Who is God, really? Who are we, honestly? And what does God have to do with us? I realize our attention should now be on the third question in this series, but I wonder if we can really understand who God is or who we are without first being confronted by a God who persistently, demandingly and unwaveringly refuses to be God without us. To paraphrase Karl Barth, we may choose to live without God and humanity may prefer a godless existence (indeed, we often do), but God never chooses to live without us. Perhaps the central identity and characteristic of the triune God is this refusal to ever be without humanity.
For the Christian, there is no such thing as a humanity-less God, even when we talk about the infinitely mysterious God whom we cannot completely fathom or fully grasp. Even at the heart of the divine identity of that God who remains elusive, beyond us and greater than the sum of all our thoughts, is a divine choice, a divine will and a divine decision to never be separated from humanity (see Eberhard Jüngel, “God’s Being Is in Becoming”). All of who God is and all of who we are is shaped by that primal divine choice to never be God without us.
This primal love takes the divine life down some interesting paths and dark valleys. It unites the divine life with some wild and wooly human characters, and it liberates humanity from the rat race and fruitless quest that seduces us into thinking our chief end is to ascend from the corporeal world, out of the limitations of humanity, and “into the eternity of God,” according to Stephane H. Webb. This primal decision is at work in the call of Abram and the divine decision to work its purposes out in the youngest, least likely, unspectacular and seriously flawed. This uncontrollable and unpredictable primal love reaches fulfillment as it is actualized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in and through the community he forms and as it is brought to bear in our own life together through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
God goes to hell and back for us
I believe that the most theologically substantial, transformatively radical and joyously gospel part of the Apostles’ Creed is declared in these four words: “He descended into hell.” In sum, that is the answer to the question of what God has to do with us. Certainly the fact that God suffers, was crucified, dead and buried, should also be a central and crucial part of the Christian gospel, but the addition of “he descended into hell” means that the reconciliation of the world accomplished on the cross extends much further than we could ever reckon, and much farther than we could ever see or fathom.
To say Christ descended into hell is to say that Christ descended into the farthest distance away from God, that Christ descended into all that is not God and into all that seeks to negate God. Christ descends right into the thick of it all and endures such a state of godforsakenness and the infinite distance from God and takes such annihilation and despair and godforsakeness into himself so that we are free from ever having to be imprisoned in such a state, and we are free from ever having to endure such a state on our own. Jesus’ descent into hell does not negate hell or protect us from hellish experiences, but I believe Jesus’ descent into hell means that such a state is taken up into the life of God, emptied of its power and claims, and the God who has to do with us renders hell provisional, so that there is no place we can go and nothing we can experience and no depth we can fall where God has not been; there is no place where God is absent. The psalmist is exactly right: “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).
Jesus Christ has gone the infinite distance from God in order to ensure that there is no God without humanity, ever, no matter how far we fall, no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from such love, no matter whatever provisional hells may befall us or that we may experience. Even there, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit will find us, surround us and will not let us go. In hell and everywhere in between, Jesus is Lord.
For those wondering whether such theological claims risk abstraction and lack practical import, perhaps there can be correspondences and analogies of such a way of life in the church’s life together and in our own common witness. As the church walks into the loneliness of an antiseptic hospital room where a frail little life is trying to battle the demonic advance of cancer, I wonder about the simple act of walking into such places and offering ourselves to another with no miracle cure and no perfect prayer, but simple solidarity in what seems like utter hopelessness. I wonder if such ecclesial acts are not a small facsimile of Christ’s descent into hell.
Then there is the couple who have been married nearly 60 years who make their way down to receive communion even though the wife is in advanced stages of dementia and has long forgotten my name. Yet I wonder if it is a comfort to them to know that Christ descended into hell and that he can transcend every boundary that separates us from each other and that Christ can enter into places where we think the limits of language, memory and gray matter threaten to separate us forever. Yes, because Christ has descended into hell, we are being made part of a community that does not believe such separation is possible. Because Christ has descended into hell, even those suffering with the hell of dementia are given the same value and worth as every child of God who comes to receive their humanity in Christ in broken bread and wine shared. We may choose to live without God, we may for all intents and purposes seem to be separated from God, but God never chooses to live or to be without us.
God’s descent sends us into the darkness
What we believe about God is not important for its own sake or so we can adhere to a certain set of principles or beliefs. What we believe shapes how we live. So to confess together that Christ descended into hell means, among other things, that we better be prepared to enter into the dark places of our lives, others’ lives and the dark places of the world to proclaim and embody this good news. The news of the world may not dictate that; it usually doesn’t. Everything at times may feel and seem and be headed to “hell in a handbasket,” but even in the midst of such circumstances, the Christian community does not wall itself off from such hells or absolve itself of the responsibility of such hells or ignore the unpleasantness of such hells. Rather, the church exists to live in the midst of such hells, unafraid to walk into them and to do what we can to mitigate the provisional damage of hell’s death pangs. After all, we know that God refuses to allow such states any independent existence and eternal claims on us. Even in hell, Jesus is Lord.
Our problem is that we do not really prefer to see God or the church in such circumstances. We associate God with touchdowns and conventional definitions of success and right-handed power and triumph. In contrast, the God who has to do with us in Jesus Christ is “pleased to be present but unseen. [God] is that humble,” wrote Jason Byassee. The God who has to do with us is unafraid to become something small, and unafraid to be found with the lowly, the alien, even our own enemies.
God is also unafraid to inhabit the particular ecclesial communities who dare to believe that God frequently shows up in Word and sacrament, font and table, and even through the human attempt to declare the gospel of God’s redemption of the world. Much American religiosity has decided that the Christian community is ancillary to what truly matters, whether that be cultivating our personal relationship with Jesus, viewing the church as simply a means to achieving the greater ends of social justice, or that the point of Christian community is to become an assembly of the like-minded in terms of ideology, politics and what makes our country great. Whatever else is happening in the America of 2020 culturally, there is no doubt that many of our Christian communities believe that the core of their mission is political, meaning that they understand that the purpose and end of their ecclesial community is to make America great again or to make America more socially just again or to join the revolution or to equate God with where the action is.
In contrast, could it be that the church of Jesus Christ is a community that believes it is first and foremost found in the faces and lives of the people? Doctors, teachers, retirees, nurses, coaches, PTA moms, executives, minimum wage earners, the working poor and all the people Jesus gathers to his table, whose very assembly together is a testimony that their only hope and security and comfort in life will not be found in “any social, political, and economic order, however noble, but in God.” In the words of Reformed teacher and theologian John Leith: “The political, economic, and social orders come and go. On the one hand they represent remarkable achievements of human wisdom, human goodness, and the freedom of the human spirit, but on the other hand their achievements are fragile, limited by time and space and human energy and corrupted by human sin” (see his book “The Reformed Imperative”).
In ways that are sometimes hard to concretely describe, the church is turned differently. Before signing up for the revolution or the latest political movement, God has to do with us by showing up in gospel and sacrament and cobbling a community together where strange things happen in the church’s life. Such a church transcends the social, political and economic order, but it also works below such categories at the local level turning our gaze and our mission to the neighbor and stranger in need of our love, helping us work to knock down barriers in our world and in society that prevent our neighbor from fully flourishing. It inspires us to invest our resources in ways that will enable our neighbor not just to be warehoused or given temporary food or shelter, but to be offered on-ramps and opportunities to flourish as the unique child of God he or she is in Jesus Christ.
God becomes small for our sake
What does God have to do with us? God invites us into the intimacy of God’s deity by risking God’s power, grandeur and dignity. God has something to do with us by becoming something small, hidden and insignificant, by forming community out of water and table, by refusing to choose us without each other, by descending into hell and by forming communities of disciples that seek to transcend and subvert the conventional social, economic and political order. However much we might wish that God would have come as a different kind of deity to bless our particular country through a chosen political savior, to topple the social, political and economic order through a political revolution, or however much we settle for a god of a private personal spiritual relationship or a god who only views the Christian community as a means to more practical, powerful and concrete political ends, these are not the preferred means of God’s grace no matter how hard we try to shoehorn them in there.
The God who has something to do with us may feel like a disappointment. The community God seeks to form will at times feel inconsequential, unimpressive, irrelevant and feeble in light of more short-term fashionable movements. But what sustains the church’s life is not a gospel of fear or anxiety or self-preservation. Confident of the myriad ways God has to do with us and is forming us in Jesus Christ, we live forward joyfully, bravely and boldly. We seek to improve our world and work that all may flourish. We trust that while there at times may be godless humanity, the living God never ever chooses to be without us. Ever.