The Problem with God, with Us, and the Rest of Us

Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying, ’I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’— John 17:20-23a, 26

Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying, ’I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’— John 17:20-23a, 26

We have great problems with this, the final, passionate prayer that Jesus offers for his followers. He prays that we might be completely one, — one with him, one with his Father, and one with each other. The trouble is, we have problems in all three areas — problems with God, with us, and with all of us. The problem with God is that we consider the Almighty to be much too holy to unite with the likes of us. The problem with us is that we see ourselves as far too unworthy to even imagine that God might dwell within us. Most troublesome of all are the problems we have imagining ourselves as ‘one’ with everyone else — we know how difficult it is to be truly united with each other.

And yet, clearly, this is what Jesus earnestly wants for us: he thinks such unity is possible; all we see are the problems. Take that remarkable proposition, Jesus’ hope that he might dwell in us in the same way that he dwells in his Father: “. . . may they also be in us, . . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me . . . .” When I recently spoke to a group about God dwelling in us through Christ, one lady responded vehemently, “Not in me — never! I might experience Jesus as being beside me to help me from time to time, but never in me!”

“Oh Lord, I am not worthy,” we think, and we really believe it. We tell ourselves, “I’m hardly good enough for God to dwell in me. I’m not much of a saint. I can’t even imagine Jesus and the Father making a home in the unholy likes of me. A few saints and mystics might try it, but it’s certainly not for me.”

What we forget is that God does not love us on the basis of what we deserve. There are no expectations that we be flawless, perfect creatures before God will ever love us. God’s regard for us seeks ultimately to heal and forgive us, not simply to judge and condemn us. Christ became like us that we might give over to him those infirmities that trouble us so. He takes our wretchedness on himself so that our faults, flaws and failings might be crucified with him. In joyous exchange for our wretchedness, he offers us the glory and the holiness he shares with his Father: “The glory that you have given me,” Jesus prayed, “I have given them.“

The spiritual writer and mystic Thomas Merton wrote of God’s glory s as our indigence, as our dependence, blazing as a heavenly diamond with heaven’s invisible light, making “all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely,” and thus, “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday Image, 1966. p. 158)

What would it be like to live with the glory of God dwelling inside us? Don’t look for ecstatic experiences and being lifted up to the seventh heaven. And don’t confuse Christ’s indwelling with a pious demeanor or a sanctimonious manner. The God who yearns to dwell within is known through much more down-to-earth encounters.

Ty Christiansen, a sixth grader living in Omaha, Nebraska wrote of God’s indwelling with the simple beauty of an eleven-year-old’s heart: “As I’m walking through a forest, I see all the trees, and I get a feeling I can’t describe,/As I stand on a mountain, the wind blows against me, and I get a feeling I can’t describe,/As I’m standing in the wheat fields, the wheat moves like gentle water, and I get a feeling I can’t describe,/As I leave a small town, I remember the great things I saw, and I get a feeling I can’t describe,/As I go away from my relatives, I think about the great time I had with them, and I get a feeling I can’t describe,/As I pray to God, I ask Him what are those feelings, and He says they are Him inside of me.”

When you experience a sense of being more than yourself and you find you are living surrounded by a forgiving, energizing love, that is God in you. When your breath is taken away by the power in God’s Word and by the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, God is there in you. Whenever your throat catches and your heart leaps for the triumph of love in your life, there is Christ in you. When you are deeply engaged in the beauty of self-giving service, then God surely dwells with you. When your life is bathed in beauty and justice and gratitude, the Lord is present for you. Look to those small, ordinary, inward moments and recognize in them God’s Real Presence within you.

And make no mistake, there will always be strife and heartache and failure running through your life, even at the same moment that God’s glory and Christ’s love settles deep within you. That is always how it will be this side of heaven — heaven and hell on earth at any moment.

Then there is the most difficult challenge of all in Jesus’ prayer, that his disciples “may be one, completely one. . . .”  We are so often so divided from each other. Spouses striking an unsteady truce as they limp along in a fragile relationship, neighbors barely speaking to each other for years on end, churches holding grudges about each other, ever eyeing one another with suspicion, nations torn from within and threatened from without, the world sorely divided between rich and poor, strong and weak, developed and exploited — with all this, how can we possibly become one, as Jesus prayed that we might? The answer is simple: we cannot overcome our divisions on our own. The true source of our unity with each other is rooted in our union with God.

Merton described the moment this unlikely truth dawned on him.  On a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, he was suddenly overwhelmed by “the immense joy of being . . . a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate . . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . . There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday Image, 1966, pp. 156-158)

What a remarkable way of seeing the world this is! It’s a profound mystical insight with practical social implications: deeply connected to one another by the love that God has for us all, we are propelled by gratitude to love and serve others as Christ has saved and served us.

The secret is to recognize in others what God loves in them and move beyond the conventional, critical, and conditional ways we have of evaluating and deciding on one another. We see instead flawed and imperfect people, much like ourselves, who are still loved by God, still capable of having God dwell in them just as God has mercifully chosen to dwell in us. This is what heals a community: seeing one another with the eyes of our own grateful hearts, offering a merciful love to each other that God shares with us all.

This is what Jesus prayed that we might see and embrace and center our lives on. I ask myself, “Am I open to living this way? Am I willing to set aside my pertinacious resistance and surrender to God who loves me as God loves Christ himself?  Am I ready to recognize God’s merciful love in my neighbor as well as in myself?

In every great love affair there comes a point when you must decide to stop building up your defenses against your own deepest happiness. At the moment you choose no longer to resist, the problems fall away and everything comes together in a unifying love. Jesus prayed that this might be ours. May his fervent prayer become our living joy.

4 Thoughts on “The Problem with God, with Us, and the Rest of Us

  1. DIANE M. BEAN on May 10, 2016 at 11:19 am said:

    Thanks for these lovely, inspiring words, Edward! I feel most fortunate to be one of lucky & blessed people on your email loop! Diane

  2. Elizabeth Elterich on May 10, 2016 at 4:35 pm said:

    Well said!! Thank you so much for sharing your insightful thoughts and words with us. Pray all is well for you and all those you love and care for. Blessings, elizabeth

  3. Jean Wheeler on May 15, 2016 at 1:05 pm said:

    Fortuitous that I was able to attend St Brendans this morning , and hear your sermon . Thank you!

  4. Mary Callahan on October 4, 2016 at 9:39 am said:

    I am a random and sporadic user of electronic devices. Hence, the delayed response…

    For me, the Divine within, authenticates the God above. It is viable; one can experience and be in unison with the Life Force dwelling within one’s self and in others. Admittedly, I tend to nestle the Spirit within- keeping it safe and contained -most likely restrained by the business of daily activities, life’s time-exhausting struggles and simple adherence to acceptable decorum. Cogent, real-time awareness of the Presence is transformative. (I love it when I allow that to happen!)

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