6 Easter 2020 • Acts 17:22-31 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21 • May 17, 2020
Recently someone I know said, “I’ve been thinking about faith, and how nice it would be to feel some.” She could have taken the words right out of my mouth. I know we are all in different places with what’s going on and in our own lives. Personally, I’ve been under such a cloud I wondered whether I have any real faith at all.
But maybe faith isn’t a feeling of security or confidence that everything will be all right. Maybe it’s not a feeling at all, just an instinctive groping towards the light, like a seed deep underground.
I love Paul’s phrase that God created us to “grope for and find God.” The Greek translates as “feel around for” God. We need to feel around, because it takes more than physical vision to sense God’s presence. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “the world… neither sees nor knows the Spirit.”
Not that “the world” is a bad thing, to be contrasted with the goodness of the Spirit. After all, God created the world and “so loved” the world as to send Jesus into the world. As John says in chapter 1, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him—and… the world knew him not.”
Perhaps the world is like a branch that’s forgotten it’s part of the vine. When I see with worldly eyes, God is nowhere to be found. Instead of reaching down into my roots, I retract all feelers into myself, spiritually curled up like a snail in its shell. Then I feel cut off… orphaned. It seems I’m on my own.
In that state of traumatized overwhelm, my values shift. In my natural state, rooted in God, I value relationship, truthfulness, kindness, and cooperation. But when I shift into fight-or-flight mode, I grasp for survival and the things I think will help me get there: success, dominance, accumulation, status, and control. I see through the eyes of the world… and act accordingly.
Peter’s letter invites me to see again with Godly eyes, to offer gentleness and reverence… even in the face of those pushing for the dominance of their point of view. He reminds me that the Spirit’s agenda is not about winning: “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil”—and that Christ himself modeled this.
I want to protest that in my mind, the alternative to suffering for doing good is usually not suffering for doing evil, but doing something not so good in order to escape suffering. But Peter knows all about this. It was to escape arrest, torture, and death that he committed his famous denial. I think his guilt afterward convinced him that the easy way out is an illusion. If I could really take in his lesson, it would neutralize a lot of temptation.
But my fight-or-flight brain still wants desperately and at all costs what seems comfortable and safe. I don’t feel ready to be heroic in any way, shape, or form. Judging myself for that, or trying to force past it, only drives me deeper into my snail shell. Perhaps the disciples in their closed room after the crucifixion could relate. Peter, after all, writes his letter after the Resurrection. We in our current world are more like the disciples on Holy Saturday, with unfathomed losses to grieve and fear all around us.
Yet the Creator of snails and shells and self-protective instincts knows how to get through. Just as the Spirit of the Resurrected One broke through the disciples’ grief and fear and entered their hearts, so that Spirit can break through and enter ours. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says. And then he hints that our reconnection will take us beyond where we were before. Despite the orphan image, he describes the One who will come to us not as Abba but as Advocate—a Spirit of Truth who comforts, advises, and encourages. This implies challenges ahead, not simply an easy resting back into a parental God.
Decades ago in a parish not so far away, people mourned the departure of a wise and loving chaplain. In the vacuum left behind, we realized it was up to us to do what she would have done. I knew she would have comforted a newly bereaved parishioner whom I knew only slightly. With trepidation, I ventured out of my introvert shell to offer support. Others stepped up too—ultimately filling, not the chaplain’s shoes, but our own. We grew into our potential selves, as we could not grow while there was an authority figure to do the work for us—although we had needed her to show us how and give us faith in ourselves.
This, I think, is why in John, chapter 16, Jesus says it’s good for the disciples that he’s going away, that his departure is necessary for the Advocate to come. The story of the disciples after the Resurrection is a kind of coming-of-age story, as they had to grow up and discover the Spirit of the risen Christ within, empowering them to act as Christ’s hands and feet and voice. And so it is with us. The Spirit, the Comforter and Guide, enters our hearts to lead us into the fullness of how we were created to live.
Until this happens, the mission of Jesus on earth is not complete. The vine needs to grow into and live in the branches as much as the branches need to reach down and dwell in the vine.
This brings us back to that marvelous image of groping, or feeling around for God. How does the branch that is you reach down and grope for your divine Root? How do you know when you’ve found it?
For me, recognition is a surprised awareness of interacting with something beyond the senses, beyond the self, and yet not other. It might be my conscience, abruptly sensing a big Stop sign in front of something I was about to do. I didn’t put the sign there, yet I recognize it. Or it might be the ambush of unexpected beauty, the heartrending sense of intangible beckoning.
I might recognize God when following a hunch launches me into a river that carries me through action after action. Or when stillness drops me down into peace beyond understanding.
I can’t force these experiences, and that’s part of how I know God is more than my imagination. Sometimes I have to wait for God to find me, and sometimes that wait seems very long. Then I feel marooned in the world. Yet surely one lesson of today’s readings is that we, in the world, are not separate from God. God moves in the world—in us—and we have our being in God.[20 second pause]
Let us turn to God in prayer.
For all who feel cut off from sources of spiritual nourishment, that the Spirit may find and fill them, we pray…
For a healing of political and ideological splits, that we may all know that we are in each other as surely as we are in God and God in us, we pray…
That the Spirit of wisdom may guide us through the mazes of conflicting information into clear and loving action, we pray…
For all the prayers in our book of intentions, we pray…
Please take a moment to add your own prayers…
O God in whom we live and move, and who lives and moves in us,
Receive these prayers, and the prayers we hold silently in our hearts.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Risen One. Amen.