Posted by: Titus Presler | February 11, 2013

Seeing God’s “back” – an encounter fruitful for interfaith relationship

On the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jan. 27, I preached at All Saints’ Church at Kohati Gate in the heart of Kocha Sarafa Bazaar in the old city of Peshawar.  Kocha is an area of antique narrow streets with scores of splendiferous cloth shops teaming with men and burqa-clad women looking for the best bargains.  Going back about 2,000 years as the first major settlement on the east side of the Khyber Pass, Peshawar is an ancient city.  All Saints’ has been at its center since 1883, and a Shia imambargah ministers across the street from it.

The story of Moses’ request of God at Exodus 33.12-23 to see God’s very self during his second sojourn on Mount Sinai was the Old Testament lesson for the day, the other lessons being the introduction to John’s First Letter (1.1-7) and the story of the wedding in Cana in Galilee in John’s Gospel (2.1-11).  All three highlight epiphanies of various kinds but I focused on Moses’ longing to see God on the mountain.

I’ve always been drawn to this story but until now but had never preached on it because it never came up in a lectionary!  Moses wants to see God’s glory (the shekinah), which God in this instance takes as being equivalent to seeing God’s face, which no human can see and live.  But God has a counter proposal:

While my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by: then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

That’s the arresting image – seeing the back of God.  Our longing for God.  Our delight in whatever disclosures we have of God.  Yet our knowing that the disclosures are only partial, so our longing continues unabated.  As Paul says to the Corinthians, “Now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.”

Seeing God’s back, not God’s face.  Cannot this recognition of the incompleteness of our knowledge of God be a starting point for conversation between people who faith* in God in different ways?

Moses is important in Islam as well as in Judaism and Christianity, and Moses is mentioned more often than any other figure in the Qur’an.  “To Moses God spoke directly,” states Sura 4:164.  At Sura 19:51-52 we hear:

Mention too, in the Qur’an, the story of Moses.  He was specially chosen, a messenger and a prophet: We called to him from the right-hand side of the mountain and brought him close to Us in secret communion.

This sense of Moses’ intimacy with God is obvious in the Exodus story:

Moses came down from Mount Sinai.  As he came down from the mountain with the two tables of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. (34.29)

Hence Moses’ need to veil his face before the people, an image Paul picks up at 1 Corinthians 3.18: “We all, with unveiled faced beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed after his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”  Yes, in a relative sense, but still we must acknowledge that we see as through a glass darkly.

The shared unknowingness of all honest religious people – that was the burden with which I went into preaching that day.  The church was full, probably 350 or 400 people, the liturgy was in Urdu with, as usual, tremendous singing.  The sermon “Seeing the Back of God,” was translated into Urdu, Khudha kePeeche Dhekhna, and here’s a good deal of its content:

Greetings to all of you in this season of Epiphany, the season of the showing forth of the glory of God in the face of Jesus our Friend and our Savior.

Seeing the back of God – that is my theme today.  Seeing the back of God – certainly not seeing the face of God, but not even seeing the front of God, but seeing only the back of God.

Seeing the back of God is what Moses experienced when he went back up onto Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets of the law after he broke the first set when he found the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.  Moses wanted to be able to prove to the people that God was with him, so first he asked, “Show me your ways.”  Then he asked, “Show me your glory,” which meant, “Show me the very essence of your being.” 

It also meant, “Show me your face.”  We all know that faces are important.  When we see a person’s face, we know we are seeing the real person.  Our faces identify us.  When someone is killed in a bomb blast and the relatives go to the morgue, the attendant shows the face of the dead person, and the face is what proves the identity.  On a happier note, when we meet someone we look at the face, not the shoes.  It is our faces that show happiness, sadness, anger and love, so we are naturally focused on each other’s faces.

So how did God respond when Moses asked to see God’s glory?

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord;’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.  See there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

This story is amazing and yet so true to our experience.  In this story we see the human longing to experience God, and the human frustration at not experiencing enough of God.  Doesn’t each of us long to see the face of God?  Of course, God is spirit, not flesh, so God does not have a face in a literal sense.  But symbolically all of us long to see the face of God, meaning that: we want to experience God as close, we want to experience the loving presence of God around us, we want to know God as living both within us and beyond us. 

We who are created in the image of God want to behold the original of which we are the image.  I don’t know about you, but everyday I wake up wanting to see the face of God, wanting to experience God as the source of all things, the light of all life, as John says in the reading from his first letter today.

Yet what do you and I see?  Not the face of God, but the back of God.  As human beings we are limited in our capacity: God is too immense for us to see the face of God.  God is too mysterious for us to know the depth of God.  Our minds and spirits are too limited to understand all of God.

Our sin and our weakness also keep us from seeing the face of God: our compulsive habits, our patterns of sin, our resentments and hatreds, our distractions.  So we do not see the face of God but the back of God.

I want to say three things about seeing the back of God.

First, in Jesus God shows us the human face of God, and that brings us so much closer to seeing the very face of God.  In the reading from his first letter today John says,

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have . . . touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.

John is talking about Jesus the Word made flesh there, Jesus who incarnated the Word who was from the beginning, the Word who was with God and who was God, as John says at the beginning of his gospel.  And remember how John expresses the meaning of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  Moses asked, “Show me your glory.”  At Cana in Galilee Jesus showed that glory, and the light of that glory shines down through the ages to us today here in Peshawar.

So in Jesus we see the human face of God.  Yet who can comprehend the fullness of Jesus?  Those who walked and ate with him understood only a portion of who Jesus was: Peter, James and John could see the face of Jesus, but still most of the time they were seeing only the back of God.  How much more true of us must that be 2,000 years later?  So, first, Jesus is the human face of God, but still we see the back of God.

Second, do not be discouraged by not seeing God’s face – instead, accept that limitation as common to all Christians, accept it as the pilgrimage of discovering God.  Our vision of God will always be limited, partial, incomplete.  Accepting that means accepting simply that God is God and we are human!  This knowledge should not discourage or frustrate us.  Instead, this knowledge can move us to pursue God in all the ways that are possible for us, ways that God has given to us: take time for daily prayer and meditation to renew your focus on God; take time to discover the mysteries of God in scripture; pray with your family members and friends; look for the glory of God in other human beings; look for the glory of God the beauty of the created world.

Living with God is a journey, a pilgrimage in which we travel in search of God, a journey on which we rejoice in every place where we catch a glimpse of God, even though it is the back of God, not the face of God.  I have journeyed to Pakistan – yes, to lead the work of Edwardes College – but also to learn something more of God, as I have learned something more of God in India, in Zimbabwe and in other parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America – and here in Pakistan again I see not the face of God but the back of God.

Third, seeing only the back of God builds community with people of other religions, and, especially here in Pakistan, with Muslims.  We are all seeing only the back of God!  This month millions of Hindus have been bathing in the Ganges River at Allahabad at the Khumb Mela that occurs once every ten years – how many of them are claiming to see the face of God? – very few, I’m sure – maybe they are seeing the back of God.  Buddhists seek the perfect Enlightenment of Nirvana, but among the few who reach Nirvana, how many claim to see the face of God? – very few, I’m sure.  The millions of Muslims who went to Mekka on Hajj this year: all returned feeling they had done their duty,  many returned feeling more spiritually centered, but how many would say that they saw the face of God in Mekka – very few, I’m sure.

So seeing the back of God and accepting that we do not see the face of God – that is something we share with all honest people of all religions – I say honest people, because extremists tend to be dishonest or confused.  As we honestly and humbly acknowledge that we see the back of God, not the face of God, we can build bridges with those of other religions who can also acknowledge that they are seeing the back of God, not the face of God.

Moses saw not the face of God but the back of God – and it was enough.  Nevertheless when he came down off the mountain his face shone because he had been talking with God. 

We also see not the face of God but the back of God.  It should be enough for us.  Yet still our lives must shine with what we have seen.

How was this received?  With enthusiasm.  People found it thought-provoking both for their own spirituality and for dialogue with Muslims.

I like to think that there was resonance between this theme and the architecture of All Saints’ Church, which is that of a mosque.  I just today came across the 1925 memoir of Worthington Jukes, the CMS missionary priest charged with designing and building the church.  Here are a few excerpts:

It was decided that the Church should be Oriental in aspect, cruciform in shape, with a dome in the centre, Minarets flanking the front and each transept. . . .

On my arrival [back] at Peshawar I found that Mr. Hughes had secured the services of an able Muhammadan builder, who had already erected some Mosques, and knew much of his business. . . .

It was on St. John’s Day, 27th Dec. 1883, that the Memorial Church, dedicated to All Saints was opened. . . .

[An inserted excerpt from an article about the dedication, written by Robert Clark, who had been the first missionary in Peshawar and was invited back for the occasion:] Instead of facing East, it exactly faces Jerusalem, as the point to which all believers look for the Second Coming of the Lord.  Its plan is cruciform, and its architecture is a successful adaptation of Mosque architecture to the purposes of Christian worship.

Jukes’ memoir includes a great deal of material about other dimensions of his and other missionaries’ dialogue with Muslims during that period – constructing a hujrah for hospitality and conversation next to the Mission House†; wearing Afghan dress routinely in the city and in villages; conversations with Muslims about scripture and theology; chats about whether, as Jukes believed, Christians were Muslims as well in the literal sense of being submissive to God.

So the inquiring and dialogical stance did not begin with us or our generation or even the 20th century.  It has been going on ever since people of different faiths have been encountering one another.  And it is eternal.

* I use “faith” as a verb here.  Faith in the Greek New Testament is pistis.  The associated verb is pisteuein, “to faith.”  Unfortunately, though, “faith” is not (yet) a verb in English, so the Greek verb gets translated as either “to believe,” which in English is much too cognitive and creedal to be accurate, or “to have faith,” which makes faith into a quantifiable object of possession.  Faith includes belief, of course, but its major element is trusting relationship.  Dialogue with people who faith in God differently will be helped as we stress faith in that sense rather than as doctrinal belief, which can get us off on the wrong foot.

† The CMS Mission House is now called simply the Bungalow, and it is at the heart of Edwardes College, which was founded in 1900.  CMS missionaries continued to live and work in it as they guided the College’s life and growth.  CMS handed the College over to the local church in 1956, but the Principal continued to be a succession of CMS missionaries until 2000, when two USPG appointees followed.  Bought by CMS in 1855 as it began its work in the region, it could have been built as early as the 1820s and is one of the historic houses of Peshawar.  It is where I live and work – and where I sit as I write this.

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