Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2020
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
How difficult it must have been for the disciples, how much they had lost. They had more or less gotten used to Jesus’s public ministry in Galilee, itinerant preaching, large crowds, home visits, occasional confrontations, when he decided it was time to drop everything and uproot them to go to Jerusalem. Then they had to deal in short order with his passion and death, his presence among them in his resurrected body, and then his departure again with his ascension, which the Church will celebrate on Thursday. The disciples must have felt that the rug had been pulled out from under them too many times, that Jesus was finding one confounding way after another to leave them. So I would imagine that if, after his ascension, they remembered him saying, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me,” They might have felt not hopeful and excited, but doubtful, cynical, or despondent. Even now, or perhaps especially now, the promises Jesus makes in today’s Gospel can sound to us like wishful thinking, awkwardly out of tune with our own sense of loss. Like most people of faith, I miss the experiences and places where I feel closest to God. I miss being in church, I miss celebrating the Eucharist, I miss singing and praying with you, and I also regret that I will not be able to go on retreat or visit other places where I feel especially close to God anytime soon. Many of us have places like this. When I think we could have returned to Navajoland this year, my heart aches, and aches all over again when I think of how hard the pandemic is hitting there. I also feel gratitude for every holy place I’ve been privileged to visit, and hope that someday I’ll be able to revisit them, and visit new ones. I was so glad that when I went on sabbatical I was able to take Lynn’s advice to make a retreat at Christ in the Desert Monastery, and I know that several others of you cherish our own Adelynrood and Society of Saint John the Evangelist, as I do. Still others might think of Iona, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Lourdes, Taizé, or Canterbury. And then there’s the ultimate pilgrimage destination, the Holy Land, one of a few places I’m happy merely to be. Glad I took so many pictures. It’s become common for people to call places where we feel particularly close to God “thin places,” and while it’s not a term I tend to use, I absolutely understand how it can feel like the veil between God’s world and ours is thinner in some places than others. There’s just one problem. There is no veil. The universe God created is no less God’s world than heaven, and God permeates both of them, filling them completely. It’s unusual to find comfort in ideas that overturn our most cherished notions, but we live in unusual times, and I find great comfort in reclaiming this profound understanding of the omnipresence of God. Feeling God’s absence is an affirmation of the unique way God is present; God’s immanence is hiddenness. My theology professor, the Rev. Dr. Kathrine Sonderegger, explains it beautifully. She writes, “It is a striking fact that God cannot be seen in the cosmos. God is not an Object encountered in the world of creatures, nor in the vast silence of the limitless space of the universe. God is not located in the cosmos as are bodies, nor are there extensions where God is more ‘concentrated,’ so to say. Despite much loose talk about ‘thin places on the earth,’ or ‘God-saturated space,’ there is not ‘more God’ in some places rather than others, ‘more God’ in vast stretches of the universe than in tiny places of the earth. Whatever we must say later about the dwelling places of Almighty God, about His manifestation as Word and Gift to His creatures, we may not depart from this fundamental truth of the Lord’s Oneness: He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One.”* Let me interrupt Dr. Sonderegger to note that a permanently visible God is a limited and vulnerable God, as the Passion of Jesus dramatically illustrates. God chose not to dwell permanently in Creation as the Incarnate One, but the way of being which God gloriously left behind in the Ascension of Jesus is the one in which modern atheism attempts to define the God it refutes. Modern atheists invent and denigrate a variety of straw-man gods like “an old man in the sky” who punishes bad behavior, or the “god of the gaps,” whose sole purpose is to explain phenomena which humans do not understand — never mind that Christians don’t believe in those pathetic caricatures either. Ironically, Dr. Sonderegger goes on, “This insight into divine Oneness, though to be sure testified in Scripture, is the particular charism of the modern age. As the scriptural struggle is waged against idolatry in every form, so the struggle in the modern age, particularly in the West, is waged against the visibility of God. This is the theological significance of atheism in the contemporary world. … Atheism testifies to the truth of the One God, his invisible Deity and Power, because God will not be left without His witnesses—even here, even in indifference and defiance. Modern atheism, even against its will, glorifies God in this way.”* While Dr. Sonderegger wrote this before the current pandemic, I think it is especially applicable to our experience now. We may not be atheists, but our doubts and our own sense of loss glorify God. They also proclaim God’s unique way of existing in God’s created world. And while I still believe that God can be present in special ways, that the Eucharist is worthy of all the reverence we can offer, that the reverence God commanded in the Temple was likewise justified, that Jesus himself was justified at the inauguration of his ministry in quoting Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” I am profoundly comforted and challenged to know that the loss I feel — the loss we feel — is only a feeling and not a true loss. How wonderful it always is to hear, “Help is on the way!” We are profoundly comforted indeed, for while God is astonishingly omnipresent, and Jesus was a great advocate, he has indeed given us another Advocate who will be with us for ever, a Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, a Spirit who abides not in the sky, nor in any pilgrimage destination, but within us. And better yet, far from being limited to especially holy places, if anything, the Holy Spirit is pleased to intervene when we most need spiritual help. Just as Jesus was not content to share humanity’s suffering and bring grace to the world, “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,” setting free the captives of hell and making God’s victory over sin and death utterly and radically complete. You can’t be a good advocate if you don’t show up where you’re needed. Our God is both closer to us and more worthy of worship than our minds can grasp, but in faith we can indeed hold closely to the one who holds our souls in life. An encounter with the Holy Spirit, then, requires not travel, but prayer. The Spirit will transform us with grace and set us free from sin and despair; we only need to ask. As we transition from Easter through Ascensiontide to Pentecost, I invite you to experiment with praying to the Holy Spirit, which is also praying with the Holy Spirit. If you don’t know where to start, start by offering thanks and praise that God would choose to abide with us, and then offering your faith, hope, and joy that the Spirit will transform your soul. *Sonderegger, Katherine. Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God: 1 (pp. 52-53). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.