Acts: 15-17, 20a-26
1 John 4:11-16
John 17: 11b-19
Do you remember when your faith was simple and childlike? I do. I was a student at St. Viator’s Catholic School on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I was learning my catechism. I was an altar boy. And I was in love with Sr. Rose Anthony, my fourth grade teacher. She was young and pretty, and we were her first class. And I felt sorry for her, because our class was mean and often reduced her to tears. (But I digress already . . .)
In any case, as a fourth grader (and even before) I remember mastering that first question in the Baltimore Catechism: Who is God? That’s the question raised by the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Who is God? According to today’s readings, the answer is surprisingly simple. God is love. What God’s love means is revealed in Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus’ example, and to avoid that of Judas.
That’s the thrust of today’s readings.
But let me get back to Sr. Rose Anthony. Weren’t we all smart at the age of 9? The good sister convinced me that I knew who God was and everything else the Catechism taught us. Its answer to the question “Who is God?” was: “God is the Supreme Being who made all things.” That satisfied me. And I believed it with all my heart. It was proven true by the miracles of Jesus which were self-evidently factual. They were “proof” that Jesus was God and that our claims about him were correct. What couldn’t be explained was “mystery” – to be accepted “on faith.” No problem.
Now it’s very different – at least for many of us, isn’t it? Problem is, we’ve all grown up. And it often seems that everything about our faith has been turned upside-down. They call this the post-modern world. Scientific awareness is a fact of life. We know about evolution, the superego, class struggle, and relativity. Modern scripture scholarship has made us conscious of the fact that the early church transformed the historical Jesus of Nazareth into a “Christ” of faith who would be nearly unrecognizable to his contemporaries. Besides that, we are all strongly influenced by what scholars call the “principle of analogy” whether we’ve heard it or not. It holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. With that principle at work miracles have changed from a proof of claims about Jesus to proof’s opposite. They are cause for skepticism and disbelief. Jesus walked on water? Yeah, right.
So we’re skeptical before accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. And we’re skeptical about miracles and anything “supernatural.” However, most of all we’re skeptical about that invisible man up in the sky watching us constantly and before whom we’ll appear after death to give an accounting of our stewardship. That’s the image most of us have of that “Supreme Being” we learned about in the fourth grade whether our source was Sr. Rose Anthony or Billy Graham.
Does that mean we’ve become atheists? Not necessarily. It does mean however that the God of “Theism” – the belief in a God “up there” in a separate world is no longer tenable for many of us. And neither is the Jesus up in the sky who transmigrated there liturgically on Ascension Thursday..
But that God “up there” and that Jesus “up in the sky” is not what we find in today’s readings. The author of the Epistle of John writes not of a Supreme Being. Instead he says that God is love, and the ones who abide in love, abide in God and God in them. What John is describing Is not the God of Theism, but the God of “Panentheism.” No, I didn’t misspeak there. I didn’t mean to say “Pantheism;” I said “Panentheism.” Pantheism is the belief that everything is somehow “God.” “Panentheism” is the belief that what we call “God” is everywhere and in every creature. God is the one (as St. Paul said) in whom we live and move and have our being. God is the source of life in which I am immersed like a sponge in the sea. That’s the God we find in today’s second reading. God is an energy, a relationship – the most wonderful we have experienced. God is love.
But then again, John’s definition might not help us much. The word love, as our culture uses the term, is probably even more debased than the word “God.” Love is another word for infatuation and the feelings that accompany “love at first sight.” Often the word simply refers to sex. But of course, none of that is what John is referring to in his letter. Jesus acknowledges that in today’s Gospel. He says that love as he understands it is actually hated rather than admired by the world – and so are those who practice it. The world has no place for the love that Jesus counsels nor for the people who truly follow Jesus’ model of love.
Why would that be? It’s because the love embodied in Jesus threatens normality. Jesus lived a life totally at the service of others, of the poor, the sick, the ostracized, and the despised. And the center of his message, God’s Kingdom, had to do with radical social change that would create a world with room for everyone. Our culture doesn’t want change. It’s content with the way things are. It doesn’t even want to admit that poor people exist, though they constitute the world’s majority. When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate even refer to the poor? No, it’s all about the “middle class” and the “one percent.”
Jesus had no trouble speaking about the poor. It’s an honored biblical category. Jesus himself was poor. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, he calls the poor “blessed.” He says “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” He curses the rich. “Woe to you rich,” he says, “You have had your reward!”
Commitment to the poor, commitment to God’s Kingdom made the Romans and Jesus’ own people hate him. It made the Romans, it made his own people kill his followers. In the case of Jesus and the early church, embodying love as understood and exemplified in Jesus led to torture and death row.
The fact is our culture hates people on death row. It hates the people our government tortures. Its discomfort with the poor also borders on hatred. Let’s face it: our culture likes neither the kind of people Jesus came from nor the kind of person he was. It does not like people who, following Jesus, want radical social change.
So in the end it’s easier to say “Jesus is God,” than to say “God is Jesus.” We can deal with Supreme Beings who are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all those other “omnis” we traditionally ascribe to God. We don’t want to deal with, be challenged by, and be changed by a poor prophet who harshly criticizes what our culture holds dearest – pleasure, profit, prestige and power. We don’t want to struggle with what Jesus might have meant about leaving all we possess, giving it to the poor and following him to the cross.
No, it’s much easier to be like Judas who is recalled in this morning’s first reading. There the apostles select Mathias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve. Poor Judas! In today’s readings, he assumes his familiar role as the embodiment of the world’s values. Those who put these liturgical readings together probably wanted to contrast Judas’ greed with the generosity we are called to by Jesus’ example. Be like Jesus. Spurn the “bottom line” concern of “the world.” Don’t love money the way Judas did. (I’m not sure that’s fair to Judas. We can return to that question another day. For now, let’s just take things at face value.) Yes, the readings invite us to contrast Jesus’ way with the way of Judas.
So where does that leave us on this Seventh Sunday of Easter? We are called to re-conceptualize God and our relationship to God. The God of theism belongs to the past – to our spiritual childhood. Embrace Panentheism our readings suggest. God is in us; and we are in God. God is in everything and everything is in God. Our vocation is to make God’s presence visible in the world. Each of us represents a point in history and in this cosmos where the incredible Energy of Love that burst forth 17 billion years ago in the Big Bang manifests itself today. The example of Jesus, his commitment to God’s Kingdom, and to the poor, oppressed, despised, ostracized, tortured and executed makes evident what Love means. Do we share that commitment? Are we following Jesus’ example?
God is love, and the one who abides in love, abides in God, and God in that lover. What could be simpler? What could be more challenging?