Seeing Jesus 2017:
I Am With You Always
Sixth Sunday of Easter • May 21, 2017
Reading: Matthew 28:16-20
Pastor Jeff Wells
There is a lot going on in this very short lesson from Matthew’s Gospel. First, the followers of Jesus bow down before him in an expression of worship. The author wants us to know that, in spite of some hesitation and even doubt, they have come to faith in Jesus as not just friend, brother, teacher, or prophet, but as the very presence of God with them. Second, Jesus gives them a commission – this passage is usually referred to as the Great Commission. He tells them to go out into the world and inspire others to follow him among people in every place and nation and to share everything he had taught them. Finally, Jesus makes a spectacular promise. He says, “remember, I am with you always until the close of the age.” I want to focus our reflection this morning on the promise. In Jesus’s words, “I am with you always,” we hear an echo of God’s self-description to Moses in the Book of Exodus: “I AM WHO I AM” and “tell the Israelites I AM sent you.” It also echos the name used to describe Jesus in his birth narrative: Emmanuel – which means “God with us.”
I will use Jesus and God interchangeably because I believe there is no separation between the Holy Parent God, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. When we experience any of the three expressions of the Trinity, all of them are present. So when Jesus promised, “I am with you always,” he meant the fullness of God is with us always.
God is with us not in some ethereal or magical way, but as the very ground of our being. We do not exist and nothing in the universe exists and no event happens without God being present – not as prime mover or determiner of all things, but as the ground of our freedom and the freedom of the whole universe to evolve, change, and grow in a continually creative way.
Jesus is with us – God is with us – literally in every moment of our lives. In fact, God is with every electron and atom. But we human share, with other sentient creatures, the ability to experience God’s presence, at varying levels of consciousness.
We are free creatures, though our possibilities are limited by our social circumstances and by our past decisions. God knows all of the options available to each of us every moment, but God does not determine our direction or choices. Instead, God lures us, inspires us, and encourages us to choose options that will most contribute to creating and fostering goodness and love in the world, not only for ourselves, but for others and for our communities.
When we can experience Jesus deeply as the ground of our being moment to moment, our lives can become like music improvised by a jazz combo. Jazz is largely about improvisation. The musicians always have some structure and a sense of where they are headed with the music, but they are also free to be creative and playful as they go. In this scenario, think of God as the lead player. God attempts to shape the music produced in relationship with us, but cannot control the choices the other players will make. The more we choose to follow God’s lead, the more God’s vision shapes the music collectively produced – in other words, shapes our lives and the world around us. Of course, we do not always take God’s lead. God gives us the freedom to make bad choices – musical and otherwise.
You can begin to see the implications of this. If Jesus is with us always in this profound way, then it becomes impossible to talk about having a discrete “God moment,” because, in reality, every moment of our lives is a God moment. God is constantly doing everything in God’s power in every moment of the life of every creature to bring about goodness and love. God desires the best for us so Jesus/God/Spirit works with even our worst decisions or the worst things that befall us and tries to redirect us toward lives that are more relational, more loving, more joy producing, more full of meaning.
Not only can we experience God in each moment, but God experiences us – our thoughts, emotions, and choices – in every moment of our lives. Jesus, our Emmanuel, shares in every experience of our lives. He experiences the suffering of an undocumented immigrant ripped away from her families and deported for a traffic violation. He experiences the fear and pain of a woman suffering domestic violence. He experiences our suffering when we are ill and our grief when a loved one dies.
God may even experience pain beyond ours because God knows not only the choices we have made, but sees all of the options we have rejected and all the ways we have been limited by oppression, exploitation, and bigotry. God knows how different our lives might have been. Let me share with you a profound description of God’s experience from theologian Robert Mesle:
“God is able to compare each creature’s actual experience with what it might have been had we been wiser, kinder, more generous, more compassionate. God not only feels our pain, but adds to it the pain of experiencing the gulf between what is and what might have been. And when the possible joys become actual, when the potential for richness is made real in creatures’ lives, God experiences that joy, too. Such a God can never settle for the inadequate status quo. Such a God can never sanction a state of affairs in which some are victimized, exploited, and oppressed, because God is one of the victims.”
As beings who have consciousness of our past and can envision our possible futures, we have the potential to experience Jesus with us in a very deep and profound way. But we have to be open to that experience of Jesus. We can grow in our capacity through mindfulness and prayer and also through participation with others in communities like The Church of the Village, where we have many opportunities to remind ourselves that Jesus is with us always and to grow in the depth of our experience of God with us. Of course, this experience is not restricted to those who believe Jesus is the incarnation of the divine. Every human being has the potential to experience God in a similar way.
What I am talking about is not solely an intellectual exercise. It is not just about thinking to ourselves moment to moment, “What would Jesus do,” or better, “What would Jesus have me do in this moment or with this decision” – although that might be a good questions to ask ourselves. It is closer to the way the apostle Paul described living in Christ – seeking to live every moment of every day in the Spirit of Jesus. It involves inculcating values and habits of living that come from God and are exemplified by what Jesus taught and the way he lived his own life. Eventually, they can become so much a part of our being, that they incline us to make good and loving choices. Not just our minds, but our emotions and our spirits become more and more fully connected to the God who is with us always.
And, so, we have circled back to Jesus’s teachings and our commissioning in the scripture lesson. Because to experience Jesus with us, we are called to live as his followers, to invite others to become followers, and to share with them everything Jesus taught. The core of that teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which was very likely a standard sermon that Jesus preached frequently and continue to develop throughout his ministry. It is full of inspiring, if sometimes hard, instructions. It is full of the values and principles that God desires us to live by and ways God desires us to treat one another. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus said. Do not remain angry with a sibling, but be reconciled, seek forgiveness. Don’t give false testimony. Do not respond to evil with more evil, but practice loving your enemy. Give to everyone who begs from you. You cannot serve God and wealth. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus said. This is just another way of saying, “Love your neighbors as you love yourself.” To live our lives, moment to moment, according to the values Jesus described in the sermon on the mount and in all of his teachings, is to experience God with us.
So we are in a constant dance with Jesus, who is with us always, whose love in the ground of our freedom, who never tries to subvert that freedom, but cajols, inspires, love, comforts, and heals us, all the while trying to move us to make good and loving choices. So open your arms and your hearts wide and join in the dance. Jesus is with you now and always.
Please be in prayer with me:
Jesus of our every moment, ground of our freedom, sharing our joy and our sorrow, we want to dance with you, to make music with you, we want to live lives of holy purpose, guided by the values you taught and that we are still trying to learn and embody. Inspire us to open ourselves to your love and your leading. Guide us moment to moment in choosing to do good, to grow in love, and to foster justice and liberation. We pray in the spirit of your divine love. Amen.