we’re going to talk about God today, whatever concept of God we describe wouldn’t be adequate enough because we cannot know God fully. God is, truly, the Mystery – the One who is indescribable – beyond all language.
Now let me ask you a question. When you think of God, what do you have in your mind? What is your image of God?
When I thought of God in my childhood, I imagined an old man in the sky who looked generous. That’s the image of God I called Father when I prayed. Though my image of God was a “person,” male person, it was a remarkably kind of person, which was much more generous and loving than any other man including my father, and also such a powerful, mighty person – stronger than superman – who would know everything and give rewards to the good and punishment to the bad.
Now I can tell you that is not my model of God anymore. Yes, it has changed. What was your image of God in your childhood? Has it changed? In what ways? Maybe some of you had a similar image of God to mine when you were younger or until now.
In Carnegie UMC, there was a dumpster on the corner of the parking lot. One day we noticed somebody in the neighborhood used the dumpster regularly and so it was filled with all kinds of trash quickly. You know, a dump truck came to empty the dumpster every other week, so it was a problem that should be solved soon. So we placed a sign that said, “No dumping! This is for the church use only!” But it didn’t work. Somebody continued to dump their trash in the dumpster.
Finally, the chairperson of the trustees offered an idea that we put the sign again that said, “No dumping! God is watching you!” You know what? It worked. The problem was solved right away. I still don’t know who dumped the trash, but it’s interesting to know that many people, whether Christians or not, think of God as a policeman or judge who is watching “out there” and punishes.
Let me share with you another story told by Cardinal Basil Hume, the Primate of England. As a youngster, he was brought up in a strict English household. Wanting to discipline the children, his mother called them together one day and, pointing to a jar in the pantry, said, “You see that cookie jar? I don’t want you children putting a hand in that jar between meals. It is only for dessert on feast days.” And as a sanction she added: “Because God is always watching you.” Naturally, children were shaking in their shoes. Young Basil’s idea of God, which had been very trusting up to that point, shifted to that of a policeman always watching for his every fault.
Young Basil eventually entered the Benedictine order. There were more rules there than his mother had laid down at home. He kept them for the same reason: fear of this God ever on the watch to catch him in some fault.
“One day,” the cardinal said in concluding his story, “I received a very special grace that completely changed my attitude toward God. I realized that if as a child I had put my hand in the cookie jar, and if it had been between meals, and if God had really been watching me, he would have said, ‘Son, why don’t you take another one?’”
What do you think about the story of the youngster Cardinal Basil with a cookie jar and that of dumpster at Carnegie church? These are two different stories, but the images of God implied in them are basically the same. They are part of the model of God as “a powerful authority being,” who is “somewhere up there,” who watches over us, and occasionally intervenes in human life.
Though I might have oversimplified this model of God, this model is biblical and comes from the Christian tradition. This model of God primarily emphasizes God’s transcendence. Within the framework of this concept, God refers to a being – a very special kind of being – almighty and all knowing. A long time ago, this being created the universe, and God and the universe are separate from each other. Thus God and the universe are sharply distinguished: God is “up there,” “out there,” beyond the universe. From “out there” God watches over this world and occasionally intervenes in it. As loving parent, God loves and cares for us, but at the same time as strict parent or a powerful authority being, God offers His requirements, judges and punishes.
Well, as I said in the beginning, this model or any model of God is not perfect to describe what God is like. It is not adequate enough and so needs to be qualified. The New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, points out that this model of God has brought about some serious consequences that should be addressed.
First, if God-“out there” is emphasized and separated from “right here,” God’s relation to the world is distorted, and it makes us think or feel more distant, separated from God. You see, if God is only “out there,” “up there,” then God is very distant, not intimately close. God becomes remote, absent. Even though we believe God intervenes in human life, ultimately, God becomes remote and not here.
Moreover, within the framework of this model, God could become either a policeman who never sleeps to watch us or a lawgiver and judge who provides requirements to be met. How is the Christian life affected if this concept is emphasized?
Then life with God would be about measuring up to what God requires of us in order to avoid God’s punishment. We may come to think of our eternal destiny depending on how well we perform or measure up, what we believe and what we do in order to be saved. And the life of requirements and rewards makes us fearful of failure.
In this model, the love of God is, nevertheless, central. God loves us by sacrificing his Son, Jesus Christ to save the world. It’s supreme love. But still in this model God has requirements that must be met, and our relationship to God leaves us with a God of “requirement and rewards.”
Well, don’t get me wrong. I admit that this model of God has nourished our lives and the lives of millions of Christians through the centuries. But many people have wrestled with how to reconcile this model of God with such a loving, merciful, and forgiving God.
Now let me describe another model of God that I believe could qualify the concept of God we’ve talked about so far. That is Panentheism. Big word, but basically it means that God is present everywhere, or “everything is in God.” Let me explain this further with some of the Scriptures.
This model of God is implicit in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I …settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast (vs. 7-10).
In this passage no matter where the psalmist imagines going, God is there, present. How can this be? Because God’s presence is everywhere. There is no place where one can be and be outside God.
Also, in the book of Acts today, Paul describes God this way: “They would seek God and perhaps reach out for God and find God, though God is not far from any one of us. ‘For in God we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28).
According to this text, we are in God: we live and move and have our being in God. God is not “out there,” somewhere beyond the universe, separate from us and the world. God is not only “up in heaven,” but “right here” as the encompassing Spirit all around us in whom we are.
Then how does this model of God as “right here” affect the Christian life?
First, it tells us that if God is not only transcendent but is present “right here,” God is accessible to human experience. God is an element of experience, not simply an article of faith to be believed in. In the Bible, Moses experienced God at the burning bush and on Mount Sinai – not just Moses but other prophets. Jesus, of course, experienced God at the moment of baptism, in the wilderness, at the high mountain and probably each moment of a day. But ordinary people like us can experience God.
After his mystical experience of God, St. Augustine wrote, “How late I came to love you! You were within me, yet I was outside… God is always present to us and to all things; it is that we, like blind persons, do not have eyes to see God.”
Thomas Merton also writes, “Life is simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”
Think about it. How exciting it is to be able to experience God moment by moment, if we truly open ourselves and trust God who is present “here and now.” The more we experience God, the more we will be led to living a life marked by freedom, love, peace and joy.
Also, this model of God as “right here” leads to this kind of image of Christian life. In this image, the Christian life is not essentially about beliefs and requirements; it is not just about believing in God “out there” for the sake of going to heaven later. But it is more about entering into a relationship with God that transforms us into becoming more like Jesus. In this understanding of Christian life, salvation is not only about “going to heaven” or “the afterlife,” but about “our life with God in grace” here and now.
Let me conclude the sermon with what Marcus Borg writes, “God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is about more than believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. It is about seeing what is already true—that God loves us already—and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God… This is truly good news that invites us into a new life here and now—one that transforms us personally and seeks to transform life into the world. The “good news” version is a vision of transformed people and a transformed earth filled with the glory.”
My friends, I believe that is what God desires from us while we are living here on earth. Let us be faithful to that call of God.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.