Background Passages: John 10:30-34; John 14:1-11
Given our difficulty as Christians in handling some of the social issues of the day, it seems we have a hard time understanding the true character and nature of God. We make attempts to classify him by putting God in a box of our own creation. We define him on our terms and, too often, in our image. If we need God to be anti-immigrant, we find a way to make him so. If we need God to take a stance on health care for the poor, we make it for him. If we need God to smite a specific nation, we find a way to justify the smiting.
It has been that way since the beginning. Mankind has always sought to define God. It’s why the ancients worshipped idols. Why they invented a god for every act of nature. Throughout history mankind has defined God within the limits of his understanding. God knew it would happen when he created us, knowing one day he would reveal himself to his creation in a special way.
I remember my third grade teacher, Ms. Wallace, reading a specific poem in class. It made me laugh. John Godfrey Saxe, a 19th century American satirist and poet, penned his poem The Blind Men and the Elephant in 1874, his take on an old Hindu story. Though entertaining, I did not find it particularly provocative until it was read again in my university philosophy class. The poem, as interpreted by a number of West Texas philosophers, became emblematic of the search for moral truth and necessity of religious tolerance.
I stumbled across the poem again this week in my study. Allow me to set aside the extended philosophical and theological debate with apologies to the original Hindu storyteller and to Saxe.
The poem, based on an old Hindu text, tells the story of six blind men who had never encountered an elephant. When given the chance to get up close and personal with the massive beast, they each touched a different part of the animal. One the elephant’s side. Another its tail. One its trunk. Another its ear. And, so on. When asked, then, to describe the elephant, each responded within his only frame of reference. Why, certainly, the elephant was like a wall…a rope…a snake…a fan…
Take a look at the last two stanzas.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong.
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate on about the Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Work with me here and forgive the metaphor. God wants a relationship with us. He wants us to know him. We were unable to fully grasp his character and nature as long as God stayed in his heaven. So, he became the elephant in the room, introducing himself to the world through his son Jesus Christ. He sent his son into the world to walk among us, to reveal the nature and character to God to us in the words he spoke and the ministry he performed.
Still we struggled to understand. As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death on the cross and the inevitable time when they would carrying on his work without his physical presence among them, the disciples had a hard time putting Jesus and God together.
Jesus offered comfort amid their confusion. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” He told them he would prepare a place for them in his father’s house and that they knew how to get there. Thomas, ever confused, confessed his lack of understanding. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life…If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” In the haze of uncertainty, Phillip asked Jesus to “show us the father. That will be enough.”
Jesus’ sad response to Phillip explains to us how we can begin to know the character and nature of God. “Phillip,” Jesus said, “don’t you know me, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and he is in me or at least believe in the evidence of the works themselves.”
So if we have trouble understanding the character and nature of God, we need look no further than the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our understanding of him, grows the more we touch him. The more we experience him. So, like the blind men with the elephant, if we limit our experiences with Christ we will never know all we can about who he is…who God is.
You see, God is not passive and silent, forcing us to guess about his nature and what he expects of us. He tells us what he likes and what he expects. God, in Jesus Christ, gave us a standard by which to measure our actions and our thoughts.
We don’t have to grope in the darkness to understand God from a limited perspective. Our understanding comes through the direct revelation of God through Jesus Christ. No other religion makes a similar claim. Jesus declared it clearly and succinctly. “I and my Father are one.” He declared to his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
How much more would we learn of God if, unlike the blind men, we didn’t stop with that first touch? God calls us to look beyond the nail-scared hands, as important as that experience might be. Watch, listen, and learn from the one God sent into the world to show us how to live.