Greg Wilde: How to Avoid Limiting God with Words

This version of the written transcript of the sermon I delivered at Opening Convocation in January 2008 has been modified slightly to provide additional continuity for the reader. It is missing only the unusual spacing and visual promptings I use to avoid losing my place at the lectern, and in a couple places it has gained section headings for your convenience. Thank you for the privilege of serving you all.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It is a great honor for me to be standing here this evening. I am grateful to Jim Hart and to my fellow faculty members for this opportunity to get myself in trouble in front of a crowd of witnesses. I have to say, though, that the Bob Webber that I knew was almost always in trouble with somebody, so at least I will be in good company.

The title of my sermon tonight is, “How to Avoid Limiting God with Words”. Before this topic came to me, I spent quite a bit of time praying about what this particular group needed to hear. The IWS student body presents a bit of a challenge to speakers because you are all coming from so many different traditions. Considering our panel discussion this afternoon regarding worship and the arts, however, I think you will be as amazed as I am about how God has pulled our topics together for this session.

Having just come from seminary myself, where we hear several sermons per week, I am sensitive to the fact that sermons delivered in more academically slanted situations often end up resembling lectures, instead of sermons. When that happens, students and staff and faculty, who are still people – who still need to be challenged and fed by God, may not be.

I don’t want that to happen here; so I will do my best to treat you all as a congregation and not as a class.

Translating Christ to a Culture in Motion

We live in a world that is changing very quickly. Sometimes it is hard to for us to keep up. If we try, we can soon be overwhelmed by all the changes we cannot keep track of – changes in technology, in styles, in laws and politics, in moral and religious consensus – even in cutting edge ideas in our own fields. Sometimes we don’t want to keep up, so we don’t even try. We just dig in our heels and stubbornly try to ignore the changes – even though they keep going on all around us.

Here at IWS we understand that this changing world is the very world in which God planted His church in order to make a difference. Through His church, God wants continually to incarnate Himself. He pours Himself into us, so that He can be poured out for the world in us, and through us, just as He was when he walked among us physically.

He walks among us physically now, doesn’t He? We are His Body, the church. The church is not something without form – it is not just an idea that cannot take shape in the real world – it is people – it is us – it is millions of people we have never met before, living and dead, and yet to be born – and God’s Word tells us it is not only “millions of people”, but it is also One Person – it is Jesus Christ.

The church is His Body, now. – His Body, – just as it was His body eating fish on a beach in Galilee, two thousand years ago – just as it was His body pushing its way back through an angry crowd that was ready to throw Him off a cliff – just as it was His much smaller body laying in a manger, and just as it was his bruised and bloody body hanging on a cross. …His body. We are His Body.

But how can that be? How can that be? Surely there’s a difference! ‘It’s not the same thing you are talking about,’ you say! ‘You are confusing two different things,’ you say!

I am inclined to believe you. Yes, I am. Yes, I am! The body of Christ, on the one hand, and the Body of Christ, on the other – I am confusing two different things.

But should I stop it? That’s the question, isn’t it? Should I stop? Should I stop confusing two different things?!!

Should I use hundreds of words to try to explain myself? – to try to reconcile these two different ideas in a way that makes everybody happy, so we can all go home and be satisfied that Greg Wilde is not a heretic? – that this kind of body [R hand] and that kind of body [L hand], even though they are not really the same thing, can somehow be thought of as the same thing? And if I did that – if I explained myself that well – and believe me, we don’t have the time for me to do that here tonight – what word would we use to describe all that work?

Metaphor? Allegory? Exegesis? Theology? Lies? Games? Trickery?

Words are funny things, aren’t they? Sounds and scribbles that represent ideas….We usually think about words positively – as if they were good, and I suppose they usually are. We look at words as if they always make life better – as if they always make ideas clearer and make subjects easier to talk about. After all, that’s why we have words in the first place, isn’t it? So we can communicate about what we are thinking? So, the more words, the better, right?

But words come from our cultures, don’t they? In fact, this is so true that we all know if you use words that come from one culture in the wrong place on the face of the earth, then people around you will not know what you are trying to communicate. Isn’t that true? If you move too far, you quickly find out you have moved into a different culture! The words are different! It’s not fair! In fact it goes beyond that – not only are the words different, but a lot of the ideas are different, too!

That’s what happens with words when we change geographical location.

Let’s take it to the next level. Let’s commit ourselves to staying in one place on the earth and changing only time. Then, surely our problem will be solved – Or will it?

Benjamin Franklin just walked into the room, and your teen-age son recognizes him. So he approaches the surprised man and says, “Yo, Benjy, whas-sup? What’s the haps, dude? Check it out, let’s hit the mall and chill – ya know – hang out.”

How does poor Benjamin respond, statesman that he is? He looks around, puzzled, and says, “I beg your pardon?” Same place, same language, different times.

Things change. Cultures change. Language changes.

God incarnated God’s self in a changing world, with changing languages, among people who change from generation to generation. And yet we, His church, his present and ongoing incarnation are expected to be able to communicate God’s message, God’s life, God’s Self to this moving target of human culture.

So Maybe with Words, Less is More

What I’d like to suggest to you tonight, is that it would actually make our job a lot easier if we were less concerned with using so many words – so many words that we are so worried about using in very precise ways – because we are so worried about communicating our message in just the right way for each of our moving targets.

Perhaps we are too concerned about our targets – our audiences – the world. Perhaps we assume our targets care more about words than they really do. Do we really need to be so pre-occupied with words? Do words help us to communicate God, or do they get in the way?

Is it possible for us to by-pass words altogether and still communicate in some way that transcends conventional language? Think about God for a minute.

Has God ever been pre-occupied with using lots of words in very precise ways to make sure his message was unmistakable? Or does God confuse things too, the way I did a few minutes ago? What do you think the apostles would say about that? Were they ever confused? On the night he was betrayed, the scriptures tell us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread – and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “I know this isn’t really my body, but…Think of this as my body – Make no mistake – this is kind of like my body, but it’s not really my body – anything can be my body if you want – it’s more like a metaphor, but you will have lots of warm fuzzy feelings if you think of it as my body, even though it’s not.” Wait – is that how it goes?

Of course not! Jesus said something much more confusing, didn’t he? He handed his disciples a chunk of bread and said “This is my body”, that’s all. “This – this is my body,” and of the cup, he said something even harder for a Jew to hear – he said “This is my blood.”

Jesus did not use lots and lots of words to explain just exactly what he meant by what he was doing. He just said something short and simple, and pretty confusing – the meaning of which people have been talking about for two thousand years. Would we still be talking about it if he had explained himself?

“This bread is my body, this wine is my blood.” And because it was short, and because it was confusing – in fact because it was stating the impossible – it was also very, very powerful.

Poets know this about words. Good poets craft language so that small numbers of words bear profound meaning – often through embracing paradox. As people who have to present the mystery of God to others, I hope we all read lots of poetry. Poetry should become a second nature to us. Good poetry is not pretty-sounding fluff. It is not decorative language that fringes the edges of important stuff. – It is the important stuff.
Good poetry is prophetic. Poetry doesn’t explain reality; it re-presents it in fresh and unusual ways so that the truth hits you, the reader, the listener, in a powerful new way that you could not imagine before. Explaining things often removes the power from them, but juxtaposing difficult and opposing images to describe the same single idea – that method of using language gives it power, and it releases the imagination to figure out how two opposing images can work together. Explanations keep our imaginations locked in cages.

Scripture is full of paradoxical sayings like this, and they are the most powerful sayings we have. “You make the clouds your chariot” – “I myself will search for my sheep”, The mountains clap their hands – “Moab is my washbasin, on Edom I throw down my sandal to claim it” – deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls, “My word does not return to me empty” – The heavens are declaring the glory of God – “I am the vine, you are the branches”, “I am the bread of life, come down from heaven”, “This is my body – this is my blood. You are the light of the world.”

What does this kind of word-use do for us? It does not explain – it does not make clear – but it does set the imagination working – it does paint pictures, or at least it begins to paint them so that we can finish them.

Words are powerful things. If you don’t believe that, just try telling your daughter she’s beautiful – it will become true. Try telling your son he’s stupid and worthless and will never amount to anything – it will become true. This power comes from God, in whose image we are created. God spoke and everything that is… was created. Words create as they go forth, so we need to be responsible with them.
Do you suppose when God was creating, God spoke lots and lots of words, each with just a little bit of precise meaning? Or do you imagine God spoke just a few words, each so pregnant with possible meaning that all the possible meaning had to come rushing forth from them?
Yet…it seems that in order to save the whole created order, God stopped talking – and became a helpless baby. You want to know God? Here. Here I am, a baby. Feed me, change me, make me laugh. Tell me stories; tell me my story – relate to me. Relate!

Avoiding Making Objects of God, Salvation, Worship by Relating

Here at IWS there are a few core ideas that we emphasize over and over. One of these ideas is that God is not an object. This is important for worship. The more we think about God as if God were an object, and talk about God as if God were an object, the more we cause others to think of God as an object – which makes it harder for them (and for us) to actually experience God, instead of just thinking about God.

Tonight there are three things I want to challenge you to stop thinking about as objects. God is one of them. The other two are salvation and worship.

Many years ago, now, Bob Webber wrote a book called “Worship is a verb.” Do we understand that the reason we can say worship is a verb is because God is also a verb? In fact, I believe the Spanish translation of the 1st chapter of John says, “The Verb became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Let’s look at our God for a minute – the God we believe and describe as Trinity. This God confronts Moses in the desert and gives Moses and Aaron the task of heading up the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. [This story is in Exodus 3.] As he is kneeling in God’s presence, wondering what on earth he is going to do, trying to come up with a good excuse to avoid his mission, Moses eventually thinks to ask God for God’s name.

This story is a great illustration for us, as we think about language tonight, because it hits the issue of words and how they should and should not be used to describe reality “head-on.” We half expect God to refuse Moses’s request, don’t we? But then we see why God does not hesitate to give God’s name, because the name God gives is the name above all other names, it is a name that can’t even be pronounced, and it is a name with so much potential meaning, there is no good way to talk about it.

God says to Moses, “YHWH” – a bunch of breathy consonants with no vowels. Moses says, ‘would you mind repeating that?’ God says “Okay, tell them YHWH sent you.”

Now the funny thing about this name is that in order for it to have meaning, we have to fill in the vowels ourselves. That’s the way Hebrew works. Traditionally, the name has become either ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh,’ depending on whether you are an English translator or a German translator, and it ends up meaning “I am that I am” – but this is really only one of the possibilities for the meaning of God’s name, although it is the best-known possibility. Depending on what vowels you use, God’s name could be a lot of things: “I am that I am, I have been what I have been, I will be what I will be, I will bring into being what I will bring into being…” but the point of the name is that there is no way we can get a handle on God. God is what God is, God has done everything that God has done, and God will continue to do whatever God wants to do.

In essence, God is a verb. And so, God’s name uses practically nothing to say practically everything. God uses one of the smallest and most ambiguous words there is to capture the fact that God cannot be captured in language.
Let’s think about the Trinity for a minute. The most popular description of the Trinity we use is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but even these words are not really adequate, are they? We can try other words, but none of them are very good either. We sometimes use, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” which are accurate enough, but not comprehensive enough. Augustine tried a Trinity of “Lover, Beloved, and Love”, which may be pretty good, but in our culture doesn’t really say much at all.

How can we talk about a God that we have encountered through centuries of human experience as a Trinity of persons whose being and action are all caught up in each other so that if they stopped doing what they are, they would also stop being what they are? Think about it. A Father is only a Father if He has a child, a Son is only a son if He has parents, a Spirit – a Breath – a Life-giver can only be a Life-giver if it has something to give it’s life to. A Father that does not beget is not a Father. A Son who is not Begotten is not a Son. A spirit that does not give life ceases to be a Life-giver.

Are there enough words? Are there good enough words? Do words help us or do they limit what we can say? Poets often get frustrated with words because they limit meaning too much. Meaning needs room to grow.

I hope we see that we should be relieved that it is difficult to talk about God. We wouldn’t have much of a God if it was easy, would we? So…if we want to stop treating God as an object, and salvation and worship as objects, then we need to train and re-train our own perceptions.

In the Trinity, Being and Doing are caught up in each other. Imagine a constantly swirling whirlpool or tornado or hurricane with three large beach balls caught-up in it. The wind is not just moving one direction, though. It moves all directions at once. Each member of the Trinity is constantly pouring itself out in relationship to the other members of the Trinity, which are doing the same thing. The motion cannot cease. Constant emptying and constant filling – constant pure relationship is going on all the time. And this is the triune God in whose image we are created – which is why we also get our meaning in relation to God and others. Without relationship we become meaningless as human beings. That is why restoring our relationship with God is salvation.

Your salvation is not a thing. It is your being in relationship with God. If you have a living and active relationship with God, – that is your salvation. Do you think your salvation is over and done with? Do you keep your salvation in a box in your closet and say, “yes it happened on this day or that day at such and such a time?” Maybe that’s when you first became aware of your salvation, but that is not your salvation. Your salvation is the living God and the fact that you relate to the living God, every moment of your life, through Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father, and is living God.

It’s never over and done with. Being one with the living God keeps saving you continually. Yes you are saved. I am saved. I have no doubt. But you are being saved, too. I am saved because I am being saved!

What about worship? How many of you have ever heard a pastor say something like, “Leave all your troubles and your worries at the door because we are here to worship the Lord?” I have – many times. But you can’t do it, can you? You can’t leave your troubles at the door! Do you think God wants you to do it? Have you ever tried to have an intimate relationship with somebody you have to keep secrets from? You can’t do it! By definition the relationship ceases to be intimate and becomes pretending. Imagine going out for dinner with your spouse for your wedding anniversary and wearing a Halloween mask. Do you go to the doctor when you are sick and then tell him nothing is wrong, but still expect him to heal you?
God does not want pretending, and pretending does not do us any good. Worship is our relating to God, and if it is not honest – if it does not bring everything to God as offering – everything – it is worthless. If we are going to claim that the world offers people a bunch of lies – and it does – and we are going to ask them to leave those lies behind to be joined to God – and we do – then we cannot just turn around and offer them another lie! God is big enough to bear the whole truth. God is merciful enough. God already knows everything we have to bring – but he wants us to bring it, because we are now caught up in who he is and what he is doing on behalf of the created order to restore all things to himself.

Life is Our Participation in the Cross

All of us bringing all things to Him in offering is a part of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. We are now, so the cross is now, too. When we bring all things to God, then we are able to turn around and offer to the world something real – something God offers.

[Hold up crucifix]

This is a symbol some of you may be uncomfortable with for various reasons, but I think you should try to become comfortable with it – even though it will never stop hurting you when you do. This is not a picture of death and defeat. You may have been told that it is. It is not a picture of something in the past that is over and done with. This is a picture of life! This is a symbol of how we should live, now! This is a reminder to us of how real victory is achieved! We must bring everything we have and everything we are and nail it to the cross, and as we die to self, we rise with Him. Yes Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!

Here words fail us. Jesus hangs on the cross before us and says one simple thing:
“Follow me”. Follow me – everywhere I have been, everywhere I go, everywhere I want to go – and I want to go everywhere. Follow me.

Is that ambiguous? No. Does it give us another constantly moving target? – a constantly changing goal? Yes it does. And such goals are only reached in living relationships.

God and god’s Word are living and active. Salvation is living and active. Worship better be living and active.

For your own good and for the good of others, stop treating God and salvation and worship as objects. Be immersed in “being saved”. Dive into worship by being Jesus and doing Jesus in the midst of this world. Enter that dangerous, swirling, creating windstorm that is God. Stop explaining God to people and just give Him to them. Preach the gospel. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words.” But not too many words. Choose them carefully. Make them bear real meaning, or do not use them at all.

Before I leave you this evening, I want to leave you with a charge and a prayer.

The charge is this: In a few minutes, our celebrant, Lester Ruth will close the Eucharistic prayer with the words: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” At that time I would like you to use your imaginations, and to hear in your minds, “Behold, the man who eats with sinners: behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And as you put your hands out to receive the body and blood of our Lord, I would like you to use your imaginations again, and to hear in your minds these words: “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.” This may be hard for some of you, but I ask you to imagine these things because they are true. What you receive here is not just a token remembrance of an event that is dead in the past, unless that is what you make it. And why on earth would you want to make it that? What you receive here is your life!

And as you return to your pews and begin to sing, there will probably come a point when you are inclined to clap with the music. Every time you clap, for the rest of your life, I want you to imagine you feel the wind blowing through your palms – for you are the Body of Christ! – and that body, resurrected and glorified, and present among us now, still bears the wounds of the victory it achieved by hanging on the cross.

The hands with which you clap have big gaping holes in them, but that should make your clapping all the sweeter.

Closing prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace; help us now to stretch there our imaginations also – for the same reason. Give us the vision and the strength to nail there everything in our minds, and our hearts, and our lives that we feel does not need to be transformed, Lord, for we know that we are wrong. Impart to us your imagination; it is so much bigger than our own.

We pray this for the sake of your glory, and for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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Originally posted January 2008

About the author

MWS 502 Professor and DWS graduate.