In Heaven and On Earth:
Each Person, Every Nation, All Creation, The Entire Cosmos
For Sunday July 20, 2008
Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Genesis 28:10–19, Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16–19, or Isaiah 44:6–8
Psalm 139:1–12, 23–24, or Psalm 86:11–17
Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
About a year before he died, Albert Einstein described himself in a letter to Hans Muehsam as a "deeply religious unbeliever" (March 30, 1954). Einstein was unapologetic about his fascination with the beauty, rationality and complexity of nature. He embraced something like Cosmic Awe at the mystery of the world he strove so mightily to understand. "The eternal mystery of the world," he once wrote, "is its comprehensibility." Einstein repudiated charges that he was an atheist, and criticized the intolerance of those whom he called "the fanatical atheists."
But Einstein never attended worship services, he didn't pray, he was a strict determinist, and he rejected doctrines like miracles or the afterlife. When asked about claims that he believed in a personal God, he categorically rejected the idea as "a lie that is systematically repeated" even though he clearly and consistently denied it (March 24, 1954). He did not believe in a God who was in any sense personal or who, as he put it, "concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."
It's hard to imagine an idea of God more different than the God of the psalmist. The God of the psalmist cares deeply and tenderly for each and every human being. He does in fact care about every person's fate. The psalmist believed that you could never flee so far that you were beyond the presence of God's Spirit. Whether I "go up to the heavens" or "make my bed in the depths," "even there your hand will guide me / your right hand will hold me fast." The darkest day cannot extinguish the light of his love. In some indescribable mystery of intimacy, God knew me before I was born, He fashioned me in my mother's womb, and He lovingly ordains all my days. I might feel and sense this a lot or a little, but it's true nevertheless.
But God is not my Heavenly Valet. If I'm not careful, my narcissistic tendencies fashion a god in my own image who cares only or especially for my selfish whims and desires. The Old Testament story this week about Jacob's dream provides a helpful corrective. God not only cares for me; He cares for every person and all nations. When God first called Abraham to form a nation for Himself, he said that he would bless not only the Hebrew nation but "all peoples on earth" (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). When He repeated this divine call to Abraham's son Isaac, He repeated the global reach of his love: "in you, Isaac, all nations on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 26:5). And when Isaac's son Jacob used a rock for a pillow and dreamed a dream at Bethel, God repeated verbatim: "In you, Jacob, all peoples on earth will be blessed" (28:14).
The only favoritism that God shows is his unconditional love for each person and every nation. In Ephesians Paul emphasizes this point by making a clever phonetic play on words. God, says Paul, is the patera of every patria — He's the "father (patera) from whom every family (patria) derives its name." God is not my privatistic God. He's not the God of Jews alone, not America's God, or even the God only of Christians. Rather, he's the "father of all fatherhood," the "father of every family," or the "father of the whole human family." He's the God of Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. Paul even expands God's fatherly favor to "every family in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 3:14–15).
Paul goes further in this week's epistle. He uses sober language to describe the ambiguous history of all creation. On the one hand, he acknowledges cosmic suffering. Our sufferings provoke a sense of frustration, futility, weakness, and subjugation. We remain "in bondage to decay." Like a woman in childbirth, he says, the entire creation groans inwardly and outwardly. The pain can feel unbearable. Paul is thus brutally realistic about our human condition. But he also exudes confident hope. Believers should live in eager expectation, looking forward to a future glory that will far eclipse present suffering. The ultimate destiny of all creation is liberation and freedom, adoption and redemption. The scale and scope of this future hope includes not only each person and every nation but "the whole creation" (Romans 8:12–25; 1 John 2:2).
There's an expansive logic to the Christian good news. Since God "created all things in heaven and on earth" (Colossians 1:16), since He seeks the worship of all "things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth" (Philippians 2:9–11), since He intends to "reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Colossians 1:20), and since He will sum up or bring together "all things in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:10), then of course God delights in bestowing his fatherly favor on "the whole human family in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 3:15). From each person, every nation, and all creation, to the whole cosmos — not only on earth but in heaven. God, says Paul, was in Christ, "reconciling the cosmos to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
In his bestseller Velvet Elvis, pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reminds us that the Christian gospel is good news about God's fatherly favor to every human being and to all of creation. It's especially good news, says Bell, "for those who don't believe it. . . The church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the 'un' and 'non,' they work against Jesus's teaching about how we are to treat others. . . As the book of James says, 'God shows no favoritism.' So we don't either" (James 2:1–13).
Image credits: (1) Wangjianshuo's blog; (2) RealNigeria.org; (3) A Boy from India blog; and (4) BBC News.