Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who is like God?

Who is like God?

This is the feast of Saint Michael and all angels. The name Michael comes from this Hebrew question: who is like God?

And the first answer to this question is “No one.” No one is like God: God stands alone. There is no other who is creator of the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it. There is no other who created, redeemed, and sustains humankind.

No one is like God. God alone is our rock and our salvation. But our mind wanders from this first answer, and the image of St. Michael, the archangel that fights the powers of evil, brings to mind another answer to this question: The angels are like God.

Indeed, the image of angels draws our mind to contemplate God. In his dream, Jacob saw the angels going up and down the ladder, the stairway to heaven, and knew he was in the presence of the divine. When Jesus conveyed to Nathanael that he would see extraordinary things, he said “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus invoked the image of the angels ascending and descending to tell Nathanael that he would see things he had never seen before. The image of the angels in this story tells us that something beyond ordinary human experience is going on here.

The angels are otherworldly, preternatural. The scriptural images of them fall into two categories: first, praising God, showing us just how highly exalted God is, that an entire cohort beyond our ordinary experience exists just to praise God.

To the extent that the angels are “like God” — powerful, otherworldly, transcendent — they draw attention to the greatness of God in that however much the angels are like God in comparison to us, God is greater still. The angels help us to contemplate the greatness of God.

The lesson from Revelation alongside today’s collect evokes a second function of angels in scripture: to serve as proxy defenders of human kind. In the Revelation lesson, Michael defends the world from the forces of evil. We pray: Mercifully grant that as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth.

This collect predates the Book of Common Prayer, although Archbishop Cranmer added the phrase “by thy appointment” to make it clear that the angels help and defend us because God tells them to; in other words, they may be like God, but they are only our help and protection because God, our ultimate help and protection, so decrees.

So the angels are mighty beings that exist to worship God, and to help, protect, and serve human kind. They worship God, and serve human kind. Worship God, and serve human kind. We’ve heard that somewhere before.

Hear what our Lord Jesus saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

But these aren’t commandments for the angels. The Law and the Prophets give the task of human kind. For the mission of the angels, to worship God completely, and to love and serve humanity, is none other than the end our own existence.

The angels remind us just how high above us they are, and how high above them God is. And yet their task is the same as ours, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. We speak of the angels to bridge the gap between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God.

So we have a third answer.

Who is like God?

When through God’s grace we live out God’s high calling for us, despite our failings and fallings from our creation in God’s image, we are like God.

May the witness of the angels and the grace of God help us to live accordingly.