A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 25, 2003.
Based on 1John 4:7-21, John 15:9-17 (6 Easter, Year B).
What does God look like? This question gets asked a lot at my house and I never have a very good answer. And once the question is asked it inevitably leads to a steady stream of more probing questions about God’s appearance. “How tall is God? Does God have a face? How big are God’s hands? Does God have really big shoes?” On and on they come, making me feel less and less adequate as a parent and as a priest. Because my answers can’t possibly be complete. Sometimes I turn the question around and ask, “what do you think God looks like?” Or I end up in the land of generalities stating that God is everywhere. Which is true but not exactly the most concrete of answers. I think this answer in particular, the one about God being everywhere, leads to the obsession with God’s size. If God is everywhere, the next logical question may well be to wonder about the immense size of God’s shoes.
The fact is, we don’t know what God looks like. We haven’t a clue. We’re told that we’re made in the image of God but that doesn’t help us too much. Is that literal or metaphorical? And getting into an existential debate with a four-year old is a road to nowhere. Believe me, I’ve tried.
But ultimately, does it matter what God looks like? For humans, seeing is often believing. And so, for many, that’s the end of the conversation. “If I can’t see something, I can’t believe in it. End of story.” To know what something or someone looks like is a way to gain control or power over that thing. If we can visualize something, than we can describe it with our own words. And if we can see it and name it, we somehow own it. But of course God is too great to be contained by human sight or language. So we can never fully see God or describe God in the totality that is God.
John’s first letter states the obvious but it’s worth repeating: “No one has ever seen God.” We don’t know what God looks like and this leaves our natural inclination to want to know or see God unfulfilled. And both children and adults remain frustrated by the elusive question, “What does God look like?”
When I was a little boy my family had a children’s Bible. I have no idea where it is at this point, I haven’t seen it in years. But I vividly remember the inside cover. It had an illustration of a brilliant, multi-colored star stretching over the entire length of the page. My parents, probably out of desperation or exasperation from the unceasing questions, suggested that maybe that was God. And the image has stuck with me throughout my life. Not as the definitive image of what God looks like but as one possibility. Somehow it beat thinking of George Burns.
As I’m faced with question after question about what God looks like, I find myself answering “yes” to most of these questions. Is God tall? Yes, and short too. Does God have big shoes? Yes, and small ones too. Because the fullness of God is the ultimate “yes.” If God is in everything, then God is both tall and short, big and small and every size in-between. God has a face and yet God does not have a face. God is a tree or a flower or a star and yet God is so much more than any of these.
John goes on to say that “if we love one another, God lives in us.” So through the love of God manifested by Jesus Christ, God looks like you and me as well. Not fully, not all the time, but the potential is there, so that when we gaze into the eyes of another person we see God.
In John’s gospel we hear the well known phrase, “God is love.” It’s a simple statement, a three word sentence. “God is love.” And maybe that’s what God looks like: love. It may be a smile towards a stranger, a mother holding a child, the sharing of tears with a loved one. Love comes in many forms and appears in many faces. And so does God.
For Christians, the most tangible face of God is, of course, Jesus himself. In the face of Jesus we see God. If God is love, Jesus personifies that love. His face is the very face of God because it is the very face of love.
But of course, this isn’t the most concrete answer for a child wanting to know if God is tall. So I keep saying “yes” to the onslaught of questions and I do what I can to be a loving father. For if God is love, then we see God by showing our love for others. We see the face of God in one another. Our faces can reflect the love that is God. You and I can look like God, if only occasionally, if only briefly, if only haltingly. But we have the ability to do this precisely because we are made in God’s image.
So when we base our lives upon the commandment Jesus gives us in John’s gospel, that is to love one another as he loved us, we become the faces of God, windows into the divine for one another. God is love and you and I have the capacity to live in that love and to share that love. And in so doing, we share God with one another. And we teach one another precisely what God looks like.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003