Imagine standing at the shoreline of a great ocean. Linger on the span of the horizon, the boundary between water and sky. What kind of weather day is it? Is it windy? Are the waves crashing at your feet; is the ocean choppy, cresting with millions of whitecaps as far as the eye can see?
Or, is it a calm sea today? Just a gentle, rhythmic slapping of water on sand at your feet? Is the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky? Or, is it overcast — greys washing away any colour distinctions in your line of sight?
The lectionary brings together some bible readings for this Sunday in the Easter season that make an outrageous claim: God is in us. For, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit — the Advocate — “will be in you” (John 14:17).
Christian apologists in the last centuries have guarded against modernist, “new age” beliefs. They describe that Christians have always held the distinction between God and creation. Conservatives, especially, have been nervous whenever anyone suggests that a bit of God is in us, because that can easily slip into an unorthodox, pantheistic blending of boundaries. In other words, we humans are not God.
It is an important distinction, to be sure. It echoes Martin Luther’s emphasis during the Reformation on the supremacy of the grace of God. Similar to new-age doctrines whose ultimate meaning is found in the human self, ‘works-righteousness’ — that which Luther fought against in the sale of indulgences — implies the onus rests with us, when it comes to our salvation.
Works-righteousness means that we have to earn favour with God in order to get to heaven. It’s all up to us — what we decide, our good efforts to do the right kinds of things; the result of our works, therefore, determines the course of whether we are made right with God, or not. Luther, of course, argued against this line of thinking and acting.
So, standing at the ocean’s edge, would you venture out using a motorboat or a sail boat? Which kind of boat is a better metaphor to describe a life of faith? If our intention and hope was to land on the distant shore of complete union with God — or however you want to describe heaven — how do we get from here to there? On the one hand, will we ride the ocean of our lives using a motor boat?
A motor boat would certainly be the easiest method. We just aim in a straight line and power up. We would have control over the course; we would decide when to ease up on the throttle, for a break; we would decide when to give it gas, and race. We’d be in charge. Even against the wind and waves, whether in a stiff breeze or on a cloudless, placid sea, our direction is certain.
I suspect this is the preferred methodology, even when it comes to being the church and living our Christian lives. The onus is on us. And it’s up to us to determine the course and be in charge of our destiny.
I also suspect we would recoil against the notion that driving the motorboat is just like the kind of heresy the reformers of yesteryear and today rail against. Because ultimately our life, our death, and our salvation is not dependent on our doing, our agency, our efforts, our decisions — as good or as bad as they may be.
A sailboat, on the other hand, calls forth a different kind of skill set. It’s not that a sailor has no work to do. But this work is different: Without the benefit of an engine to drive, regardless of wind speed and direction, the sailor must be able first to pay attention to what is happening on any particular day.
Once wind speed and direction is observed, the riggings and ropes and rudder must be properly aligned in order to make any kind of headway.
At first, you may need to head in the opposite direction. Tacking into the wind is counterintuitive – sometimes you need to move away from your destination in order to move toward it.
Sometimes, tacking with the wind may mean heading right into an unattractive bank of dark, storm clouds. Sometimes relying on the wind means leaning your body in an uncomfortable position to maximize the best weight distribution. In truth, sailing is tough work.
But using this method of crossing the ocean, as inefficient as it might sometimes seem, is better suited to describe Christian discipleship. Even though doing the right thing sometimes may mean an inconvenience, even though following God’s call may be uncomfortable for us, even though being faithful may mean facing our fears and confronting head on that which we would normally avoid. Because we must depend on God. Our work is more in response to what God is already doing, and then trusting in God.
Those scriptures we hear today were given in the general context of Jesus leaving the disciples at his ascension. The Gospel is part of the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus gives his disciples — words of encouragement and empowerment and promise. Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples who now have to continue doing Jesus’ work on earth.
But they are not alone in this work. It’s not up to them, alone. Jesus assures them they will do even “greater works” (John 14:12) than himself, but not without his presence in them through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God blows as it wills, because God is in charge. And because the presence of Christ lives IN us, the promise of God is true. We don’t have to be in control because not even death stands in the way of the promise and truth of God.
We need only pay attention to what is already happening around us, and respond accordingly. Even if at first the way appears inconvenient, counterintuitive, or cause us to be afraid. We can even sail right into the sunset of our lives, knowing that God awaits us on the distant shore.
Let us pray:
“Not as the world gives do you give,
O Lover of Souls,
For what is yours is ours also,
if we belong to you.
“Life is unending because love is undying,
and the boundaries of this life are but an horizon,
and an horizon is but the limit of our vision.
“Lift us up, strong Son of God,
that we may see further.
Strengthen our faith that we may see beyond the horizon.
“And while you prepare a place for us,
as you have promised,
prepare us also for that happy place;
that where you are we may be also,
with those we have loved, forever.
(Bede Jarrett in Flor McCarthy, “Funeral Liturgies” Dominican Publications, Ireland, 1987, p.181)