2 Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
If we had all the power in the universe, what would we do? For some that question is exciting. We imagine trips to the stars, the creation of new and amazing animals, the cessation of some societal ills. For others, it is quite terrifying. We see our faults, the way our own proclivities drive us to evil, and we dread the idea of power. Power, after all, is not in itself corrupting, but the enabling of our own flights of fancy, if our intent is not truly toward good, that can be quite corrupting. The good we do is ultimately only meaningful if it is the good, we practice. The good we practice; is the virtue we develop. The virtue we develop, is what aligns us, truly, with God’s righteousness.
We are all of us, quite luckily, finite beings. We cannot do all the good we want, that’s true, but our failures do not manifest universally either. If we err, we err on a much smaller scale than being all powerful would allow us. We can still cause a great deal of trouble, of course, but we are mercifully limited. Yet, the question has to be asked, what would the life of an all powerful being truly look life. What would their actions tell us about their nature? What is behind the wall of our conceptions and in the domain of that of which no greater thing can be conceived?
We Methodists have, in the past century, adopted a framework by which we describe what we do and do not know about God. Though not original to John Wesley or Philip Otterbein, it is now nearly synonymous with the Wesleyan and Brethren movements. This is the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral – the quaternary means of revelation available to us in the form of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. STRE, in those four letters is the sum of our knowledge about God, about Christ’s work on earth, the cross, and in Heaven, it is the means by which the Spirit inspires us to live the life we are called to live.
To understand God, we begin in scripture. Across all the pages of the Bible we see people embarking upon the same journey that embark upon today. How do you describe the indescribable. I once I had a professor describe our attempts to describe God as an act of stacking up transparencies on a projector. We take image after image after image, and only when we look at them stacked on top of one another, do we begin to see the image of God through them all. God is like a Shepherd, like a King, like a mother hen, like sculptor working in clay. In Scripture we see people who have met the divine reaching for any word or image they can to describe that amazing God they now know.
Scripture also records what has happened to the people of God throughout history. Not only that, but it provides multiple perspectives. The two books of Kings tell the story of David and his descendants in different terms than the two books of Chronicles. Ezra-Nehemiah capture the return in a different way than do any of the post-exilic prophets. We are gifted an account not only of what God did, but how people reacted. Not only how people reacted, but how they then began to rationalize the work of God in their life. The dull cynicism of Ecclesiastes is next to the delighting wisdom of Proverbs, precisely because both respond to God’s instruction is such radically different, yet valid, yet inspired ways.
Whether we know it or not, we read the word of God through the lens of all that we have been taught in life. Tradition, sometimes a bad word and sometimes idolized in Churches, is the inheritance of all readers of scripture who came before us. Tradition, interpreting scripture, is where we get many of the doctrines we hold today. The communion of the Saints, our Eucharistic liturgy, our particular stances on baptism – originate in the theological examination of centuries of Christians seeking to know what scripture holds for us. We read the scripture, not with fresh eyes, but with the help of everyone who ever held those pages before us.
As recipients of that tradition, we are not forced to take everything at face value. We reason through the commentaries we read, the books we collect, and then we assimilate them into something we can understand and use. The core doctrines of our faith are often fairly absolute – we cannot reject the Trinity or Christ’s divinity and still fall in orthodox Christianity – but outside of those core features are a great of discussion and disagreement. On my shelf in my office, I have many books (some of which I’ve even read!) that disagree with one another, some that I love their work, and some I wish were never written. My job as a reader of tradition and scripture, is to synthesize them rationally into a framework to understand life and God and everything. We all take that task on, but as a minister, it is especially important to be rational, because if I come up here and spout nonsense, there’s a danger someone might believe that nonsense, and then it just disseminates outward from there.
Finally, God acts in our life, God shows us God’s goodness in tangible ways. We experience the God of our salvation. Sometimes this experience is nothing short of miraculous, a healing that just doesn’t make sense or a last-minute call that erases our anxieties. Sometimes the experience is mystical – a vision or a voice that shows us some divine truth we had not previously known. We test these against our reason, against the tradition of the Church, and always against scripture, but in our own encounter with God we uncover much that simply hearing or reading would not teach us.
So, why have we talked about the quadrilateral, outside of the fact its an easy list to remember and it fills some space on my notes. I bring up the quadrilateral, a tradition I have inherited and often criticize for being overly simplistic, because it lets us know that God is not in fact too far away from us to begin to understand or know. We can, through a variety of tools, encounter God, learn about our savior who loves us, and develop into more spiritual people.
The reality of God is that God is a person, well three people in one being, but for simplicity lets not get into trinitarian theology alongside our already long discussion of epistemology. We can know God, because God is not an impersonal force. I can learn about gravity, I can understand nuclear forces, but I can’t know them. I have never met an atom, but I have a degree that claims I know how they work. It would be easy to say that those who live in church or study religion know about God, but it’s another thing entirely to say that they know God, you know?
There’s a phenomenon that was first discussed in radio and television but that has exploded with the ubiquity of the internet. This is the concept of the “para-social” relationship. In this relationship a person begins to feel that they know someone personally who they really have likely never met. It can extend beyond celebrity or internet personality to a barista or server at a restaurant who, might know your name enough to put it on a cup, but does not know you beyond passing familiarity. It is a problem for many reasons, chief of all when the person pouring energy into a non-existent relationship realizes they have actually just imagined the entire thing.
Some people have envisioned religion as something like this. That we faithful are chasing to know a personality that, if they exist, would be disinterested. The premise of deism, one of the most popular theologies in John Wesley’s day, and by extension the colonial United States, depended on the idea that God created the world, set things in order, and then disappeared to be a, a best, mildly interested observer. Today more secular forms of faith see God, or the Universe, as benevolent, but largely impersonal. There is a disconnect between the immensity of God and the smallness of us. We cannot perceive God truly cares about us, certainly no enough to take action on our behalf.
Yet, if we believe that God is interested in creation, and that God is a personal being we can know, then it seems to me that we must begin to understand God, as we claim to do anyway, by looking to scripture. What can the record of this book tell us about God? More importantly, what does that have to do with us? If it sounds like I have re-invented theology, then I am happy to report, yes, we have essentially taken a winding road to get back to the very basic premise of our faith. Yet, by the long road, perhaps we can appreciate how, unsimple, the whole experiment really is. Yet, this truth remains, God seeks after us, and we seek after God, these pages are the first steps we take to meeting in the middle.
If you want to know about a person, you should what their favorite things are. What do they listen to? What movies do they like? Books? While these are not the sum of a person’s character, they give indications. I am a massive of the band They Might be Giants, I’ve even quoted them in sermons. That tells you a lot about me if you know the band, mostly that I’m a fan of absurdism. Favorite painter? Salvador Dali. Favorite book? Slaughterhouse-five. See, an image emerges of the man behind the pulpit. Yet, that image remains incomplete, there are many blind spots yet to be filled in.
For God, I begin by seeking what God most loves to do. What is it that God does again and again throughout scripture? Well, as you may have guessed from our reading, God feeds people. God made a Garden in the East, and filled it with what? All good fruits. God sent a people into the wilderness and rained manna upon them to sustain the journey, splitting rocks open to give them water when they were thirsty. God brought rain to water the crops of the ground, the fruit of the vine and the wheat-stalk fed the famished peoples. Here, in 2 Kings, we see God feeding his prophets with multiplying bread. Just earlier in this chapter? He feeds and widow and her son by multiplying wheat and oil. Purifies a poison soup for others to eat.
God is a God who feeds, who sustains, who gives life. Should it be any surprise that the only miracle described in all four Gospels is the feeding of a multitude? Jesus, like Elisha in Baal-shalishah, takes a few pieces of bread and feeds all who gather around him. Jesus, God on earth, shows us what God has always been about, by breaking bread and sharing it with those around him. Elisha, and all the other times we see before, prove just how important it is to see that no one goes hungry, and confirms God’s eternal commitment to see all people fed.
The sum of God cannot be described, with the above observation that God loves to feed the hungry. Yet, by acknowledging that, I know more about God. In turn, I might even begin to imitate that quality of God. I’ve been with my wife three years this October, we’ve been married for a year and half next week, we’ve known each other five years, and across that time our mannerisms are working toward a singularity. We speak more similarly, respond to things more alike, and frustratingly finish each other’s sentences even as we are struggling to think of the words we want. To love something or someone, means to let them transform us, and for us to in some way transform them.
God loved us enough to take on flesh, and addition to the Spiritual body that had existed before. We now take on Spirituality, we work alongside God’s spirit to overcome the troubles of this world and our own sinfulness. Let us resemble God in all we can, but never forget God’s continual display of God’s seemingly favorite sign. We cannot call ourselves Christian if we are not seeking to end hunger in the world, because to feed the hungry is so dear to God’s heart. Let us commit ourselves everyday more and more, to seek the good of those around us, to actively sustain their lives through food and clean water and let us never stop seeking to know our Lord better. God has set the table for us, time and time again, will we set a spot next to us, so our siblings without may not only live, but thrive and rejoice in God? – Amen