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John 13:31-35

Lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin for “The law of prayer is the law of faith.”) is a motto in the Christian tradition that highlights the importance of liturgy. It reminds us that it is not just that theology shapes and informs modes of worship, but also that modes of worship both implicitly and explicitly communicate theology. One of the implications for the preacher is that each week she is providing answers to the universal question that surely resides in each of her hearers, “What is God like?”

The first course I was assigned to teach when I came to Olivet was the freshman-level general education theology course. I was told that the primary goal of the class was to teach the basics of the Christian faith in a way that would make sense to the average student. The first challenge to the “make sense” part was the Christology section—particularly the topic of the Incarnation.

It seems like not long ago we were celebrating the Incarnation—the news that God had come in the form of a human being. (And how do you begin to make sense of that?) I like how this 19th century poem by H.R. Bramley describes the Incarnation:

Oh, wonder of wonders, which none can unfold! The Ancient of Days is an hour or two old, The Maker of all things is made of the earth,  Man is worshipped by angels, and God comes to birth.

This poem speaks to the irony (absurdity?) of the Christian claim that God has come in the flesh. But we would be remiss to only reflect on the technical details of the Incarnation without pondering what it tells us about God’s nature and character. Advent is the perfect time to raise the question, “What is God like?” And I imagine that many preachers do just that.

Much like Advent, Eastertide provides ample fodder for ruminating on the nature and character of God. The most vivid image from this season is the Passion of Christ. That God himself died is yet another absurd claim of our Christian faith. In reflecting on this event while considering the question, “What is God like?” we are sure to be left speechless. Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Crucified God, speaks to the difficulty in comprehending the crucified God, “Even the disciples of Jesus all fled from their master’s cross. Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way.”[1] It’s a troubling scene, to be sure, but what great benefit there is to ponder anew each year the profundity of Christ’s death and the insight it gives us into the character of God.

Alas, we finally come to our Gospel text for Sunday. This text is no different than the Incarnation or Crucifixion in its capacity to communicate deep truth about God’s character. Because mining out the practical application points to Jesus’ actions in this narrative is an easy task, some may tend to only preach that message. As we know this is one of the most oft cited passages when people teach Jesus as the example of servant-leadership. We all need constant reminders of these lessons. And it would be by no means a mistake to go that route.

But what if we don’t rush to the practical application points? What if we don’t assume that people come to church just looking for practical ways to be more service-oriented? What if people, whether they know it or not, are still trying to understand the essentials of God’s character? Maybe we shouldn’t assume that those in our services arrive as settled on the question, “What is God like?” as we might think they are. So while this text lends itself to practical messages calling people to be servants (which are indeed appropriate) it is also a text that gives profound insight into God’s character.

What is God like?

He’s like one who humbles himself and takes on the responsibilities of a slave.

What is God like?

He’s like one for whom no act of service is below him.

What is God like?

He’s like one who humbly serves a friend, knowing that friend will betray him.

What is God like?

He’s like one who humbly serves a friend, knowing that friend will deny even knowing him.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Again, the practical is readily apparent. But what does Jesus’ words reveal about God’s character?

What is God like?

Like one who chooses to be revealed to the world through the love his followers have for one another.

That’s the easy answer to the question, but it’s only the beginning point of reflecting on much more profound truths about God. What does it say of God that he continually chooses to be revealed through the lives of his people? This is a worthy question to ponder on during Easter. 

What’s the point of all this?

Over the last four months I, perhaps like many others in the United States, have developed a strong(er) allergy to all things social media. It was during the election season (of eight years ago!) that I started to develop this allergy; and it has only become stronger since then. What I think so many fail to see is that their words and actions ultimately help answer for someone else the question, “What is God like?” The tumult of the last few years has inevitably led to many to ponder that question in fresh ways. It’s not that the question is new…it’s just in times of uncertainty the question seems to come to the fore. 

I believe that the context for this year’s Eastertide is an important part of that. Preachers should be aware and to help paint the picture afresh of the one who did not consider equality with God something to be taken for granted, but emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. The is what liturgy should do best. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi…​