I preached this sermon at the 4:00 jazz worship service at Fourth Presbyterian Church on May 25, 2014. Because one of the scripture readings was the same, there are some thematic similarities to my April 27 confirmation sermon. You can listen to an audio recording of this sermon here:
[Read John 14:15-21]
Perhaps you saw it live a week ago, or perhaps like me you saw it on the news the next day and watched it online. One of the highlights of the 2014 Billboard Music Awards was a digital hologram of the late Michael Jackson singing a posthumously released song. While public opinion has been split on whether or not the effect was cool or creepy—or some combination of both—there is no doubt that this post-death appearance of Michael Jackson attracted much attention.
Of course, similar spectacles have been staged before. Slain rapper Tupac Shakur made a posthumous appearance via hologram at the Coachella Music Festival two years ago in 2012. Back in 2007 the American Idol television show used digital technology to create a duet between Celine Dion and Elvis Presley, bringing to 3-dimensional life footage from the King’s ’68 Comeback Special.
Now, it doesn’t really matter that none of these effects are technically holograms. Rather, they’re each a combination of visual illusions, some of which are digitally updated versions of parlor tricks that date back hundreds of years. But it is precisely these digital upgrades that make it possible for us to watch brand new performances by artists who are long gone.
That’s what was so amazing about last week’s Michael Jackson show. Unlike Elvis’ duet with Celine Dion, this wasn’t a repurposing of an existing performance. This was a song never released during Jackson’s lifetime brought to life with a digital avatar doing something Jackson never did himself.
Again, critics and fans aren’t sure what to make of it. Is this the future of pop music? Could it be that fans who never got a chance to see a live Michael Jackson performance—or Elvis, or the Beatles, or Nirvana, or whomever—might one day get to see these legends perform in the digitally recreated prime of their life? At least one person in the audience was caught on camera wiping tears from her eyes. Something powerful was happening. Was it something transcendent?
Don’t get me wrong when I make this connection, because I’m certainly not equating Michael Jackson or even Elvis Presley with Jesus, but I’m intrigued by what this 21st century experience of seeing the dead might mean for our understanding of what his 1st century disciples might have thought when Jesus said to them, “Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.”
There are a variety of ways in which we say that someone’s contributions to the world live on beyond their time. For artists and musicians, this is perfectly clear. We have artifacts of their artistic endeavors. We can walk down the street to the Art Institute and appreciate the genius of Pablo Picasso. We can go to the Symphony Center and experience the brilliance of Tchaikovsky. We can turn on the radio and be blown away by a Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar solo. We can turn on the TV and get lost in a Katharine Hepburn performance. Now we have holograms. Perhaps in the future technology will make possible experiences beyond what we can even imagine.
All of this may be true of Jesus as well. When we hear his words—or at least the words the gospel writers attribute to him—we’re moved, we’re challenged, we’re convicted, we’re inspired. But Jesus meant more than this, didn’t he? He was foreshadowing that greatest of mysteries central to our Christian faith: the resurrection. “Soon the world will no longer see me,” says Jesus, “but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.”
Within the story of the Gospel of John, this has a very literal meaning. Jesus comes back from the dead and makes a point of appearing to his disciples. Most notably is the story of Jesus’ appearance to so-called “doubting” Thomas, who happened to not be there when Jesus first appears to his friends. Refusing to believe until he could see Jesus himself—until he could touch Jesus himself—Thomas eventually does believe when Jesus shows up to offer proof. “Do you believe because you see me?” Jesus asks Thomas. “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
That’s us, isn’t it? Aren’t we the ones asked to believe something we can’t see? What does it mean for us to hear these words? “Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.” When people claim they have seen Jesus, we assume that something is wrong with them. This kind of visual experience of God is not the norm for us.
It’s tempting to think that we’ve been left alone in the world and asked to believe in unbelievable things that we cannot see. But Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”
I believe that the Holy Spirit is the way we experience God and the living Christ in the world today, if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to seeing things in new ways. Like Jesus promised, I believe that God is all around us. I believe that God is within us and between us. I believe that God is like the air we breathe—the Spirit that fills us and gives us life.
But for many of us, this isn’t as natural as we might wish it were. We need to train ourselves to see God in this way. Because in many respects our minds are culturally hardwired to see anything but God in the world around us. We’re born into a culture that seeks rational explanations for what we see and distrusts what we cannot see.
So we must persistently ask ourselves: where do I see God? Where do I find God?
For many, church is an obvious answer. Here in this place we are bold to name God. We speak of God, we sing of God, we pray to God. We come here because it is a safe space to utter words of faith and to be in the presence of others who share similar beliefs.
But for many, it’s not so obvious, even here in a place like this. For some of us, God is just as difficult to find in church. Perhaps the language we use and the cultural forms of our worship and discourse just don’t make sense to us anymore. Perhaps we have been burned by religion too many times to bring ourselves to give it one more try.
Yet even for people of faith, what about the world beyond the walls of this sanctuary? Where do we feel the movement of the Spirit out there? Where do we see the living Christ? Where do we find God? In a post-Christendom culture that no longer speaks openly of such things, how do we recognize the presence of God? Must God be named to be known? Must God be known to be seen? Must God be seen to be found?
In the Book of Acts, there is a story about the Apostle Paul preaching the gospel in a culture very much like our own. Athens was the birthplace of ancient Greek philosophy, literature, and the arts. It was in many respects the antithesis of the sacred city of Jerusalem and the culture from which Jesus’ movement spread. In the early third century, the theologian Tertullian famous asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Yet two centuries before Tertullian, it was to this very place that Paul was called to testify to God’s presence. Listen closely to how he does it.
[Read Acts 17:16-34]
Did you notice that Paul never mentions God or Jesus by name? Did you notice that Paul never gets very specific about the biblical story at all? Did you notice that the one thing Paul does quote is one of the Athenians’ own poets? Did you notice that of all the places in Athens to find God, Paul focuses on an altar to “an unknown god”? It is there that Paul sees God. It is there that Paul invites the Athenians to find God as well.
Where do you feel the movement of the Spirit? Where do you see the living Christ? Where do you find God?
If Paul is right that God does not live in temples made with human hands; if Paul is right that God isn’t far away from any one of us; if Paul is right that God is the ground of being in which we live, move, and exist—then it stands to reason that we can find God wherever we may be.
For the second year in a row, I took off the morning of this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. My family went out to breakfast, surrounded by other families doing the same thing. We played in a park full of families just like us. When we got home I did something I never do on Sunday morning: I took a glorious nap. We did what the majority of our culture now does on Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon, and it was great—the most relaxed I’ve been in months.
One potential response to this is to say that my family ignored God today by not coming to church. But perhaps Paul’s words to the Athenians invite us to recognize that God is also present in the Sunday morning rituals of our culture and not only in the Sunday morning (or afternoon) rituals of the church. If we believe that God is love—as I do—then God was present with us this morning, just as God is always present with us.
I know a group of people who would rather run on Sunday than go to church. On a day like today, the lakefront path is full of people just like that. But this group understands that God is present in their running and they worship in their own kind of way.
I know other people who most easily find God gathered around a table with friends to enjoy a good meal. Given the amount of time Jesus spent doing this very thing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that God is often present in our table fellowship.
I know people who find God in the arts. I know people who find God in nature. I know people who find God in technology. I know people who find God is solitude.
When you are not in this place, what is the altar you most frequently visit? Around what altars do your family and friends gather? Do you believe that it’s possible—like the Athenians’ altar to an unknown god—that God is there as well?
Friends, I challenge you in the coming weeks to end each day with these simple questions: “Where did I feel the movement of the Spirit today? Where did I see the living Christ today? Where did I find God today?”
It might take you a while to train yourself to find answers, but when you do, you might just be surprised.