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Bible readings:

Proper 22 Year A (August 31, 2014)                                                            St James', Peace River

I wonder if you’ve ever tried to get your head around that verse in Exodus, where Moses asks what God’s name is, and gets that mysterious answer, “I am who I am.” It seems to operate on so many levels. The first question that occurred to me was, what would it mean for God to have a name anyway? Names are there to help us distinguish one thing from another: this is a Schnauzer and that is a Labradoodle; you’re Betty but she’s Gertrude. Does God need a name like that? God is God – there is nothing else to mix God up with. Maybe that’s one part of what the answer to Moses’ question means. Back then gods had names, because every group had their own, often more than one at a time. But God is saying, I’m different: there is nothing and no one else like me; I am who I am.

You could take that (and some people have) as God saying, I stand apart from everything, my identity is not tied to how I relate to anyone, I am defined simply by my own existence beyond and before everything. That in itself was an enormous intuition, and revelation, for Moses’ time, when even the gods were part of a bigger system, related to each other and to the world you could see: the gods of sun, earth and rain; of war and death; of this nation and that one. In our time we take it for granted that the idea of a divine being has to be more than that, has to transcend and go deeper than the world of experience and observation. But we owe that concept to someone like Moses, who could look at a burning bush, and hear about the god of his forefathers, and yet also accept that he was dealing with something more than an ancestral spirit, with some “One” more than everything else added together.

So that’s a profound change in human understanding of what God is about right there. But it’s only half of what’s really going on in this encounter. Because what’s really extraordinary, and paradoxical, is that the transcendent divine is still right there in front of Moses. God names himself as beyond everything, and yet he is speaking for himself, revealing himself, acting in this world through an encounter with one individual human being. And that paradox extends beyond this moment, because what God says to Moses in answer to his question is, “Tell them I AM sent you.” Moses didn’t just want to know God’s name for interest’s sake – he wanted to know in whose name he was supposed to go back to lead God’s people. God’s answer ties the whole of the rest of Moses’ story into something transcendent. And since Moses’ story becomes the story of the whole people of Israel, making a covenant with God, receiving the Law, witnessing to God’s reality before the rest of the world – what we really have here is an affirmation that it all happens in the name of something bigger than politics and history. The story that unfolds from here on is a story about ultimate reality, and how the God who is ultimate reality actually engages with that day to day world of experience and observation that we exist in.

There’s something both weird and wonderful about that thought. The weird part is that we could imagine that kind of God tied into such a small part of the cosmos as one man looking at a bush, or one people out of all the people of the world, or for that matter one planet out of all the stars and galaxies in the universe. When you hear people say, “Your God is too small,” this is often what they mean – and in fact both Jews and Christians have been prone to that problem, losing sight of the transcendence of the God we profess to believe in, and imagining that God’s choice to engage with us in one way at one place and one time means that we must have some value that others don’t – you can see that in everything from the Crusades, to the religious backing for imperial claims in the Americas, all the way though to modern conflicts in the Holy Land.

But when we get it right, the core truth we are talking about is the most wonderful thing you can imagine. The God who is far above and beyond all things is also capable of fitting into life as we know it. And that means, not that some have value that others don’t, but rather that every single person, every single creature, every single speck of matter, has infinite worth, because we are capable of encountering and even containing God. That’s why we remember Moses – not because he was wise, or because he passed on important words, those things are secondary. Moses is remembered as a friend of God, as one who saw God and lived. What an amazing thing, for a human being to encounter the God who is existence itself. But as a statement about God it is even more amazing – that God does not see the universe and the people in it as irrelevant, or as dust and ashes, but as something worth knowing and befriending.

The gospel brings that truth home in an entirely new way. In Jesus we see God revealing God’s self, not just in bits and pieces, a name here, a word or a vision there – but God’s whole self, embodied, as a person that human beings could know, could love or hate, follow or reject. You can still feel the paradox and the scandal of the infinite God presenting himself in such an limited form – think of the reaction Jesus got when he said, at one point, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” [Jn 8:58] But at the very least it may teach to us to question our assumptions about what it means to be limited: it is not a weakness, not a defect, for God to become small enough to be seen; and it turns out that human nature, which seems so limited to us, is capable of being unlimited where it counts – at least enough to reveal the true nature of God in Jesus.

And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel reading. If you remember what we read last week – Peter just got it. He just realized, with the kind of blessed insight that Moses also had, who Jesus is: You are the Messiah, the son of the living God! And then right away he gets it wrong again. When Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying in order to rise again, Peter says, “God forbid! This must never happen to you.” This is Peter speaking for all of us, as we constantly fall back into that way of understanding God as the biggest thing going in the world we know: God has to be more powerful, more mighty, more in charge. So Peter can’t accept that the son of the living God would suffer and die, would allow people to do what they chose with him.

But if God is beyond and deeper than all that we know, and still comes to us in our world, in our shape, in our humanity – then that’s missing the point. When God reveals God’s whole self in the person of Jesus, it is in order to befriend and love us, and that means letting us choose how we deal with him. The suffering and death of the Son of the living God is the ultimate chapter in the paradox and scandal of the infinite God being revealed in this limited world. Death is what shows us the true character of God, God’s capacity to embrace weakness and limitation and transform it through love. And so it happens: on Easter morning, nothingness changes into glory, death into life.

And even that is not the last word, since God’s purpose seems to be not just to show us something about who He is, what His name is – but who we are too. We are worth saving, worth dying for, worth inviting into friendship with the One Who Is. Our humanity has enough depth in it for God to share it with us, and it is capable of revealing who God is. We get to take up our cross and follow Jesus too, because that is where we find our relationship with the ultimate truth about God and ourselves. God’s love unlocks our capacity to pour out ourselves in love, sacrifice and service. And when that happens, God is revealed then too. That’s what the first Christians discovered as they began to live in the light of Christ, and that’s been the best part of the story ever since.

So listen to what St Paul says – it sounds like homespun good advice, but it’s so much more. Let love be genuine. Outdo each other in showing honour. Be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Extend hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Overcome evil with good. This isn’t just a wish list for good behaviour. It is a litany of the signs of God’s presence. When you do these things, it is because God is reaching out to you, making more of you than you ever dreamed possible. When God does these things in you, you join in showing the world a reality that goes beyond the limits of what life looks like from where we normally stand. That happens right here, in everyday choices and actions, because this is where God’s name is spoken, this is where God IS.