SJF • Easter 6b • Tobias S Haller BSGHas anybody here ever seen any of the many films or TV shows based on the old H.G. Wells story, “The Invisible Man”? If so, then you may remember that the way he is eventually captured is not because the police who are chasing him can see him — he is invisible, after all. Rather what they can see are the effects he has on the world around him, or the effects it has on him. When he walks through a puddle, it splashes, and his bare footprints appear traipsing down the sidewalk. When it rains, or someone gets the bright idea to dust him with some baking flour, his presence is revealed by the shimmer of water running off him, or the residue of flour clinging to his skin. He is still invisible, but his presence is made known by other means.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
So let me then ask another question, Has anybody here seen God lately? I can be fairly sure that all of us will acknowledge that, as the hymn puts it, the “immortal, invisible God only wise” is indeed “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” None of us sees God in the perfection of God’s invisible and inaccessible glory. Yet we have not been left comfortless or without a clue. God has left us footprints, as it were, or the signs of divine presence as it affects the world; most importantly, as John the Evangelist reminds us, through the love of God made known to us in and through Christ.
So, if we abide in love, we abide in, and know, God — even if we do not see God. Knowledge, after all, is superior to vision, since we can know of things even when we cannot or do not see them. What would life be like if we could only know about the things we see, and only when we see them? Without knowledge — the capacity to hold in our minds that which we no longer see, or never can see — what would life be like?
Some years ago there was a documentary about a man who suffered severe brain damage after a bout of encephalitis. It completely destroyed his capacity to remember the immediate past. Every time his wife walked out of the room, it was as if she had never existed; but every time she walked back in, he would remember her and react as if he hadn’t seen her for years. It was comforting to know that love could persist evenwhen knowledge failed.
Fortunately, even though none of us has seen God, the knowledge — and the love — of God dwell within us through the Spirit — and here John echoes Paul’s teaching that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The love of God is like that telltale glistening that reveals the presence of the rain-soaked invisible man — we may not see God, but we know God is present with us and within us, as we experience the love of God who has done so much for each of us.
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But John goes beyond mere satisfaction with the knowledge and the love of God. I spoke last week of John’s report of Christ’s commandment and assurance — that all who believe in him and love God and neighbor have fulfilled the law, and abide in him. John repeats the lesson this week: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” He then follows up with the same practical implications that follow on recognizing God’s presence, implications which follow as naturally from their source as the urge to dance flows from toe-tapping music: “because God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
The assurance that God abides within us, isn’t just to give us warm spiritual comfort — no, it is fulfilled in the active implementation of God’s love through God’s Spirit, shared out among the countless sisters and brothers God has given us.
John is blunt, and offers a no-nonsense warning: “Those who say ‘I love God’ but hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is no good, in short, claiming to love the invisible God unless we love the living, breathing visible images of God whom we encounter as we go about this world and whom we honor or reject day by day.
This powerful teaching from the New Covenant has its roots right at the beginning of the Old, right in the first chapter of Genesis, when God, the supreme artist, as the crown and finishing touch of the masterpiece of creation, signed the painting by placing into it a visible reminder of whose work this was. When you want to find out who painted a painting, you usually look down into the lower corner to find the artist’s name. But God, when signing the creation, put the signature right in the middle, in the person of humanity. Human beings are the signature, the sign, the image of God.
And this provides the answer to the question I asked earlier, Has anyone seen God lately? When you look at a brother or sister you see the closest thing to God that you can see.
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And doesn’t that make sense? Don’t we often say of children, “She’s got her father’s eyes,” or “He’s got his mother’s chin.” I can assure you I’ve got my father’s nose! And it was my grandfather’s before him! But what is more, as I did last week at a family gathering, I can look at my brother and four sisters and see clear traces of our father and mother, both of them now gone to glory, but having left behind these traces in their children.
And if this is true of blood, how much more true of the Spirit, the Spirit of God’s love that flows through the veins of us God’s children, and which makes us all kin, and places upon us all the responsibility and the joy of love?
People have always wanted to see God, missing the point that God has left photographs and autographs everywhere around us. As the greatest American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,+ + +
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street,
and every one is signed by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are,
for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.
But as John reminds us, there is more to our faith than simply seeing, even more than seeing and believing! The vision and the faith are meant to lead us to action, to be put into practice, as we love God who created and redeemed us, and through the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit are empowered to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It may be hard to believe that when you look at me, or Father Ifeanyi, or the bounding, bouncing children of the Sunday School, or each other, or yourself in the mirror as Whitman did, or the poor man off the street who comes by asking for a handout, or the pope, or the bishop of New York, or a prostitute barely glimpsed lingering in the shadows at 2 am, or the senator before the microphones, or the policeman on the corner, or the window-washer appearing unexpectedly outside the office window like a visitation, or any of the millions and millions of others who walk this earth — that when you look at another human being you are seeing God’s image in flesh and blood.
It is hard sometimes to remind ourselves of this truth. God looks so little like God sometimes. The image of God in humanity can suffer and be disfigured, damaged or defaced, so much so that it reaches the point at which we might be tempted to say, How can this, so degraded, so debased, so barely recognizable as even human any more, be the image of God? Yet even as we say those words, we are reminded of the One of whom this once was said:
There were many who were astonished at him— so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate... He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.The one of whom the Apostles came to believe that Isaiah wrote these words; the one whom Philip explained to the Ethiopian, as he read these ancient prophecies, had not long since walked among them: — the image and likeness of God’s very being, the Son of God in flesh appearing, had laid down his life for his friends — the full and perfect and sufficient offering of himself for the sake of the world God loved so much that he sent his Son to do this very thing — he, this Jesus, has chosen us, and called us friends, and commanded us to carry on this work of recognition and redemption: to recognize God’s presence in every man, woman or child we meet, and to treat that invisible presence with all the respect and love that we can muster. God may be invisible, but God is not unknowable, and certainly not unlovable.
For, as one of the old orthodox fathers said, “Before every human being there go ten thousand thousand angels, crying, Make way for the image of God!” It is of this truth that John reminds us. May we always so honor and venerate the invisible God’s presence among us, no longer inaccessible, but as close to you as your neighbor’s outstretched hand. +