Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
May 25, 2014
|Should be "Both are equally terrifying." but typo is embedded in graphic.|
British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” [Quoted in Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century (1999) by Michio Kaku, p. 295] People have wrestled with this fundamental human question from the dawn of civilization.
Until very recently, the scientific community considered the possibly that another planet could support life so unlikely as to be impossible. That never stopped science fiction writers from imagining extra-terrestrial life forms with intelligence superior to ours. Sometimes these were benevolent but often hostile. With technological advances prompting a flood of newly discovered planets and more detailed exploration, especially of Mars, not only is life elsewhere in space expected, serious scientists are searching for it, even if it is only bacteria or algae. We are excited to confirm that we are not alone in the universe.
Of course, humans have been inventing gods, angels and demons from time immemorial. Many of these supernatural beings are envisioned as capricious and selfish, malevolent and immoral. Many are to be feared and appeased but hardly loved. We read about Paul’s encounter with invented deities in Athens, where they erected an altar to an unknown God, just in case they missed one. Paul identified this as the God of creation who raised Jesus from the dead who is far beyond all human art and imagination. (Acts 17:29)
Many modern thinkers have asserted that the task of humanity come of age is to come to terms with being alone in the universe and accept that our lives, indeed the universe itself, are a gigantic, meaningless accident. This is not about disproving God’s existence but about how to live alone and absurd. William Ernest Henley expressed this in his 1875 (published 1888) poem Invictus, which begins:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
John did not record Jesus’ Last supper with his disciples as the synoptic Gospels did, but many think John 13-16 are Jesus’ conversation with his disciples at that Passover meal. Jesus was preparing his disciples to be alone after his crucifixion and, yes, after his ascension. In John 14:15-21, Jesus began his prolonged promise and teaching about the coming Holy Spirit.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
In verse 16, the NRSV calls the Holy Spirit “Advocate.” You may remember that KJV uses “Comforter.” RSV and NIV both use “Counselor.” All are legitimate translations of the Greek word Paraclete. This is one case in which Jesus may actually have spoken the Greek word rather than something from Aramaic. Before Jesus’ time, rabbis used paracletos as a loanword for an advocate before God, someone who came to your aid when you were in trouble and argued your cause in God’s courtroom.
This is one of the few passages in the New Testament that describe something of the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Certainly, the central theme is the love that flows between each of them and overflows to the community of faith from all of them. Uniquely in John, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit seem almost interchangeable. You don’t get just one, you get all three. In this passage they seem to flow seamlessly into each other. I am not going to try to explain this mystery, except to affirm that you are not alone in the universe. The Father has given the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus reveals himself to you, abides with you and is in you.
Between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection his disciples certainly felt alone, abandoned, orphaned in the universe. However, as dark and chaotic as Holy Saturday was, they were gathering and communicating with each other. Yes, erratically and in pain, but they hang onto each other when their whole world seemed to have collapsed. Overjoyed when the risen Jesus met them, they had no idea what they would face when he ascended and they were seemingly alone again. This time to attempt an impossible mission against insurmountable opposition. Very soon after Pentecost, Peter and John were preaching boldly and Acts 4:13 says that the Temple leaders recognized that they had been with Jesus. As Jesus said in John 14:17, the world neither saw nor knew him, but the Apostles knew that Jesus was still with them.
I am convinced that most people live as though they are alone in the universe. I think this sense of alienation and absurdity drives much anti-social behavior from senseless violence to despotic terrorism. I think it drives all-consuming achievement and accumulation of wealth. It also can drive moralism and altruism as people strive to create meaning for their hollow lives. Even highly religious people who believe in God’s existence can be driven to satisfy the empty space left if they neither see nor know God. We who have experienced God abiding in us will always be outsiders in the world that neither sees nor knows God, but we know we are not alone.
Jesus told his disciples that the world would no longer see him, but they would see him. As those who still see and know Jesus, we can expect to be misunderstood. We will be challenged to explain why Jesus is better than other spiritual leaders. People will oppose and resist us just as they did Jesus and the Apostles. We will be accused of being delusional.
For those in whom Jesus abides by the Holy Spirit, the Church is not a religious institution, but a community of those who know they are not alone and share a deep bond with others who know they are not alone in the universe. The Church is an alternate society of refuge for those who know we are not alone in the universe.
What we call “evangelism,” proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel is not about persuading people to accept correct facts about Jesus or become members of a church. Evangelism is loving people who feel alone in the universe and are searching and groping for God, to receive the love of Jesus and know they are not alone.
I would be surprised if several of you (especially women) had not read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, but I won’t ask for a show of hands. I confess I have not read it, but from what I have heard and read about it, it seems a classic account of someone feeling very alone and searching and groping for God, as Paul said in Acts 17:27. At 32 years old, divorcesdand dissatisfied with her career, she felt devastated and alone, she left everything for a year of global travel. The book’s popularity (187 weeks on the New York Times best seller list) is evidence of how many people identified with her quest. Jesus offers himself as the antidote to alienation, absurdity and aloneness. God assures us that we are not alone in the universe. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus reveals himself to you, abides with you and in you.
Love is the center of gravity for Jesus. We express our love for him by keeping his commandment, which is to love the others who love him, and indeed to love even our enemies. (John 15:12, Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27). We who express our love for Jesus by loving others will be loved by the Father. (v. 21) How cool is that!
Though Jesus spoke this to his disciples before his crucifixion, he clearly pointed ahead to his resurrection when he said, “because I live, you also will live.” (v. 19) In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote that there is no more meaning in death than there is in life. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to eternal life rolling a stone to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll to the bottom so he could start over. When Jesus spoke of eternal life and abundant life in John’s Gospel, his emphasis was not on duration but quality.
A couple of people in the church I served in NJ bought small apartment buildings, not as income property but as extensions of the church’s low income housing ministry. Renée lived on the third floor of one of these. She was a single mom with an addiction history who had bounced from one abusive relationship to another, never feeling she could manage without a domineering man. When a quarrel became physical, her then partner threw her out the third floor window, and she was hospitalized for weeks. Families in the church took in her children and sustained her physical recovery. With their encouragement, she addressed her addictions and gained the confidence to manage her own affairs and raise her children. With a new faith in Jesus, she found a supportive community in the church. Eventually, she got her GED and a stable job. Several years later, she met a Christian man with whom she established a healthy marriage and family life. Renée discovered she was not alone in the universe. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus revealed himself to her and abides with her and in her.