Who God Is and Who We Are
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
II Corinthians 8: 7-15
Have you ever described someone as “a god” or “godlike”? I know we all know better than to think of those persons as actual gods, but it is an expression that we use now and then. But what we’re normally describing is someone who is admirable in some way that seems almost super-human. The things we tend to describe as godlike are also very telling. We generally mean people who are worshiped and adored, like pop stars or actors or celebrities. Or we mean people who have great power like politicians or titans of industry or the billionaire entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. These people seem set apart, beyond you and me, almost untouchable. Some people even look at those people as particularly blessed by God—as if their success is evidence that God has endowed them with some sort of special virtue and blessing.
These people live into our very human notions of God—God as powerful, God as admirable and deserving of worship, God bestowing worldly blessings.
When we think about being Godlike, that’s what you and I mean.
But when God thinks about being Godlike, God thinks of Jesus Christ. God thinks of a vulnerable minimally educated poor carpenter living in Palestine in the first century; a conquered subject of the Roman Empire; from a region reviled even by his fellow Jews; who never led nor was interested in leading an army; never had much of anything nor was interested in having material wealth; who taught that the greatest of all must be the servant of all and who told us to love even and especially our enemies; who stepped on the toes of the rich and powerful; and when they came to get him surrendered himself to them freely; who suffered and died the death of criminal on a cross. Jesus was a man who identified with the poor and the marginalized, who put the needs of others before his own, and who taught his followers to seek riches in heaven and not on earth. He was sympathetic to and empathetic with people who suffered from poverty, oppression, and psychological and spiritual stresses; he died in a way that painfully illustrated the very depths of human suffering.
When we think of what it’s like to be God, we imagine God is like the rich and the powerful. But when God thinks about what it’s like to be God, God thinks of Jesus Christ.
Everything that you and I find humbling, degrading, shameful, and frustrating about being human—that’s what God considers godlike.
This is what we Christians believe in a nutshell. Humans want to be like God, but God chooses to be Jesus. If we really want to be like God then, we need to get away from any notion that godliness is about success, power and authority, and adopt Jesus’ lifestyle of self-sacrifice, service, humility and love for everyone.
Not at all what we think of when we think of God.
But that’s who God is.
And thank God for it.
In our psalm today the psalmist celebrates God’s unique empathy with humans at the level we all share in common. “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord: O Lord, hear my voice!” God knows and is deeply sympathetic to the common human experience—the experience of deep pain we all share when we think ourselves unworthy or unloved or are lonely or lost or afraid; when we feel our world crashing down around us and think ourselves unloved and unlovable, unsaved and unsavable. When we are in those moments, we all imagine ourselves alone and unique in them. We look around and imagine everyone else is happy and successful and practically perfect in every way, while I am a lowdown, dirty and unworthy worm. We imagine that we can’t dare let anyone know how we really feel because then they’ll see what losers we are.
In many ways this is at the core of our imagination of that God is powerful, successful, a world-dominator. We admire celebrities and the rich and powerful because we imagine they are what we are not—self-secure, self-actualized, not only lords of the world but lords of their own lives.
But the psalmist tells us that God knows how we really are. God knows what we are really like. Now of course you and I already know that. We know God sees our inner frailty and failure. God knows our inner loser intimately and well.
But what the psalmist tells us is that God knows our inner shame, our failures, our sin, our inner loserhood—and God loves us for it. Instead of being ashamed or disgusted, God meets at exactly that place: God meets us in our depths.
And then God redeems. That means God forgives. God changes. God even takes those horrible inner depths and uses them paradoxically and graciously for good. God turns our inner frailty into strength.
This is what God does in Jesus Christ. God turns all the things that make human beings into losers—our frailty, our weakness, our poverty, our failures, our mortality itself—into the very thing that redeems all humanity.
Recently I was in a situation where a Christian doctor was speaking to someone whose loved one was deep in dementia—confused and fearful. The loved one was fearful for his sake and wondered particularly where God could be in this situation; and the doctor said, “This is what it means that Jesus is God becoming human. God is with us when we are in the deepest depths. Jesus is with your friend right now, even though he may not know it.”
That is who God is. In Christ, God meets us at our weakest, our neediest, our most vulnerable. In fact, God is closest to us there.
We have confused our metaphors about God. We think that God is powerful, impervious and invulnerable, like Superman. But God is like Jesus—vulnerable, open, willingly sacrificing of himself for the sake of others. This confused metaphor goes to how we practice our ethics. After all, if we believe that to be godly is to be impervious, invulnerable, strong, and above the fray, then we have little patience with or sympathy for the weak, the vulnerable, the so-called losers of life. If I am successful, that means God blessed me, right? Which implies that if you are not successful, well, maybe you aren’t in so good with God.
Paul has to deal exactly with this attitude in his dealings with the church in Corinth. In our reading for today, Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to make a generous contribution to the church in Jerusalem. Corinth is a major Roman trading outpost and many of the church members are rich and successful because of it. In contrast, the church in Jerusalem, run by Jesus’ half-brother James, is poor and oppressed.
Now Paul has had to deal with the Corinthians before, and issues of wealth and poverty have been a problem in that church. Rich and wealthy Corinthian church members have tended to look down on and treat as second-class Christians their poor and working-class fellow church members. Paul has had to read them the riot act on this.
Not only that, but these wealthy Corinthian Christians seem to have had notions that to be Christian was all about being powerful and successful. Paul has had no patience with this kind of heresy. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul tells the Corinthians and then adds that in Christ,
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God. (I Corinthians 1: 18, 27-29)
And then in our reading today, Paul tells them that if they want to truly be Godlike, they need to be Christlike. As he writes,
For you know the generous act[c] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Now he says, be like God. Put this counter-intuitive faith in the Christlike God into action. Be generous. The Corinthians must in the name of Christ use their strength to shore up the weakness of the Jerusalem church; they must use their wealth to balance out the poverty of the Jerusalem church. Paul’s language, given our own conversations about wealth and poverty today, is striking. He says,
it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.
Paul strikingly uses the phrase “fair balance” twice. We might perhaps use the phrase “equity” today. But not only that, his use of the phrase is gently ironic. There must be a “fair balance”—equity–between the wealth of the Corinthian church and the poverty of the Jerusalem church. But also, Paul says, this will create a different sort of “equity” the other way: the spiritual wealth of the poverty-striken Jerusalem church—their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others and to bear the burden of the cross—will then be shared with the Corinthians. By giving of their material wealth to Jerusalem, Paul says, the Corinthians will then receive and benefit from Jerusalem’s spiritual wealth—something Corinth is in great need of.
We can make all sorts of extrapolations about how this advice applies or does not apply to our situation today, but I wish to look at Paul’s assertion that the Corinthians need to have the spiritual wealth of the Jerusalem Christians. What is Jerusalem’s spiritual wealth? It is weakness. It is poverty. It is failure. It is being oppressed—and in all of that still trusting in Jesus Christ.
In contrast, in Corinth, many—not all, but many—have come to believe that their wealth and success are signs of God’s blessing. It affects their ability to consider giving any kind of material gift to this church way far away on the other side of the Mediterranean. Why should we support those losers? Shouldn’t they support themselves? Shouldn’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?
They’ve forgotten, or perhaps never learned, the central affirmation of Christian faith: Humans want to be like God, but God is like Jesus. God doesn’t meet us in our success, in our pride, in our glory: God meets us in the depths—in our weakness, our fear, our loneliness, our shame—our humanness. The plain fact is that the one thing that humans do not have in common is success—power—confidence—self-fulfillment. Some of us have more than others, and I suppose most of us have a little of those things; but what we all have in common is: the depths. Frailty. Weakness. Insecurity. Self-doubt. Sinfulness. Vulnerability. Feeling like failures. We like to pretend like we aren’t that way. It’s one reason we are especially reactive to those who are visibly weak, poor, sinful, so-called “losers”—It hits too close to home. We shun them and put them down and avoid them because we are afraid we’re too much like them.
But this is how we are called to be God-like. It is by meeting one another in the depths, just as God has met us in the depths in Jesus Christ. As Paul said, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Instead of running from or being suspicious of or being afraid of or disgusted by the poor, the weak, and those who need us most, the Godlike thing to do is know that we are one with them and so to be especially gracious and generous and to seek, as Paul says, “a fair balance”—a way to bring everyone to a level of equity, of dignity, of mutual respect; as he says,
“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
We won’t ever get there if we think being Godlike is to be the winner. We won’t get there if we believe “the one who has the most toys wins.” The only way to get there is understand that truly to be Godlike, we have to be willing to be the loser. Then we’re being like Jesus Christ. Which means we’re being like God.