One of Us

Music echoes in my soul. When I’m happy, you might catch me humming an upbeat bluegrass tune. When my heart is heavy, I might be whistling the blues. In either case, I probably don’t even know I’m making any noise at all.

With the Psalmist in Psalm 150, I believe God can be praised everywhere, in everything, and with any and every instrument possible. I’m thrilled to encounter so many musical artists these days who infuse their lyrics with hard-wrought spiritual truths, even though (or perhaps because) their songs may never get played on a so-called “Christian” radio station.

Perhaps inspired by them, I’m reaching back this morning to a song from my teenage years. I doubt it was played on a Christian radio station, if such a thing even existed (I’m not sure). The song challenges us to imagine God—to truly see Christ in the eyes of everyone we meet. At least that’s what I get out of it.

“One of Us,” by Eric M. Bazilian, made famous by Joan Osbourne

If God had a name, what would it be
And would you call it to His face
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question

Yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home

If God had a face, what would it look like
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like Heaven and in Jesus and the Saints
And all the Prophets and…

Yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home
Tryin’ to make His way home
Back up to Heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

Yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home
Just tryin’ to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to Heaven all alone
Just tryin’ to make his way home
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

What We Do Well

I was talking to one of our members recently about a relative of theirs. This relative, I was told, hasn’t been the most diligent church-goer since becoming an adult; but has been in pretty faithful attendance at a church near them for the last few weeks or months.

When asked what it was about that church that drew them, the relative responded that they found it refreshing that the church seemed to look for God and embrace everything where a spark of God might be found. (—my reinterpretation of the relative’s words—) That meant being very open and ecumenical in attitude, it meant including music that was not written for use in churches, and it meant other departures from what might be considered traditional.

There are things we do great as the church of Jesus Christ. There’s weddings—even many of those who never darken a church’s door want a Christian wedding at a church, because that is something we do well.

We could add funerals to this list as well, though for a completely different set of reasons.

Some churches can even brag on their social services: operating food pantries, clothes closets, and other services to those in need.

When encountering crisis, we are generally very good at taking care of each other. I know many of you have offered to cook meals for the Clark family. When I shared this with Bryan, he responded: “They don’t have to do that.” I countered, “I know, but we’re baptists. We see a problem and we throw food at it!” They might check my Baptist credentials for saying so, but food does not solve every problem. But having people walk with you and show their love and support sure goes a long way.

These are some of the many things that we do very well.

Poorly I: Engage the World

But there are things we don’t do so well either. I want to suggest two that I think are vitally important for our future survival and ability to thrive in God’s mission.

One thing we don’t do well is actually engage the world that we say needs Jesus. We the church usually just hold up the truth we think we have and we expect people will just come to us. Either they accept what we offer or they do not. Tragically, we don’t seem to care too much what they choose as long as our programming can continue without interruption. It is pretty obvious that most calling themselves Christians feel little to no genuine concern for other people, instead being satisfied with meeting what we deem our obligations, and making a big show about those who did not accept what we offered.

Engaging our world involves a heck of a lot more than going every week to a building filled largely with those who already self-identify as Christian and preaching a gospel that those outside our walls desperately need to hear.

The author of Hebrews reminds us of how thoroughly Jesus engaged his world. Our world. He “shared in our humanity.” He was “made like us, fully human in every way.” He “suffered and was tempted” and so “is able to help those who are tempted” and are suffering.

In the World/Of the World

When I was a teen, I remember a lot of emphasis being placed on being “in the world but not of the world”—a lousy paraphrase of John 17:14-16. There we find Jesus praying for his followers (including us!) and he says that they (we) are not “of the world.”

But in the context of John 17, it is pretty clear that not being “of the world” is what is getting his followers in trouble with the authorities, and that—to put a head on it—is that they are following the rules of the Kingdom of God rather than the rules of the kingdom of Rome. They are living in the Kingdom of God in the here and now, which is much harder than just avoiding anything “new” from the last 40 years or so. Retro-culture is not counter-culture.

Do Not Be Conformed

I was also told that Paul’s instruction to the church at Rome to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2) meant that we had to reject modern culture. No rock music. No pants for the girls. I was told there was a clear line between the spiritual and physical worlds, between religious and modern. The two (I was told) can never mix. And so we must separate to be saved.

Of course, I didn’t find out until many years later that this duality (to use the technical term)—this believed conflict between the physical and spiritual realms—was declared contrary to the theology, message, and culture of Christianity as far back as around 200 AD. That is less than 200 years after Jesus was on earth. And even more convincing is the fact that this idea of the physical and spiritual worlds being opposed to each other kept popping up over the course of the first thousand years of Christianity. And every time it pops its head up, the Christian church as a whole has said: “No! This is not the truth. This is not who we are. This is not what Jesus taught and showed us.” 380. 382. 448. 451. 843. Over and over and over again.

And once more, a quick glance to context reveals that Romans 12 is talking about becoming like God so we can know and follow the divine will. The subject of the verbs—the one acting—that is used is telling (and it may be the whole point). With “conforming,” who is doing the work? It is us. Conforming is what happens when we are trying to do the work ourselves. But then we read: “But be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” What then about “transforming”? Transforming is what happens to us by God. How can we be transformed? By placing ourselves intentionally and regularly in God’s hands to mould and shape. The more time we spend with God, the more of the divine imprint we will bear.

Hebrews 2

And again, a quick look to our text in Hebrews 2 shows that Jesus did not half-heartedly enter into our world. He was fully committed. He became fully human, suffering in all the same ways as we suffer, being tempted in all the same ways we are tempted.

When we truly bear the light of Christ, we have nothing to fear from this world. After all, the “darkness has not overcome the light,” as we read in John 1:5. This world will not overpower us; it is we (with God) who will overpower this world. The powers of darkness need fear us, not the other way around.

So let us boldly go into this world, living and preaching the gospel of Christ wherever we are.

Poorly II: Honesty

A second thing we do poorly is be honest. That’s right: honesty—surprisingly, it’s not our strong suit. We try to hide the sin in our lives which makes us look like smug hypocrites. We try to protect the Bible—something God has NEVER told us we needed to do—and so we (like the Pharisees of old) built a hedge around it, claiming truths the Bible never states; and thus losing touch with both our historical connection to the Christians of old and the real power that may be found therein. We look like backward fools to those who realize we hold on to the teachings we received from the previous generation more strongly than to the words of the Bible itself.

It has been said that my generation has the best-honed BS detectors of any generation in history. No wonder then that so many of my generation do not attend church but choose to self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” They seek a more honest path than some of us tread.

My own spiritual journey is one that has struggled with these untruths. Contrary to what I was taught, the Bible does not indicate a man’s hair should not touch his shirt collar. It does not teach that certain kinds of music or instruments are “of the devil.” It does not claim that certain people have a higher standing in the Kingdom of God than do others. It does not teach that women cannot be deacons and take leadership roles in churches. It does not teach that the King James Version—1611 edition—is the only inspired translation of the Bible, and it does not teach that the Old Scofield is the study Bible that Jesus intended us to use.

We decided to teach these things, and I have enough grace in my heart to believe that someone had the church’s best interests in mind when they started teaching these untruths. But it is what we were taught, so it is what we teach. Never investigating. Never questioning. Always accepting.

My Crisis & Honesty

As a teenager, I remember being hauled into the pastor’s office one Sunday, surrounded by a group of deacons and being told: “We don’t ask questions like that!” I was too frightened to reply at the time, but my inward response afterward was “Obviously you don’t, but someone needs to start!”

I have discovered these untruths because I came to a crisis point in my life. I realized I had been taught a lot about the Bible. But as I began studying it more in depth, I realized that there was little evidence for these beliefs in the Bible itself. What I mean is that I was taught to read the Bible beginning with a group of assumptions: this is how it was written, this is its purpose, this is what these texts mean. I was only taught to find the right phrase or verse to support a particular position, and then to wield it against the world.

In my moment of crisis I decided that things had to be different. I believed that the Bible was inspired by God and that it was authoritative for living a life of discipleship. But I also decided that the Bible should be what told me what “inspired” and “authoritative” meant. The Bible should be where I began.

What I committed to was a radical path of honesty.

  • No longer would I say things about the Bible that the Bible did not say for itself. 
  • No longer would I make grand claims that were contrary to the evidence located within these scriptures. 
  • No longer would I smooth over the discrepancies and difficult passages. 
  • No longer would I accept the polarizing buzz-words which are popular litmus tests for faith. You know what I mean—things like “inspired” or “evangelical,” or issues like abortion, women in ministry, and creation. In my experience, the only reason someone asks you what you think about abortion is to find out if you are “with them or against them”—ally or enemy. 

But these are complex topics—complex issues—whose answers do not easily fit on a bumper sticker. Part of that honesty that I sought to practice resulted in the awareness that the Bible never deals with issues in the abstract. It is always—ALWAYS—more concerned with real people. God is always bending the rules to meet people where they are with grace.

Back to Hebrews…

All this brings me back to our Hebrews text once again.

These verses in Hebrews contain some of the most encouraging, hopeful words in all of the New Testament. At least they are encouraging and hopeful to a struggler me.

First, they tell me that Jesus became human. (Hey! I’m a human too!) Jesus’ “condition” in this world is one that I share, and so do most of you (I think).

Second, these verses tell me that Jesus was tempted and suffered. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into believing that Jesus was only tempted three times immediately after his baptism. But this text suggests something else entirely. It suggests that Jesus was subject to all the temptations that are common to we human beings. That is a truth that can be found elsewhere in these scriptures as well. And it’s a real revelation: What are your secret sins? What are your frequent temptations? Jesus experienced similar temptations as well.

Third, these verses tell me that Jesus’ temptation and suffering now allows him to help the rest of us who are tempted and suffer. When you are going through a traumatic experience, it is immensely comforting to meet someone who has been through a similar experience. Unlike most, they truly know something of what you are going through. But even more encouraging is when you meet someone who both has been through what you are going through and knows how to get past it. Someone who has discovered a shortcut, born by personal suffering and pain, and is willing to share it with you.

This is what Jesus does for us. In becoming human, in experiencing temptation and suffering, Jesus has discovered the keys to overcoming sin and death. He stands in every crossroads of our life waving “This way! This is the path of life!” And when we listen and follow, we discover his way is sure.

An Honest, Engaging Mission

Let me suggest one more thing too: If we are to be called by Christ’s name, perhaps our ministry should involve a similar sort of helping hand. These verses in Hebrews suggest that Jesus has no power to help us had Jesus not endured the same sorts of temptations and sufferings that are common to the life of a human being. By the same token, I believe that Jesus has to own his suffering and temptation in order to be able to help us. He cannot pretend it did not happen. He cannot hope we do not find out how much of a struggle it all was, or that he struggled at all. He had to struggle, or it was not temptation. He had to suffer, or his experience was not like ours and he has no power to help us.

I don’t know if you see the connections I’m trying to make or not, but our ministry as disciples requires that kind of honesty and engagement or else we will have no ministry. We must own up to our sins and temptations—the reality that we are sinners; we must acknowledge our sufferings. That is the only way we can connect with others and help one another through this life. That is the only way the redemptive power of God can transform our experiences of hurt into stories of strength. That is how we are Christ to each other.

I want to close this morning with a short poem written by one of the saints of the church: Theresa of Avila. One of the things that makes the writings of St. Theresa so remarkable is her use of imagination in prayer. Picture it, Theresa instructs us, and imagine every detail. How might it look? What would it feel like? What if God were one of us……?

She writes:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

May the words of my mouth and the music of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.