today (although I’d love to talk to you at coffee hour about it!), I want to begin in the archives, in the special collections, in the collections of papers in the back of libraries. While I had not done this type of work before, this sifting through an organization’s papers and looking through letters sent to Congressmen, this trying to track down a name, trying to read someone’s old handwriting, I began to love it. Working with archival material places me in contact with small, finite, fleeting moments in history.
When I work with the archives, I feel like I am searching for the work of God within them and have often found traces of that work. What I love about archival material is that most of its scale is so specific: a letter sent between two people or a typed-out draft of a resolution edited with a pen on a specific date.
And it is through this specificity that one is put in some form of contact with some portion of humanity. It is only through this specificity that any larger meaning can be made. It is only in the particular that the universal can be found.
I see echoes of this in Paul’s speech we read today in Athens:
We meet Paul today in Greece, following the resurrection of Christ and Christ’s ascension that opens Luke’s account of the early disciples’ movements in the book of Acts. At this point, Paul has been changed from his meeting of Jesus on the road to Damascus and has begun traveling and spreading the Gospel.
We now find Paul in Athens, speaking at the council in Athens. While much of Paul’s ministry focuses on issues of identity as a minority religious group under imperial occupation, this speech of Paul’s looks at the question of God’s nature and human nature in relation to the finiteness of humans and the infiniteness of God.
How are we to think of God, and how are we to think of ourselves? Is God an unknown God as the Athenian altar claims? How much can humans know God? Can finite humans search for –and find--an infinite God?
And Paul’s response to the Athenians and to us today is that this unknowable, infinite God is able to be known through our finiteness and our particularities, through our humanity. The God who is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the God who gives to all moral life and breath, is not bound by shrines or silver or stone, but that does not make God entirely unknowable and transcendent to us.
As Paul says to those gathered in Athens, God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps find God—though indeed he is not far from any of us.
It is through our allotted times, through the boundaries of where we live, this is where God is to be found, or at least this is where we are to search for God. Our humanity, our limitations, is where we are to search for God; these places are where God is to meet us.
I want to pause here and focus in on search, and on the slight unwillingness that Paul has to declare that God can be found in God’s entirety.
Paul is very certain that it is good to search for God; God has given us these times and places in order that we may search for God. The search for God by humanity, in all of our finite humanness, is what has been ordained by God. If then, we can fully find, fully grasp God, is less certain.
Yet, I am not sure that we have been tasked to fully grasp God, to fully find God. Jesus lays out our task in today’s Gospel.
As Jesus tells the disciples in the passage from John, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” He tells his disciples this on Maundy Thursday, as he commands them to wash each other’s feet and to love each other as he has loved them. By living out these commandants, we are drawn deeper into our own humanity, into our own particularities, into close proximity with our neighbors. By living out these commandments, we are washing each other’s feet, we are feeding those who are hungry and being fed when we are hungry, we are sitting with those who are mourning. By living out these commandments, we become more human.
The commandments of God draw us not away to some distant place or some other time, but into where we are now. It is through these that we are, God-willing, becoming more human.
As told to us in John’s gospel today, we are not alone by any means—we have been sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. The Holy Spirit, God, does not come to dwell with us in any circumstances except for those in which we are; the Holy Spirit dwells within us not to make us into anything we are not, not to take us out of our humanity, but to have us become more fully human.
Kathryn Tanner, an anglican theologican, writes on this in Christ the Key:
When human processes become Spirit-filled, they are not made more than human themselves; and humanity is only more fully itself in being thoroughly reworked by divine power.
We do not need to overcome the limits of our own finiteness in order to search for God. God, who is unbounded by time and unbounded by space, can be sought in all spaces and in all times, even as we are bounded by our particularities.
It is in these particularities—particular times, particular places, particular people— where God works and through these particularities where God shapes us.
Throughout history, God has not worked by entirely circumventing human processes, but by working through and with them.
We see this in God’s defeat of death; as Saint John Chysostom writes in his Easter sermon: He has destroyed death by enduring it; he destroyed hell when he descended into it.
God works through God’s descent into our lives, into our humanity, into our human processes, into our boundaried existences, into our deaths.
Our task then is to allow God’s descent into our lives—not to only attempt to ascend to God. Our task then is to descend as well within our own lives and the lives of those around us.
And as we descend, we begin to find both the deep suffering and sin of our current state, yet glimpses of God’s work within these things nonetheless.
May we find God not through overcoming our own boundaries of where we live, or any of our own particularities, but rather in rooting deeper into them, searching for God within them, and living out God’s commandments within our own lives.
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