Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Abiding Presence

Abiding Presence
John 14:15-21, Acts17:22-31[1]
One of the questions that has occupied the attention of the human family, especially in the modern era, is one that haunts us: “Are we alone in the universe?” Some think that we are, or at least that there is a relatively small chance that other worlds capable of sustaining intelligent life exist. Others think that the probabilities based on the sheer number of galaxies in the universe demand that there are many planets out there with intelligent life. We may never know the answer to the question “Are we alone” viewed from this perspective
But I wonder if the fact that this question has been framed almost exclusively from a scientific point of view has kept us from finding an answer. The message of Scripture is that we have never been truly “alone.” It’s the point of our faith in creation: a God beyond our understanding created all of the worlds that are and us along with them as an act of love. This means that by definition, this creator God seeks a relationship with us. Beyond that, it’s also the point of our faith that Jesus is “God-with-us.” The incarnation teaches us that God does not choose to leave us on our own to try to grope in the darkness for some kind of meaning to life. And the ongoing work of the Spirit in each of our lives reminds us constantly of God’s promise of his abiding presence with us.  
Our Scripture lessons for today reinforce this promise of God’s abiding presence. In St. Paul’s sermon to the Greeks in Athens, he uses the fact that they had a shrine dedicated to “an unknown God” as an opportunity to proclaim to them the God who must have seemed very strange to them: a God who is both exalted and yet intimately involved in the lives of ordinary people. Paul begins by insisting that this “unknown” God whom he wants to make known to them is “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). This must have seemed to be a strange God indeed, for the Greek deities were thought to be powerful, but they were hardly concerned about humanity.
But the “unknown” God whom Paul seeks to introduce to the people of Athens is a God who cares very much about all creation, humanity included.  In fact, the whole reason why this God created humanity was to have a relationship with them. The Apostle puts it this way: “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, ... so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). The idea is that from the orderliness and beauty of nature, as well as from the mystery of their own experience, somehow people would be able to discern that behind it all stood a creator who loved them.
And to emphasize the point, he quoted one of their own poets: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This was something that most people of his day and time very likely didn’t believe. They believed the “gods” lived on Mount Olympus, beyond their reach, but close enough to meddle in human affairs. But St. Paul presents the God of the Scriptures as one who is intimately involved in human life. As one contemporary observer puts it, we live in a “God-bathed world.”[2]  The God in whose presence we constantly live is the one who cares for and nurtures all creation.
Jesus offered the same message to his disciples in our Gospel lesson. In this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his followers for his imminent departure. Part of that preparation was a challenge, and part of it was assurance. The challenge was that those who follow him and who love him will “keep his commandments” (John 14:15). When we put his teachings into practice in our day-to-day living, then our love for God and for Jesus Christ truly define who we are. But this can seem to be an impossible challenge to those of us who realize that we are fallible mortals.
Fortunately, it’s not a do-it-yourself project. Jesus promised the disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). The Spirit is with us always to help us fulfill our commitment to follow Jesus by putting his teachings into practice. Not only does Jesus promise to give them the “Spirit of Truth” who will live in them, he also promises that his presence will be with them as well. Then he makes what must have been an astonishing statement to a group of Jewish fishermen: when he comes to them they would know “that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:20). In other words, not only would they enjoy his continued presence in their lives. They would also share with him in the relationship he had with the Father. And that is a presence that abides with us constantly.
Jesus promised that through him we can enjoy the abiding presence of the Spirit. He is the one who makes it clear that our God is as close to us as the air we are breathing. The idea that we mortals could possibly have a relationship with the “Lord of heaven and earth” is one that is just as astonishing today as it was then. And yet it is entirely consistent with the witness of the Scriptures. The promise of the Spirit is that the breath of life fills us always. The promise of our Creator is that there is no place that is outside the realm of God’s loving care.  The promise of our resurrected Savior is that wherever we are, he is with us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love. We are never alone in the universe. Every moment of every day we enjoy the abiding presence of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/21/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 61, 78, 90.

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