Brought Together By the Word

By: Maggie Leonard

A couple months ago, I sat in a lunch with other Presbyterian pastors from the central Atlanta region.  As we shared glimpses of our lives with one another, Lindsey Armstrong, one of the pastors of First Presbyterian IMG_3879Church Atlanta, relayed to the group her excitement about starting up a new Wednesday morning Bible study on the book of Hebrews.  She had hoped for 20 participants and wound up with eighty!  As it turns out, Hebrews is a challenging book and she had come across surprisingly few resources to help prepare for the study sessions.  We all nodded, passed on our sympathies for so few resources, and promised to be in touch if we came across anything.

As I got in my car, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet the few resources she has found are from a culturally homogeneous group of academics. We do really good interpretation at Mercy, in fact, our folks are incredible at biblical interpretation—especially the hard stuff.  We are also really good at connecting Bible stories concretely to our lives… maybe First Pres would be interested in hearing the street perspective of Hebrews in addition to doing their own wrestling with the Scriptures…”

It turned out that they were!

For the past couple months, once a week we have been working our way through Hebrews and sharing videos, podcasts, or handouts that summarize key points of our discussion with our friends at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta.  They have gifted us by hearing our voices and we have gifted them with our reflections.  It has been a truly empowering, engaging, and energizing experience for us.  We as a community, teachers and participants both, have been challenged by this Scripture, but ultimately we have grown a great deal in the struggle, and it’s not over yet!

Hebrews is written more like a sermon than a letter.  The author of this sermon desperately tries to explain Jesus’ significance to his audience; much of his cultural explanations are a bit beyond us.  Frequently as we read a passage, we remind one another not to forget the forest for the trees.  While it may be easy to get caught up in the language of angels, high priests, and blood sacrifices, ultimately this book points to God’s grace.

So far, my favorite quote in this book, as folks from Mercy now well know because I re-quote it anytime the first word is repeated, is “encourage one another every day, so long as it is called ‘today’” (3:13).

The author of Hebrews seeks to comfort us with the certain knowledge that we are loved by God and may be liberated from our mistakes because God has cared for them.  Whether or not we acknowledge it, our conscience has been wiped clean and we are called to do work in the world that reflects guiltless hearts freed to love.  We are not alone, God’s beloved people-—all people-—surround us and are called to motivate and help us along the way.  We need not live in fear!

This is not a new message, it is God’s encouragement and hope for us since the beginning of time.  However, IMG_3868we just don’t get it.  We can not do it on our own.  So God came to us, Emmanuel, “with us is God,” to model a way for us.  The way of love, however, always makes us nervous.  It questions our desire to hold power over one another.  So we killed love.  But even that dysfunction, brokenness, shame—whatever you want to call it—did not have the last word.  Resurrection, new life, was born out of that death.

Hebrews tries to make sense of that death within the context of the Jewish religious system.  It is ultimately a word to inspire courage and diligence for God’s people to do good work.

I am grateful for this opportunity to offer and receive encouragement from my sisters and brothers  at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta.  This has been a study that has sufficiently challenged us, and in the midst of our struggle, born much fruit for our faith journey.

We look forward to further partnership opportunities.

Our Image of God: Heavenly Police or Holy Parent?

Is God the Police?

“Our image of God matters,” I said, at one of our Recovery Bible studies several weeks ago. “If we are in relationship to our God, than how we imagine or understand God really matters for our life of recovery, right? “Yes,” I heard a few voices affirm. I pried further; “so why does our image of God matter?”  One of our church members said in an assured voice: “it matters for how we treat ourselves and everybody else. I mean, if God is some big Police Man or Judge up there in the sky, just waiting for me to screw up so he can punish me, I’ll probably go about my life being afraid of God all the time, maybe without even knowing it.” Nodding heads agreed. A God who is out “to get us” is not a God with whom we would have trust or a personal relationship. We wondered in the first place that morning, why we have to fight so hard against the negative images of God as a Policeman in the sky or a strict Judge who points a finger at us?

I thought about how many poor folks in our country go to court on an absurdly regular basis, often for petty crimes like jay walking or sleeping in a park. Every time I accompany someone to court, I listen to case after case of convictions of mostly poor people who are scrambling to survive and in that struggle make decisions that break the law. The court procedure is always intimidating and even more so if you stand alone, with nothing but your own voice and maybe a public defender. It is more intimidating if you have a criminal record. Criminal records tend to define people in our society in very practical ways. What is the first thing that gets “checked” before you get that job that pays a decent wage and has benefits? Your criminal record! When I hear people in church talking about God as our “ultimate Judge” I wonder if we’ve made God into our system’s image of a hostile, distant and uncaring God who looks at us and says, “Well you have a significant criminal record! And since I hate sin, I have only the option to punish you because the bad choices you made in the past are what determine your future!”

If God is like the Police or the municipal court Judge, then something is wrong with our image of God. Of course God does judge. But when we say that God judges us, what do we mean? If our image of God matters for how we live our lives as Christians, we must be faithful to articulate how the ways of the world, the U.S. court system for example, are not identical with God’s ways. Yet we easily confuse these worlds.

God in Genesis

Our conversation turned to the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. We tried to find out what these chapters tell us about God and human beings.

We are very good

One of the first things we learn in Genesis about human beings (which is different from anything you will ever hear in a courtroom!), is that we are fundamentally good according to God. One of the very first things we learn when we read our Bible is that God loves lifeand God’s desire is for life to be abundant (see Gen. 1). God delights in what God makes and before sitting down to rest says, “every thing is very good (Gen. 1:31).” This is the beginning of the good news of the gospel, according to Genesis: Everything God makes is VERY GOOD, including us, human beings, who are not only good but are created in God’s very image. Our image of God, as Creator who sees all things as good, matters.

We are fragile, vulnerable, in need of a Parenting God

We also learn from Genesis 1-3 that human beings are fragile and dependent on the Creator. In fact, what we know is that we are held together by two main ingredients: the “breath of God” and the “dust of the earth” (2:7). In Hebrew, the word for “breath” is the same word for “spirit” (ruah). God’s generosity is such that we share in God’s spirit and in this way are given responsibility and power that is greater than all other things created. Yet being made of dirt and spirit, we are fragile and vulnerable and utterly dependent on our Creator for our life.

Given that we are fundamentally created good and that we are fragile, we are in need of good parenting. God in Genesis 1-3 is a Good Parent. Why? Because God gives us generous freedom (eat of every tree in the garden!) and like any good parent, also sets limits (watch out for one tree!). Limitations and boundaries help give life to all creation. For example, God does not ask Adam and Eve to till and care for the whole earth. Rather God asks them to concentrate on working in the garden of Eden, one particular garden. And God warns them about one tree in particular that is not good for them to eat of. God does not control Adam and Eve, but gives them guidance like a good Parent. In our culture, we tend to believe that limits are bad. The idea of capitalism, which says that profit should have no limits, is central to our culture. But God is saying that limits are essential to true freedom, life and love. All life must respect limits and boundaries. And so trespassing these limits will bring death—-not only to ourselves but to other life around us. And here is where we need to pause and come back to why this matters. God did not create the tree in the garden to “trick us” into disobedience, nor did God create limitations to penalize us, but rather to protect us from doing harm to ourselves and others. Every parent knows that children must have healthy boundaries for their own protection. So is this God a courtroom penalizing judge? Or is this God more like a parent, who ultimately wants life for his/her children?

The story continues as Adam and Eve decide to overstep the boundaries that have been set for them. And the result is that there are consequences for the choices they made. The consequences for our choices often include pain and suffering (see Gen. 3:14-19). God is a God of Love, which means that God does not hoard power or control us. God does not manipulate us like robots. Instead God chooses to give us

freedom, yet provides limits in creation. When we trespass these limits, there is judgment that is tied into the loving created order of God.

God is a Pastoral God, concerned for our recovery

Our image of God matters. The story of the “fall” in Genesis is one in which yes, human beings do fall. Yet the story does not end there. Humans fall and then get back up. They can never return to innocence, but now they have to learn to live in light of the consequences of their destructive choices. We affirmed together in our Bible study that this story is about us! And it is about our recovery. Adam and Eve’s disobedience is more a beginning of their recovery than it is an end with their fall. All of us who struggle with addictions in their many forms, whether it be consumerism or cocaine, have to come to admit that we can never undo the past. It’s said and done. But what we can do is make amends in the present.

God wants for us to have life and that more abundantly (Jn.10:10). In this way, God is more like a Pastor or a Shepherd, someone who is concerned for our well-being. Any image of a God who judges must be interpreted alongside that of a God who is generous in love and forgiveness, who sets limits for our protection and healing, who guides us and directs us but does not possess or control us, a God whose answer to our disobedience is not to “lock us up” in dark concrete cells where we experience further alienation, but to call us to exist in community where relationships are healthy and just.  Our image of God matters. What kind of God is our God? And if we are made in God’s image, how ought we live and act as image-bearers of this God?


As Easter arrives, we have an opportunity to remember again why our image of God matters for our lives. We will soon celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We worship a God who loved us so much that God became like us, living among us in human flesh, experiencing temptation, struggle, pain, alienation, torture. The good news of Easter, just like the good news of Genesis, is that death does not win. At Easter, we affirm with the apostle Paul, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (I Cor. 15:55)? We proclaim a God of Life, a God of Resurrection Hope, a God who conquered death, a God who never gives up on us or abandons or judges us on the basis of our criminal record. We are always more than our mistakes. Any good parent knows this about her child. And if God is our good parent, our good shepherd, our just judge, then maybe we can begin to trust this God of love.

-Rev. Katie Aikins