Bishop WolfeThe Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Rt. Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas
Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

Sheer Wonderment
The Right Reverend Dean E. Wolfe
Bishop of Kansas

Come Holy Spirit and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

There is a question which is held in common by every person of faith who lives on the planet. Whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, everyone has the same question…

What is God like? What is God really like?

The biblical accounts which give glimpses into the nature of God, usually offer descriptions of The Holy which focus on God’s completely incomprehensible power and glory.

“A blazing fire, and darkness and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.”

This is the Transcendent God; God with a capital G…
the almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth; Ruler and Judge of all that was and is and all that ever will be.
This is the God the ancient philosopher, Aristotle described as “a transcendent unmoved mover;” the final cause of the world. We do not stand before this God…but rather, we kneel….and we turn our faces completely away, because this God is unapproachable, untouchable, and finally, unknowable.

And while we hold this God in awe and fear we must say, in all honesty, that this is a very difficult God to love.
We mostly feel frightened and unworthy as we bow down before this omnipotent Presence.

But in the gospel appointed for this morning, we’re given a completely different description of God; a completely different concept of God. Because the same God who disclosed Himself at Mount Sinai as dread mystery… now appears in human form and he warmly invites us to draw near.

Jesus says,
“And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

The imagery couldn’t be more radically different.

Instead of fire and darkness and gloom and tempest and trumpet, and a voice so terrifying that those who hear it are appalled… we now hear Jesus praying for his disciples, his companions, his friends saying,

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. I in them and you in me… that they may become completely one…”

Completely one… Completely one!
Imagine you and God as completely one!

This is God Incarnate; the God who takes on human flesh… the God who becomes a human being…with every human emotion; emotions like fear, joy, love, anger, and disappointment.

This is the God who welds humanity and divinity together into an undivided whole.

This is the God who can be approached…the God who can be touched…the God who is always inviting us, saying, “Come closer.”
This is the immanent God, “whose Word is very near.”

From the beginnings of the Christian faith there have always been these completely paradoxical views of God and Christians have always tried to hold them in an uneasy and unresolvable tension.

The English word, “immanence” comes from the Latin in manere… which means “to dwell within.”

This is the God who so permeates our world that God is no longer outside of us; apart from us, but this is the God who literally dwells within us so that when we say we feel the love of God in our hearts, we are describing something which is factually, tangibly, literally true.

And this is not merely a God of “happy thoughts” but this is the God who sustains us when the days are too long, and the challenges are overwhelming, and our support feels razor thin, This is the God who helps us when we can no longer help ourselves.

Now it’s a very human tendency to place God far, far away. I find it fascinating to look at church architecture and imagine what the people who built the building believed about God. Gothic architecture, for example, is designed to emphasize the transcendence and the ultimate incomprehensibility of God. The soaring arches remind the observer, “God is not an entity you will ever be able to cozy up to…

We usually posit God up in the heavens and think of God as so wholly other that we believe God’s transformational power is unlikely to reach us… or the situations about which we pray. It’s true. God does often feel very far away to me. I cannot see Him…and I cannot hear him…and yet, sometimes I believe this is just another way in which I unconsciously distance myself from God in order to establish a false sense of safety… believing that any “distance” I’m able to manufacture… will help me preserve my illusions of autonomy and control.

If we can think of God as far away, then we can begin to believe we must be in the driver’s seat… way down here below and God is simply too far away to be too concerned.

It’s one of the more common ways we attempt to place God in a manageable container so we can live our lives the way we want and remain as unaffected by the presence of the Divine as possible. And, it’s actually a close relative of the strategy we use when we attempt to hide our truest selves from our friends and family; naively believing we can keep our real personhood from being known by those closest to us.

But the Bible says God, our God, THE God of the New Covenant, knows us and is with us and invites anyone who will dare to, “Come.”

“Come, you who are thirsty. Come, you who wish to take the water of Life as a gift.” Jesus says, “I am the root and the descendant of David; the bright morning star. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”

And just when you’re completely convinced you cannot come… when you’re certain your fears are too great to accept this invitation…that the moment is just so far beyond you….then you begin to feel it wash over you…sheer wonderment….the bright morning star.

It shouldn’t be surprising that so many of us feel as if there isn’t much of that sort of thing left to experience.
It’s true…. the world can be an abrasive place where we feel our best selves being sandpapered away by all that challenges the best that is in us.

A sense of “sheer wonderment” is easily lost between grabbing coffee for the trip to work and falling exhausted in front of the television late at night. Sheer wonderment is not something most of us expect…let alone experience. But then…just when you think that sensation of wonderment is something you’ve lost forever….or maybe never even had…something will happen…

Maybe it will take an earthquake. For the jailor of Paul and Silas…it was the destruction of his prison which opened his eyes to new possibilities. Everything that man had understood about reality was changed when the walls of that prison came tumbling to the ground! After God had rocked the foundations of his world….there was just no going back to the way things used to be!

And after that earthquake, he was so desperate that he was about to take his own life for failing in his duties as a warden when Paul shouts, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here.” And a clearly shaken man asks the only question which really matters…I mean if you only have time for one question, you’ve got to ask the one which counts and he asks the apostles, “What must I do to be saved?”

He had seen the power!
The prison door of his life had been broken opened and his own cell door had been left ajar!

That man was free! Free! He was free from worrying about what his supervisors might think.
He was Free from the hopelessness that permeated his life. The door leading to a new life was left wide open!

“Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…you and your household.” That was the answer he received. And don’t you think he took that opportunity?
Don’t you think a man who had seen the wonder and the power of God “up close and personal” took the opportunity to change every single thing in his life?

The Bible says he and his entire family were, “baptized without delay” and they rejoiced that they had become believers in God.

Will it take an earthquake for you?
What will it take to open the door to the prison cell in which you’ve been living?

Will something just a little more subtle suffice?

Perhaps you’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and you only have a couple of items in your basket and the person in front of you, the person with a cart overflowing with groceries…and a checkbook, turns to you as she balances a small child in her arms and she says,
“Would you like to go first?” And she says it with such concern and such absolute kindness that you can’t say no and you realize, you absolutely know that she has discovered something in her life that you would like to have in yours.

There is something in her voice; is it a calmness? And you can’t remember the last time someone showed you such old-fashioned concern… And just when you think you’re making too big of a deal out of a stranger’s small thoughtfulness, she smiles, and there is something in that smile… something maybe even holy about it…and you find yourself thinking,
“This is how it was with Christ! This is how HE came among us! This was how He offered small, simple, loving acts of profound kindness!”

Sheer wonderment.
God come to earth.
A true miracle; the genuine article.

Or perhaps… on a day when we reflect upon the gifts of Motherhood, you recall something your mother or another mother did which was so self-sacrificing, and so dear, that you have never forgotten it. Love was not just a theory, it was a lived out reality with incarnate acts of love and sacrifice and grace.

The late Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, once told me that he believed most of the problems we faced in our faith originated in our inability to truly believe in the Incarnation.

At the end of the day, an appropriate reverence and, indeed, fear of God, is appropriate…not to mention biblical.
Our God is, after all, a consuming fire and this must be respected. We need to be careful when we think we know what God would or would not do, or think.
The immortal God can never be “domesticated” or placed into any kind of box to give us the illusion of control.
In our desire to emphasize the approachability of God, we must never be reduced to proclaiming a smaller, tamer version of the Almighty.

For people of faith there is always a need to be in right relationship with God and this struggle to maintain a balance between the transcendent and the immanent is a worthy one.

So, I will give thanks for what I know about perfection and awe…and the God who cannot be comprehended, let alone touched.

And I give hesitant thanks for a world in which human beings are given the free will to do things which are unimaginable good and self-sacrificing… and then, by necessity, are given the freedom to do things which are evil to the very bone.

And I am truly humbled by the God who is, after all, a consuming fire.

But as a Christian, I will also give thanks for the closeness, the accessibility, and yes, the sheer wonder and grace of a God who came to us in human form. The God who, “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have life everlasting.”

…A God who walks with us in our sorrows, who knows our grief’s and fears, and has the capacity to wipe away our every last tear…

…A God who speaks to us like a mother, bidding each one of us to, “Come. Come. Come.”