“The Elusive God?” A Sermon on Acts 17:16-34 and John 14:15-21

When I was in 9th grade, the high school band took a tour to Chicago. One of the things we did there was a trip to the Chicago Institute of Art, which was my first ever trip to an art museum. The Renaissance and impressionist art seemed familiar and while I enjoyed seeing it, it didn’t get me terribly excited. But then I wandered around a corner and came to a painting of an elderly man playing a guitar. He was thin and sad and twisted into strange angles, and the whole painting was in shades of grayish blue. I had discovered Picasso and his Old Guitarist. And I just stood in front of that painting and stared and stared, until a friend came back for me because our group had moved far ahead. “It’s just…so…beautiful!” I told her. She looked at the painting, and at me, and replied, “Beautiful? It’s so depressing!”

It was clear that beauty really was in the eye of the beholder. And while my taste in art still leans distinctly toward the modern and contemporary, I have friends whose very definition of beauty is complete in paintings by Monet – while the best thing I can say about most of his pieces is, “That’s pretty, I guess.”

I think we all want beauty in our lives. Many of us go to great lengths to find it or collect it or cultivate it in some way. We seek beauty by creating art or traveling or gardening or caring about our fashion or our home decor. And yet, what is beauty? Can you define it? Perhaps you might describe what you find beautiful, but can you describe what beauty is?

And this is true of many of the things we pursue with the most fervor. What is happiness? I might tell you what makes me happy, but getting to the essence of happiness is much harder. And love. I could tell you what or who I love. I could tell you about my experiences of love. But even just my own experiences of love are so varied that it would be impossible to come to a single, simple explanation of what love is.  

The things we want the most, our highest ideals, it seems, are the hardest things to define, or to really understand. But we keep trying to know beauty and to know happiness and to know love, as elusive as they may sometimes be.

I think our pursuit of the divine is often much the same. As long as there have been humans, we have looked for ways to know the creative force beyond ourselves. We’ve called her or him or it or them by a million different names, and described the divine in infinite ways. Even just within the Christian tradition, there are seemingly endless ways of describing God and talking about what God does and what God wants; I guess that’s why we keep preaching and listening to sermons over and over every week, each one a different, even if we’re preaching on the same text. Yesterday I asked on Facebook what the gospel is, which seems like it should be simple for Christians to answer, and I got about forty different responses.

But we keep trying to articulate who God is, and to know God, to have some experience of God that helps us grasp the nature and will of God. The best of our musicians and artists and poets try to give us glimpses of that something beyond us. Our philosophers and theologians use words to get at a larger reality. And each of us works within ourselves and with our communities to understand the connection we have to the divine. But often even those of us who have a strong faith and a regular spiritual practice wonder, how can we know God? Because like beauty, or happiness, or love, God is elusive – somehow both always present and never definable.

Even the two passages we read today have between them many answers about how we know God. I think most sermons would probably focus on knowing God through the person of Jesus, which makes total sense but which I’m not going to do today, or knowing God through the work of the Holy Spirit, which is also great but in this case leads down a rabbit trail of, “But how do we know when it’s the Spirit?” So, I’m going to talk about three of the other ways of knowing God that all show up to some degree in both of these passages, and that tend I to get less attention.

The first way has the least material but I think might be the most interesting, at least I’m finding it most interesting this week. Both Paul and Jesus suggest that one of the ways we know God is through the search to know God – that we know God by wanting to know God. Paul tells the Athenians that humans are created by God this way, with our boundaries of time and space set so that we might “search for God, and perhaps grope and find God.”

Jesus is addressing the looming question of how the disciples will know God when he is gone, and earlier in the chapter, Thomas asks flat out, “How do we get to God? We do not know the way.” And Jesus’ answer is, “I am the way.” The seeking is the finding. The path is the destination. Sometimes I think Jesus was sharing some notes with eastern religious mystics. But there’s a real sense in both of these passages that part of knowing God is realizing that we care about whether we know God, and that the search itself tells us something about who God is.  

Now, the people that Paul encountered in Athens were practically obsessed with knowing, in general. Their city was filled with temples and images of the Greek gods, pieces of art meant to help them understand things about the divine. And they were a people of ideas, who had formed the Areopagus as a center where everyone could come and listen to the latest philosophies. In case they missed anything in their search to know everything, they put up an altar to an unknown god, and it’s this that Paul uses when he tries to address their search for knowledge of the divine. “You have all these statues and temples to tell you who the gods are, but the one you got right is this empty, unnamed altar to your own uncertainty.” This God cannot be contained in statues or temples or works of human hands or even in the loftiest of human ideas. And yet, this God can be known, because this God desires to be known and chooses to be known.  And how? Through our living, and moving, and having our being. God chooses to be known in us, in our very life and breath.

And so the second way that we come to know God in these passages is through God choosing to live in us. This is also Jesus’ answer to the disciples wondering what they will do and how they will know God after Jesus is gone. Jesus assures them that God will still be with them because God has chosen to live in them.

Paul and Jesus are talking to such different audiences in these passages, and in some ways the message comes out very differently – which has at times created some consternation. When we think of knowing, we think of certainty, the ability to explain something and hold it as absolute fact. And people of faith have a long history of wanting to be able to proclaim a single definition of God as absolute and universal.  

But beauty and happiness and love can’t be known in that way, and neither can God. And some of that has to do with the way that God chooses to be known, through our living and moving and having being, through living within us. Because if God created and breathes through each of us, God is as many different things as we are and is known in as many different ways as we are able to know.

Which brings us to a third way that we come to know God, which is through following Jesus’ commandments.

Now, I’m fairly new here, but I don’t get the feeling that this is a church full of people who think, “Oh yay, rules!” Sometimes we have an adverse reaction to the word “commandments,” so Jesus comes across as saying, “You know me when you adhere to all the rules.” And conversely, if you don’t do all the right things, you don’t know God; that’s how a lot of Christians have interpreted this passage. But I’m going to propose to you that he means something a little different here. Let’s think about the things that Jesus told his disciples to do. Heal the sick, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, bring good news, serve, love. Most of all, love – and love is the frame for this whole gospel passage. The assumption is that Jesus is revealed in loving relationship, not in blind following of instructions. These aren’t rules or orders; they’re reminders from someone who knows and loves us, to be the best versions of ourselves.

So when he says that we know God and God knows us when we keep the commandments, I think what Jesus is really saying is that we know God most clearly through the best things about ourselves. When we’re acting out of love for God and for each other, the God who is always present in us is most visible, to us and to those around us.

As a pastor, people sometimes come to me to tell me that they feel the absence or abandonment of God. I think this is pretty common and natural, and actually there are whole books about how this dark night of the soul can be in itself a way of meeting God. I’ll preach about that some other time. But from time to time, when someone tells me they can’t seem to sense the presence of God, I will ask them if they’ve tried doing something for someone else who can’t do anything in return. It’s not always that simple, but it is my experience that God shows up when we do the things of God – when we act as God’s hands and feet and presence in the world. When God is seen and heard and touched through us, and when we experience God in the ones we love and serve, then the God in whom we all live and move and have our being becomes…obvious. God becomes known.

Let it be so in us, through us, and for us.

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