this is what God is like: John 14:7-14
How many times has this very same passage come up during the Easter season? And yet I never tire of it, this exchange between Philip and Jesus: ‘Just show us the Father!’––‘Philip, have I been with you all this time and you still don’t understand?! If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father!’ In some ways this statement is at least as profound if not more than the great ‘I AM’ sayings in the Gospel of John. You want to know what God is like?, Jesus says. I’m what God is like! If you’ve seen me you’ve seen God! This is what God is like and this is what God does… God travels light, God is merciful, forgives and reconciles, God spreads healing, God brings people to an understanding of their own dignity, God overturns the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of expediency and usefulness and power and authority and instead God rules with love, with mercy, from within and from behind, through service and what looks like weakness––the very opposite of what all the success seminars teach us. God is someone who washes your feet. God is not afraid to be broken up and crushed and passed out. God is crucified love, unconditional acceptance, as the Muslims say ir-Rahman ir-Rahim––All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, as our Jewish forbears would say, a veritable womb of mercy. That’s what Jesus was like; that’s what God is like.
Paul’s definitions of Jesus are the ones I rely on the most if I need to succinctly explain who we believe Jesus to be, even though they are more like koans than formulas: He is the image (ikon) of the unseen God… and in him the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily. This is an amazing assertion, that this is what God is like, wrapped up in a Palestinian Jewish man who walked dusty roads and ate and drank with us. And this is our justification for gazing at the image of Jesus––If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father! And it’s the reason we spend so much time mulling over the scriptures, especially the gospels, to catch a better glimpse. There’s an old piece of wisdom that we become what we gaze at, and that’s why we do it too, not just to figure Jesus out, but to become what he was so as to do what he did, and even greater things, to carry on the work of the kingdom. As Jesus was the image, so our tradition tells us that we are the “image of the image.” Doesn’t John say, We shall be like him when we see him as he is?
An acquaintance of mine wrote a liturgical song that was rather popular for a while some years ago: “We are called, we are chosen, we are Christ to one another.” Folks were kind of scandalized by that––“You can’t say, ‘We are Christ!’”––because this was not the kind of vocabulary we used very often in popular Catholicism. But it was common vocabulary in the early centuries of Christianity. This is Pseudo-Macarius:
He was called Anointed (Christos) in order that we might receive the unction of the same oil with which he was anointed, and might thereby become ‘christs’ also, being of the same nature as he and forming a single body with him. [Then he quotes the Letter to the Hebrews,] It is written likewise, He who sanctified and those who are sanctified have all one origin.
That’s almost as shocking, I suppose, as saying that if you’ve seen Jesus you have seen the Father.
We are created in the image of God, the next step is to move from image to likeness. How do we do that?! Well, first of all we have to purify ourselves so that that image, covered over by layers of ungodliness, can shine through our humanity. I suppose the ascetical life starts there and we set up the rest of our life in such a way as to ensure that we will keep that image clear and bright and unsullied. And then, (this is from Diadochus of Photike): “All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” Just as Jesus in love attached his freedom to his Abba, so we need to attach our freedom in love to Jesus, and to his way.
I see this theme come up often in monastic literature, especially among our own Camaldolese fathers, that we monks willingly become servants and slaves again, by the very things that Jesus practiced––humility and obedience, by forgiving each other and bearing each other’s weaknesses of body and soul, as St. Benedict urges us––imitating Jesus’ great kenosis, emptying himself and becoming a slave, which feels like a loss of freedom, but instead is a freely giving of ourselves over in love, to God, to the Way of the Gospel, to each other and our rule of life. Out of our love we attach our freedom to God. And from this self-surrender, from this seeming dissolution of self, comes the real freedom, the freedom of the children of God who are now empty enough and available to be filled with the Spirit, the moment in which God is all in all in me, and I make him known to the world by my very presence as well as by my deeds, doing even greater things, carrying on the work of being reconcilers and healers.
As Ronald Rolheiser says, “If you act like God you get to feel like God.” So the same thing applies to us: we should be able to say some day, “What’s Jesus like? Have you been with me this long and you still don’t know? If you’ve seen me you’ve seen Christ! I’m what Jesus is like!”
One last thing: we heard this beautiful reading from Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion this morning that brings all this together and invites us to the Eucharistic table:
We find in this the surest means of transformation into Christ, particularly if we unite ourselves to him in communion, which is the most fruitful way of sharing in the sacrifice of the altar. When Christ finds us thus united with him he immolates us with himself, makes us pleasing to his Father, and transforms us more and more into his own likeness.