Like a Fish in Water
Whenever I hear Paul’s speech to the people of Athens, I always think about fish.
Maybe it’s just me. I have to admit that none of my teachers, no commentary that I have ever read on this passage ever talks about fish. But when Paul refers to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, I think fish. It makes me wonder whether fish know that water exists. Whether they even think about water at all.
Fish live and move and have their being in water. Can they see water? Do they feel it? Or is water simply invisible to their fish eyes, taken for granted perhaps. The water matters of course. If you’ve ever gone fishing, you know that as soon as you take a fish out of water, it panics, flopping all over the place. Then, before long, it dies. Fish need water. But do they even know that water exists?
Paul tells the Athenians that in God we live and move and have our being. They seem to agree with him, in fact, Paul may even be quoting one of their poets. Last week we talked about our relationship of “mutual in-dwelling” with God, the way that God abides in us and we abide in God. That’s the language that Jesus repeats over and over again in this his final evening with his disciples. For Paul, that means that in God we live and move and have our being. Kind of like a fish in water.
And like a fish in water, maybe it’s entirely possible to live our lives without being aware of this basic reality of human existence.
Our language sometimes reflects this lack of awareness of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. Some of course, will say there is no God. Others, people of faith, will talk about wanting to be closer to God, or wanting God to come closer to us, as if God is some far off reality that we need to entice to come near. But that’s like a fish saying that she wants the water to come closer. The water can’t get any closer. You’re in it. It’s already as close as it can be!
If God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, closeness is a given. But if we’re not aware of it, if we’re not attentive to it, if we can’t see it and don’t know it, that would seem to be a problem. So what do we do about that?
It’s the same problem that we talked about last week. It’s the problem that John mentions right up front in his Gospel. Even though all things came into being through God, even though it is in God that we live and move and have our being, no one has ever seen God. God is as invisible to us as water is to a fish. No wonder that the Athenians that Paul was talking to had written on their altar “to an unknown God”.
And I have to think that God is concerned about that. The God who created us out of love, who created us for relationship, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, wants to be known. God wants to be seen. So God chose to reveal Godself to us.
You can imagine two ways that this revelation could be done. One would be to do something very concrete and particular, for God to reveal Godself in a way that could be seen and heard, touched and smelled. But something, or someone, particular and concrete would be limited in time and space. Some would see him and others wouldn’t. So maybe there’s another way for God to be made known. The other approach might be to do something that wasn’t bound by the constraints of time and space, something that could speak to humanity across the continents and the centuries, a voice of wisdom, or a spirit of truth, that could help us learn to see and know the very God in our midst, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
So which route of revelation would God take? The answer is both. God sent two paracletes, the Greek word which we translated this morning as advocate, to come alongside us and help us learn to see God.
One was Jesus, God in human flesh, incarnate, concrete and particular. What is God like? The first disciples, Jesus’ friends, could eat with him, pray with him, laugh with him, listen to him and watch him. They could point to him and say “that’s what God is like.” They came to realize that when they were with him, they were seeing God, they were beginning to know God. Jesus makes God known.
Which is one of the reasons that they were so distraught when they realized that Jesus was about to leave. His time on earth was ending, and the disciples felt like they were being orphaned. And so Jesus made them a promise. Yes, I am leaving, but the Father will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.
We know this second Advocate as the Holy Spirit. The one who is with us forever, across time, across space. The word Jesus uses for the Spirit is the Greek word Paraclete, which literally means the one who comes alongside. We translate Paraclete in various ways, as Comforter, Encourager, Companion, Helper, but most often as Advocate.
Thinking of the Paraclete as Advocate can take us in a number of different directions. The first direction we can go is to think of a defence lawyer, an advocate who pleads our case, and some people imagine that the Spirit pleads our case before God. I don’t find that a helpful direction to go. It’s not consistent with the rest of John’s gospel. God knows us and loves us and gave God’s son for us – I’m not sure there is any further need for the Spirit to plead our case before God.
The second direction we can go is to think of the Spirit-Advocate as one who advocates for us in the midst of all the various challenges of life. The parallel here is the way we might advocate for a loved one as they navigate the challenges of our healthcare system, or the way a parent may advocate for their child at school, getting the extra help they may need. That’s a helpful image, and I think there is truth in it as the Spirit comes alongside us, wanting the best for us, and guiding us as we make our way through the world.
But the direction I really want to go with this image of the Spirit-Advocate this morning is this. I want to think of the Paraclete as advocating for God, for the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God that we struggle to see and know despite that intimacy and closeness.
I was reminded by Anna Carter Florence of a wonderful passage in the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker in which her character Shug is describing the wonders of God’s creation and the lengths to which God will go to try to get us to pay attention to it. Shug says,
“I think it really pisses God off, when you walk by the color purple in a field and you don’t even notice.”
Maybe one of the ways that the Spirit comes alongside us and advocates for God is by whispering, “Hey, did you see that purple?”
Because if God really is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, then it seems that our task in life is to become aware of and attentive to this fundamental reality. The Paraclete is the Spirit of truth, the one who comes alongside us to help us see the truth, the one who whispers, who inspires, who pokes and prods us to see and to know the one in whom we live.
And how are we to respond? First of all, by being attentive and aware. How do we become attentive to and aware of the God that surrounds us? We talked about that a bit two weeks ago. Be attentive to the rhythms of your life. Spend time in prayer, spend time in service. Value the stillness and value the stimulation. Become aware of what it is in your life that is life-giving. Pay attention to what moves you. Because these are the ways that the Spirit who comes alongside us tends to whisper. And this time, this time of disruption and dislocation in the usual rhythms of our lives, is a wonderful opportunity to pay attention to the whispering of the Spirit.
Our task, however, doesn’t end with awareness and attention. Because we are also called to live in harmony with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Our rhythms are to be grounded in that relationship.
Back to the fish for a moment. A fish lives and moves and has its being in water, and so how does it live in harmony with water? It swims! So how would that work for us?
We live and move and have our being in God, so what does it mean for us to live in harmony with the very ground of our being?
If you answered “we need to swim”, well, maybe I’m not getting my point across.
To live in harmony with God is to love one another the way that God has loved us.
That’s what Jesus taught. That’s what Jesus showed us. Love one another.
As for the details, well, here again we’ll need to be attentive. We will have to listen for the whispering of the Spirit of truth, the one who comes alongside us to plead God’s case, the one who will help us to see and to get in synch with the intimate reality of God in our lives and our lives in God.
Homily: Yr A Easter 6, May 17 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 17.22-31; Ps 66.7-18; 1 Pet 3.13-22; John 14.15-21
Image by Spike Stitch, Creative Commons