Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14
“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.
Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.
But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.
When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.
And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?
So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.
Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.
In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.
Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.
And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)
So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.
And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know. Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.
And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.