January 23, 2021

God’s OS and the Church’s GUI

Today I’d like to riff on the primary illustration the pastor used in his sermon at the church I attended yesterday. The NT/Gospel texts for the day were:

  • James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a — where James decries the “envy and selfish ambition” leading to conflicts in the church, and commends to them the “wisdom from above” that “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits…”
  • Mark 9:30-37 — in which Jesus again predicts his Passion, and then confronts the disciples for seeking to be first, setting a child in their midst and saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

He started his sermon by speaking of the new Apple iPhone 5, released earlier this week. Then he reviewed the history of Apple Computer, talking about when Steve Jobs toured Xerox and saw them doing work on a graphical user interface for computers (GUI). They were just experimenting, and chose not to pursue the idea, but Jobs “stole” the concept and went on to produce the Macintosh. The rest is history, and computer users all over the world today access their machines via icons and buttons rather than text and code.

The GUI is what you see when you look at the screen. It is also the means by which you relate to the computer — it is an interface. Now this is obviously the important part for those who work with computers. This is what’s on the surface, and it is this interface which enables us to do various tasks like word processing, spreadsheets, reports, graphic design, and so on.

However, the GUI is not the most fundamental part of the computer. Apart from the hardware itself, the heart of the computer is its Operating System (OS). Apple has its operating system OSX, Microsoft has Windows, some people use one called Linux. The OS is the “brain” of the computer. It consists of a collection of basic software that provides resources and services for the programs that run on the computer. Think of it as the control room that supports the programs and keeps them doing what they’re supposed to do.

Yesterday’s texts, I believe, reveal the fundamental OS of our Christian faith, and also show us the kind of GUI it is designed to run and what that interface should look like to the world.

God’s operating system is TOC — the Theology of the Cross.

The Gospel lesson from Mark makes this clear. Jesus was teaching his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, then killed, and then be raised from the dead. The culmination of Jesus’ ministry would be his death and resurrection, what we call the “Passion” or “Cross-event.”

This would fulfill what the First Testament Scriptures anticipated — Jesus would die for our sins, be buried, and be raised to life according to the Scriptures (1Cor. 15). Through this self-giving act of love and by the power of God in the resurrection Jesus would be “identified as God’s Son with power” (Rom. 1:4) — that is, declared the rightful heir of David, Messianic King, and Lord of all. Jesus became King, accomplished our salvation, and inaugurated the New Creation via the Cross.

The Cross-event was the climax of Jesus’ ministry, but the Cross also informed every step of that ministry along the way. Jesus’ entire life was an act of self-giving love. Every action, every word sprang from the impulse to lay down his life that others might live. He continually suffered suspicion, opposition, and persecution because he took the risk of loving, speaking truth, welcoming those who were unwanted and unclean in society’s eyes, and confronting religious hypocrisy and hardness of heart. He served, therefore he suffered.

This, then, is at the heart of faith in Christ. The fundamental operating principle for those who are in Jesus is the Cross. This grounds and informs everything we are, everything we do. In every relationship, every encounter, the impulse that moves us, energizes us, and directs us is the dynamic of sacrificial love. What can I give that this person may have life? What does it matter that I may have to give something, lose something, suffer something in the process? When the Bible says that Jesus gave us his Spirit, it means that he installed this operating system within us.

Now, there is something else that must be said. Because of our flawed and less-than-adequate hardware, we know that God’s OS doesn’t always function as it should (just like on my computer!). That is why we come back to the sanctuary week after week and meet together to hear the Good News of forgiveness and to partake of the body and blood that nourishes us once more with God’s grace and mercy. Our operating system needs to be reset time and time and time again. And so we come back time and time and time again to the Cross and to our Risen Lord, who welcomes us, refreshes us in the Gospel, and sends us out again to walk in the way of the Cross.

And that leads me to say a few words about the Church’s GUI — our graphical user interface.

When we interact with people in our lives — our families, our neighbors, our coworkers — they don’t see the operating system. The OS is running beneath the surface, in the heart of our lives. What they see is what’s on the screen, as it were. They see the interface. They see and hear what we do, what we say, the attitudes we communicate, the priorities we maintain, and so on. They can tell if the operating system is properly controlling what’s on the screen or not.

Both the Gospel passage and the text from James show us what should and should not be showing up on the screen of our lives.

So, for example, in Mark, you have Jesus teaching his disciples about the theology of the cross, and then the next thing you know you hear them arguing and fighting for position among themselves. Each one wants to be first, each wants the trophy, the perks, the recognition. Something is wrong here. If the operating system is the theology of the Cross, the user interface should not be displaying pride and a lust for power and position. Jesus recognizes this, and does something to reset their operating system. He takes a child, puts that child — who in that culture was a nobody with no rights and privileges whatsoever — and says, “Hey look, here’s what the screen ought to look like. Forget about trying to gain accolades for yourself and start welcoming and serving little ones like this.”

A similar situation is seen in James, where the people in the congregation were fighting because of what he calls, “envy and selfish ambition.” Same kind of operating system error apparently — and it was showing up on the screens of their lives as conflict and disputes and trying to get the best of one another. So James says, “Your operating system is not working properly. It should not be displaying the errors I’m seeing. It needs to be reset so that it draws on the wisdom from above — which will lead you to display lives that are gentle, unselfish, and concerned about being at peace with one another.”

* * *

It is vitally important that we keep this distinction between the OS and the GUI in mind. Sins on the surface of our lives reflect that we need a “reset” in a deeper place. Selfishness on the screen betrays that the Cross is not being accessed as the controlling system of our lives.

Thank God that he welcomes back to “the shop” time and time again, and that the warranty never runs out.


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    I am still working on my morning coffee, and haven’t had a chance to mull over the metaphor presented here. I just want to go on record, however, with my instant visceral dislike of the term “cross-event”.

  2. As an IT person I’m just glad I wasn’t there for that sermon. … the historical inaccuracy (Jobs had to be dragged to see the GUI – and the concept was furthered – but iPeople must portray Jobs as a genius), the crudeness of the metaphor (technologically, the clean divisions and allocations of responsability do not exist between those layers), and theology as an OS…. I’d have to have crawled under the pew and bit my tongue. I’d rather have heard yet-another-sports-metaphor. But I’m just too much in this every day. I’ll admit it is at least clever (and different).

    • I know, I know. It’s a bit cartoonish — an attempt at simple-speak, not something at which I excel. I just hope the general parameters ring true and make a legitimate point.

      Besides, I had to get my head out of the 16th century for awhile!

      • I’ve heard it said that the soul is like a file that needs to get “saved” to the hard drive. Only it’s full of viruses, blah blah blah.

      • Yes, you got the gist of it correct.

        And reading it again over morning coffee, rather than after a meeting in the IT conference room, it was more fun. An author can’t be held responsible for the current head space of the reader.

  3. I’m totally lost with all the techno talk (my kids welcomed me to the 20th century last year when I finally bought a cell phone…lol) But I do get this part, “Forget about trying to gain accolades for yourself and start welcoming and serving little ones like this.” And, “…draws on the wisdom from above — which will lead you to display lives that are gentle, unselfish, and concerned about being at peace with one another.” Those two thoughts alone will keep my CPU processing all day<—I hope I wrote that right :o)

  4. Thanks for sharing, CM. Clunky or not, this seems like a metaphor or parable Jesus might have used to reach our culture today. I especially liked this comment: “Sins on the surface of our lives reflect that we need a “reset” in a deeper place. Selfishness on the screen betrays that the Cross is not being accessed as the controlling system of our lives.”

  5. Uh oh, now you’re really gonna get creamed. You forgot BSD in your list of operating systems. These fans are even more rabid than any sub-group of Christians you’ll ever encounter!

  6. OpenBSD or FreeBSD?

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