Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: Life in the Unknown God

When Paul visited Athens in the 1st century AD, he visited a city that was bursting with religion. Every street corner had its shrine; the Pantheon of gods and goddesses provided a deity for every personality, every profession, every moral standard. If you wanted your garden to be fruitful you prayed to Demeter, goddess of the harvest; if you wanted your son to be protected during his military service you prayed to Ares, god of war; if you wanted your children to behave you prayed to Hera, goddess of the family; if you wanted your blacksmithing business to flourish you prayed to Hephaistus, god of fire. Whereas modern Americans are fond of self-identifying as "spiritual but not religious", I imagine that ancient Athenians would have reversed the phrase and likely characterized themselves as "religious but not spiritual."

Paul was on the run from his own people when he came through Greece: the Jews in Thessalonika had turned hostile and had hounded him first from their own city and then from Beroea. He was seeking refuge in Athens, but when he saw the streets full of idols he couldn't resist stirring up trouble by challenging the local practices. The Athenians were a sophisticated and urbane lot, and they didn't take immediate offense: instead, they acted as Episcopalians might, inviting him to come and tell them more about this strange religion that he was promoting. They were famously curious; this request doesn't necessarily mean that they were spiritually hungry: Paul's message of resurrection was just another religious curiosity in a city full of religious curiosities. And so Paul finds himself, in today's passage from Acts, in the Areopagus, the Athenian Supreme Court, making the case for the God of the Jews.

Paul paints a picture of a God who defies the imagination of his Greek listeners, a God who isn't made known as a statue or some kind of heroic figure, but a God who transcends all that we know, who is beyond and above the created world, a God who dwells within those who commit themselves to God.

Paul is very clever at turning the Athenians' own language and self-importance back on them to make his own point. Any people who are so religious that they have a shrine to a different God on every street corner must surely be open to knowing this God too, and where they worship the "Unknown God" Paul has the answer: this is your Unknown God: the God whom I worship. In fact, Paul's message comes pretty close to a famous Christian definition of God from the Middle Ages: God is that concept which is greater than anything you are capable of conceptualizing. It's the kind of intellectual puzzle that would have delighted the Athenians. Paul knows his market: people of religious persuasion naturally seek God, and Paul provides the God they are seeking.

In the Gospel, Jesus echoes the same theme: the God you seek is not a God who is visible to everyone, but only to those who choose to seek God and keep the commandments.

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Which commandments are these? Let's remember where we are in John's Gospel: the disciples are receiving the long speech known as the high-priestly prayer, after Jesus has washed their feet, after he has sent Judas out on his deadly errand, after he has declared himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. He has said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Ah, there it is. That commandment. Love one another as Jesus has loved you. And the way Jesus has loved his disciples is to teach, to heal, to feed, to serve, and ultimately to give his life for them.

This week, a Cathedral member wrote a reflection for our blog, about last week's Celebration of New Ministry. She referred to the Genesis story of Jacob's dream, the ladder reaching to heaven, when God came to Jacob and promised never to leave him. I have long loved the old song, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder" with its deceptively simple question: If you love him, why not serve him? A friend in my first parish decorated a rock as a doorstop for my office, painting that text on the top as a constant reminder for my goings out and comings in.

If you love him, why not serve him? Simple, isn't it? But what kind of love are we talking about? The richness of the Biblical language allows several different words for love, indicating romantic passion; friendly affection; and the kind of love we know as agape or charity: a love that gives, serves, sacrifices; a love that opens its heart; a love that looks like Jesus. Those inquisitive Athenians were good at learning about different deities and practices, but they were clueless about opening their hearts to love. Their religion lacked spirituality; it lacked love. And as John tells us, our God is pure love. Our God has given us Jesus to live and die for us, with no strings attached. Imagine that kind of love.

Imagine, further, being guaranteed that love. And then stop imagining it and start living as if you are in the midst of it, because ... you are. As so often in John's Gospel the storyline at its most simplistic follows Jesus in his earthly ministry while at the same time experiencing him from the other side of Easter. We read this from the vantage point of the Easter season: Christ is risen! But in the story he makes the promise before he dies. He makes the promise as a man who is expecting to be arrested, tortured, and murdered as a criminal. He is at one and the same time the unknown God, hidden in a fragile human body, and the transcendent God whom Paul preaches, the one who was and is and will be for all time above and beyond all that we can know. As we look at Jesus with this double vision - pre-Holy Week and post-Resurrection, we get a glimpse of what resurrection life might mean: it means that we live because he lives in us. It means that we continue his life through our lives.

Christ lives in us through our Eucharistic sharing of his body and blood, through the love that flows among us, through the actions that show who we are in a world that doesn't want to care. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

Where in the life of this cathedral can we live out that love? Reaching out to those in need; volunteering in Sunday School; helping to write notes to those who are unable to come to church; serving as an interpreter for kids arrested for crossing the border; offering the body and blood of Jesus to all who come to the rail, no questions asked; supporting the ministry of our choirs, of Dorcas House, of our staff who offer hospitality, of those who are called to ordination. There's no end to the ways we can live out that love.

As Mike Kinman pointed out last week, when we come to the table for Communion, we take Jesus into ourselves and he becomes part of us. We become a mingling of God and humanity; we become a little bit of Christ in the world. That is an awesome responsibility. "What would Jesus do?" takes on deeper meaning when we accept that our actions are also those of Jesus. If the risen Christ is an advocate for us, then we must be advocates for each other. We must stand up for those who cannot defend themselves: trafficked women, abandoned children, traumatized veterans, frail elders.

Living and loving as Jesus lives and loves isn't easy: it's a costly kind of love, a love that may require sacrifice and self-denial. We preach Christ crucified; we do not preach ourselves. And we cannot do this by ourselves; we need an encourager, an advocate, something John calls the Paraclete and we call the Holy Spirit. That's what Jesus promises his followers.

When we turn our lives over and start living the resurrection life, the Spirit will abide with us. It's counter-cultural to think of something that abides. It means we have to allow the relationship to mature, to develop, to become part of us. It's not going to happen instantly. Now, some people take longer than others to develop trusting relationships. All kinds of things can get in the way: old wounds, an accent, a careless word spoken at a first encounter. If we are going to give a relationship a chance, we have to give it time. But we are all too prone to make snap decisions and throw away an opportunity because of the first impression. The good news of today's Gospel is Jesus's promise to send the Spirit of truth to abide with us. Pentecost is coming; the Spirit is coming; we can depend on the truth of that promise.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the Spirit as brooding over the world like a hen brooding over her chicks. His sonnet "God's Grandeur" paints a marvelous word-picture of the world, transfigured by God's power but besmirched with sin and despair. Listen for the promise contained in the last lines as the Spirit hovers over and provides life to the world:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then not now reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell; the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs - Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

This late Eastertide season is bursting with hope. Liturgically, we are living into the reality of the Resurrection and reading about the beginnings of the church that continues 2000 years later to offer life, love, and healing to the world. We are approaching the celebration of Pentecost and anticipating the renewal of the Holy Spirit within us individually and corporately.

In our life as a cathedral we are getting into gear in this new chapter, setting directions and priorities, moving forward into a world where very little looks like it used to look, a world where we will need to trust in God as never before. But we have this promise: we will not do it alone. The Advocate, the Spirit of truth, abides with us and in us; and through the Spirit we know the love of the risen Christ and we rise to new life in him. Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges 
May 25 2014 

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