About a week after Groundhog’s day 2002 my sister and I both received letters from my grandmother. It was a long letter, overflowing with emotion, talking about what a special thing seeing the date 02/02/02 was and how we should take the opportunity to recognize those moments, the rare beauty in our day to day lives that we so often miss because we get so busy and distracted. What was weird was that our letters were practically identical. She pretty much wrote the same thing to each of us. That night one of my uncles called, my three cousins had all gotten the exact same letter. At this point my dad and uncle started to get concerned, they called their other brother, sure enough his child had also received the note. They discussed what to do, because what had started as a sweet note from a grandmother to her grandchildren now seemed like final words of wisdom so my dad was chosen as the one to call and ask her what was going on, to find out if everything was alright. And it was, she was fine, she said that when she had to write a check that day and when she wrote the date she found it so amazing that she felt the need to share because chance were good none of us would ever see that again. And my dad’s response was “Mother, what about March 3rd next year. And April 4th after that. There will be a day like that every year for the next ten years.” And that made her mad and the call ended.
I tell that story to try to paint a picture of a moment, I’d be willing to be you’ve had one or two yourselves, when things turn serious out of nowhere. Moment when we’re whistling along, going through our routine, and then we’re rocked by something that seems to bring our world to halt. Our gospel text comes in exactly that kind of moment. Its impossible to know what the disciples thought was happening in Jerusalem that week but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that they weren’t expecting what came that evening at dinner. All of sudden Jesus is washing their feet and talking about how they are going to betray him and abandon him and deny him. I’d assume that killed them mood pretty quickly. And so in John 14 Jesus goes into comfort mode, he assures them of some things; things that remain a comfort for us today – in my father’s house are many rooms (or mansions as King James said), you know the way to where I am going, and then in our text today, that he will not leave them alone, that the father will send the Spirit to help them and be with them, that they will not be left as orphans. The Spirit is a gift to the disciples, something that reminds them of what they know, who directs them back to Christ who will in turn direct them back to father.
Paul sees the Spirit at work when he comes into Athens. Athens was a city in decline at this point, it didn’t play a huge role in the day to day order of Roman society, its population was about a fifth of Corinth’s for example. Not a lot of people, not a major port or place of military importance or anything like that, but Athens still had a little bit shine to it for what it had once been and it was still considered a place of significant importance for the elites. Visiting Athens was a status thing, I don’t know that we have an equivalent in America, but if you wanted to be somebody in Roman society in terms of education and philosophy you had to spend some time there. It still attracted philosophers and thinkers and people who were interested in the “pursuit of truth.” That pursuit resonates with Paul. Some of the philosophers in Athens had started to catch on to something at this point – all their gods were created. Not that they didn’t think they were real, we’re not there yet, but all their gods and goddesses had origin stories. They all had parents and grandparents and there was this linear progression of how things had come into being except at the very beginning. What they philosophers couldn’t figure out is how it all began, what triggered the events in motion. And their answer was “the unknown god.” This diety or force was something that they couldn’t put their finger on and couldn’t name but was the beginning of all things. And that was one of the great philosophical goals of this time: to know this unknown god, to be able to trace existence back to the very beginning and there was debate about whether a being like that even could be known. That gave Paul an opening and when he gets up to speak in Acts 17 and he says basically, “I know the name. I know the answer you’re looking for. This god that you worship but don’t know can be known, let me tell you something about it. This God is the creator of the cosmos, the source of all things. This God so transcends human life that it is independent of humans, doesn’t need anything from them. Not only is this God the creator of life, it is the Lord of life – creator, giver, shaper, and sustainer. And because this God is our source we are dependent on it, so dependent that you sensed your need without knowing what it was you needed. This God is so essential to humans that there is within us a universal search for meaning and truth that can’t be found apart from it.”
NT Wright is a Bishop in the church of England, the Bishop of Durham, and he writes about this universal search in one of his books. He describes it as being like a dream that you wake up from and know it was good, but you can’t remember what it was. So you roll over and you try to fall back asleep in the hopes that you’ll pick it back up because you know it was good and important and you want it back. He compares that to this sense we all have of things that aren’t right in the world and yet are unable to do anything about. For example, a very small minority, vocal perhaps but small, thinks that racism benefits society and yet it exists across the world and has throughout history. Across the world the richest members of society continue to get richer while the average person born into poverty will never get out. We all hate the idea of war and yet wars keep happening. Almost all of us have a sense of right and wrong and yet we do things that we know are wrong all the time. Bishop Wright says “Isn’t it odd that should be like that? Isn’t it strange that we should all want things to be put to rights but can’t seem to do it? And isn’t the oddest thing of all the fact that I, myself, know what I ought to do but often don’t do it?”
He gives three potential answers to explain this dream we have of a world made right. One, it is only a dream. A projection of our childhood fantasies and we’d all do well to wake up and realize that this is the world we have and we need to accept it. Two, this dream is of an entirely different world where we really belong and maybe one day will find ourselves, one that we can escape to in our imaginations when things get too hard and maybe one day will fine for real but one that doesn’t really impact our day to day existence. Or, he says, there’s a third option – that the reason we have this dream or echo or sense of memory is that some is speaking to us, “whispering in our inner ear – someone who cares very much about the present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, thins being put to rights, ourselves being put rights, and the world being rescued at last.”
The voice is the same one that Paul says is calling the Athenians to an unknown God. “In him,” Paul says, “we live and move and have our being.” The voice is so natural to us as the air we breathe. Its like sky to a bird or water to a fish, the thing that is so ingrained in us and such a part of who we are that we can’t put a finger on it or try to imagine it and describe it because we can’t imagine being without it. And for Paul that’s the Spirit of God. Not far from us, there so we will reach out and find him and in finding him find the reason we can’t shake that voice.
Truly understanding the role of the Spirit would require a lot more time but I’m going to leave you with two thoughts about what the Spirit means for us in our day to day life. The first is that the Spirit is what connects us to God. Jesus said to the disciples that when they received the Spirit they would know that “I am in the Father, you are in me, and I am in you.” The Spirit connects us to God, reminds us who God is and that God is there. Its what connects us to God when we can’t figure out what is going on. God is a God comfort, so the Spirit brings us comfort in times that are hard. God is a God of freedom, so its through the Spirit that we start to understand what freedom really means and how essential that freedom from all the things that hold back the human condition should be. Hunger and fear and isolation and racism and extreme poverty and extreme wealth, all the things that keep us from the reality of that echo of a dream, freedom from those things is just as much a part of the air we breathe as the Spirit is. That freedom leads us to the second point I want to make about the Spirit, it is what connects us to all of human existence and calls us to see that freedom realized in the world as well as our own lives. The freedom of the Spirit empowered the disciples to spread gospel all over the globe. It was like the air they breathed, leading them to continue on in the face of trials and persecution and threat of death. If the freedom of the Spirt is the air we breathe then we’ll put out the peace and hope that is found in that Spirit’s source. We’ll work to free all people from the things that keep them from flourishing, to see that dream in the back of our minds become more and more of a reality.
I want you to do something for me. Breathe in. Breathe out. With every breath we take we’re connected to the Spirit of God, filled with the freedom to move and act and know God. In and out, in and out. The Spirit is already in the world, connecting us all to the echo of a dream and freeing us to go out and find it.