Jan. 20, 2019
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Cor 12: 1-11; John 2:1-11.
What Are We Believing When We Say that “God Loves Us”?
The topic, or the question, that I’d like to explore with you this morning can serve as the title for this sermon: What are we believing when we say that “God loves us”?
That’s a question that I found myself struggling with when I pondered this morning’s first reading from Isaiah about God’s love for God’s people.
I want to explain my problem, but then I want to the go on to also explain how the other two readings, from Paul and John, enable me to deal with, and I think resolve, my problem.
So this is going to be a rather personal homily. And that’s a bit dangerous. I run the risk of imposing my problems and questions on you, possibly creating problems. So please, bear with me carefully and take what I have to say for what you think it’s worth.
Today’s reading from Isaiah Chapter 62 carries on the message we heard last week from Isaiah Chapter 43. Last Sunday we heard God tell the people “You are precious in my sight…I love you.” (43:4)
This declaration of love is deepened in today’s passage. This chapter of Isaiah was written in very difficult times for the Jews. They had just returned from some 50 years of captivity in Babylon, so about 535 BCE; Jerusalem was in a shambles; the Temple was destroyed; foreigners had moved into the city and surroundings. As the reading puts it: the people felt they were “forsaken” and the land “desolate.”
And in the midst of this mess, Isaiah announces, in beautiful poetic language, that they shall be a “crown of beauty” and a “royal diadem in the hands of God.” “God delights in you ….As one rejoices in marrying one’s beloved, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
This language, like all language about Ultimate Reality or God, is poetic. And the poetry is, understandably, heavily anthropocentric – God is imaged as a person, a most high Being, a Lover. We’re told we shouldn’t take such language literally, but we should take it seriously.
That’s my problem. If we’re not to take it literally, how do we take it seriously? In the way such language is used in teaching, in preaching, in liturgy, it sure feels like we’re taking it literally.
God is talked about as one would talk about a person, though God would be a super-person — a being or super-being that looks over us, protects us as a parent – an all-powerful parent, of course, who loves us.
I can’t help but feel uneasy with the implications of such language. If God is a loving, almighty mother or father always protecting us, he/she sure seems to allow a lot of her children to fall through the cracks of horrible suffering. And God as a being who directs, and sometimes intervenes into, creation doesn’t seem to fit what science tells us about the uncontrollable and unpredictable randomness of matter/energy, both on the subatomic and the cosmic levels. There’s no trace of “someone” controlling or directing it all, or intervening into it.
This is where I think back to something my teacher Karl Rahner talked about. He said that when one experiences the absence of God, it’s probably because one’s image of God is no longer working.
The image of God as a divine loving Person above me or in front of me is no longer working for me.
That doesn’t mean that I want to abandon or throw out such imagery or language. Certainly not. It’s part of our tradition. I want to take it seriously. I want to be able to feel what it’s getting at, what it’s pointing to, beyond its literal meaning.
And this is where the readings from Paul and John come to my rescue.
The symbol, or the poetry, that Paul uses for a loving God in this passage from his letter to the Corinthians is not “Father” (though he certainly uses that symbol) but Spirit.
He tells the Corinthians that all the activities, all the abilities and gifts that people bring to the community, are being “activated” or generated by a Spirit that is operating within them and through them.
The Greek word that Paul used to describe what these Corinthian Jesus-followers could feel within themselves is “energein.” Our reading translates that as “activates.” Really and more literally, “energizes.” There’s one sentence in this reading that is particularly powerful: the Spirit is that which “energizes everything in everyone” – “panta en pasin.”
God understood as Spirit is an energy that we can feel within ourselves, as part of ourselves, for this Spirit indwells and lives and acts in and through us. This activating energy, as it were, blends with our energies; it is experienced in and through our own energies. There is what Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault call “a non-duality” between Spirit-energy and my energy.
And one of the best words to describe the energy of this indwelling, co-inhering Spirit is Love.
This Spirit is a loving energy that holds and infuses us, assuring us that we are loved and at the same time enabling, indeed urging, us to connect with others in loving service. The Spirit is a connecting, affirming energy. That’s what Love is.
God understood as Spirit does not control from the outside, but animates and inspires from the inside. A Spirit God does not intervene into the world, but comes forth from within the world through us. The Spirit does not work miracles for us but can work miracles through us.
Also, as James Finley puts it: such a God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.
But you may rightly ask, as I ask myself, how can I know that this is true? How can I myself experience and feel this Spirit-God active within me and through me? – Here is where I find help in our third reading from John.
The wedding at Cana is a beautiful story, almost home-spun in its dynamic between mom and son, and in the generosity of Jesus in providing about 150 gallons of wine. If there were 200 guests, that would make for about 25 glasses per person. — Jesus knew how to throw a party!
The purpose of this story for John is to serve as the first of many “signs” by which people would see who Jesus really was and would come, as the final verse tells us, “to have faith in”, i.e. to trust, him.
For me, the main point of the story is summarized in Mary’s urging: “Do whatever he tells you.”
For his mother and disciples then, as for us today, this Jesus of Nazareth is trustworthy because he shows us what a human being looks like and how a human being acts when a human being is fully in touch with and is an expression of the Spirit-energy that is given to us all. As Marcus Borg puts it: Jesus was a Spirit-person. That’s why he so impacted people and stirred their attention and gained their trust.
So, following Mary’s directive: What does this Jesus tell us to do? Summarizing his message in the Gospel, I think he tells us to do two basic things:
First, to trust that indeed God is an indwelling Spirit of Love that is always available to us, always holding and sustaining and guiding us. No matter what.
The only way we can know that that is true is to trust that it is true. We know by trusting. We know with our hearts not our heads. So trust, and see what happens.
And secondly, Jesus tells us to do what he did at the wedding of Cana: serve others, love your neighbor as yourself. Let the Spirit extend its love through you.
By loving others we can feel the Spirit-Love that connects us all.
So it is by trusting in the Spirit and by acting as the Spirit that our awareness of the Spirit will grow.
Every celebration of the Eucharist is such a trusting and acting. In the breaking of bread and sharing in the cup we are one with Jesus and with the Spirit that energized him and can energize us. …. Let us gather now around the table to rekindle the Spirit of Jesus within us and among us.