The following is a link to the audio of a sermon I preached last Sunday at College Community United Church of Christ here in Fresno. The recording starts a little late so you miss my nerdy theology joke at the beginning as well as a bit of my miniature autobiography but the body of the sermon is all there. If, for whatever reason, the file doesn’t work on your computer then I’ve also provided the transcript below. The text was Romans 8:28.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 (NIV)
Good morning. I’m excited to be here this morning among the UCC-ers. One of my favorite theologians, John B. Cobb Jr., a United Methodist himself, recently said that he was hopeful about the future of the UCC because you, unlike most other denominations, have figured out the sexuality issue which, Cobb hopes, will free you up to take on other pressing issues like joining God in bringing about the salvation of the world in the face of the ecological crisis that threatens the very existence of our species. So no pressure.
I myself, despite my recent growing attraction to the way the UCC embodies the gospel, did not grow up in the UCC. I was actually born into a family that practiced Catholicism which meant that I was baptized as an infant, attended catechism from a very young age, partook of my first holy communion and first confession…the whole bit. But when I was in elementary school my parents decided to pursue membership at a Mennonite Brethren church here in Fresno, not because of doctrinal reasons but simply because a few friendly people in their social circles invited them to do so at a time in my parents life in which they were looking for a different expression of the gospel. I was still quite young when we began attending this MB church so most of my memories of church and faith growing up are embedded in this community. These were formative years for me as my faith deepened and I began to develop a passion for reading and studying the scriptures which led me to, upon graduating high school, pursue and education in Biblical Studies at a small Mennonite Bible college in Abbotsford, British Columbia which, for those who haven’t brushed up on your Canadian geography in a while, is about an hour east of Vancouver, just north of the border. These four years affected everything about the way I viewed my faith. Nothing was left unchanged for me—the nature of God, Jesus, the Spirit, heaven, hell, eschatology, the Church, ethics, salvation, sanctification, justification, the atonement, the resurrection, sexuality…the list could go on and on.
An issue that I’ve returned to again and again over the years is that of Christian hope which is what I would like to discuss this morning. Specifically, I want to ask the following question: On what grounds do we as Christians have hope? I want to address some of the flaws of the way Christians have traditionally answered this question before presenting us with an alternative perspective.
The question of hope is no doubt a relevant one for Christians living in the 21st century. We’ve just emerged out of a century that many claim was the most violent in human history. If it wasn’t the most violent quantitatively speaking, it certainly was creatively speaking. The 20th century saw the advent of modern warfare which was accompanied by various technologies that allowed us to kill large swaths of people with incredible efficiency. The 21st has not shown any signs of bringing peace. We live in a time marked with the devastation of war, increasing tribalism and, as I mentioned a few moments ago, an ecological crisis that threatens not only the future of our species, but all of life on earth, at least as we know it. Thus, we could say that as Christians we hope for a better global future. We hope in an eschatological sense or, in other words, we hope that this grand story that we’re living on this floating celestial sphere we call Earth will end on a good note. We hope for the final consummation of God’s Kingdom.
Hope is not only needed in a global, distant future sense but in a personal sense. We all find ourselves in the midst of situations in which we long for a sense of hope. For some, it may be a forboding depression that can’t be evaded. For others, broken relationships with those who we love the most. Some of us face health issues that make us feel anxious and powerless. Thus, hope is needed for us each day as we face the brokenness that comes with life.
In what or whom do we hope for a better future? Of course the Biblical narrative responds resoundingly, “It is God in whom we place our hope!” But in what sense do we hope in God?
It seems to me that many Christians today place their hope in an omnipotent god that, despite the looks of things, is in control of the destiny of creation down to the minutest detail. It is this all-powerful god who micro-manages the events that transpire in our lives and in all of creation so that all things ultimately work out for good (which is one way of translating our passage this morning). Thus, the evils of our age, it is said, are really not evil at all for if we could some how see things from a divine perspective we would realize that all things are being worked out for good, that everything is unfolding just as God has planed. God is in complete and utter control of everything that takes place in the world and in our lives. Within this framework we look forward with hope to the day on which God will snap his fingers and, in a grand display of divine power, do away with all the evil that we have dirtied things up with in our own lives and in the world at large.
You may be able to tell from the hint of sarcasm in my tone that omnipotence, or the belief that God is all-powerful, is not my favorite doctrine. In fact, I think it is a doctrine that we would do better without unless we drastically redefine what we mean by “power.” Typically, the word “power” is associated with the ability to affect change from without usually by means of force or coercion. This is a unilateral power that is used in an attempt to affect others without being affected oneself. In this sense, a large military or that guy who spends more time at the gym than anywhere else is “powerful.” If something stands in the way of a large military or the aforementioned gym rat, physical force is exerted in order to achieve the desired results. This is the type of power that is typically attributed to God when we imagine him returning at the end of history to dramatically do away with the evil that is bound up in creation. God’s action in this scenario is unilateral (God acts alone) and coercive (God will get what God wants whether we like it or not).
But does this type of power really achieve what we think it will achieve? Does coercion, ultimately an act of violence, not simply beget more violence? Indeed, if America’s war against terror has taught us anything it is that when a country acts unilaterally and forcefully, the very terrorism that we are attempting to eradicate is simply perpetuated. Thus, we would do well to stop our imagining God in such ways. Contrary to popular belief, there is no hope found in an all-powerful God that acts unilaterally and coercively. It’s high-time we give up divine omnipotence in this sense.
Is there another way to conceive of power? Indeed there is. What if we began to understand power as a relational word rather than a word that denotes shear physical dominance or coercive strength? What if true power was the ability to persuade someone to behave a certain way by means of a gentle lure or a call, the ability to affect change from within rather than from without? What if power was understood as a relational term rather than a term that denoted the ability to forcefully dominate another?
The difference between these two types of power is illustrated in the following story:
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
The point of the story is, of course, persuasive power, the ability to affect change by means of a lure or a call, is more effective than coercive power.
It is my belief that the power of God is the power of persuasion and not the power of coercion. Our passage today is from Romans chapter 8 which many believe to be the climax of this masterpiece of Paul’s in which he discusses the role of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. The Spirit is an excellent example of what I mean when I say that God has persuasive power. The Spirit of God—rather than exerting it’s will forcefully onto the believer from outside of ourselves—inhabits us and acts on us from within. We experience the Spirit of God in each moment as a gentle lure or a whispered call towards the beautiful, Shalom-filled life that is God’s vision for us and our world. The Spirit is God’s persuasive power at work in us.
There are a number of implications of understanding God’s power as persuasion rather than coercion. First, we acknowledge the fact that God’s power is better understood as weakness, lowliness or, ironically, powerlessness. To act coercively is to impose one’s will on another whether they desire it or not. This is what the doctrine of omnipotence suggests about the way God relates to the world. God will get what God wants no matter what. However, if God’s power is actually a weak call or a lure, a gentle whisper that acts on us from within then we are faced with the reality that it is indeed a possibility that God does not always get what God wants. It is possible that a call not be answered or a lure ignored. The gentle whisper of God that is aimed at you and I as well as the whole of creation can be resisted.
But is this not a deeply Christian affirmation? Indeed, the point at which we as Christians say that the glory of God is made most manifest is in the cross of Christ. The cross shows us that God would rather die than coerce. The cross is a revelation, not of God’s power but of his weakness. German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes this point in the following way: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” [Mt. 8:17 – “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.”]. For those who do not have eyes to see, the cross is an utter failure, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The world worships coercive power and is enamored with the shear strength of armies and empires. In fact, it was the coercive power of empire that nailed Jesus on the cross. It is no wonder, then, that the world considers the despicable death of a Palestinian peasant rabbi 2,000 years ago to be utterly inconsequential. But, Paul says, for those who have eyes to see, the cross is the power, or we could say, the weakness of God made manifest.
So then we are left with a problem. If God does not get what God wants then, to return to our original question, on what grounds do we hope? If the lure of God in each moment of our lives can indeed be resisted then how can we hope for a better global future or, a bit closer to home, that the brokenness that we experience every day will be redeemed? It is my suggestion that our hope, rather than being grounded in the omnipotence of God, should be grounded in the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God is God’s promise to the world that no matter how bad things get, no matter how broken our relationships, no matter how depressed we are, no matter how bleak the future of humanity seems in the face of our ecological crisis—the faithfulness of God is God’s promise to continue to lure us towards a more beautiful, adventurous, and Shalom-filled future.
Paul’s way of putting this in our passage today is that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.” This is different than saying that all things work out for good. In order for that to be true God would need to act coercively, to force things to work out in a certain way. That misses the point. Paul’s point—which is highlighted in the crescendo of our passage in which he lists the trials of the early church (trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword)—is that no matter what we face in the present moment, no matter how bleak things look, God in his enduring faithfulness will continue to call us towards a more just and beautiful reality. Our affirmation of the resurrection is our way of saying that there is no circumstance that is beyond the reach of God’s enduring faithfulness. Things looked utterly bleak for Jesus as he laid in the tomb for three days but even here, God’s creative faithfulness made a way out of no way. Thus, no matter what your present circumstances are you can rest assured, you can find hope in the fact that God is dreaming a beautiful dream for the next moment. Even when we fail to actualize that dream, when we fall short of embodying God’s call for the next moment, even still God is faithful to take what we offer and, in his infinite creativity, dream up a better future and lure us towards it. God’s faithfulness to do so is eternal and it is in this faithfulness that we hope. Amen.