Monday, March 24, 2014

The Five Names of God

In poring through commentaries for my preachin' this week, I wound up with a fascinating little fragment that just didn't fit anywhere.  Pretty much every week, this happens, as the ideas come pouring out.

Oh, sure, I could have shoehorned in a paragraph or two, plugging it in there somewhere even though it had nothing to do with the thrust of the message.  But it didn't really fit, so best to leave it here, where it can stand in its own.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus talks a great deal about what the Reign of God will look like.  It's the point of most of those pesky little parables he insisted on telling us.  In John, the spin is different.  It's a more intimate Gospel, drawing from a separate but harmonious oral tradition, one in which Jesus describes his identity.  I am this, he says.  I am that.

But I'd not noticed, not until I bumbled across it in a commentary, that there are only five direct descriptive statements about God in the New Testament.  Meaning, these are statements that fill in the following:

"God is _________."

Seemed like an interesting little datapoint, and worth attending to, if the Christian witness nature of our Creator is of any relevance to our faith.  So here they are, in no particular order.

1) God is Spirit.  (John 4:24)  That's pneuma, in the Greek used by John.  Like its Hebrew linguistic analog ruach, it can mean "breath," or "wind," or, "spirit."  However you slice it, it is a living and dynamic thing.  It's the stuff of life, a creative energy that isn't just churning and purposeless chaos, but that gives form and shape to being.

2) God is Love. (1 John 4:8)   From the Johannine tradition, we famously hear that God is love.  That doesn't mean wuv, or infatuation, or erotic hunger.  The term used by that tradition is agape, a form of love that involves a radically selfless participation in the other.

3) God is Light.  (1 John 1:5)  Again, from John's tradition, we hear that God is light.  That's phos, in the Greek, and it speaks to both purity and illumination.  It's worth noting here that John's paradoxically complex simplicity weaves the identity of God the Creator up with the identity of Jesus here, as Jesus is also given this name in John 1:7-9.

4) God is a Consuming Fire.  (Hebrews 12:29)  We take a break from John, and get a little blort from the author of Hebrews.  It's a difficult letter for us now, as it attempts to articulate Christian faith through the lenses of sacrificial temple worship.  But in claiming that understanding of God as fire, it plays off of a longstanding sacred tradition.

5) God is Love. (1 John 4:16)  Yeah, I know.  We already did this one.  But it's sorta like New York, as that impossibly cheesy old 70's song goes.  So good they named it twice.  It bears repeating, because it's absolutely core to what we Jesus folk are saying when we speak about God.  

Somewhere, in the dance between all of these elements, is the God that we as Christians proclaim.


2 comments:

  1. Not sure we're meant to or even capable of truly knowing what God "is" -- which is why Jesus put it in human terms, i.e., love of our fellow man. Like truth and beauty, "that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

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  2. I hear you, Ralph. We can know in part, I think, but even those are only the infinitesimal glimpses that we in our smallness can grasp.

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