I want to look at one of the unreal gods in J.B Phillips’ book, Your God Is Too Small. It is a god that can lead us to paralysis and despair, especially if we are aware of our human condition and have a sensitive conscience. It is a god I have struggled with mightily and unfortunately still do from time to time. I suspect most of you have too. The god I am talking about is the god of absolute perfection and I am convinced this unreal god is partly responsible for keeping many folks away from the love and grace of God we can experience through Jesus Christ.
So how does this work? It’s really quite simple. If we are honest with ourselves, each one of us knows that we fall terribly short of the mark of loving God with all that we are. We remember our failures, the times when we let ourselves down and others. We think about our unholy thoughts, desires, and habits, and perhaps feel guilt and shame over them. We wonder how in the world we can ever live directly in the presence of a Holy and perfect God for all eternity, and deep in the back of our minds we are forced to admit we probably cannot. We resolve to do better, to pray more, to read our Bible more, to repent more, but more often than not we find ourselves just spinning our wheels. You get the point. All this can, and usually does, make us fall into despair.
For you see, this unreal god doesn’t allow us any room to grow or mature because this god demands that we be perfect in every way, and he demands that we be perfect now. And since none of us is perfect, we instinctively know the gig is up when we try to worship this kind of unreal god. So we either fall into despair because we know we can never reach the goal or we simply fall away and go through life whistling through the graveyard, hoping that it will all eventually turn out OK, even when we know it probably will not. In either case, the Evil One can use the god of absolute perfection to make us fall away from the real God permanently and weigh us down with intolerable burdens as we try to find some joy, peace, happiness, and meaning for our lives.
But the god of absolute perfection is not the God of the Bible. The real God, while absolutely holy and perfect, is more than willing to meet us where we are and work with us from there to help and encourage us to grow in our relationship with him. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a very poignant scene from the Gospel of John. It is the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter after Peter had utterly failed Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21.15-19)
Now at first blush you may be wondering how this story is an example of God meeting us where we are, warts and all. The problem is not in the story but in the weakness of the English translation. As most of you probably know, the original NT manuscripts were written in Greek and when we look at the Greek verbs for love that John uses, we can better see how Jesus reached out to Peter to meet Peter where he was so that he could restore him.
John uses two different verbs for love in his story, agapao and phileo. Agapao is the Greek verb that describes the highest kind of self-giving and devotional love possible, it is the kind of love that seeks our best and it is the kind of love with which God showers us. It is love in action. Phileo is the Greek verb that typically describes brotherly love and affection, the kind we have for our best friends. It is a higher kind of love but does not fully describe the more complete quality of agape love, although the two terms can be used interchangeably. So let’s read sections of this story again using the Greek verbs for love. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John do you agapas me?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you agapas me?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” Jesus replied, “Take care of my sheep.” A third time Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you phileis me?”
Do you see what’s happening here? Peter, likely chastened, humbled, and ashamed for completely losing his courage and denying his Lord just hours after he had bragged that he would suffer and die with Jesus should that be required, could not bring himself to say that he loved Jesus in the manner in which Jesus asked. Jesus asked about the higher form of love and Peter replied using the lesser form. And what was Jesus’ response? The god of absolute perfection would have found Peter’s reticence unacceptable and would have rejected him utterly.
But that is not what Jesus did.
No, he met Peter where he was, fresh from his failure and in the midst of his sorrow and shame. John reports that Peter became sorrowful but I suspect that’s because, in part, Peter was trying to worship the god of absolute perfection, but who is certainly not the Jesus who confronted him. And just as Jesus met Peter where he was, so he meets each one of us where we are, even (or especially) in the midst of our sorrows, failures, hurts, and fears.
Make no mistake. Jesus meets us where we are and accepts us for who we are, warts and all. But he will not leave us where we are because he loves us with an agape love and wants better for us. He wants us to grow in our love and affection for him so that we might have life and have it abundantly. We see this illustrated in Peter’s restoration because Jesus tells Peter what is coming. He tells Peter that he will one day have to give his life for Jesus but then Peter will be ready to answer the call, and he will be ready precisely because Jesus loved him enough to forgive him and meet him in the midst of his weakness and failures.
And this should make perfect sense to us, especially when we consider that God is a crucified God. The cross of Jesus Christ stands as an eternal witness that the real God is not a God of absolute perfection. If he were, why would he become human and die a terrible death for us to make it possible for us to have a real relationship with him again? The unreal god of absolute perfection would not do that for us. He would expect us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps to conform to his expectations for us. But that is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is the God we see in the story of Peter’s restoration and hanging on a cross for us. This is the real God in action and this is why we must decisively and forever repudiate the unreal god of absolute perfection.
So how exactly do we do that? The answer is in our Scripture lessons today. The best way to learn to repudiate any unreal god is to start reading our Bible regularly to learn about the real God of this universe so that we can learn to recognize him in action in our own lives and the lives of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’ve read the Bible thoroughly or not at all. Take your cue from Jesus in today’s lesson and start where you are. If you don’t know how to start, go to http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/readingplans/ and choose a plan you can handle. Resist the temptation to compare yourself with what others might be doing because God does not care one lick about that. He’s not the god of absolute perfection. He is the God of the Bible who cares about you and about helping you grow from where you are right now.
And then pay attention to what Luke tells us in our lesson from Acts today. He tells us that the early church grew because they did exactly what I’ve just encouraged you to do. They paid attention to the teaching of the apostles and you can find those teachings in the NT. They also fed on the body and blood of Christ just like we do each Sunday, and they enjoyed each other’s fellowship. Surely this helped them when they had their doubts and fears because in addition to giving us himself in the Word and sacrament, God blesses us with good friends and fellow believers who will love us through thick and thin, and for who we are, warts and all, just like Jesus loved Peter (and us). If you stay connected to God in prayer, Bible study, the sacraments, and through fellow believers, you can expect to grow, both as individuals and together, just the way Luke reports the early church did.
During our first meeting together, most of us indicated in one way or another that we are hungry to grow in our relationship with God, but the god of absolute perfection will not allow us to do that because anything less than perfection right now is unacceptable to him. That is why we must repudiate this unreal god decisively and begin to worship the real God, the God of the Bible, the God in Christ who meets us where we are. Whether you agapao or phileo God or something else, God will meet you where you are and take you by the hand to help you get to where he wants you to be.
Growing in your relationship with God won’t always be easy. In fact, we can expect to meet massive resistance because the powers and principalities do not want us to have joy, meaning, purpose, and hope in our lives. They want to keep us bound in our darkness and fears. But when resistance comes, don’t be afraid. Take heart and hope. Remember that you have a God who meets you where you are and who will never give up on you. How do you know this? Because we have the witness of Scripture and the very blood of Christ shed for each one of us so that we can have our exile from God ended forever. And when you really understand this, you will discover that you really do have Good News, not only for this season of life here on earth but also for all eternity.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!