June 21, 2014

Christ the Prism


Text: 1 Peter 1:21: “Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.”

When I was about twelve years old, a couple of years before I got confirmed, I asked for an appointment with the rector of my church, the long-suffering Bill Eddy. Somehow we knew he had come from a family from the East of Michigan, but in those days I didn’t know just how far east; his grandparents had been missionaries in Lebanon, and his own father—who had been the president of Hobart College—had both been born in, and died, in, that country.

Bill Eddy was not what we would regard today as a warmly pastoral rector. He was a brilliant man and an excellent manager of a large staff. He was a man of elegance and erudition, if not exactly warmth. And I wanted to speak to him because I had just been to my first bar mitzvah.

It was an event that had a great effect on me, to see Bob Kessler, who had already built a computer from a kit in fourth grade, have his day at the front of his own synagogue reading from the Torah with the other men of my hometown’s Jewish community. I was a kid who spent a pretty fair amount of time in church, probably three Sundays out of four, so I had a point of reference about religious ceremony, and this was pretty grand.

When I wasn’t being self-conscious about keeping my yarmulke somehow perched on my head I was taken in by the prayer shawls the men wore, and the great reverence with which the whole community treasured the Torah scrolls when they were carried among the people.

That all sounds pretty pious, but to be honest the thing that really impressed me was the party afterward. It was in the function hall of the synagogue, and all of us fourth-grade boys from Pinecrest Elementary School sat together, which made sense because we all played together with Bob on the softball team organized by the Mormon church.

We all had these little plastic glasses, the kind where the stem pops into the base, and I remember thinking that I was having my first taste of champagne, although I am now pretty certain that given how much of it we drank out of those little plastic glasses it pretty much had to be sparking grape juice.

Now, maybe I was just jealous of this awesome party Bob got, but the experience got me thinking about the Jewishness of Jesus. I had heard about that in Sunday School, but now being Jewish really meant something to me, because I had participated in a synagogue service. And it got me wondering: If Jesus came to teach us to love God, and to be in a different sort of relationship with God, then why didn’t we do what he asked us to do and spend more time talking about God, and less time talking about Jesus?

That was the question I decided I needed to take up with the rector. I remember being very nervous that I was going to ask the question, but also very clear that I needed to ask it. I have to say I don’t quite remember what answer I got; I remember the asking much more than I remember the answer.

I still think it wasn’t a bad question, and the answer I’ve come to find for myself is wrapped up in this little sentence from the baptismal sermon from Peter, this document we know as the first letter of Peter.

When we seek to understand something that is beyond our immediate experience, we usually fashion tools for the purpose. We build telescopes to study the stars, and microscopes to study the cell. We build x-ray machines to look inside the mysteries of our bodies and sonar machines penetrate the darkness of the sea floor.

We are extremely good at creating analogues for things that are important for us to understand but that we could never directly experience. And throughout human history, our impulse for spirituality has caused us to do the same when it comes to God. Human cultures have created any number of metaphors in an effort to explain or convey the idea of God; wind, or earthquake, or thunder, or the sun.

The great Jewish insight was to imagine God as expressed not through natural phenomena but through a way of keeping social order-—the covenant code, the ten commandments, the law.

That is the tradition that Jesus himself was shaped by. Yet Jesus offered a different way of understanding God; Jesus has a relationship unmediated by metaphors with God. Jesus has a direct relationship, a personal relationship with God. He doesn’t speak of God as wind or fire or thunder. He does speak of the law, but when he speaks of God he describes a very familiar person, a loving parent.

For those people closest to him, and today for us, the clarity of Jesus’s direct and personal relationship with God becomes so compelling that for us he is the person of God. Jesus becomes what he exemplifies—a direct experience, set within the limits of human existence, of the very being of God.

It’s the long bridge that connects God-as-metaphor to God-as-direct-experience that is crossed by the road to Emmaus in that beautiful story we heard in Luke’s gospel this morning. Jesus himself becomes the means for that personal relationship with God. As they begin walking those poor disciples are recounting the story of what the covenant law promised; they are explorers taking their unknown companion along as they scout out the full account given of God’s promises given by centuries of Jewish law and teachings.

It is in the moment that they realize how the relationship God wants with us has changed, how it’s no longer a matter of metaphor but a direct engagement with us, that they see their fellow pilgrim for who he is—God among us as God has now chosen to be among us, sharing this life with us.

Jesus, the Christ of God, has become for us a direct experience of the reality of God. It is as though through Jesus the differing perspectives we all have of God, the different perceptions humans have, cohere through a kind of reverse prism into a single, pure, true light, the light that made light.

We ourselves have that experience of the Emmaus road when we gather at the table to break bread together. We have the same direct experience of God that God made possible through Jesus when we encounter each other as living members of the body of Christ. Through each member of this community, each relationship we make in this place, we see and hear and touch something of the living God. Our Easter faith, or baptismal life, is lived in the presence of the God who came to live among us, and we find that presence in the community God has given us as our companions along the road. Amen.