If you had the chance to meet the president—any president—you would probably jump at it. Many in our society would even rather have a word or two with—or touch the sleeve of—a favorite athletic figure or a beloved performer. I remember conversations of only a few lines and moments with Stan Musial and Bob Dole almost half a century ago, even though they forgot me promptly. Neither one ever attained a presidency to which Senator Dole aspired, although Mr. Musial did make the Hall of Fame. But those encounters remain quite vivid in my recounting of those chance meetings. Sometimes, too, we recognize only too late, we just passed by a person with whom we would really like to exchange a few words, but his or her identity was at that moment masked, unclear. Perhaps we sense this person might be she or he, but we do not want to take the chance that it is not, and so we shy away from opening a conversation or introducing ourselves.
So it is with our God, who does not always make a noticeable entrance into our presence. He revealed Himself quite openly with His voice on Sinai, but He snuck up on Elijah after the prophet had the impression that maybe wind, or fire or earthquake could make the connection with God. He identified Himself in only a still, small voice, but He did identify Himself (1 Kings 29:11-12). However, it does not always work that way. His Word in Scripture is our sure access to Him, but to those whose perceptions the Bible has formed God appears in our lives in various ways. Jesus identified Himself as the One who hides behind the masks of the hungry and thirsty, the poor and sick, the jailbirds and other castaways of society, as He meets us in daily life (Matthew 25:31-40). Jesus’ collection of masks fits Him out for assorted occasions through which He comes into contact with His human creatures.
A significant number of North American Christians today have an inbred distaste for many of the people whom Jesus has chosen as His masks behind which to give us the test of the sheep described in Matthew 25. Our first thought when mention of such people as masks of God is made often concentrates on the unpleasantness of such associations. It is not only that we do not like their smell or feel guilty when we compare their clothing with ours. It is not only that they may come from the wrong side of the tracks, from neighborhoods in which we feel profoundly uncomfortable, and are living day in and day out with threats which scare us. We also just, “Do not know what to say,” or how to touch them or to talk to them in light of their deprivation and suffering. We can hardly introduce who we really are for fear of making them feel bad that we have experienced blessings from God they have only been able to dream of.
A significant number of North American Christians today have an inbred distaste for many of the people whom Jesus has chosen as His masks behind which to give us the test of the sheep described in Matthew 25.
Those in need of clothing are more than welcome to our fashions from last year. We have less distaste for the poor and the lonely if we can drop some alms in their direction or spend an hour in a home for the elderly every week. We find the hungry and thirsty may be less offensive if we can reach out to them with a contribution of money or food. Such opportunities to share the love and blessings we have received is indeed to be commended. But God challenges us to do even more. Seeking Jesus among the imprisoned with defiance or despair as we encounter them is much more difficult. It is difficult to keep in mind how Jesus is a God of the personal touch, and He wants us not only to be generous in our sharing of money and food, but also of time and conversation. He risked it all to come to us in our need, and He assures us we can risk awkward moments and uncomfortable silences and glances in order to bring the gift of His presence to others. In fact, we manage such ventures only when the Holy Spirit accompanies as we enter these lives.
Realizing Jesus can appear before us in the person of an immigrant who can hardly speak the only language we know, which is not one of the three or four in which this person is used to communicating, that is a profoundly different situation than the situations in which we normally operate. Jesus may have not shied away from conversations aimed at bringing the peace of God to prostitutes but trying to figure out how to talk with such types is just not our thing. It was not the thing of the Pharisees, either, and Jesus sought them out, with a different message than His words for the broken and isolated, those hanging onto life with a shaky, fear-filled, ever-weaker grip. The Pharisees among us also serve as masks of our Lord as they ignore their own desperate need to rely on Him rather than on their own piety. They, too, invite our witness and our prayerful concern. The Pharisees around us need the touch of His love as well.
Even with the best of wills to serve, we usually find ourselves ill-prepared for such opportunities. But the Holy Spirit sometimes catches us in these situations without our seeking them. We experience then the confusion, dismay, and finally delight that Dale Evans and her husband Roy Rogers, popular cowgirl and cowboy actors in many a Western of my youth, encountered when God sent them what Evans called an “angel unaware” in the person of their handicapped child, Robin. Evans’ book of that title narrates Robin’s recounting from Heaven what the love of her parents had meant for the enrichment of her two-and-a-half-year life on earth as a child with Downs’ syndrome. Robin’s story illustrates how Christ’s love flows through those blessed with much into those who become blessings in their need because they are masks of Christ. Her parents enjoyed a hardly describable peace and joy from the privilege of caring for her and showing her the love God designed as normal for His human creatures.
Martin Luther spoke of all Christians as masks of God as they interact with one another and deliver or enact God’s providential care. Luther’s use of the term “Mask of God” for his faithful followers explicated a significant element in his doctrine of God’s providence. We human Masks of God perform as instruments of His, daily and richly providing people with the host of material and social blessings we enjoy. We Masks of God serve Him as we defend and protect each other against maltreatment and injustice of all kinds.
We Masks of God serve Him as we defend and protect each other against maltreatment and injustice of all kinds.
God provides in many ways, but He has placed all His human creatures in specific places in the social web that reflects the divine wisdom of Genesis 2:18. Adam belonged in community, first in the community of marriage and family, then in the communities of economic provision of the goods and blessings of this world, in the communities of wider social organizations, and in the communities of the congregations of God’s people. In home, occupation, political and social community, and congregation God has called us all to be the masks behind which our Lord comes to feed, cloth, house, comfort, uplift, admonish, and carry “neighbors”—those He has placed near us whether we like it or not.
The Holy Spirit continues the creative and re-creative, renewing work of God in daily life, and He operates through all people. He works especially as those in faith strive to touch the lives of people within their reach with the tender, loving—sometimes firmly admonishing—words and deeds of those whose trust in God’s judgment, that they are righteous, move them to act in the right, the truly human, way He designed for His human creatures.
Furthermore, Jesus puts each one of us on as His mask when He serves as our mediator before the judgment throne of the heavenly Father. He appears in the Courtroom fully identifying Himself with us. He masks Himself, immerses Himself, in our sinfulness. He lets our doubt and defiance of God be His identity to plead for our forgiveness and our assuming new identities as children of God. This is why, Luther can call Him in his commentary on Galatians 3:13:
“The greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc. there has ever been anywhere in the world.” Here Christ “is not acting in His own person. Now He is not the Son of God born of the Virgin but a sinner, who has and bears the sins of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter, who denied Christ; of David, the adulterer and murderer” (LW 26:277).
Thus, behind the masks which we are for Him, Christ has satisfied the Law’s demand of death for sinners. God the Father sees us through Christ-colored glasses because Jesus has worn us as His masks before the Throne of Judgment.
As a result, we encounter ourselves with a new identity as righteous children of God, an identity bestowed by Christ’s dying in our place under the Law’s judgment and rising for the restoration of our righteousness before God and in relationship to others (Romans 4:25). Our baptism means our sinful identities have been buried with Christ, and we have been raised to a new life lived in walking in Jesus’ footsteps or living as His masks.