Gospel: John 14:15-21
1st Reading: Acts 17:22-312nd Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22
An empty sanctuary is filled with people, an empty cup is filled with grape juice, an empty font is filled with water, an empty hand is met with another in a greeting. An empty room is filled with a guest. An empty stomach is filled with food. An empty life is filled with love. Arms are raised like an empty vessel, ready to receive abundant generosity, God pouring life out for each of us. Our empty lungs fill with breath, the room is empty of sound until we begin to pray and sing. We search for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. We long for life and love and for what is lasting and good. Longing is our emptiness crying out to be filled.
Today’s readings point to a longing within each person. In the reading from Acts, Paul is preaching about a shrine to an unknown god. For all the gods there are in Athens, still the Athenians are seeking something more. Their gods of stone and bronze and gold are not meeting all their needs. Paul speaks to this unmet need by introducing them to the God who created them and all things. Paul points to Jesus, who he doesn’t name, but whose death and resurrection bring power and love and life and meaning to all.
In the reading from 1 Peter, Christians are suffering. They are asking whether God is with them or not. They are longing to know what their suffering means. They are longing to know and see God’s power. The writer of 1 Peter is telling them that though the world will try to tell them that suffering means you have done wrong and deserve it or that suffering means your God isn’t powerful, that isn’t true. The writer is saying that the people who are causing this suffering for Christians, probably in the form of harassment, have limited power. Suffering is a temporary situation. The writer of this letter is assuring them that suffering doesn’t have the last word, that no one is outside God’s reach, and he is encouraging them to use suffering as an opportunity to share the good news gently and reverently, to tell their story about a God who isn’t afraid to suffer, and who gave his life that we might have life.
The Disciples in the Gospel today are longing for Jesus to stay right there with them. They are actually expressing the grief of later Christians that John is writing to, because Jesus is no longer physically present. John writes of these events 40 plus years later to a group that feels abandoned and alone. John is reassuring them that their greatest fear isn’t true. They have not been abandoned. They are not orphaned. In fact, we are just as connected as we ever were when Jesus walked the earth because of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. One way we know we are connected is by love. We can’t see love or measure love. However, God shows such love for us by Jesus’ death on the cross and adopting us into God’s family. And God’s love goes on in the loving acts of the community, through us, the church, the body of Christ, present with all who are suffering. God’s love goes on through loving acts like not returning evil for evil, by feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, by caring for one another and those abandoned by society.
We all have longings. We’re all seeking and searching for what will fill that need in us. Society tells us it will be things we can see and own, beauty and grooming products, electronics, fancy food. We all know the temporary nature of things like this. It’s not going to last, even if we are satisfied for a while. We don’t worship a whole bunch of gods like the Athenians, but we have idols just the same. They don’t call it American Idol for nothing. We worship musicians, actors, those who play sports, and the very rich. We throw loads of money at them and gawk at their lives. We live vicariously through them, cry at their breakups, and fly drones over their weddings. We seem surprised when they turn out to be regular people with flaws. Their power is fleeting.
And we worship money. How can we get more of it for ourselves and our church? How can we get the kind of power that will keep our doors open and pay our bills? How can we get enough to make us happy? How can we get enough so we won’t have to suffer?
When we focus our attention on our things, on people in power, on money, and use them to try to fulfill our longings, we are worshipping them. “While God has overlooked times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” This isn’t about how we’ve all done wrong and now we are punished. The word “repent” means turn. This is about God being very near to us and turning from what we have valued and tried to use for our fulfillment to what and who really gives us life. God is fulfilling that longing within us with what really is good and lasting and life-giving. We can turn and be filled, that’s how close God is.
Turn to Love that created the universe in all its complexity.
Turn to Love that is reliable because this kind of love doesn’t rely on unreliable human beings for anything.
Turn to Love that gives us breath and keeps us going and is personally involved in our lives.
Turn to Love which can’t be depicted in stone and bronze because it is so far beyond what any of us can conceive.
Turn to Love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Turn to Love who is our mother and father.
Turn to Love which fulfills our deepest need.
Turn to Love which inspires us, incites us, motivates us to love, to perpetuate God’s love.
This is not something we can see or prove to someone. This love will not keep us free from suffering. But this love is eternal and powerful beyond measure.
This love keeps us hopeful in the community of faith. The one we follow exhibited this love in a most unusual way, by the unselfish life he lived, loving those who everyone else abandoned until it so infuriated us that we tried to destroy that loving power by destroying him. In his resurrection, God’s absolute power was revealed, that we cannot undo the love God has for us. We can’t kill it. We can’t make ourselves unlovable. Wherever the powers of hate and perpetuating suffering go on, the resurrection shows they won’t be victorious. Only the power of God’s presence and love will last into eternity. That’s what matters. That’s what prevails.
This love is for all who are outside the Christian Community, too. Love is what we have to offer a destructive world, a world that offers fleeting pleasures, a world of emptiness and strong feelings of being disconnected, alienated, orphaned. If we place our faith in material goods and in our own pleasures, we’re going to be let down. Anything humans build will break, eventually. It isn’t about if, it is about when. Remember the quote, “Not a stone will be left on stone. All will be thrown down.” We can’t put our faith in things we make. They don’t last.
If we put our faith in our own comfort, we will be let down. To live is to suffer, among other things. We have a choice about how we see our suffering, though. We can let it make us bitter and take away our hope. We can repay others for the suffering they cause us, but then we don’t offer anything different than what the world offers. We can look at the suffering of Jesus, who obviously didn’t get what he deserved, or pay back what others deserved. Instead, he continued to do what he does, to share love, which is the only thing that lasts, the main thing that connects us, the only thing that matters, the only thing with ultimate power of healing and transformation. God is love. To love is the way we have to connect with God who we can’t see.
You are loved. You are powerful. You have love within you. God is in you. You are in Christ. We are all one. Go out empowered, seeking the one who is seeking you, and find new life, share new life, live new life. Forevermore.