A Sermon Delivered by D. ELTON TRUEBLOOD, ca. 1954, place unknown.
Butler, G. Paul, ed. Best Sermons, 1955 Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1955, pages 18-30.
This is the Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, Part 4: the 20th Century.
Who is God?
A great part of the effort we put forth to prove the existence of God is wasted, and it is wasted because so many people in the world already believe, in some sense, that God is. There are very few real atheists. The vast majority are believers; they admit that our physical world is not self-explanatory--that it requires something behind it and beyond it to make sense of it--that it could not have come into being of itself. Such a belief is very nearly universal. The difficulty is not in the question whether God is; the difficulty lies in the question what God is or who God is. The problem of the character of God is a much more practical question, certainly in the eyes of students, than the question of the existence of God. We begin our series on this practical question because so many people use the word "God" but mean almost nothing by it. They believe, but their belief is often confused and practically meaningless.
How are we going to know the character of God? The answer is that we cannot know beyond a doubt, but we do have two wonderful ways. One is the way of experience, and this is open to every man and woman. We come to know him not only in what someone else says, but also by what we learn firsthand. Let us say you do not have this experience, that it still seems beyond you. What then? There is another way. The world has had a succession of men and women of wonderful sensitivity and power, those who have given themselves more thoroughly, more logically, and more seriously to the search for the knowledge of God, and these it is reasonable to trust. It is reasonable to trust a well-trained physician in medicine; it is reasonable to trust a disciplined scientist in the laboratory. Individuals become trustworthy because of the quality of their experience and the discipline of their lives. You trust a doctor, not by blind faith, but because he is a disciplined man in a particular field. We have a great succession of men and women in the field of the knowledge of God. These are the ones we have reason to trust, because they are working at the job. They are often simple in the eyes of the world, but also very deep in experience. Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah are members of a fellowship of verification. Think of the others who have carried on the procession--Saint Francis, Pascal, John Woolman, and so many, many more.
There is no more rationality in trusting the irreligious in religion than there is in trusting the unscientific in science. As we pay attention to the religious experience of disciplined men, from Abraham to Gandhi, we are conscious of a progressive revelation. The change is not in God--the change is in the ability of men to receive. We become more sensitive to what is to be seen all along. Many things are hidden which later become revealed but which were there all the time. Brahms's great Requiem was just as wonderful before any contemporary student learned to appreciate it. Insight comes with growth of power to hear and to see. Now, if we take seriously this lesson of trusting those who give us reason to trust them, we come to something very definite about the nature of God. I think it would be helpful if I should put this in five words. These five words make a cumulative series.
The first is that when we speak of God, we mean something real--not just an idea in our minds. There are some people who confuse the idea of God with God. The idea is ours; it changes; it could be wrong; it often is wrong. God is the one who was before we had the idea and without whom the idea would never have been. "We would not be seeking Him," suggested Pascal, "if we had not already found Him." The idea is ours, but God is not ours. He is. Therefore, we must oppose all suggestions that God is just an idea.
After we have said God is real, we must go on to be more specific. We may say, for our second word, that God is concrete, not something abstract. There are many people who suppose that God is merely an abstraction. This has always been a theory, but the great prophets knew better. Goodness is an abstraction. There is no such thing as goodness apart from good people. In science, law is ah abstraction. It does not exist except as it is demonstrated. God, then, is not a principle. God is not only a reality, he is a concrete reality. We know, in ordinary life, two and only two concrete realities. One is the reality of things, like this building. This building is a thing. We do not doubt the existence of things. The other is the finite person--ourselves--others. Faith is the conviction that there is a third concrete reality--God. This gives us two words. God is real. God is concrete. Reality is opposed to fiction; concreteness is opposed to abstraction.
The third word is "transcendent." There is always the temptation to believe that what we mean by God is simply the order of nature around us, or the beauty of the trees, or even the spirit in man. No doubt these are; no doubt they exist; but if this is all that God is, then God will be no more when this world is gone. We can be reasonably sure that this world will someday disappear. The running down of the universe is a high probability. The day will come when this planet will be cold and dead. If God is merely immanent in the order of nature, then God is temporary. The great conviction of the prophets and of Christ is then exactly contrary to all this. God transcends the world; he made it; his is the creative mind beyond it, without which it would not have been. This world might be destroyed in our lifetime; it is not unreasonable to envisage destruction of cosmic proportions, but if God is transcendent, he could create another world order. The one conviction which best explains our material world is that it is the result of infinite mind. Matter cannot create, but mind can. We know that mind is the most creative thing in all the world. This building is an illustration. A number of people sat on a committee for about a year, dreaming of this beautiful building in every detail. It was in mind before it was in fact. Mind does create, and this is true even of poor frail minds like ours. It is reasonable, accordingly, that could be created and re-created by the mind of God. Whatever God is, he is more than we think or can think. He is not to be by measured by our minds.
The fourth word is "personal." The growing conception of all the has been that God is "personal" in the sense that he knows. If we are thoughtful, we are really forced to this conclusion, because if God does not know, then God is inferior to us. If Charles and Edward know me and God does not know, then God is, in a sense, inferior Charles and Edward. So we have the great words of the psalmist, "He knows my downsitting and my uprising; he knows my thoughts off." Then there is the beautiful prayer: "O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid." In the recent past it has been fashionable to think of God as impersonal, but this has been the result of superficial thinking. us ought to be far enough along to know that personal does not physical. The awareness and understanding is what we affirm we say that God is truly personal. This in itself would be but it is not the end of our series.
The last word is "caring." He is real, concrete, transcendent, personal, and he cares. "Like as a father pitieth his children so the pitieth them that fear him." Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground your Father's will." The almost inconceivably great conviction is this--that at the heart of the world is the real Person who knows of us perfectly and who actually cares for everyone of us. Does seem difficult to comprehend or to accept? If so, note that the persons you have ever known are those who have had the capacity to know many persons and care for them individually. God is the infinite Person and therefore can include concern for you.
Each of us has a holy calling, a vocation. This may be the exciting idea in the human mind. It can make us bear up anything, because, if God really cares, there is nothing that be turned into victory by his grace. This is what I believe, and believe so firmly that I am willing to stake my life upon it. If has a plan for me, I must try to find it. This makes religion a experience; it makes men shout and sing. On this basis lives become exciting, full of wonder, full of adventure, because we not work alone. I do not believe that we work alone. In every there is a God-shaped void, and this void aches until it is filled.
Who Is Jesus Christ?
By any standard of judgment, Jesus Christ is the most person who ever lived on this earth. Everyone who dates a "1954" is thereby saying that Christ's life divides all history. is true in Russia, in China, and in India as well as the Western The question "Who is Jesus Christ?" is not merely an question; it is a question on which men's lives divide, because body can be the same after he has met Jesus Christ.
There are many students who are deeply perplexed about this question. We can see who God is; we can see that this world had origin; but why Jesus? Is he needed? What is the relationship God and Christ? There are those who say he was just a good man; there are those who say "my Lord and my God"; there are those hate him, because he disturbs their lives. Who was he? Who is he?
This is a question Christ himself asked and which he answered in a most striking way. On one occasion, we read in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus turned to his disciples, asking, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" Then, making it more pointed, he asked, "Who do you say that I am?" Then, as a great surprise, Simon answered, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." This answer, said Jesus, was the rock on which he would build his church. He added that the powers of death would not prevail against it.
The faith of Christendom is that, at one point in history, God broke directly into this world. What is asserted is that he did not leave us alone with our perplexities, our feeble restlessness, our confusion, but in the midst of world history, in the fullness of time, broke in to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the Apostles' Creed there are about two lines devoted to God the Father; a similar amount is devoted to life everlasting, but there are many lines devoted to Christ. It is affirmed that he was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, arose again from the dead and sitteth at the right hand of God. The faith thus centers in what occurred. There are religions in the world concerned chiefly with ideas, but Christianity is not one of them; it is more concerned with events. It is more interested in verbs than in nouns. It tells what occurred at a specific time in history, which we can date. This is why we say that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate. Pilate lived in our history.
The question of who Christ is, is one which we cannot avoid. Some questions are not very important. For example, it is not important to us now whether there is atmosphere on the moon. Likewise, it is not very important to us now whether there is life on Mars, for this does not change our lives. But the question Christ asks, "Who do you say that I am?" is important. We are forced to answer it one way or another. The question is a dividing line. "He who is not for me is against me."
If we try to use all the honesty we have, there are four words, beginning with the most general and going to the most specific, which can help us. Each of these words is important, but it is especially important to have them come in a particular order. They constitute a series; they move from that about which we all agree to that about which not all will agree, but in which the claim is very much more significant.
The first of these words is "Teacher." All will agree that Christ was a teacher. They called him Lord and Master. He did teach. He taught about the character of God; he taught about the nature and the difficulties and potential glory of man; he taught about our duties; he taught us about loving our enemies; he said that we must be concerned about our neighbors; he taught that we' must love one another. All this is wonderful teaching; the words are golden words, and for them we should be forever grateful. Thus everybody can agree with the first word. But if we should end here, if Jesus was only a teacher, the strong likelihood is that we could never have heard of him. There have been many teachers. Much of Christ's teaching was not even original. He was not the first to proclaim the golden rule. Long before his day it had been said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." As a teacher he lacked the immense advantage of association with brilliant and gifted disciples, such as those who glorified the name of Socrates. If Christ had been a teacher and no more, we should not be here this morning. In that event, there would have been no church; there would have been no New Testament. All that Christ had as followers were a few undistinguished men and a few women. He had no Plato to write his conversation, no prestige, no political power. We are convinced, therefore, that he was a teacher--but he was more.
This gives us our second word--"Revealer." The general expression of the prophets is that God is One who reveals himself. He thereby is to be found in the order of nature, in the beauty about us, and in the moral law. He is seeking us, even when we are not seeking him. If he is seeking to reveal himself, we are not left helpless and alone. But the complete revelation of God could not come in nature; nature could not be sufficient, because God is One who really cares. The only way in which a God who cares could be adequately revealed would be in a person. Here would be something more important than the stars in their courses. What Christ says is that he is the Revealer of the Father, and according to the fourteenth chapter of John, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." This is a tremendous claim, and it is verified by the judgment of generations of men and women as they have known him.
Last week we tried to show something of who God is. But at best the idea of God seems hazy, far away, remote and obscure, while Christ seems near. Jesus gives God a face, something that is within our poor grasp. Consequently, we can understand Jesus a great deal better than we can understand God. Jesus suffered as we suffer; he was tempted as we are tempted. Of course, we do not know how Jesus looked physically. All pictures of him are imaginary. That is not, however, the important matter. God did not leave us to our own devices, but actually sent One who could reveal him perfectly so that we might know his character at first hand.
He is both Teacher and Revealer, but we need not end there, because these terms take us only part of the way. The third Word is "Redeemer." This is a strange word, but it has a meaning for a great many. We are sinners--indeed we sin every day. If we do not sin in the flesh, we sin in the spirit, which is far worse. We can find something to redeem us, and the proof of this is to be found in the verification of men and women, poor creatures like ourselves, who have been brought to Christ and left there and have become new people--not merely intellectually, but in practical life. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." We may freely admit that we do not have the slightest idea how this has occurred. There have been many efforts to explain the atonement, but not one of them satisfactory. We do not know that much about God. We are like the man who met Christ and said, "Whereas I was blind, now I see." The record of experience is much more important than the speculations of the human mind. We need a Redeemer; he said he would redeem us; he does redeem us.
The fourth word goes much farther--Living Lord. For anyone who has seriously read the New Testament, with its recurrent reference to the Resurrection, the conviction that Christ triumphed over death is practically inescapable. If you wish to do so, you can think of Jesus as just a good man, but if you are going to throw out the references to the Resurrection, you will have to discard a great part of the New Testament. It was through the power of the Resurrection that the message came. The Lord that the early Christians preached was One who had risen from the dead. We cannot know how this event occurred, but it is hard to evade the fact. Consider the evidence. Here was a group of men and women who faced the Crucifixion. Their leader was crucified. They were such cowards that some did not admit even that they knew him. Then they drifted back to their work. Not one of them has as good an education as anyone in this room. Within a few days an amazing thing happened. These poor men became bold as lions. They rallied; fellowship was renewed; their old lives were changed; their power was strengthened; they met persecution and death; some were crucified. They were shipwrecked; they were imprisoned; but they went on. They went on to overcome the moral sag of the ancient world. What was the reason? They said the reason was that their Lord was no longer dead. Their hearts burned within them; he walked with them; he came back to them. If this was all delusion, what a strange delusion that could change the world that much! Have you ever heard of any delusion that had the same effect?
He is nat only Teacher; he is not only Revealer; he is not only Redeemer; he is Living Lord. He is the One who can reach us right here as much as he reached those who walked with him in Galilee. In the words of George Fox, "Christ has come to teach His people Himself." Christ not merely was, but is. This is the basic faith of those who believe in Christ everywhere. So, in spite of our failures and divisions, this is what unites.
Remember, as you go from this place, that each can begin at the point valid for him. It may be that some cannot take all four words, but can take three. Some may be able to take only two. If you cannot take two, take one. Begin where you are, and see where that takes you. He comes to us as he came to those at the seaside, and his words to us, as to them, are, "Follow thou me." If we try to follow him, it may be that, in the struggles of our own lives, we may learn who he is.
What Is Life Everlasting?
Among the few facts in the world of which we are relatively certain, one is the fact that we shall all die. We may not think of this as very important for ourselves, but there is no person who cannot think of it as important for those whom he loves. When, in all generations, there has been raised the pointed query: "If a man dies, shall he live again?" the chief concern has seldom been for the questioner's own destiny; it is nearly always for somebody else. I find that one of the most sobering thoughts that comes to me is that all that I hold most dear I hold by a very slender thread. As I have sat here this morning, thinking of all the families represented in this company, I realize that it is almost certain that tragedy will come, before the end of this year, to some of us now present.
The question whether this life is all or whether it is a mere beginning of an eternal life, in which our decisions here have permanent and abiding consequences, is as deep and practical a question as can enter the human mind. The answer is bound to make a tremendous difference. If we live a physical life, die and are buried, and that is all--that is one thing. But if, by God's grace, we are creatures for whom this is the merest beginning, the first tiny chapter, then that is something else instead. Apparently, one or the other is tree, and our failure to recognize it does not change this fact.
The deepest reasons for believing that there is life after death are three. The first is the conviction that God really is and that all the world is in his care. The perfect expression of this inference is to be found in the words of Jesus when he said, "There are many rooms in my Father's house." The conviction is that our present life is only one room, so that when we go out from it, we are still in the Father's house. The point of these words, found at the beginning of the fourteenth chapter of Saint John's gospel, is simply this: that if this is God's world, and if we are truly his children, we can be sure that nothing will ever take us from his love and care. Whittier put it perfectly in poetry when he said,
I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise,
I only know that life and death His mercy underlies.
The belief in the life to come is derivative; it is not something that stands alone; it is a corollary of faith in God. Without faith in God it would be almost wholly groundless.
The second basis of evidence carries this consideration farther, in a rigorously intelligent fashion, that can appeal only to those who are concerned with really serious thought. The point here is that all around us we see evidence of the problem of evil, i.e., justice is not done. Th~ wicked often flourish like the green bay tree, whereas some of the most unselfish suffer horribly. All of us have seen a good mother suffer from cancer or some other dread disease, and we know it is not just. There is no equivalence between what such persons deserve and what they get. Think of the boys still in Siberian prison camps who were not set free when the other prisoners were set free. Are they more wicked than those of us who are living in the peace, joy, and freedom of this place? Of course they are not. What about those burned in the ovens of Dachau? Were they more sinful than ourselves? It is almost blasphemy even to suggest it. They were not! We know that our good fortune is not the result of our own righteousness.
If this is God's world, if this is a world in which justice is central to the whole meaning of things, if, in short, there is a moral order, then there is necessarily a future life, because the moral order is frustrated in this life. If you are thinking strictly, you have to believe one of two things: either the moral order is defeated, or there is a future life in which the injustices of this life can be balanced.
The third reason is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pointed out, in the second of this series, that the evidence for the Resurrection is tremendous. If you do not believe in the Resurrection, how are you going to account for the change in the lives of those few cowardly, illiterate, and vacillating disciples? They did change; they became new men; and they said they changed because he had walked with them by the way, that he was still with them, that he was risen. If Christ can rise, so can we who, by God's grace, can partake of his nature. There are always those who say, "But this is impossible; this is incredible." What we call life seems to be tied up with these little bodies of ours, with this protoplasm, with this flesh and this blood. If it goes back to dust, as it does, many feel that it is incredible that there should be any continuation of life, mind, or consciousness. But why should it be incredible? Is resurrection really any more surprising than a thousand other things we know very well and see every day? Alfred North Whitehead, who is generally accounted the wisest man of our generation, once said, "All things in nature are equally incredible." Is it not incredible that a flower can grow out of a dunghill? Is it not incredible that out of wires made of steel, and from vocal chords of human bodies, we can hear the beautiful rendition of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"? The means seems inadequate to the result. Is not the birth of a baby truly incredible? A new person, ready for all the hopes, joys, fears, and pains, a person who never lived before, is born as the result df a physical act wholly disproportionate to the spiritual event. In all its parts, ours is an incredible world. Therefore, it is unreasonable to reject the life everlasting on the ground that it is incredible. If this is God's world, everything is possible. Ours is an open universe.
We do not know very much about the future life. Since this information has been hidden from ns, we cannot describe it with confidence. We do, however, have some hints, which come from the combination of the insights of those whom we have most reason to trust-particularly Jesus Christ himself. This is a subject on which he often spoke, and if we take all the answers he gave, we can put them together. As in the two previous addresses, we may establish a few words which constitute a series.
The first word is "individual." There is much reason to believe that, in the life to come, each person will still be a separate individual, conscious of himself, conscious of others, conscious of God. There is always a tendency, in certain parts of the world, to suppose that the life everlasting means simply that our little lives are drops which go back into the ocean and are lost. We should continue only as indistinguishable parts of the whole. This we can say is completely antagonistic to the Judaeo-Christian faith. What Christianity teaches is that the one object of supreme value in the world is the individual. The individual person can be a part of the whole, but in the doing he does not lose his individuality. In the long years until now, the world has been building up and up toward the creation of individuals. The supreme outcome is persons who can know, who can praise God, who can sin, but who can be forgiven for their sins. In many of the great works of art, like Chartres Cathedral, the sculptured figures have their own individuality, NO two are identical and yet all share in producing the total beauty of the building. This is what the New Testament teaches about ourselves--that we are individuals and will continue to be individuals, even after the death of our bodies, even though we are members of one body.
This is the deep meaning of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. These are physical bodies. They will go back to dust. But the New Testament says that spiritual bodies will be substituted for our dying physical bodies. It is a little hard to know, at first, what is meant by a spiritual body, but we soon realize that it is a carrier of individuality. In this life it is by our bodies that we are most easily differentiated from one another. One has a special walk, another a special look. This is how we love to remember the people we know best. What the New Testament is saying is that we have, by God's grace, a means by which we can be known in the life to come. "This mortal must put on immortality...O, death, where is thy sting?" Here lies the biggest single difference between the Christian and the Greek views of immortality, the Christian view undoubtedly representing an advance over the Greek.
The second word is "continuous." What is meant is that there is bound to be some continuity between our future destiny and our present decisions. This is always symbolized by the words "heaven" and "hell." Everyone who is not a child knows that heaven and hell represent, not places, but conditions. Do not set up a childish view of heaven and hell in order to demolish this view; that is too easy and is not worthy of a mature person. Hell means separation from God; heaven means fellowship with God. In the modern world it has become fashionable to say that heaven and hell are simply what we have here and now, and that God will forgive us easily in the future. What we ought to say is that Jesus gives no support to this kind of sentimentality. "Narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be that find it. Broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there are who go in thereat." We have been told in our day never to fear, but we are not told this by Jesus. What he said was: "Fear not them that kill the body and after that have no more that they can do, but fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." The belief in the future life is not, therefore, a sentimental evasion of the reasonable expectation of enduring consequences. Truly we may believe in forgiveness, but redemption may come after long pain and struggle.
The third word is "progressive." There are some who suppose that the condition throughout eternity is that which comes at the end of our life, but this is not the final teaching of the New Testament. "Brethren we are the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be." Here is the possibility of eternal growth, movement, progress, advancement, change, in which God, by many means, brings our lives closer to him. Heaven is thus pictured not as a condition of stagnation, but of freedom and growth. The freedom of enjoyment is based on the enjoyment of freedom. The picture we have in the eighth chapter of Romans is that of a continuation of freedom, in which we may go on and on and in which we are not limited to whatever little advances we may have made by the time we leave this present life.
The fourth word is "loving fellowship." All of us know that the greatest joys in this life are the joys of real love. Sometimes we break through the animosities of this world into genuine tenderness, in which we care for one another, and then we have some idea of the meaning of a beloved community. This is the most valuable thing we know and the end of all our striving. Such a way of life would never be dull. If the life of the world to come is an increasing growth of the beloved society, then all our pain is justified. This is that for which all else is a means.
The day will come when my physical body will be dead. I tell you what I should like to have you do. I should like for my physical body to be disposed of quickly and simply and then for my friends to come together in a room like this, to praise God and to rejoice. I hope there will not be a single tear. Is this not what you ask for yourself? Is this not what you would like when death comes to those whom you love most? The Christian way of facing the end is not the way of sorrow.
Older than the Apostles' Creed, older than the Nicene Creed, is perhaps the most profound
conviction in the whole of our faith. And this is it. "I am persuaded that neither death nor life can
separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord." Of this I am persuaded, and by this I