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Searching (and not searching) for God in the 21st Century: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 17, 2020:
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

In December, when I was in China — thankfully mostly in the north, and when the coronavirus was just a news story we heard about briefly, in passing — I visited a whole bunch of ancient sites associated with learning and religion. One of these sites was the Lama Temple in Beijing, which is part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. There, and in other similar places, you would have these vast courtyards connected by multiple pathways. And on the periphery of these courtyards were buildings, usually housing historical artifacts, pieces of art, or, oftentimes, impressive religious statues. The most famous there is a several hundred year old King Kong-sized statue of the Buddha, beautifully painted and standing something like 60 feet high. All of this, it’s said, carved from a single sandalwood log. That must have been a big tree.

In the courtyards were stations where you could pick up sticks of incense. In addition to that sign of devotion, you could climb the stairs into the several buildings, and then kneel or stand in prayer before the statues, like the big one I mentioned, that represent the various buddhas, deities, or bodhisattvas (similar to our saints).

I was struck by the unmistakable devotion of the people. The busyness of the place immediately dissipated as soon as you crossed the threshold into one of the buildings that housed one or more statues. People exhibited a quiet yet public piety that we aren’t so used to seeing here in today’s world. And this isn’t some tiny rural village in the mountains I’m describing; this is Beijing, a modern city just as obsessed with technology and social media as we are (if not more).

It was a scene as close as I’ll probably ever get to something akin to St. Paul’s experience in Athens, at the Areopagus. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” his speech begins. Try pulling that on Bricker Avenue in Waterloo on St. Patrick’s Day. Good luck.

And it’s not just Buddhism that is popular in China. The churches, I found first-hand, are packed. Multiple services on Sundays, always at capacity. I visited two Roman Catholic and one evangelical church, and they’re not doing anything different than what we’d find here. Nothing theological, liturgical, musical, or technological to differentiate themselves from us. (What is different is that the Chinese lived through a period of forced separation from religious faith, and it seems that they’ve rediscovered it in recent years, after recognizing that secular communism didn’t answer all of the deep questions of human existence.) And that same piety that I saw at the temple was evident in the churches. “They would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him,” preached St. Paul to the Athenians. It is a concern among North American and European scholars, clergy, and laity alike that it seems that many of our citizens aren’t particularly concerned with searching and groping for God. We all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, St. Augustine would write, a few hundred years after Paul. But what happens when we stop caring, and just fill it with Instagram likes, Tinder, or Tiger King, or whatever else?

The three readings today address Christian concerns in slightly different contexts. St. Paul, in Acts, shows one way of articulating the gospel in a new situation. (Though again, a situation that might be more sympathetic than our own.)

The First Letter of Peter deals with how to live out one’s baptism in situations of adversity and persecution, and — even if we don’t agree with much of the counsel found in certain parts of the letter — how to conduct oneself as a Christian when part of a household, whether as a husband, wife, slave, or whatever other role.

And our portion from John’s Gospel is about how do you continue on — beginning with the apostles: how would they continue on — in the absence of Jesus. (And falling as it does in our church calendar, it’s pointing us toward this Thursday, when we’ll observe the Ascension of Jesus, where he leaves earth and is united with the Father.)

The gospel reading picks up right after last week’s. And you’ll recall how that started: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” The disciples are distraught. And Jesus continues to reassure them in what we read this week: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

The comfort that Jesus is going to provide is, he says, the Paraclete, or the Advocate: the Holy Spirit. Words that we don’t use all the time, especially the first one. But think of an advocate, like someone who stands up for you. Or the “para” in “Paraclete,” similar to “parallel.” The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is an ‘alongsider,’ there with us.

The Holy Spirit fills that God-shaped hole that Augustine wrote about. An Anglican theologian from the 20th century, Austin Farrer, described it beautifully, saying that the Holy Spirit’s “action is like the rising water of the tide, ready to fill every cranny that opens in the reef it engulfs, yet forcing no openings that are not offered.”*

At the same time, Jesus says: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him,” or “forcing no openings that are not offered,” as Farrer put it. So the Holy Spirit may well comfort and equip us, insofar as we open our lives to God, but that same Spirit will not compel the world to convert with the snap of the fingers. That’s not how an alongsider or advocate works. Think of how a lawyer, at the end of the day, needs to follow the lead of the person being represented, rather than force what he or she thinks is best.

So the world may not see, or recognize, or feel the Holy Spirit. But the world does see us. And that’s where we might skip back to the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” If, at some point, your integrity, your compassion, your wisdom is noticed by someone, are you able to articulate, in a few sentences, your hope, your trust in the Christian way? To put it more bluntly: in a world that works against it, with a Bible that seems kind of wacky, and an institution that is far from perfect, what is it that gives you life in the Christian faith?

And there’s a challenge in the reading today: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Our trust in and commitment to the Church isn’t just about feeling good, and everything being rosy. Because we know that in churchland, things aren’t necessarily always perfect, to say the least. But the Jesus who calls us to follow his commandments is calling us, not just to obedience, but to a firm, solid relationship, rather than a fickle one. “In sickness and health, ‘til death do us part,” sort of commitment. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says. And so we’re not just religious consumers. We’re not just passive spectators. We’re not just fair-weather friends. No, we’re the Church. If we’re not orphaned, then we’ve been adopted into God’s family. We’re invested in God’s project in and for the world. (The “family business,” to use a crude analogy.)

The commitment and obedience, the following of Jesus’ commandments, isn’t just an unthinking compliance, but it’s the outgrowth of our stake in God’s mission. As adopted children of God, with the Holy Spirit bringing us right into the relationship of the Father and the Son, God’s vision of reconciliation in the world becomes our vision. We work together, alongside each other, in a world that is disobedient and cruel, but also graced, and beautiful, and blessed.

Following the commandments of Jesus is no easy task. The peace activist Daniel Berrigan once said something like “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” That’s pretty stark. He wasn’t crucified, but he was on the FBI’s most wanted list for a while. And so in our fallibility, our struggles, but ultimately, our trust, we go back to our baptism that now saves us: “I will, with God’s help.” Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

*Saving Belief: A Discussion of Essentials (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964), 124.