Sermon–May 25, 2014


Easter 6—Year A

May 25, 2014

William Bradbury


Acts 17:22-31 
Psalm 66:7-18 
1 Peter 3:13-22 
John 14:15-21 

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” 1Peter 3:18 Who is this God Jesus is bringing us to? There is something in us that resists asking this question. We assume we’ll  look ignorant asking it.

But if Jesus is supposed to bring us to God it might be okay to ask, Who is this God?

Yet I grew up being told not who is God but what is God—god was described with big words: God is omnipotent which means all powerful; omniscient, which means all knowing; omnipresent, which means present everywhere. This God was also described as impassable, which means he’s not subject to suffering, or pain and cannot change.

Like the Hymn: Immortal, invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”

In short the picture painted was of a god I could think about but not a god who I could have a relationship with. This god is created in the categories of the Greek philosophical tradition and not in the categories of the Bible: justice, compassion, covenant love, mercy, and forgiveness.

We see Paul today in Athens struggling to connect with his Greek listeners by quoting their own poets who say “In god we live and move and have our being….”

I believe this to be true. God is like the water that surrounds the fish.

Yet, this doesn’t tell us who this ever-present, all-powerful, all-knowing god is like. Does this god have a personality that can be known or is this god just a philosophical principle that is as colorless and odorless as air?

The God that freed Israel and led them through the wilderness had character, but the one Plato dealt with, not so much.

And if god is thought of like a philosophical principle then the son Jesus can become equally distant and inaccessible.

The image of Jesus  I was taught was of a man who was smart and caring to be sure, but also nice, and somewhat bland. [In his poem lamenting the conquest of Christianity over the Roman gods] A C Swineburne a 19th century English poet said of Jesus: “O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath”.

To imitate this Jesus meant don’t make waves or challenge the system.

For me as a teenager it meant don’t you dare be like those radical anti-war, anti-establishment hippies.

The word I got was like the word the cat standing next to his kitty litter gets from his owner in a New Yorker cartoon: “Don’t ever, ever think outside the box.”

This Jesus would never hang around long haired protestors who fought against the money-making, war-making machine i.e. the military industrial complex we were warned about by President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address on January 17, 1961.

Jesus was well-behaved, and nice—like Wally and the Beaver if you can remember back that far or like Sheldon and his friends now.

But when we allow the New Testament to speak for itself we see that this Jew from Nazareth was anything but bland: he ran away from his parents when he was 12 years old so he could spend more time in the Temple and when his parents rounded him up he smart-mouthed them by saying: “Where else should I be?”

His hometown was so infuriated with him after he preached his first sermon there they wanted to push him over a cliff. But he just turns into the crowd and looks at each person as if to say, “Are you man enough to push me? How about you, there, are you going to do it?” And the crowd parts in front of him.

It takes a real man to pull this off!

He stands up to another lynch mob and says, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” That crowd also melts away like butter on a hot rock.

He hung out with sinners and the sick but we usually don’t think about what sort of person it takes to do such things.

I don’t find it easy to talk to a crazy looking homeless person holding out their Dunkin Donut cup looking for some change? How easy is it to get to know the Iraq vet with an artificial leg that stands asking for money outside the Raleigh airport?

No pale Galilean could do any of this. And if this is the son, what must the father be like?

The gospels invite us to turn things around: Instead of looking at God to know who Jesus is, let’s look at Jesus to know who God is.

The Gospels present Jesus as a man whose imagination is filled with the utter vivaciousness of God so he is not afraid to be around  human suffering.   

Jesus lives with his imagination full of the aliveness of God and willingly goes to his death so that our imaginations might also be possessed by that same image of the Living God.

Theologian James Alison says, “Jesus didn’t come to tell us that God is our Father. That is excessively banal. He came to create the possibility that God in fact be our Father, or rather, that we could really become God’s children.” Raising Abel, page 64.Alison, in addition to being a brilliant young theologian is  a Roman Catholic priest from England who is also a gay man.

Those who are filled with God’s life are those who stop excluding the other and instead form communities of forgiveness and acceptance that include the other—whoever the other is—even if that other has new ideas about how to do things at church.

 Jesus goes to the cross and is raised from the dead to awaken in us the possibility of living such a Jesus-shaped life.

But now at the Last Supper Jesus faces a problem: How is his motley crew going to build such a community after he is gone?

His answer is: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. This 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.”

The Spirit is given to possess our imaginations with the aliveness of God in Christ so we can bear witness to the world of another way to live, the non-violent way of healing and forgiveness.

You and I are quite good at filling our imaginations with all our problems.  After all what would we think about if we weren’t worrying?

We think this is normal.

So we are not as practiced with using our imagination to picture the passionate alive energy of God in Jesus present with us and for us.

James Alison says “this is what we understand by faith: the keeping open of our mind and imagination to the utter vivaciousness and deathlessness of God.” Ibid, Page 60-61

Jesus comes to create this belief in us. We watch him live this way  and then we know in Christ we can live this way too through the Holy Spirit.

So—I invite you to experiment with using your imagination as an instrument of faith.

For instance, one practice that you might find helpful is to imagine Jesus right now standing next to you with his hand on your shoulder.

Can you sense his presence? Can you feel his touch?

Imagine that through his touch he is communicating to you the things he says in the gospels—things like “you are my friend”, “trust in me for I am the good shepherd”. “I am the bread of life” and “seek first the kingdom and all things will be added unto you.”

“Don’t worry about tomorrow” and “be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful.” “Your sins are forgiven.” “Peace be with you, my own peace I leave with you.”

His hand is always there—and here’s another thing to imagine: Jesus standing next to every person in the room with his hand on their shoulder. And when we leave church notice that Jesus has his hand on everyone we see—even those who don’t believe in him.

This is no weak hand of the passive and polite—this is the hand that reached out and touched the leper; that took the bread and broke it for 5000 sitting on the grass.

This is the hand that took the nails for us.

This is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.