Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Easter 7 – Year A

The well known English Bible scholar J. B. Phillips once wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small! As a parish priest in London during the Second World War Phillips was struck by how distorted peoples’ ideas of God were, especially among the youth. So he decided to do something about it. In the course of those frightful years, as the bombs rained down night after night, and people’s faith was put to the test, he began the work for which he is best known, namely, his paraphrase of the New Testament. His first project was the Letter to the Colossians. He even worked while he sat underground in bomb shelters, translating it into everyday language. Then followed his paraphrase of the other New Testament Epistles. He compiled these into a little volume called Letters to Young Churches.
After he had finished translating the whole New Testament, Phillips began writing books, the best known of which is Your God Is Too Small. In his passion to help people better understand the God of the Bible, he wanted to correct some of the strange distortions, or caricatures, which so many held onto despite all evidence to the contrary. He wrote of how some saw God as a “resident policeman,” or a “parental hangover,” or a “grand old man,” or pictured Jesus as a “pale Galilean.” Your God is Too Small! said Phillips. I believe we make the same mistake today. We may use more sophisticated images, or no image at all, but we tend to “bring God down to our size.” Some of us imagine that we can manipulate God by our prayers or our good behavior. (Phillips called that “God-in-a-Box!”) Others of us are so boxed-in ourselves by modern scientific discoveries that we cannot imagine a place for God except in those few areas where science has yet to tread.
A lot of us were helped by another English author, a bishop named John Robinson, whose book Honest to God exploded on the Christian world amid huge controversy in 1963. Robinson really didn’t say much that was new—theologians like Tillich and Bultmann had been saying these things for years—but he put things in a fresh, compelling way. Robinson’s point was that we need to stop thinking that God is “up there” in the sky (which is exactly what I thought when I was a child), or that God is “out there”—as a being or entity separate from ourselves, whom we try to reach through our prayers or our good behavior. Robinson takes seriously St. John’s claim that God is Love. In the 4th Chapter of his First Epistle, John says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” We need to understand that our loving God is at work constantly in the very midst of our lives, more intimately than we can even imagine. Recall Jesus himself proclaimed, “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Paul Tillich put it another way, which I have always liked: Tillich said, “God is the Ground of our Being.”
I wonder if some of you tuned in to Oprah Winfrey’s last three shows a week or so ago. Joannie and I were struck watching this remarkable woman bring to a close 25 years of interviewing all kinds of people, and hearing their stories, and sharing her own story, and imparting so much down-to-earth wisdom. First there were two spectacular programs which her producers put on to surprise her, picturing some of her incredible acts of generosity, and the people she helped around the world through the years. Celebrities like Doctor Phil to whom she had given his start in show-biz, were also there. The final hour was just Oprah herself, sharing some of her memories, going all the way back to her childhood in a poor black family in rural Mississippi. But what touched us most of all was her quiet, humble witness to her faith in God. She spoke of how intimately God’s love fills us and inspires us. Unmistakably, God is the ground of Oprah’s being. She claims Jesus Christ as her Lord, but her generous spirit reaches out toward people of all faiths and no faith. Her last five words were, “To God be the glory!”
To God be the glory! That, I believe, is the message of the Ascension of Jesus, and the counterpoint to our human tendency to “make God too small.” God is far more loving, far more generous, far more involved in every facet of our lives—every relationship, every event, every situation—than we can possibly imagine. The Jesus we meet in the New Testament Gospels is the embodiment of God, the incarnation of God. We see in Jesus—we see In the compassion of Jesus, the generosity of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus, the forgiveness of Jesus—the very nature and character and personality of the living God. Remember that Jesus always pointed beyond himself to God’s own glory. For John and the other gospel writers, the earthly Jesus has come from God and will return to God. This is what the Ascension is all about! Listen again to this morning’s gospel reading from John 17. On the eve of his death, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you….I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
“The glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Stretch your imagination here! Think of the whole creation—planets, galaxies, the whole universe, going back to “the big bang.” Before it all began, God was—God our Creator, God our Redeemer, God our Encourager—“Father, Son and Holy Spirit”—GOD WAS! Never, ever, has there been a time when God was not! Remember the opening verses of this same Gospel of John. We read these every year at Christmas. In them, John calls Christ the “Word” of God—the “self-expression” of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him….What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (Here’s where Tillich gets his image of God as “the ground of our being.”) We have to use our imaginations, as John certainly did, trying to put into words the greatness of God and the eternal nature of Jesus Christ.
Now, back to the Ascension: The writers of the Prayer Book used their imaginations when they composed the Collect for Ascension Day. (You don’t hear this prayer unless you happen to be at a service on Ascension Day itself!) Listen to how it begins: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things….” “That he might fill all things”—do you get what that’s saying? The God we know in Jesus Christ is that big! That’s what the disciples needed to understand as they stood on the hillside near Jerusalem and had their last glimpse of the Risen Lord. The disciples needed to stretch their imaginations! That’s why the angels in white robes challenged them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
How will he come? He will come in Spirit! He will come in power, just as Jesus promised! And that “coming in power” is of course what we will celebrate next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. (Incidentally, be sure and wear something red next Sunday to symbolize the Holy Spirit!)
But today, on this Sunday after Ascension Day, the message is about the greatness of God. Is your God big enough? Or is your God too small, as J. B. Phillips suggested? Are you boxed in by the stresses in your life—or the disappointments in your life—or by the crises and upheavals that shake your world? I want you to listen now to these verses from the Letter to the Colossians, the New Testament book Phillips first translated, you’ll recall. Working down in the bomb shelters of London, this is how he paraphrased St. Paul. (Remember that Paul himself was in prison as he wrote these verses about our new life in Christ.)
“We must never forget that [God] rescued us from the power of darkness and reestablished us in the kingdom of his beloved Son… Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He existed before the creation began, for it was through him that every thing was made, whether spiritual or material, seen or unseen….In fact, every single thing was created through and for him….and you yourselves…he has reconciled through the death of his body on the cross, so that he might welcome you to his presence.”
What a great God! What a great Christ! “Crown him with many crowns!” That’s the hymn we’re going to sing as we go on our way this morning. Sing it with all your heart! Here’s the 4th verse—it’s about the Ascension: “Crown him of lords the Lord, who over all doth reign, who once on earth, the incarnate Word for ransomed sinners slain, now lives in realms of light, where saints with angels sing, their songs before him day and night, their God, Redeemer King.”