“We begin in the name of Jesus, who came down from heaven, died on the cross, and entered my heart.” This is the invocation for weekly chapel at Good Shepherd Lutheran School. Beginning in preschool, children learn these words, and when I began leading chapel here many years ago, it was the children who taught them to me. But as is the case with all of us at one time or another, when we recite words, we are not always together in what we believe about those words… and some of us may even be a bit confused.
That was the case with little Leah. She was in preschool, and with her mother volunteering often at the school, Leah was on campus, even when she was not in class. She knew these words about Jesus coming, dying, and ultimately taking up residence in her own heart. One day, Leah and her mother helped out in the third grade class. This day, the class was learning about the human body. Leah, because she was smaller than a third grader, became a part of the project as she lay on the floor so that the students could trace an outline of her body. They then drew various organs and body parts within that outline.
After class, Leah became quiet and sad. She wasn’t playful in the afternoon; she picked at her dinner and actually wanted to go to bed early. Concerned, her mother had a talk with Leah. “What’s the matter honey? You seem to be bothered by something.” Leah’s response: “Jesus is supposed to be in my heart, but when they made my heart today, he wasn’t there.” A crisis of faith for a four-year-old! If Jesus were living in her heart then how was it that Jesus wasn’t in the drawing?
Our text for today reminds me of this story; because most of us… at one time or another, usually a time of crisis, wonder “where’s Jesus?” We might look at the promise of Jesus, “I will be with you always” and say, “Really? I don’t see you.”
Where’s Jesus? It was also a question for the early church. How is he present and what does it mean that “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him? Was this Jesus… the man who walked the earth… the man we read about in our bibles… Was this Jesus merely a man? Or is he God?
To confuse the issue even more, how can Jesus be God, if we already know God as, the Father… the creator of the universe? And what about the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit God also? Or, is the Spirit something else? The early Christians had to struggle with these questions, to identify God in the many ways they experienced God. At the same time they had to find a way to hold on to their strong belief in one God. After all, Jesus had affirmed the shema as the greatest commandment. This ancient call of Israel, found first in Dt. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
So, how is Jesus God? And how is God one? It took the church hundreds of years to work it out, ultimately developing creedal statements such as the Apostles Creed that we just read together. But statements don’t guarantee full understanding… I personally don’t think that we are capable of fully comprehending God. It’s one of those mysteries that won’t be fully answered for us on this side of our own resurrections. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that when I die and find myself in the presence of God, the first word out of my mouth will be “oh.” One of those long “ohhhs” when we finally get it. An “ohhh… so that’s how it is.”
While we cannot fully comprehend the incomprehensible, we can benefit from the work of all those who have preceded us in faith, as we ourselves seek to comprehend how we believe in one God, while at the same time believing that the one God exists in the three persons we have in today’s text, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, as some criticized, or one God who changed forms depending on the situation… But one God.
Some of the problems though, were similar to little Leah’s problem… where is Jesus? What does it mean when Jesus promises eternal presence? How do we experience that presence? It obviously doesn’t mean that the resurrected Jesus is going to pick up where he left off, before his encounter with the cross. We know that after his few appearances he returned to the Father. But, while Jesus wasn’t physically present with those early believers they did experience something. What?
Remember our study of Acts during Lent? Remember how as the disciples and others were gathered in Jerusalem? They experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit and a new church was born. This Spirit was present then and is present now; this Spirit is the helper that Jesus promised in John 16, the one who will guide, the one who assures that none of us is alone. So the early church experienced the earthly Jesus, they experienced the Father, and they experienced the Holy Spirit.
So how does this work? How are these three persons one? One way to think about it is to think of these three persons, the Trinity, as God in relationship. Within the Trinity, there is a relationship of three who are equal, who are diverse yet have unity, and who are love amongst themselves, and who – thankfully for us – offer love outside themselves. Within the Trinity, we have God… in three persons – Creator, Saviour, Holy Spirit – in loving relationship with one another and in loving relationship with us.
And we need that relationship because there are times in our lives that we feel alone, when we might wonder, just as Leah did, “where’s Jesus?” When illness strikes, or when our relationships are broken, in our families, with our friends, our neighbors and sometimes in our church, we might ask, “Where’s God? Where’s Jesus?” And as a congregation, when the future seems uncertain, when change is happening around us, we might wonder about God’s presence in the midst of it all.
Right now, in the life of St. Mark’s we are facing two huge issues. One, we have been talking about for months, whether to participate in the project with the LA Design Center and the Land Trust to provide affordable housing as well as a community center for the neighborhood. Second, is what many knew was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when, and that is Pastor Brian’s announcement of his retirement. So now we are faced with a huge decision while knowing that we will have a different relationship with Pastor Brian and Ruth.
Last week I heard someone say, “Things are going to change around here.” The person making the statement is indeed correct, but we must recognize that things are always changing. The neighborhood is changing, not for the first time. The pastoral leadership of the congregation is changing, not for the first time. The congregation is always changing as people come and people go. But you know what? There is something that is not changing… and that is God. Jesus promised his presence for all time, and we can depend on that presence… we can depend on that relationship. We can depend on our relationship with Jesus, who came down from heaven, died on the cross and entered our hearts.
Little Leah could not see Jesus in the drawing of her heart that day. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t there. Jesus is present for Leah, just as he is present in the waters of baptism… just as he is present in the bread and the wine that we will eat and drink in a few minutes… Jesus is present when times are good and when times are bad. Jesus is present when we gather for worship… when we feed the hungry… when we gather to study the word… Jesus is present when we seek to know and to love those who are different in language, culture, color, economic standing, politics, you name it… Jesus is present when we seek to know those who view God differently… Jesus is present through relationship with us and in our relationships with others (even our difficult relationships)… In all this, our great and glorious God who is a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is in the heart of all that we do… in the heart of all that we are. God is in the heart of our community… God is in Leah’s heart… God is in our own hearts… and God has promised to remain there, in loving relationship, for all time. Amen