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Rev. Derek Penwell
As a kid I was told that nobody knew what God looked like. God was spirit, and therefore couldn’t be realistically depicted. It was like trying to draw the wind, or take a picture of love. Couldn’t do it.
I found this frustrating, I suspect, because kids are very concrete thinkers. They deal with a world they can touch, taste, and see, not so much with gauzy theories or metaphysical musings. Let’s face it, a Twinkie isn’t an abstraction—and given a choice between that and the search for a universal principle of justice, who doesn’t take the Twinkie?
Anyway, one day I was watching a T.V. show with the kid who played Jody on Family Affair—an ancient cultural reference for the folks who’ve been on the planet a while—and somewhere in the middle of it, they showed an old white guy with a white beard, sitting on a white throne, amidst a bunch of white clouds (notice a theme here?). This old white guy was God.
Remembering that I’d been taught that nobody knows what God looks like, I ran to my mom to correct the record.
“I know what God looks like!” I shouted.
My mom, not quite knowing where this conversation was going said, “You can’t know what God looks like. God’s a spirit, blah, blah, blah.”
I cut in. “Oh, but I do know what God looks like—like a guy with a white beard, sitting on a white throne, with a bunch of white clouds around.”
“You can’t know that. Nobody’s ever seen God.”
“I did,” I pointed out. “I just saw God on T.V., talking to Jody from Family Affair.”
“That wasn’t God.”
“Welp. Sure looked like it to me.”
Even as adults, abstractions are difficult, aren’t they? You can say, “I love you” a million times. But after having said it the million and first time, your beloved is still firmly in the realm of the reasonable to say, “Fine. Show me.”
“But I just told you—like a million times!”
“Yeah, that’s nice. Now do the laundry.”
Humans have a tendency to want some flesh on the bones. That tendency for preferring the concrete is why the incarnation is such an important theological doctrine. The incarnation, which is the teaching that God came to us in human form in the person of Jesus. It’s the belief that humans could never grasp God without seeing God with a human face—eating food, loving, weeping, and ultimately dying.
Philip says a couple of verses earlier, “Show us the Father. It would help us if we could get some visual confirmation.”
“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
This need for visual aids, I suspect, is part of why the disciples look at each other in panic when Jesus announces he’s getting ready to leave them. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”
Peter says, trying to contain the building hysteria, “Wait, what? Lord, where are you going?”
“Where I’m going you can’t go yet, but you will follow later.”
“Why can’t we just go with you now? It’s the holiday travel season, after all, and if we don’t catch a flight out now, who knows when we’ll be able to get one. It’d be better if we could just go with you when you go. We don’t much care for the idea of being left behind—especially with the political landscape the way it is. Don’t you think we should just tag along now?”
Jesus says, “Relax. I’m going to ask for an Advocate for you, to be with you forever. Now, the world won’t be able to see this Advocate, since the Advocate is the Spirit of truth. But you’ll be able to recognize the Advocate, because the Advocate abides with you, and will be among you.”
“But if we’re talking about a spirit, how are we supposed to recognize the Advocate?”
Humans, as I’ve said in the past, are fairly sophisticated pattern recognition machines. This characteristic has been evolutionarily advantageous to us as a species. We’re really good at picking up on important cues from our environment. It was crucial for us to be able to identify the poisonous berries, to pick out the growl of a tiger from among the ambient noise. It’s how we stayed alive.
Evolution has required, for example, that, because we humans mature at a much slower rate than other animals, we be extra good at identifying and protecting our kids. That’s why parents can recognize their child’s cry in the middle of a throng of other children. But not only can they recognize their child’s cry, they can accurately interpret what the cry means. “Ah, she’s hungry. He’s bored. Oops, that sounds like a poopy diaper cry.”
We’ve become amazingly adept at recognizing threats in the environment, as well as identifying safe spaces to which we may retreat.
But in order to identify patterns in the environment, we need some manageable parameters. If I tell you to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve and find Kevin, the brown haired guy with a beard, I’ve given you an impossible task—unless I give you more information about what to look for. You need as many cues as I can give you to be able to recognize Kevin when he walks past you.
This need for additional information about what his followers should look for is one Jesus has already thought of as he’s announcing his leave-taking and the one who is to come after him. He announces that the Spirit of truth will abide with them, but that’s an abstraction, right? How exactly are the disciples supposed to pick this Spirit of truth out from among the background noise?
What will this Spirit look like? How will we know when the Spirit arrives? Will there be Twinkies involved?
Jesus says that the Spirit will be an Advocate, one who stands up on the side of truth.
Now, at this point, you might be tempted to object that that still sounds a bit theoretical. That doesn’t give us much concrete information to hang onto. We’re back to trying to find Kevin in Times Square. We need more than that, don’t we? Give us some clues as to what this Advocate might look like.
Peter Velander tells one of my favorite stories: “I remember the day I learned to hate racism. I was five years old,” he says.
“The walk home from school was only about five blocks. I usually walked with some friends. On this day I walked alone. Happy, but in a hurry, I decided to take the shortcut through the alley. Without a care in the world I careened around the corner. Then I looked up—too late to change course. I had walked in on a back-alley beating.
“There were three big white kids. In retrospect they were probably no more than sixth graders, but they looked like giants from my kindergarten perspective. There was one black kid. He was standing against a garage, his hands behind his back. The three white kids were taking turns punching him. They laughed. He stood silently except for the involuntary groans that followed each blow.
“And now I was caught. One of the three grabbed me and stood me in front of their victim. “You take a turn,” he said. “Hit the __!” (I’m not going to say it; you know what they said.)
Velander said, “I stood paralyzed.”
“Hit him or you’re next!” the giant shouted at me. So I did. I feigned a punch. I can still feel the soft fuzz of that boy’s turquoise sweater as my knuckles gently touched his stomach. I don’t know how many punches there were. I don’t know how long he had to stand backed up against that garage. After my minute participation in the conspiracy they let me go and I ran. I ran home crying and sick to my stomach. I have never forgotten.
“Thirty-five years later that event still preaches a sermon to me every time I remember it. One can despise, decry, denounce, and deplore something without ever being willing to suffer, or even be inconvenienced, to bring about change. If there is one thing that Jesus taught us it was how to suffer with and for others.
“Jesus walked the way of the cross. He taught us the meaning of suffering as a servant. Perhaps my first chance to follow that example came in the alley by a garage thirty-five years ago.
“I don’t know if that black boy from the alley grew up, or where he lives, or what he does today. I never knew his name. I wish I did. I wish I could find him. I need to ask his forgiveness—not for the blow I delivered, for it was nothing, but for the blows I refused to stand by his side and receive. I think that’s what it takes.”
That’s not easy. That’s not get-up-and-go-to-church-on-Sunday-morning easy. It’s hard. I know. Standing up for people this culture doesn’t think are worth it is hard, painful work. But that’s what the Advocate looks like, that’s how the Spirit of truth sounds.
Every time you see someone standing up for the vulnerable—you’ve seen the Holy Spirit. Every time you hear a voice raised in opposition to oppression and violence, you’ve heard the Spirit of truth. Every time you’ve felt the hand of someone on your back, holding you up against the wave of dehumanization that threatens to overwhelm you—you’ve felt the Advocate.
We are the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. We put flesh on the abstraction. We incarnate the breath of God right here.
Do you see how critical that responsibility is?
We live in a world where people of color need someone to stand up and take some blows for them from a world that has too often focused its violence and hatred on their bodies, where undocumented immigrants need someone to stand between them and a system designed to devour their families, where Muslims need people like us to stand arm-in-arm around their mosques to keep out the forces that want to consume them, where LGBTQ people need someone to stand by their side as they seek to make their way through a world that too often would rather they just go away, where people need all of us to stand up for their children and their parents with pre-existing conditions.
You want to know what the Holy Spirit looks like? You want concrete instead of abstraction? Look for the advocates.
And don’t let anyone kid you, it’s hard work, because those who stand up for others look like Jesus himself. And we know what they did to him.
As Father Daniel Berrigan said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you’d better look good on wood.”
You see, the truth of the matter is, as a people who claim to follow a savior who was strapped to his own rough cut piece of lumber and left to die alone, we can’t stand idly by and watch the world do that to even one more person.
We’re here to show the world the face of Jesus. So when Jesus tells his disciples, “You will see me,” one another’s faces should stop popping in our minds. When we talk about the Spirit of truth, I want to see your face, and I want you to see mine.
The Holy Spirit abides with us and will be among us, and we’ll be able to recognize God’s Spirit in the world not as an abstraction, but in the concrete actions of the advocates—those who live not for their own aggrandizement, but so that others might flourish.
We know the Spirit of truth is among us when we see people who look like Jesus—standing up for the vulnerable, absorbing the blows of the powerful meant for the powerless.
“When you see the Holy Spirit in the flesh and blood lives of people living for each other,” Jesus says, “then . . . you will see me.”