God Does what He Says
On John 5:35-47
God does what he says. On a really basic level, that’s what it means for him to be ‘faithful’: if God says he’ll save you, he will. When he promises Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars, or tells Sarah she will have a son even well after menopause, God delivers (see Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7, 26:1-6).
But still more fundamentally: what God does is what he says, and what he says is what he does. There’s actually a sense in which this is true for all of us. The things we do express beliefs, thoughts, and feelings just like words do. If I tell you I’m not superstitious, but then I cross the street to avoid walking under a ladder, then you know that on some level I think doing otherwise would be bad luck. If a dude says he loves you, but he cheats on you, then his actions tell you something different than his words do. And everyone knows: actions ‘speak’ louder than words.
But God’s actions are his words, and his words are his actions. Humans lie, or we feel conflicted, which is why what we say and what we do sometimes contradict one another. Not so with God, in whom there is no shadow of turning or falsehood. This is one among many reasons why Genesis describes the creation of the world as an act of speech on God’s part. God did something: he made light, and stars, and fish and birds and you and me. And since what God does faithfully represents exactly what’s in his mind, we can reliably infer that, since light exists, God wants light to exist. Thus the very existence of light is in itself identical to God saying, ‘let there be light.’ ‘And there was light’: God commands something to be; God makes something – God speaks; God does. They are one and the same.
The whole universe, therefore, is a kind of language whereby God expresses himself: what he wants, what he thinks, who he is. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,’ says Psalm 19. The immensity and majesty of the mountains; the elegant shelter of tall trees: these tell us things about the one who made them, even though we cannot actually hear them speaking. ‘They have no speech, they use no words,’ sings the Psalmist, ‘yet their voice goes out into all the earth’ (vv. 1, 3-4).
Which is not unlike what Jesus says about God the Father in today’s Gospel reading. ‘You have never heard his voice,’ and yet all the same, ‘the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me’ (John 5:37). Testified how, if we have never heard his voice? Jesus gives the answer: in everything God has done throughout all of history, as seen by Israel’s prophets and recorded in the Jewish scriptures, God was telling the world who he is. When he thwarted the Egyptian Pharaoh and parted the Red Sea; when he defied a mighty kingdom and the law of gravitation, conquered massive armies to bring slaves out of bondage, God was proclaiming truths about himself and his relationship to us. Declaring through his actions that he would stop at nothing to rescue us from chains (see Exodus 14).
And now, says Jesus, God is making his definitive statement. ‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me’ (John 5:46): Christ encapsulates all that the Father has to say to us, all he has been intimating and suggesting in prophecies and miracles for generations. That is something Jesus will assert explicitly after his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27). But John’s Gospel has already hinted at it, in the first chapter. Jesus is the logos, a Greek term meaning the ‘word’ or ‘language’ – or, perhaps most accurately, the ‘speech’ which is spoken whenever God creates or does anything (see especially John 1:3). That same God has now done something which will tell us who he is once and for all: he has become a human man. He has become this man, with these hands and these feet and this life story and these two eyes, born to a human mother and living in the real world: this man is God’s word.
And God’s word is also God’s action. Because just as actions say things, words do things: that is why we refer to ‘speech acts.’ If I told you I hate you, that would do something to you – make you feel a certain way, maybe make you lash out at me in response. Jesus’ life is a proclamation about the nature of God which affects everyone who encounters him profoundly. Here is this man, giving sight to the blind and showing mercy to sinners; disregarding social niceties; standing up against an angry mob to prevent them killing an adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). Claiming that in doing so he perfectly represents, and is in fact one with, a God who will put his own body between the defenseless and their persecutors.
That statement has done something to the temple authorities who are interrogating Jesus in this passage: it has made them furious and will eventually compel them to engineer his execution. Jesus’ endurance of that execution, the docility with which he submits to its terrible violence, will also be a statement and will also do something to everyone who truly hears its message. Jesus on the cross is the great action and the great proclamation: it is God with his arms wide saying, ‘look: no matter how you may despise me, I would rather die than reject you.’
It is what he had been saying all along. When he brought Israel out of Egypt though they complained bitterly against him. When he protected a woman who according to Jewish practice should have been stoned to death. When he suspended the laws of physics and the laws of the Torah to give fallen men and women a second chance, God was speaking: I will suffer the consequences of your sin to free you from it. Will break my own rules to take you back into my love. Here he is, doing that and saying it in one cosmic moment. Letting himself be slaughtered and so telling us he will not let us go.
Let me ask you a question which has transformed my life: what does this word, this utterance, do to you? Jesus, the divine speech act, is what God has to say about how he loves you. Unto death and afterwards, in blood outpoured and wine at this table today, Christ proclaims: if you will have him, he is yours. God says what he means, and he does what he says, and nothing – not your petty inadequacies, not your addictions, not your failures, not the small-minded accusations of censorious pedants who want to make you a slave to your flaws, or to your victimhood, nothing – can contradict him. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ has acted; God is speaking: you are beloved. Hear him and ask yourself: how will you respond?
‘Because just like snowfall or rain comes from heaven and does not return before it waters the Earth . . . so is my word, when it goes forth from my mouth. It does not return to me useless, but does what I please’ (Isaiah 55:10-11). What will it do to you?