Easter 7 May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-34                                                                      

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-171, 20-21                                       

John 17:20-26

“I just had a general question for you,” said the email I got last week. “Is it possible to not believe in God, but to believe in Jesus Christ and in good vs. evil?”

What a wonderful question – and always good to get questions from people, especially ones like this that go right to the heart of things. And a specially wonderful question for this Sunday, which I like to think of as “God has gone away” Sunday. This is the Sunday in the Christian year between the Ascension, last Thursday, and Pentecost, next Sunday. The Ascension celebrates Jesus going up to heaven after the resurrection, to “sit at the right hand of God,” as the Creeds put it. Pentecost celebrates the sending of the Holy Spirit of God to be with us here on earth. So, in between, God has in a sense gone away.

We might also call it “home alone” Sunday. And let’s be honest, we operate a lot of the time – most of us anyway – as though God had gone away (if there even is a God) and we’re left home alone. And like that movie of Home Alone, as though bad guys might break in to rob and murder us. I was thinking this past week about how much I operate on the assumption that I have to fix everything and make everyone happy and provide for my own security and the security of my family. How I even take on myself responsibility for solving all the “out there” problems of the world – national debt, climate change, the oil spill, religious conflict, immigration. At least I feel I have to have an opinion on everything and a solution to everything. A terrible burden! Home alone indeed! Where is God? Gone away. So what an important question: Is it possible to not believe in God, but to believe in Jesus Christ and good versus evil—in a moral sense of right and wrong? How do we begin to answer it?

I would begin by saying that God in the abstract, God as a concept, requires a special kind of believing. God in the abstract is almost more of a question or a possibility than anything else – a mystery with a capital M, as my theology professor used to say. If we’re looking for a God who can explain why bad things happen to good people, a God we can pray to and feel comforted, a God we can all agree about – well, this God in the abstract isn’t going to do it for us. We try to believe in that kind of God and we come up sort, like the woman who sent me the email.

But if we think of this God as question or Mystery, then he (or she, or for these purposes even it) becomes like a door that leads us into deeper layers of questions and possibilities. What is it that makes life, life? That makes love, love? That leads human beings to seek to distinguish between good and evil? That makes us seek meaning beyond the surface senselessness of bad things happening to good people (and good things to bad people)? God as question or Mystery invites us, tantalizes us, is there and not there. We can never believe in this God in these sense of having him within our grasp, but we can seek him, want him, even trust and hope in him. As St. Paul said, we can believe that some day we shall see this God face to face. This is believing, but a special kind of believing. And this God is what Christianity calls God the Father. God in the abstract, but an active, living abstract if you will – God beyond our knowing, but God calling us, God there whether or not we can believe in him on any particular day.

This God is pretty much a universal accompaniment to human life, at all times and in all cultures. We human beings seem made with a yearning for this God and a desire to relate to him. Human beings through the ages have pursued that desire in many ways. For us as Christians, the principal way is through Jesus Christ. I was brought up as a Unitarian, so Jesus as God – God the Son, in formal terms – was not a natural idea for me. But as I’ve gone through life I’ve centered more and more on Jesus, particularly when the abstract idea of God has left me doubtful, feeling home alone.

I very much understand the woman who sent the email, when she says that she can believe in Jesus more readily than in God in the abstract. Here in Jesus, in a human person I can identify with, is something – someone! – who answers my needs. He helps me discern right from wrong, gives me guidance in living. More profoundly, he helps me turn suffering into something that deepens me; with him in my life I am more able to be patient, to be forgiving, to be courageous and strong, to resist selfishness and despair, to be generous and outgoing. Even if there were no God, it would be enough for me to have Jesus.

But of course Jesus himself connected constantly and in the most complete and intimate way with God the Father. For him, God was not abstract. He was “Abba,” which in Aramaic is an intimate, endearing word for Father. Jesus, as he says in the gospel this morning, makes God known to us; he embodies God in human form, our form – God the concrete, God incarnate, the opposite of God in the abstract.

We live in a world that is in many ways ruled by abstractions – things beyond our understanding or control, things that dehumanize and separate us. So God as an abstraction may seem not only difficult for us, but off-putting. But the real meaning of saying that Jesus has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand is that Jesus is available, through the Holy Spirit, for all people in all places and all ages. He is no longer limited in time and space. And all things are in his loving hands, even you and even me.

I got another interesting inquiry last week, this one about baptism. Would I baptize someone’s daughter, someone who had not gone to any church for many years. My answer – and I discovered that other churches had been giving the same answer – was that we love to baptize people, but baptism requires an on-going commitment to participation in the life of a church community.

That’s puzzling to people who grew up in the days when baptism was regarded as a sort of magic ticket to heaven. But it has everything to do with what we’ve been talking about. Baptism is not an abstract, a sprinkling with water. Baptism is a life, a human life, a full way of life. We grow in it day by day, year by year. As we like to say here at Holy Cross, Christianity is about Belonging first, Behaving (that is distinguishing between right and wrong) second, and only third about Believing – because we come to believe in stages, deeper and deeper all our lives. And finally, Christianity is about Becoming – growing into the fullness of Christ, into citizenship in the kingdom of God.

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