Professor Tom Wright was for seven years chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. Every year he spent a few minutes individually with first-year undergraduates to welcome them to the College and make a start on getting to know them. Generally he found that the students were happy to meet him, but many also commented along the lines of: “You won’t be seeing much of me because I don’t believe in God”.
After a time he developed a stock response: “That’s interesting; which god is it that you don’t believe in?” This produced surprise. Most assumed that the word “God” had only one meaning and everybody knew and agreed what that was. Challenged to answer Tom’s question, they fished around for some ideas: God was somebody who lived in the sky, who disapproved of what went on in the world, who occasionally intervened with a miracle or two and finally sent bad people to hell and let the good ones into heaven.
Wright describes this as “spy-in-the-sky” theology. Again, he developed a stock response: “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. Neither do I”.
This too produced surprise, and then a kind of dawning recognition which Tom soon discovered related to the widespread rumour current among students that half the Oxford College chaplains were atheists. “No”, he would say, “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth”.
I’ve already suggested in a previous post that Islam and the Qur’an present a very different picture of God to that offered by Christianity and the Bible, which affirm that the true God is fully and finally revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
What picture of God do we get from looking at Jesus? The Gospel of John sums up what was special and different about him:
Two key words: grace and truth. John doesn’t immediately explain what he means – his explanation takes the form of narrative: the things that Jesus said and did.
Take the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well in Sychar. He is tired from his journey, the disciples have gone into the town to buy food and he is resting while they’re away. In the heat of the day (when sensible people are at home) along comes a woman to draw water from the well. He engages her in conversation, asking for a drink. This is not normal behaviour: Jews don’t talk to Samaritans (let alone offer to share food or drink with them) and single men don’t talk to lone women. She is intrigued. The conversation develops into a discussion about a different kind of water, one that satisfies deeply and permanently.
Jesus then asks her to call her husband. She says she doesn’t have a husband. He responds that this is quite correct – she has had five husbands and her current man is not her husband. He takes care to affirm her truthfulness. She says that he is clearly a prophet (prophets discern the secrets of people’s hearts) and launches into a discussion about the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans. She looks forward to the coming of the Messiah because, when he comes, he will explain everything. Jesus says: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you”. She then goes and tells everybody in the town about him, and many of them come to believe in him. The account ends with their declaration that Jesus is truly “the Saviour of the world”.
This is grace and truth in action.
- By making friends with this woman, Jesus ignores the traditional boundaries between people who reckon they’re religious and those who don’t, between good and bad people, between the worthy and the unworthy. That is grace.
- Jesus doesn’t condemn her for her mixed-up love life, but he brings it out into the open. Now she knows that he knows the worst about her, and still he is for her. Her picture of God is being radically re-arranged. This is grace combined with truth.
- Jesus treats her with kindness and respect; he is careful to affirm her truthfulness. He is ready to see the best in her, not merely her sins. This is grace and truth.
- By coming to draw water at midday the woman was presumably avoiding contact with other people who would at least be very wary of her and quite likely treat her with contempt. Jesus transforms her position in society from outcast to evangelist. She becomes the one who reveals the presence of the Messiah among them. Like John who wrote the Gospel, she experiences “grace upon grace” and becomes a messenger of truth.
John who wrote the Gospel also wrote three letters found in the New Testament. One of these is the source of the famous statement that “God is love”. “Grace and truth” is a definition of love – a way of unpacking love to reveals its essential components. Grace reaches out to us in the mess we make. Truth exposes the truth of our lives so that we can be forgiven and set free. Truth enables us to see not only who we are but also who Jesus is. In that way we can come to know him and the Father he reveals.
This is a long way from “spy-in-the-sky” theology. The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t stand at a distance and condemn; he comes close and restores – if we let him.
More on grace and truth to follow.