Neither Unknown Nor Unseen
Based on Psalm 66, Acts 17:22-31, 1Peter 3:13-22 John 14:15-21
A beloved professor was retiring from a distinguished career as an educator and mentor. A group of highly successful alumni who were closest to her gathered one morning with their wise teacher and friend to show their support and to celebrate all that she had meant to them. They spent some time in conversation with each other, and after a short while, the focus of the conversation turned to the alumni complaining about stress in their lives – both work and personal. After listening to their angst for a while, the professor asked if they would like something to drink. Hearing an almost unanimous affirmation, she had the staff bring in hot beverages and an assortment of cups. The professor then invited her former students to partake and they all made their way to grab a cup of their preferred liquid.
Upon arriving at the drink station, the alumni noticed that the cups went from very plain and generic looking to quite beautiful and refined. There were cups made from porcelain, ceramic, metal, plastic, glass and crystal – some that were quite expensive and exquisitely made…true works of art, some that cheap and had seen their better days. When each of her former students had their drink and had settled down again, the professor brought to their attention that all the nice or expensive looking cups had been chosen, leaving behind the plain and inexpensive ones.
It appears that the revered professor has one last bit of wisdom to share with her class, doesn’t it? Something about how we see and know in a worldly way versus a more spiritual one. A similar teaching is in our scripture readings today which have to do with things known and unknown, things seen and unseen by the worldly and those in the Spirit. Before we go any further, let us go to God to ask for our minds, ears, eyes and hearts to be open to what God has to teach us this morning. Won’t you please join me in prayer?
The writer of 1Peter is reinforcing the idea that a disciple must always be ready to tell non-believers or doubters why they have hope in Jesus. However, their explanation must be given with gentleness and reverence for the beliefs of the other so as to build a relationship versus win an argument. For the Christ suffered for all so that some (the righteous) might be brought to see and know of God through God’s grace. For Jesus died in the flesh but became alive again in the Spirit – so we through our baptisms die to our worldly lives to become alive in Jesus through the power of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul is in Athens touring the city and speaking to the men gathered at the Areopagus. The Areopagus is a hill in Athens where at that time the chief magistrates met to discuss the business of the day. Paul begins by flattering them for their piety and the amount of worship that occurred in that great city. He noted an altar “to an unknown god” which was commonplace in that time. It was felt that not every god could be known and no god should be left out because that could bring harm down upon the city and its people. Paul goes on to explain that their “unknown god” is the One true God who created all things. Paul states emphatically that all are searching for this God – though God is never far away from any. In fact, Paul notes, “in him we live and move and have our being”. This is a God who clearly wants to be known and seen for who this God truly is.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is saying good-bye to his friends before the trial and crucifixion. He has some last-minute wisdom He needs to impart before completing His time on earth. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus told the disciples that any who have seen Him have seen His Father God (John 14:8-11). In today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples that those who truly love him will keep his commandments and will receive the Paraclete (aka Advocate, Helper, Comforter, etc) the Holy Spirit who will be with them forever. Those who believe in worldly things and follow worldly commandments cannot see or know the Holy Spirit or God. Only those who abide in Jesus and He in them will have the Advocate sent to abide in them. The Holy Spirit will give to the lovingly obedient believers the ability to continue to “see” Jesus and to live in Jesus after he is resurrected and ascended.
We have this seeming paradox to balance then…an invisible, unknowable and mysterious God who is far beyond anything we can comprehend or explain. At the same time, we have a God who wants to be seen and known, who became human and showed us Father God and sent us the Holy Spirit as guide and counselor. A mentor and advocate who is with us forever to show us how to live and move and have our being in God. Thus, we have presented to us once again that there are many ways of seeing and of knowing – ways beyond just the eyes and mind…ways that are only known in the heart and soul. The heart and soul which tell us the truth about the hope that we have in a God who is always with us and never leaves us orphaned to make our way alone in this world.
Seems like a good time to get back to our professor and her last teaching. The successful alumni had all chosen a beautiful cup to hold their coffee or tea – leaving the plain and battered cups behind. The professor said kindly and gently that it was a normal part of being successful humans to want only the best for themselves – however, that was also the source of their worries and stress. The cup, she explained, adds nothing to the quality of the liquid inside, in fact, it is just a more expensive way to contain what they are consuming. She reminded them that all they really wanted was something to drink, yet they consciously chose the best cup that remained and silently compared their choice to everyone else’s.
What her students really wanted became secondary to a competition to be seen and known as having the best…sounds familiar right?! We spend our adult lives (really our lives from High School on) striving for the best and most beautiful cup so that we can make a statement to the world around us. The letter of 1Peter in Chapter four speaks to this behavior (and I quote), “…You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry….” Because of being baptized in Christ, however, they are, “…to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God….” By being obedient to the teachings of God and the leadings of the Holy Spirit, the Bible teaches us, we can come to know of and to see God and to live fully the abundant life that has been promised in and through Jesus the Christ.
Picking up with our professor’s teaching again, she told them that the metaphor for life was the drink they desired, and cups the metaphor for jobs, money and worldly successes. The type of cup we strive to be seen with does not change the amount of life we have to live – but by concentrating only on the appearance of the container, we fail to really notice and enjoy the drink inside. The people who are most at peace with their lives are not the ones who strive to have the best of everything, they’re the ones who make the best of everything. Her final teaching to these successful students…savor your lives, not the competition of being seen and known by the world – which is causes stress, worry and the misery of never being satisfied with what you have!
Jesus tells His disciples that soon the world will no longer see Him but if they are lovingly obedient to His commandments that all generations who follow will see and know Him and His Father. By doing their best to love God and their neighbor above any worldly treasure, they will live fully and well in this life and in the life to come. By trusting in the promises of Jesus they will see and know that which the worldly wisdom of acquisitiveness cannot ever see and will never know. Dear people of God, what we all want is our favorite beverage – that is, what we want is a life that is lived to the fullest and best. We want an abundant life full of meaning and purpose, filled to the brim by the love of neighbor and of God. A life filled with being seen and known by God. Why then do we keep settling for the most beautiful cup? Amen and amen!