Father Nicholas Lang
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
“This is the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive.”
Some of us will remember the comedy variety series Laugh-in that ran from 1968 to 1973 and comedian Lily Tomlin who played a devilish five-and-a-half-year-old little girl named Edith Ann sitting on a jumbo-sized rocking chair that made her adult-sized body look like a little girl's. Rocking back and forth, Edith Ann would tell childish stories about her family and her dog Buster. When she concluded a point, she said, "And that's the truth" and made a sputtering noise by pressing her tongue and lips together giving her audience raspberries.
The Truth. What is it? We all struggle with truth, don’t we? Sometimes we may find it hard to discern the truth, sometimes we may be reluctant to tell it, but most of the time we really want to know the truth. Is there a God? Does God truly care about us? Is there life after death? These are a few of the big ticket items that get our attention. Is the hokey pokey what it’s all about?
Our ancient ancestors treaded the same murky waters. We find Paul addressing a group of first century Greeks, acknowledging how extremely religious they were but worshipping at an Altar honoring an unknown god. He tells them that the God who made the world does not live in shrines made by humans. Furthermore, God is not far from us nor is God somewhere at an unbridgeable distance.
But how can we know that? How will we know that God is with us? God is not found in the study of theology, that body of knowledge that deals with who God is, nor even in powerful and compelling orations like Paul’s, but rather in our life experience. God is love, says the Scripture, and we only know love in relationship to others. Author and theologian Frederick Buechner has written, “Not to love is, psychically, spiritually, to die. To live for yourself alone, hoarding your life for your own sake, is in almost every sense to reduce your life to a life hardly worth the living, and thus to lose it.”
In the words of Beverly Wildung Harrison, one-time beloved teacher at Union Theological Seminary, “Our knowledge of God is in and through each other. Our knowledge of each other is in and through God. We act together and find our good in each other, and our power grows together, or we deny our relation and reproduce a violent world where no one experiences holy power.”
If God is love and God is in our midst and we are made in the image of God, what is the energy force that brings us into spiritual union with God? Who is the go between God and us—the truth teller about God’s presence in our lives and God’s work in the world?
We find the answer in the conversation Jesus has with his friends in the passage from John’s Gospel we read today: The Spirit of Truth. Jesus calls this Spirit “The Advocate” who will be with us forever. “This Spirit will abide in you and will be in you,” Jesus assures them.
But, there is a disclaimer: “The world cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know the Spirit.” How does the world not see or know the Spirit? First, let’s own up to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the most active yet least acknowledged presence of God in the Church. The Spirit of God saturates the world and lives in each of us. The question is not if God permeates the universe with a presence that empowers us, but whether or not the Church itself really believes that the Spirit of God truly infuses and is really in fleshed in each of us.
Sister Joan Chittister, a favorite author of mine, spells it out quite clearly: The Hebrew Scripture calls the Spirit ‘ruah,’ a feminine word, to describe the feminine aspect of the Godhead, the breath of God, the mighty wind that hovered over the empty waters at the beginning of life in the process of creation—all feminine images of the birthing, mothering God, a pregnant waiting and waters breaking and life coming forth. But when Wisdom declares itself, it is always through a male message, without a woman in sight. And so Wisdom limps.”
I know that this is both new and difficult theology for some to swallow but I do wonder if as we celebrate and honor mothers today if it is a day to reflect a bit on the problem that Sister Joan presents for our consideration. The Spirit of God is, indeed, with us, in us, around us, breathing us to life—as Jesus promised the Spirit would do— yet, having defined the Spirit as Wisdom, as ruah, this feminine force of life is promptly submerged, totally forgotten, completely ignored.
In her words, “The masculine images reappear, the genderless God is gendered. And the fullness of God, the fullness of life, is denied in the Church. The Church itself stays half whole. And the Spirit ceases to breathe in it more than half.”
The question is a deeper one if we believe that we are made in the image of God. It may work for those of us who are male, but what about those of us who are not? How are women expected to relate to the concept of being made in the image of God who is perpetually referred to and depicted as masculine? And, if God is Spirit and has no gender, what is the driving force behind using exclusively masculine pronouns to refer to God? Certainly the patriarchal structure that has from the beginning of time dominated religion and society has done its best to exclude women from attaining equality with men and skewed our understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Because we are approaching the Feast of the Spirit—the Day of Pentecost—which we will celebrate on May 28, it befits us to get to know who the Spirit is for us and for the church. Can we move past the stereo type images we’ve grown up with and embrace the mothering God who gives and nurtures all life? The good news to take home this morning is that God’s Spirit does not abandon us, cannot abandon us, if God is really God…and that’s the truth, Edith Ann. No raspberries!