Voltaire and several others have been credited with saying that God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. You know what the center of a circle is, but you might have forgotten since you studied geometry that the circle’s circumference is from point A in a circle’s outer reaches all the way around those outer reaches back to the point at which the measuring began. If it weren’t a circle you were measuring, you’d be dealing with a perimeter; since it’s a circle, though, circumference is our concern. It’s a way of saying that God is everywhere; it might also be a way of describing pantheism, the philosophical/theological perspective claiming that God is all and that all is God. In either case, the affirmation being made is that there is no where you can go on our planet or in the cosmos as a whole where the presence of God would be absent.
None of the psalmists as far as I know were pantheists, certainly not the psalmist who wrote the words to the great hymn of ancient Hebrew worship, which we now number Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:7-12 NRSV).
Where in the world, or out of the world, is God? That’s an impossible question to answer and to make considering an answer more difficult than it is on the surface, God does not, cannot have a place such as a material being like you must have. As to make up, God is spiritual and not physical; God is spirit and not flesh.
For the most part, Jews, Christians, and Muslims; which is to say, the monotheists; have taken God to be up there somewhere, far removed from human experience. “For the most part,” I said. Theologians, some of them, compensated for God’s presumed distance from human beings by creating a doctrine called omniscience, meaning that wherever God may be, at whatever distance, God knows exactly what is happening to us right here in the present because God is, after all, God. Eventually, a companion doctrine developed named omnipresence meaning that God is in all places, at all times, simultaneously.
Back to the earliest Jewish understandings of God’s place or places, and this is the proper beginning point because Christianity was originally a Jewish sect and thus inherited, potentially, all things Jewish including, by the way, Yeshua, Jesus, himself. While God was believed to make personal visits to some few human individuals, coming from some far away place up above the skies, God did not stay away from God’s realm for very long ever! More often, God would send a messenger; that’s what the word “angel” means and usually didn’t connote an emissary sent from God with halo, harp, and wings. Naturally, there were exceptions to the “rules.”
When Eve and Adam violated the rule of Eden by using their nifty juicer to create an ultra healthy fruit juice breakfast beverage, the ancient storyteller says God Godself came to them to confront them and to spell out the consequences they’d face for violating the one rule that God had told them was inviolable. The mythologist took for granted that Eve and Adam would have known God’s dwelling place was above the heavens, which I often remind us should be translated “skies.” In this case, however, the God who had envisioned humanity’s limitless joys and successes in their paradise on Earth would be the one, not a go-between, to describe the consequences of their disobedience, which was tantamount to trying to gain sufficient knowledge so that they wouldn’t need God in the picture at all.
It’s interesting to notice two facts in this story–one, that God came directly to Eve and Adam making very little noise brushing in and out of the lush greenery in which they were kinda sorta hiding. Jump over one book in the Hebrew Bible, to the book of Exodus, and the picture is completely different. God is going to give Moses the Ten Commandments for the use of all Hebrews, but God will come down from the aloof divine quarters to the tip top of Mount Sinai. God would not speak to the whole crowd of people, not even to two of them; but just to one, Moses, on behalf of the whole nation. When God arrived on Mount Sinai, and this is what I think is the second interesting fact to which I alluded, God didn’t just slip quietly into the place chosen to speak to Moses; instead, there was lightening, thunder, and Earth tremors.
One way the story of God’s giving the Ten Commandments was told had God inscribing the ten with God’s own forefinger directly onto a couple of stone tablets. After that, not only were the words divinely inscribed important to the Hebrews, at least in principle, but also the tablets themselves–even after they were broken, the stone tablets I mean and not the commandments themselves. Those tablets that became stone fragments were so special to many of the Hebrews and such a powerful reminder of divine interaction with humanity that the Hebrews built a special container for them and carried them wherever they wandered; being nomads they wandered a great deal.
When some of the Hebrews settled and got themselves a king and a magnificent immoveable Temple, that special container for the stones on which the Ten Commandments had originally been written was called the Ark of the Covenant, and it was put permanently by intention, in the most sacred spot in the whole huge Temple, the holy of holies. The people believed that God was more fully present there than anywhere else in the Temple, but clearly God was in the Temple; and when God was in the Temple God couldn’t be anywhere else. This is one way to make sure you always have your deity with you…or not!
Next week, we begin a new sermon series, and our initial nominee for best actor in a starring role will be Jonah. Jonah loved the idea that God was limited in terms of presence to the Temple because there came a time when Jonah wanted to run and swim as far away from God as he could so he counted on having left God behind when he departed Jerusalem where the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant were. I have to toss you a little spoiler. Jonah is beyond disappointed when he finds out that he and his sister- and brother-Hebrews were completely wrong about the limitations of where all God can be when.
In Paul’s first of four letters to the Church at Corinth (that we know about so far), he hits us with a daunting identity review. He says that our bodies, each person’s body, is one of God’s several temples.
The somewhat unusual subject comes up twice in what we now call 1 Corinthians, once in chapter three and once in chapter six. In chapter three, Paul is dealing with yet another church squabble. As best we can tell, Paul dealt with more squabbles at the Church in Corinth than any other church for whom he provided leadership. Every church that survives, for a little while or a long while, has to have a reason for being. Some churches survive for high and lofty purposes such as the desire to serve those who are in need. Others survive for less than lofty reasons; some survive to squabble. This is a shame, and the humiliation of it should cause any church holding onto its existence for one more brawl to gather a little dignity and close down.
In the case of the Church at Corinth, there were many ongoing squabbles; there were so many, in fact, that you could pick a different one to focus on every time you went to church. The one that Paul is dealing with the third chapter of 1 Corinthians has to do with loyalty to leaders and spiritual mentors. It was as if what they learned from the person who initially introduced them to the teachings of Jesus was all they ever intended to learn and as if the person who first shared with them Jesus’ core teachings was the only person from whom they ever intended to learn. If that person should move away for whatever reason, to take on new responsibilities let’s say, to hell with her or his successors. Even though the successor had nothing to do with the departure of a predecessor, some within the congregation took their grief, resentment, and sense of abandonment out on the newbie who was called to take the position vacated by the person who’d moved to another ministry.
It’s kind of like someone who loses a spouse or significant other to death or divorce and heads out in search of a replacement partner who is as much like the lost partner as can be. If you want to see in film form how freaky this can be go back and watch Joan Fontaine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in “Rebecca.” Naturally, the replacement, who typically doesn’t know why she or he has been chosen, fails to live up to the standards set by the original and eventually is criticized to distraction. Pastors who follow long-term and or highly beloved predecessors usually don’t last very long and shouldn’t get terribly comfortable in the parsonage.
For Paul, in dealing with the stir at Corinth, there was a group who thought he’d hung the moon and another group who wanted to moon him. They refused to learn from Apollos and instead denigrated everything he said and every ministry he tried to undertake. Same way with those who were devoted to Apollos. He had brought them into the faith, and whatever Paul said or wrote wasn’t worth their time.
Paul said that both he and Apollos had made a contribution. Maybe Paul planted the seed for them, but Apollos came along and watered the seed when Paul had to travel on to other ministry responsibilities. In any case, he said to those carrying ill will and disharmony with them every time they came to church or talked about it between meetings: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple [which is to say, another person in whom the divine dwells], God will destroy the power and influence of the one causing trouble. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Said another way, since God has decided to dwell within you, you’d better get your thinking and your actions in line. If you are trying to hurt other people at church, and if you’d just as soon see the community of faith go down the tubes as survive, you’d better rethink the basics of your faith. Temples can come tumbling down, you know.
In the other place where Paul refers to the human body as a temple for God, Paul is quite unhappy with the blatant sexual immorality going on among members of the Church at Corinth. The wild sexual activities and alliances shocked his Pharisaic sensibilities, and all he could think to say to those who didn’t seem to care who they were sleeping with and doing whatever else they could think of sexually speaking with, people in- or outside the church, was, “When you behave like this you are willfully, intentionally and with a measure of joy and pride tearing yourself down. That alone would be bad enough, but it’s worse than you seem to realize regardless of what I’ve taught you because when you hit the bordello for the buffet special, you are taking God in there with you. You are setting up one of God’s temples in a place where many people don’t realize that God dwells in them. But you Corinthians ought to know better. Or can it really be the case that you do not know your body is a temple of God’s Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
Ironically, this reality check appears immediately before a little section he wrote on conjugal rights for both wives and husbands. I’m sure the placement of these subjects is entirely random. Still, where I take my body is where I take my God. The direction we COULD go here is not the direction we’re going to go (though that’s exactly where Paul went), but we are going to keep Paul’s insight in mind as we press toward greater understanding of what it means for God to be within us.
I’m shocked at the numerous shallow online discussions of what this profound insight from Paul means. I was struck when I did a search to see what people were saying about Paul’s teaching in this context at how many people use this passage from Paul as a prooftext for prohibiting tattoos. For all we know, Paul might have had a couple of tattoos and maybe an ear or two pierced. Actually, I don’t know about the piercings, but there is strong evidence that followers of Jesus after his death often had small and discretely placed tattoos of crosses, fish, boats, vines, and other Christian symbols. Showing a trusted person your tattoo of a Christian symbol would be your way of letting that person know of a secret you had to keep in order to preserve your life. Of course, you know that there were those Christians who preferred death to any hiddenness of their love for the God about whom Jesus had taught.
Another reason a follower of Jesus might get a small tattoo of a Christian symbol would be to counter a proof-of-slave-ownership tattoo that many slave owners had placed on each of their slaves.
Ntozake Shange sings, “I found God in myself/and I loved her fiercely.” Who knows if Ms. Shange has ever read Zora Neale Hurston, the brilliant anthropologist and writer, who once said, “Such that I am, I am a precious gift.”
St. Augustine was praying when he said, “I found thee not, O Lord, without, because I erred in seeking thee without that wert within.”
Sister Maureen Conroy is nun, one of the Sisters of Mercy over in Neptune, New Jersey. Her specific ministry is to serve as a spiritual director. Sister Maureen believes that the longest journey any of us will ever take is the journey inward. It’s a rough, rigorous journey, one that would be easy enough to skip for something more fun and less demanding; however, to refuse to take the journey inward means that we will end up at a place of indescribable loss because unless we take our journey or journeys inward, we will never find God; we will never know God.
That strand of Christianity that, for all practical purposes, would have us hate ourselves–any part of ourselves, for many reasons–is glaringly out of step with this glowing human affirmation. I may need to go to some dark corner of this city or of the world to bring God’s love to people and places it has not been presented or discovered, but I don’t need to move an inch from where I’m now sitting or standing or napping to find God. God is within me–certainly not all of God, but all of God I may be capable of understanding and relating to.
At various times in my life, I’ve thought that God is at church, especially in the sanctuary and the pastor’s study, at tables where peace treaties are signed, in self-defining moments such as looking into the eyes of one of my children at birth or as soon after the birth as the nurses clear away birth mucous so that our eyes could connect. When I was a kid going to church camp for boys each summer, I thought God was at Camp Ba-Yo-Ca in the Smoky Mountains. I have thought I heard God in music. I’ve thought I saw God in art and/or color. I’ve thought I saw God at work as a nurse or doctor or a dear friend tended to the physical needs of someone ill or dying. One day it dawned upon me that there was only a single common denominator in those varied circumstances spanning years and scattered from hither to yon geographically: me. No biggie, no brilliant theological insight. Of course, I was the one observing and/or experiencing in each instance. What I didn’t catch, though, was that it all went much deeper than I could absorb. I could see God and/or feel God in those disparate situations because God was within me helping me have a God-perspective, if you will.
I do not believe that because God is within each of us that any one of us is divine. I do not believe that the divine within each of us ever gets confused and thinks for a while that it’s human. I do not believe that as Jesus lived on this planet, he was God pretending to be human. I think he was human, and God was within him, just as God was, is, will be in every human being since that is part of what it means to be human. It is not a special gift; it is a standard gift.
We know that most of what Jesus preached and taught had to do blatantly or subtly with the Empire of God, the rule of God–in King James lingo, “the kingdom of God.” What we are not nearly so clear on, though, is how Jesus thought of himself and his contemporaries in relationship to when and where the Empire of God would be fully revealed and, therefore, would fully dominate the world as a whole. There remains a fair amount of disagreement on this matter among that collection of scholars who devote practically all of their scholarly pursuits to studying the teachings as well as the life and times of Yeshua bar Yosef. Since there generally is a temporal element to it, you might well imagine the most frequently considered and discussed options.
Some scholars say that the Empire of God was entirely a futuristic state for Jesus and, by the way, for us. He awaited and anticipated as do we the spiritual defeat of all present earthly powers and their replacement with rules and standards established entirely by God’s principles of unconditional love for all and, with that, unconditional affirmation of the dignity of every person on the face of the Earth.
Other scholars believe that the Rule of God began when Jesus’ ministry got underway, but will not be fully realized until this chapter of human history closes. I’ve heard the era in which Jesus lived and the era in which we live called “the now, but the not yet.”
Still other scholars say that the Empire of God does not and never did have anything to do with worldly powers; it always was and always will be real anywhere and everywhere individuals live according to standards of faith and morality that Jesus interpreting Jesus’ spiritual forebears and Jesus directing Jesus’ descendants says come from God. This option is the one that makes the most sense to me when I read the following excerpt from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Just as there is no such thing as a “Christian nation” since everyone who commits to Christian principles must do so individually and of her or his own volition, so also there is not any Rule or Empire of God forced on someone who chooses to live by standards other than those upheld as preferable and normative by the ones who insist that they understand God’s directives for how humans should live in every situation that comes along.
Even a society, yeah a world, of people each of whom has God within will not agree on every point of theology or understand what life is like for those who have had very different experiences than they. An awareness and an affirmation of God within is no indication that we own or control God. We don’t, and we won’t. Nor is it an invitation to take God for granted.
It should be a fact that unities humans, never something that divides us. Also, knowing that God is within us means that we need not spend our lives trying to figure out where God is. We may still fear the Divine and keep our distance from the God within; we may, in contrast, use this knowledge to enhance how we pray and meditate and certainly how we conduct ourselves.
Even so, God is with us in every success and in every failure. God is with us at every celebration and at every ritual of tragedy. God is with us when there is much to say and when there are simply no words at all.