11th May 2020
Revd. Tom Mumford
May I speak in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Where has God gone?
It’s a question I have been asked a number of times in the last few weeks. And you know what? It’s hardly surprising! Probably more than 50,000 people have died in the UK, so far, due to COVID19. In the first month alone, around 2 million people lost their jobs. 7.5 million people have been furloughed, and though thankfully not unemployed, they’re still in uncertain financial and employment positions, many on less pay. Foodbank use has sky-rocketed. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. Millions of us are still in ‘lockdown’, many of us away from our friends, our family and our loved ones.
And before we get too apocalyptic thinking about us, what we’re experiencing now is something that the majority of the world’s population suffer every day of their lives. For most, this fragility, this pain of loss and separation, is a daily reality. It’s just that most of the time, we don’t even notice. Millions of children die from preventable diseases, millions live in poverty, thousands die crossing seas to escape war zones and disease, climate change ravages countries with floods, storms, fires and famines. Even without a global pandemic, the world can feel like a pretty bleak place. The question, then, feels valid. The question repeats: Where has God gone?
This question can also be validly asked by Christians too. In fact, a number of those who have asked me this in the last few weeks have been Christians. Some of them even ordained ones. And to ask such a question is not a betrayal of the ‘church’, not a betrayal of your faith, or even a betrayal of God. In fact, much of the Christian faith is framed around such questions. Read the book of Job for example. Read the Psalms - they’re full of such cries. The book we’re going through at Morning Prayer at the moment, the book Numbers, it has this question asked in all manner of ways. Look at Jesus on the Cross, listen to his words – ‘my God, my God why have you forsake me?’ - even when Christ is at his lowest point, he too asks ‘where has God gone?’ But the truth, we are told, is that of course God hasn’t gone anywhere. God has instead gone everywhere. In our reading from Acts this morning, St Paul explains that God is not far from any of us, for “in him we live and move and have our being ”God according to Paul, is closer to us than even our breath. It is in him that we live, it is through us that he lives. It is God that gives us life, sustains our life – he is the centre, the source, the energy of all creation, all that is.
This is hinted at too in our reading from John this morning, in the words of Jesus himself. The reading we have follows on from last week, and is part of the passage known as the ‘farewell narratives’ - the passage where Jesus is said to be preparing his disciples for his absence, for his going away. Characteristically, the disciples don’t seem to understand what he’s saying, but Jesus implies that this new reality will even be better. When he goes, he says, in his place ‘another Advocate’ will be sent, to be with them ‘forever’. This Advocate being the Holy Spirit. And in that Holy Spirit, Jesus says, he will never leave them, but instead he is ‘coming to them’ in a way more intimate, more powerful.
What this means, how this is true, will be played out for us this coming Thursday, on the Feast of the Ascension. There the scene is set that God in Christ is leaving the disciples. Jesus is taken ‘out of sight’, up into heaven in a cloud. But despite how it appears, the opposite turns out to be true. Take closer look at St Luke’s account in Acts. Here the Ascension comes immediately after Jesus promises his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit. And I think this placement tells us of its true significance: The ascended Jesus does not result in a God more absent from us, but in a God more powerfully present with us, as the Holy Spirit. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is not a distancing of God, but his condition for a new form of intimacy with us.
And this, I hope, will further shatter any Sunday School illusions that people often have about God. He is not a bearded white man who sits up on a cloud, detached and disinterested. He doesn’t leave us alone to suffer, nor does he decide, as if on a whim, to inflict suffering on us. It may feel this way at times, as it did even for Jesus on the cross, but as we see in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we see in the very birth, life, and resurrection of Christ, this is just simply not true.
We may rightly wonder and question where God is right now, where he has gone. But the answer is always that he has gone everywhere. Everywhere where the void that is suffering and evil is filled and transformed. Everywhere where goodness, and life and love are outpoured. God is in those moments of love shared by a friend or a neighbour, calling to see if you’re alright. God is in the overwhelming generosity of food or money donated to foodbanks and other charities to help people in need. God is in the comfort and consolation offered by a friend or family member when we grieve
the loss of a loved one. God is in the skill, the courage and the risk-taking of those who seem, so unselfconsciously, to run and meet situations at their worst. Those who pour themselves out into it the emptiness of disease and disaster: the nurse, the doctor, the carer. The police officer, the aid worker, paramedic.
Where has God gone? Everywhere. And that includes in us. Us who seek to form ourselves ever more into the likeness of Christ. Us who seek to see the world through God’s eyes and call it out.
Us who witness, us who tell the truth of God. Us whose call it is to bring light to bear on darkness, hope to bear on suffering, joy to bear on pain, love to bear on life.
We know where God has gone, we know where God goes…
…will you join in?