I came across funny cartoon last week. The first frame was “God as Dog”, with a friendly dog looking out loyally toward the viewer. The caption said, “I will always be with you.” The second frame was “God as Cat”, with a mercurial looking cat lounging regally. The caption said, “Depart from me!”
We’ve got the God as Dog variety this morning on Pentecost Sunday. Jesus tells his disciples that the Father will send them the Holy Spirit who will “be with them forever.” In our passage from Acts, we see that this Spirit came to the disciples with rushing wind and tongues of fire when they were gathered together in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The Spirit enabled them to praise God in diverse and foreign tongues. The Spirit emboldened them to preach, teach, heal, and spread the gospel throughout the world.
That same Holy Spirit is still present today, empowering people to do all those same things. But, the account of Pentecost in Jerusalem may seem removed from most people’s experience, so I want to focus on Philip’s request to Jesus this morning. He is barking up the same tree – He wants God to be with us. And it’s the same tree that you and I are barking up as well – otherwise we wouldn’t be here in church this morning. We want God to be with us. Which is another way of saying that we want to know God.
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responds with a question. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” What are we to make of that interchange?
The first point is important but well trodden so I won’t belabor it. It’s that we will never be satisfied as human beings without knowing God. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. The obvious charms of the world – money, power, fame, sex – famously fail to satisfy, even though most people still will cast their nets into these waters. But Mick Jagger was right: “I try and I try and I try and I try – I can’t get no satisfaction.”
What is less obvious is that even good works and a life of service will not finally satisfy us either. There was an interesting article in the New York Times last week about a group of Millennials who moved into a convent with some catholic nuns. The project is called “Nones and Nuns.” The N-O-N-E variety being a burgeoning demographic of people with no religious affiliation.
The article begins, “Sarah Jane Bradley was an unmarried, “spiritual but not religious” professional in her early 30s, with a rowdy group of friends when she moved out of her communal house and into a convent. A bunch of friends went with her. They called the project Nuns and Nones, and they were the “nones” — progressive millennials, none of whom were practicing Catholics. Intended to be a pilot project, the unusual roommate situation with the Sisters of Mercy would last for six months.”
These millennials had committed themselves to work for social justice and wanted to learn from the nuns, who worked with sick and the homeless. Admirable, for sure, and an interesting experiment. But, “the sisters began to see that the millennials wanted a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system. On one of the first nights, Sister Judy Carle said, one of the young people casually asked the sisters, “So, what’s your spiritual practice?” “That’s the first question, not, ‘What do you believe?’”
The Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – clearly teaches that even a life of good works or spiritual practice will not satisfy our deepest human desires. Only relationship with God, knowing God will satisfy. This is why Philip says, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
The Bible also teaches us that relationship with God is neither spiritual nor religious. Relationship with God is personal. I would argue that all those who self identify as “spiritual not religious” are looking for the same thing as the rest of us – personal relationship with God. Jesus’ response to Philip tells us this. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still do not know me?” In other words, there is a big difference in knowing about God and knowing God.
This hits home for church people, especially liturgical church people. We may know the church season colors, we may volunteer at the soup kitchen, we may have memorized portions of the Book of Common Prayer, but if we do not know God personally, we will not be satisfied. The more evangelical wing of the church has been right to talk about our “personal relationship the Lord,” and accepting Jesus as our “personal Savior.” The language might be trite now, but the essence of it is true.
We also may think we know God, but maybe we are mistaken. Sometimes we think we know something or somebody when we really don’t. I had a very funny experience at a graduation party a few weeks ago. A man introduced me to his wife, whose work overlaps with many Christ Church parishioners. She cut her husband off, and said to me, “Oh, I know who you are. You should know that people love you.” I responded with some kind of humble-brag like “You can only fool them for so long,” but of course was eating up the positive affirmation.
Then she, laid her and on my arm and said, “I mean, people really love you. After they say you name, they feel so much emotion they have to pause.” Then, as a demonstration of this, she SAID ANOTHER MINISTER’S NAME! She had mistaken me for the pastor of another church town! Her husband said, “Um, honey, he’s not him. This is Paul Walker”, to which she said, “Oh”, then walked away to refill her wine glass.
As I said, there is a big difference in knowing about God and knowing God personally. This, again, is illustrated by Jesus’ response to Philip. Philip says that he wants to see the Father then he’ll be satisfied. Jesus says whoever has seen me has seen the Father. There are two different Greek words here that mean, “see.” Philip uses the word that means simply to look at with your eyes. But Jesus responds with a word that means to understand with your heart. We use the word see to mean both those things. We see another person in front of us. But when we really understand who they are, we say, “Oh, now I see.”
There is deep satisfaction in seeing and knowing a particular subject – like a certain period of history, or the ecosystem of a specific habitat. There is a deeper satisfaction in seeing and knowing another person, being in honest, intimate relationship. And there is the deepest satisfaction in knowing and being known by God. If we are to know God, then Jesus tells us that He is the Way.
Even liturgical church people like us long for personal relationship with God. The question for parents and godparents in our baptismal liturgy is the question for us all: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” To see Him on the cross, dying for your sins, is to see and know that He will always be with you. And the even better new is that even if you do not yet know Him, you can be sure that He knows you. Amen.