Pentecost (May 15, 2016)

“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip requests proof or evidence of God’s existence. I got this one. I was a Philosophy major in college. St. Thomas Aquinas covers just about all the arguments for God in his Summa Theologica. He says, “The existence of God can be proved in five ways.” 1 Prime Mover: someone had to put the universe in motion. 2 First Cause: you cannot have an effect without a cause, and someone had to be the first one. 3 Only something that exists can make something else exist, so something or someone has to exist to make things exist. 4 Some stuff is clearly better than other stuff, and if we look closely we’re going to determine which stuff is the best, and that’s God, obviously. 5 There is a design to all things and an end all things seek, and that’s God. Philip asks for something along these lines.

Gauging from Jesus’ response, Philip is barking up the wrong tree. It isn’t that Philip was unlucky enough to have lived 1200 years before Aquinas set the record straight. Rather, it’s that Jesus is all about us seeing God in our midst. Jesus is Philip’s buddy, and is claiming to be on a par with God. Jesus isn’t some name everyone knows is reserved for God’s son; it’s just the Greek form of Joshua. It’s a name like yours or mine. “Josh said, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’” Josh…isn’t well. “Melissa said, ‘See me, see God!’” See a professional, Melissa. But that’s what Jesus says, and then he says, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

It is easy to think of the incarnation, as Jesus is talking about it here, and think of having to do works, as in that worst of all possible sins, “works-righteousness.” So much of Lutheranism hinges on Luther’s rejection of works having any merit in matters of justification. God caused the universe to exist, move, be good, and have some semblance of order on a multi-billion galaxy scale AND died on a cross and rose from the dead for you. Your saying or not saying twenty Hail Marys, having or not having the right frame of mind when receiving communion, performing or not performing a lifetime of charitable works is NOT going to make God rescind your justification if you’re bad or slip you a double justification if you’re good. The same God who made it all loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. If we get that, we get a lot.

We need constant reminding and assurance of it, though. We Lutherans hear Jesus say, “You will do greater works than these,” immediately forget what we just said about how God loves us regardless of our works, and instead squirm to escape from that line about “greater works than these” like working might somehow hurt our standing with God. It’s like when you’ve got a crush on someone else and they seem to like you, too, but then you see them laughing with someone else and maybe they’re just laughing because that other person is funny and I mean the other one makes me laugh too but maybe they really like that other person instead of me even though they said yes they would go to Sherry’s party with me so even though I have an English paper to write this weekend I am going to spend my weekend convincing myself they simultaneously are my soulmate and don’t care if I live or die.

It’s a wonder God comes to us in flesh. If I were God I’d say, “You people are crazy. I’m not manifesting myself in you!” Yet God does. I count this as perhaps the most mystical thing out there. I wonder at the mystery of God in flesh. I marvel at the words of Psalm 104. As we sung them today, they say, “You take back your spirit, they die, returning to the dust from which they came. You send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” Life has the breath of God. Life is the breath of God: when God holds God’s breath, then what is alive becomes dust; when God breathes out, new life comes into being. God breathes, and so we breathe. We breathe, and so we know that God is in us.

The trick is to keep breathing. It makes me think of asthma. I developed asthma as a teenager. While any physical activity or illness could set it off, I was especially vulnerable to allergic reactions. My lungs may just not feel quite right, or it could be full on like a lead weight on my chest. The airways would flare, my chest muscles would contract and not relax. Panic. When I think of asthma, I think of panic. I can’t breathe, which scares me, which makes me try to breathe harder but I can’t which scares me. It’s never been as bad as it was when I was 13 and 14, but I still have it and though I manage it allergies can still trigger it. There’s a sense in which we seem to be allergic to God’s presence in the world. God calls us to work, to carry on Christ’s mission, and we panic, can’t breathe.

The Spirit breathes for us, or will if we let her. I was lucky enough to live at a time of good asthma treatments. In an asthma attack, I could squeeze a rescue inhaler and let that breath blow into my lungs. In a bad attack, I could pull out a nebulizer and let it consistently blow. I let the machines breathe into me and open my airways so that I could breathe, and have life and God in me. Similarly, in Acts 2, Luke tells the story of the breath and life of all things rushing into the house where the believers are gathered. She breathes into them, giving them life and breath. These are no longer just Jesus’ friends, sticking together after he ascends into heaven; these are people who can do “greater works” than Jesus ever did because the Spirit has given them life. When they speak in the languages of people far away, they do so because the Holy Spirit has made them to see that God is in them. When they are martyred, heal the sick, convert cloth merchants, and cast demons out of slave girls, they do so because the Holy Spirit has made them to regard slaves, merchants, the sick, even their enemies as bearing God in the flesh.

This is admittedly a rather roundabout answer to Philip’s request to have Jesus demonstrate God the Father to him. But demonstrations of God’s existence aren’t the point, as far as Jesus is concerned. If Jesus were a bit more sarcastic, perhaps bearing a Tim Leitzke level of sarcasm, he might say to Philip, Your fellow disciples are breathing, aren’t they? The Holy Spirit is giving them life. Listen to them. Your neighbors are breathing, or trying to, right? The Holy Spirit is calling you to give them fuller life, too. For the Spirit gets in you and doesn’t stop, any more than you can take one breath and say, “I’m good. I don’t ever need to do that again.” Paul says that in the Spirit we cry out to God as a Father, a loving parent, precisely in the places where our neighbors are trying to breathe.

In the same way that I as an asthmatic teen would cry out to my mother or teacher that I needed to get my inhaler, the broken in this world cry out in the Spirit, calling us to breathe life into them. When I was in college I was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, the co-ed community service fraternity. Our chapter took on the job of helping clean up a former crack house that had been purchased to serve as a transitional house for homeless women. Now I say crack house knowing that prior to this experience, I just kind of assumed this wasn’t really a thing. You know? Those are just words. They don’t refer to a thing that—oh my god look at this! The several years’ worth of dust, dirt, and leaves outside wasn’t too bad. The smell in the kitchen while not appetizing was easily dealt with. The deeper into the house we went, the higher we climbed, the more we found. I will not begin to describe the substances we found smeared on walls or left on floors, and couldn’t begin to list all the varieties of liquor bottles we found. I’m having trouble thinking about how we found evidence that little children had been living in all of this.

What we did was breathe into that house, as the Spirit breathed into the house on Pentecost. This place of despair and filth, broken people and children born to neglect, became a place of hope and second chances because we breathed life into it. Now, I’m not entirely sure how that fits into Aquinas’ arguments for God. (Though I do have a Ph.D. in theology, and no sooner have I said that than I’ve thought of at least two, cuz I’m good.) But I saw God in that place. I saw God in that place. I saw God in my brothers (we called the girls brothers, too, which is a long story, just roll with it, okay?) working with me. And that was far more real than any of my classroom arguments for God. And I don’t say that to disparage the academics. I say it because it’s precisely the argument Jesus makes. Your neighbors are breathing, aren’t they? Calling out for the breath of life. Blow some Spirit into them.