Every sermon I’ve ever preached in the past 40+ years has at least presumed some sort of panentheism. Sometimes I actually focus on it, though avoiding technical jargon (including the word “panentheism”!). The following is a version of a sermon I’ve preached several times in different Episcopal parishes (on the sixth Sunday in Easter, Year A).
Sometimes how we pray to God and think about God draws us closer to God, but sometimes it gets in the way. Sometimes it might do both. I suspect most of us have a picture of God in the back of our minds that might be partly OK (and folks, “partly OK” is about all we can say of anything we say or think about God*). But though it’s partly OK, I think it also gets in the way of our dealing with the only God there actually is.
I mean, don’t you catch yourself thinking of God as an invisible “guy,” completely outside the world, who still sometimes interferes with it on behalf of “his” favorite worshippers. (I said “guy” because most of us catch ourselves thinking of God as a male—even though God clearly does not have Y chromosomes or any other male equipment.) That’s the nice version. There’s a meaner version that would say that “he” also interferes with the world to mess with people who are not “his” favorite worshippers. But nice version or not, we catch ourselves thinking of God as an invisible guy, completely outside the world, who still interferes with it sometimes.
Now as I said, that’s partly OK. After all, I wouldn’t bother to use the word “God” if there weren’t something at least “sort of” personal, or interpersonal, in my dealings with God. I wouldn’t bother praying to something, no matter how great, that won’t respond in any way to my prayers. If I’m praying to just a “what,” not any sort of “who,” I’m fooling myself every time I address God in prayer. Maybe that’s just me. I do have friends who find prayer—especially our style of prayer—meaningful even though they don’t think prayers make any difference to anything or anybody except us, the pray-ers. I’m not trying to put them down. I’m just saying that, if I thought that, I would probably stop praying—and I would probably get another job.
To be sure, God is not like some giant kid with an ant farm—who might remember to feed us if we’re good or fry us with a magnifying glass if we’re bad. And God is not just another somebody like you and me, only bigger, who has to be fetched from somewhere far, far away every time we want things to go better. If I want you to come and help me, I have to go fetch you from somewhere else, and I can’t count on you to know what I want unless I tell you. But that’s one way I can know for sure that you are not God, at least not the God of Jesus Christ.
The God we have come to worship in Jesus Christ is not a God who lives somewhere else. Sure, God is beyond us and everything else, but the God who comes to us in Jesus is also among us and within us. Today’s Gospel lesson sets our minds reeling with all these prepositions. The Spirit of truth is with us and within us. Jesus is within the Father, and the Father is within Jesus (14:11), we’re within Jesus, and Jesus, like the Spirit, is with us and within us. It’s like you can’t take even the tiniest step without stumbling over God. It’s like you can’t even breathe without inhaling and exhaling God.
If God is anything like the self-sharing life of of the crucified/risen Jesus, then God is always here, always moving VULNERABLY among, within, around, through and beyond us, and all at the same time.** God doesn’t step in from outside to push things around; God moves in and through and beyond every single thing to draw all things together, not controllingly, but relentlessly.*** When we pray and ask God to help us, it’s not because we need to talk God into healing our brokenness. God was working toward that long before we even thought about praying. It’s so that we can be drawn more deeply into God’s healing, reconciling work in the world—and that’s how God responds to us every time we pray. We’re taken into the very heart of God’s own life, then commissioned to be part of the answer to everybody’s prayers, and our deepest moments of prayer are when we glimpse that, however fleetingly. It may not be what we asked. It PROBABLY won’t be what we asked! God isn’t going to rescue us from grieving or eventually from dying—the cross shows us that even God isn’t rescued from grieving and dying with us and everything else. (Again, God moves vulnerably!) But God is still relentlessly involved in healing and reconciling everything, and we can get more involved with all of that in our prayers—and in what we do in between our prayers.
Now what I’ve been telling you so far is a sort of a present-day version of St. Paul’s sermon in Athens. Paul told the Athenians that God isn’t really like any of their popular pictures of God. They can’t draw a picture of God or put God in a box. God is way more mysterious than that. If anything, God is more like “The Unknown God,” mentioned in an inscription on one of their altars.
God isn’t like anything else we know. Why? Because we and the whole world come from God, and at the same time we and the whole world live in God. God isn’t just greater than anything we know, God is closer than anything we know. In God “we live and move and have our being.” Nothing else we know comes that close, “nearer to us than we are to ourselves,” as St. Augustine said, and that’s why we stumble all over ourselves when we start trying to describe God.
Now up to this point Paul is just reminding the Athenians of things their own favorite sages have said. He’s trying to find common ground with some of their best thinkers: We all come from God, we all live in God, and God has been working all along to make us more aware of God, with varying degrees of success. These are popular ideas that Paul and many people of Athens share.
But now, Paul says, something has changed. Something new has happened. The one in whom we live and move and have our being has launched a new way of living together with and in God. Somebody Paul once took to be just an executed criminal has come alive with the very life of God, and now it’s time to turn from our old business as usual and embrace something remarkably new. That, by the way, is what “repent” means—it means turning around. It’s time to turn around. It’s time to stop letting our questions and debates about God get in the way of joining with God in healing and reconciling the whole world.
That’s where our lesson ends today, but if you read on you’ll see that Paul lost some of his audience when he got to this point. They may have liked the idea that we all live in God, but some of them found it downright ludicrous to imagine that an executed criminal could come alive with the very life of God. Some of them didn’t see why they should do any more than keep debating the pros and cons of religious ideas. But some people actually got it, and they joined this new community of healing and reconciliation.
Now today lots of us are already part of this community. Only it’s not so new. And we and the whole world seem to be in need of healing and reconciliation just as much as anybody back then ever was. But God hasn’t stopped moving in and through and beyond every single thing to draw all things together. And there’s nothing to keep us from joining with God in healing and reconciling the whole world. Nothing, that is, besides our own stubbornness. But fortunately, God is more stubborn than we’ll ever be.
God is still here, moving vulnerably in and through and beyond our words and actions. So as we pray and share a meal, even with half our minds on other things, we just might discover ourselves already involved in something far greater and much closer than anything we know how to describe. In God we live and move and have our being.
*It is actually an official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that we cannot speak of God in any other way than through analogies, where “there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater” (Fourth Lateran Council, Canon2, 1215 CE). That means that even so-called infallible descriptions of God are only partly OK.
**Augustine (354-430CE): “I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you ‘of whom are all things, through whom are all things, and in whom are all things’ (Romans 11:36)” (Confessions 1.2.2).
***Maximus the Confessor (580-662CE): “God, who made and brought into existence all things by his infinite power, contains, gathers, and limits them and in his providence binds [them] to himself and to one another. Maintaining about himself as cause, beginning, and end all beings which are by nature distant from one another, he makes them converge in each other by the singular force of their relationship to him as origin. Through this force he leads all beings to a common and unconfused identity of movement and existence, no one being originally in revolt against any other or separated from him by a difference of nature or of movement, but all things combine with all others in an unconfused way by the singular indissoluble relation to and protection of the one principle and cause”(The Church’s Mystagogy, I).