It takes as little as 15 seconds to prompt some reflection or learn something new. At least, that’s the premise in part to a twenty-five-year-old series of short segments that have aired on NBC. Tom Brokaw was featured in the first of many of these public service announcements. The campaign, created in response to the teacher shortage in the late eighties, was introduced in an effort to recruit and retain educators. From there, it has developed into a long-standing cross company public service initiative focused on education, diversity, health, civic engagement and the environment. These to-the-point, direct address videos have addressed the nation’s most pressing social issues and remain a trusted voice for sharing knowledge to improve lives . Each offers an insight or tip, followed by the characteristic star and tune around the words “the more you know.” (1)
Now, put yourself in a producer’s hat. What would you say in 15 seconds to tell someone else about God? So much can be said that the prospect of this might be overwhelming, and cause us to give up on the task altogether. But there’s value in imagining what, as this precise moment in time, you might say about the divine. The options are, quite literally, limitless. Catholic theologian Richard Rohr might offer this:
The God I have met and been loved by in my life journey is always an experience of “how much more!” If we are created in the image and likeness of God, then whatever good, true, or beautiful things we can say about humanity or creation we can say of God exponentially. God is the beauty of creation and humanity multiplied to the infinite power (2).
For Christians, God is “the more you know.” Through Jesus Christ, God was revealed in dramatic ways to help us know more about who God is – namely, a God who loves and who redeems. Throughout the gospel of John, we hear Jesus providing these little “public service announcements” about who he is, who God is. “I am the bread of life. . . .I am the vine, you are the branches. . . I am the resurrection and the life . . . I am the way, the truth and the life” and so on. These neatly wrapped up moments are meant to help the disciples, and us, understand a bit more about who God is. The same is true in today’s Gospel reading, which is part of a larger narrative in chapters 14-17 known as the Farewell Discourse. In these chapters, Jesus gives a final address to his disciples about who he is and how they are to live once he departs.
Fred Craddock captures the scene in a memorable image, likening the disciples to children playing on the floor, who happen to look up and see the parents putting on coats and hats. Their questions are three (and they have not changed): Where are you going? Can we go? Then who is going to stay with us? (3)
Previously, Jesus has repeatedly told the disciples where he is going and what is going to happen, but they never seem to quite get it. Here, though, he speaks to that last question, and promises that another Advocate will follow, guiding and staying with them to assure them of his (and God’s) constant and abiding presence. This is how they will know that his promises are true.
The Advocate that Jesus promises is who we know as the Holy Spirit. John describes it for the first time here in this passage using the Greek word parakletos. You’ll often see it translated as “Paraclete” because it is a word so rich with meaning. Its roots mean “called alongside,” and it can signify a variety of roles: Comforter, Encourager, Exhorter, Helper, Appealer, Advocate. John seems to draw upon all of these meanings to address the variety of ways in which the Holy Spirit will engage with Jesus’ disciples. Not surprisingly, these are some of the many functions of Christ himself, indicating that the Spirit would be continuing the work of Jesus. The arrival of the spirit, the Paraclete, “ensures that the revelation of God in the incarnation does not end with Jesus’ death and return to God.” (4)
One way we experience this is ongoing presence of God is through our love of God and relationship with God’s commandments. Jesus’ reference to these two aspects of a life of faith in verses 15 and 21 are meant to be held together. It’s not clear which follows the other. Our love for God is what motivates us to keep those commands God has given, and likewise when we are at our best in keeping those commandments, we are able to most fully experience God’s love. It’s one of those classic conundrums of which came first, like the chicken or the egg. The connecting point between the two is the Holy Spirit, which stirs in our hearts a love for God and encourages us to be the faithful disciples God calls us to be.
The Holy Spirit that Jesus promises carries on Christ’s role as intercessor, helping connect the dots between love and practice, even when we mess it up along the way. She is:
“one who has been called to our side” to stand up for us, to explain us to the court. Think of lawyer shows on television. Think of detectives and mystery and action. The Paraclete, the Advocate, is a force on the move.
The arrival of the Holy Spirit is another sign of God’s grace, sealing us in the gift of salvation that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection. The Advocate reminds us that even when Christ is not among us in the flesh, nothing will separate us from God. For the disciples, it matters to hear that the God they know, the one standing before them, will not abandon them. God’s work and presence in the world will continue, as it has always been. The disciples are not alone.
This is the God we need to know, too. Because there will be times when we, too, feel alone or even abandoned. We will feel lost, wondering if there is anyone who is listening. And when that happens, we can remind ourselves that the God we know abides in us. We need this comfort, when we have just graduated and have anxiety about what the future holds, or when we are mourning the loss of a family member, a friend, or even a pet. We need to know that God is with us when the doctor calls us into the office to review test results. And we cling to this promise when we hear on the news that evil and hatred has found its way into a concert in Manchester or two passengers have been stabbed while standing against prejudice on a train in Portland. In these moments, and countless others, we need to declare that this is the God we know: a God who continues to be present with us with a spirit of truth beyond what the world can understand. We know a God who is more than anything that can happen. A God who dwells in us in love, and kindles in us a love for Christ that holds us close and stands up for us in ways that lead to mercy and grace and peace. That is the God described by Jesus, still at work today through the Holy Spirit. A God who does not leave us as orphans, but remains in us.
Truth be told, we would rather have a neat faith that fits into a prepackaged container. We would rather have Jesus leading us around, showing us the way, than have to wrestle with this other Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who moves and acts in strange and challenging ways. We need to have boundaries to understand God, and so we create various constructs about who God is and who God loves and the limits of what God can and will do in the world. We do this with good intentions, because we desperately need something we can hold on to, but in the end we have what is admittedly a fairly small frame lens look at who God really is. We begin to construct God in our own image, or in ones that fit how the world has shaped God’s image. We make rationalizations and exceptions, and put our faith in things beyond the divine. In part, we do this because it can be difficult – almost impossible – to hold an image of God that is big enough to handle all of the challenges of this world.
The same thing happened in the early church. In our text from Acts, we read of Paul’s sermon to the people of Athens. He has noted the high religious ways of their culture, and points out how these ways cannot be transferred to a belief in God. They can’t simply construct a large golden altar “to an unknown God” and cover all the bases. He reminds them that God is so much more than anything they can construct. He calls them to let go of their idols and false images and embrace the God of every aspect of life. Paul challenges his congregation to look at the big picture, and find that God is even beyond the biggest most expansive image of the divine that they can imagine. After all, this is the God who created everything on heaven and on earth!
Paul insists that from the very beginning, God’s design was to create human beings in God’s own image who would then “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (v. 27). Today, we might call this a search for the meaning of life or our purpose. It reflects an innate desire that we have as human beings to connect with something bigger and greater than ourselves. It’s represented in virtually every culture and religion around the globe. A yearning for something more. Paul reminds us that God is “not far from each of us” (v. 27). We are able to find him in the movement of our lives. For the people in the first century, he masterfully plays off of philosophers of the day, ones who said things like “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;” or, “For we too are his offspring” (v. 28). Look no further, he preaches – this being that you are seeking, this power that is bigger than yourself – it’s God. It’s Christ dwelling in you. It’s the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, nudging you to dig deeper and discover more.
But I think both of our passages from today challenge us to do just that – to trust that God is that big and great, and instead seek to know a God who is at once both recognizable and incomprehensible. This is our God, ever-present, always within reach yet unattainable. The beauty of knowing God is that the more we know and learn, the greater our desire to seek God and learn and grow in faith will be. No matter how much we think we have figured out, there is always more to discover. Paul knew it, Jesus knew it. Do we? May we have the faith to seek greater understanding, and the faith to live into that mystery of “the God We Know.” Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
(1) http://www.themoreyouknow.com/about/, accessed 5/25/17.
(2) Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).
(3) Fred B. Craddock, John, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 98; as quoted by Frances Taylor Gench in Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
(4) Gail R. O’Day, “John 14:12-24” in The New Interpeter’s Bible, Volume IX, Leander E. Keck, editor, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1995).
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