Salvation as a Journey, Not Only a Destination (Easter 6A)

Bible study at The Branches – the center of our partnership with St. Barnabas in Rio Grande - ends each week with a brief service of Night Prayer or Compline. Typically we use the service found in the Book of Common Prayer, but last Monday, we instead used a service adapted from John McQuiston’s Prayerbook for the 21st Century – a book that is unique for its use of images, images that are grounded in panentheism. Pan – everything; en – in; and theos – God. In other words, panentheism means “everything in God” (this is not the same as pantheism whose adherents claim that everything is God). Marcus Borg, always able to boil complex matters into something more palatable describes panentheism as “God is all around us and within us, and we are within God. . . . God as ‘beyond’ and God as ‘right here.’ God is more than the world. . . Yet God is present in the world.”[1] So what are some of these panentheistic images for God? God as Intimate Father, as Mother, as Wisdom, as the Divine Presence, or God as Journey Companion – the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day – images that welcome us into relationship with God.[2]

What makes panentheism so compelling? Well, in the first place, its most common alternative in the church is supernatural theism – a theology firmly rooted in expressions that imply God is wholly Other, a being “elsewhere, out there and not here” - always beyond reach who (almost magically) enters the cosmos momentarily from time to time.[3] Panentheism, on the other hand, allows for a more intimate relationship with God speaking as it does of a God who is right here, right now, among us and with us while, at the same time, acknowledging that God is, of course, completely other. God is not one of us – God is the source of all being, intimately connected with us for we and everything around us is in God.

Today’s Gospel lesson strikes me as a great example of panentheistic theology. Jesus tells the disciples, “You know [the Father], because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . . I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.”[4] This is not a description of some future point of arrival – I recognize that Christ is the Savior, my Savior, and, I wait for the day of salvation. Salvation understood this way follows the first definition found in The Oxford English Dictionary: “the saving of the soul; the deliverance from sin and its consequences, and admission to eternal bliss.”[5] No, when Jesus says, “he abides with you, and he will be in you”, Jesus seems to be talking about a journey – not a single point in some yet to be determined future. I need to say very clearly that I am not saying there is no afterlife. What I am saying is that I can know with certainty very little about that after life and I struggle to accept a notion of God that says my time on this earth – no matter how short or how long – is simply a time of waiting for “real life.” No, I am clear that this life, the one you and I are living right here and right now, is “real life” – or at least a portion thereof - and it is a life that is imbued with meaning and purpose by the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6] What does this mean? In the first place, it means that salvation is not just an event that happens on some last day, presumably after we have died. Acts of God’s saving grace can and do happen in the here and now. Our salvation is a journey and we are called to be active participants in that journey.

Marcus Borg in The God We Never Knew writes about several ways people have experienced God in the here and now. The first category of experiencing God in the here and now is what Borg calls “ecstatic experiences.” These include visions, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and dreams. In each of these, the person reports that the experience is

“’more’ than the visible world of our ordinary consciousness. . . the experiences have a noetic quality to them – that is, people who have them consistently say that they involve knowing (and not simply a feeling). They involve a vivid experiential sense of seeing or encountering or becoming aware of another layer or kind of reality.”[7]

Biblical examples of such experiences include Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, the many visions recorded by the prophets.[8] But such ecstatic experiences are not limited to Biblical times and, indeed, many persons – 50% of Americans according to one study – report having had at least one ecstatic experience in which they became more aware of “an alternate reality, the numinous, the sacred, a world of spirit.”[9]

Another category of experiencing God in the here and now – and one which you hear me speak of more frequently – is a simple awareness of God’s presence or, as Borg calls it, “the dailiness of God:”[10] A young child exchanging a freshly picked marigold for the communion host at the altar rail – demonstrating in that small gesture more about her understanding of thankfulness and self-offering at the Eucharist than most adults – including those with seminary training - can ever understand or a sense of clarity about an important decision that seems unmistakably to have come directly from God.

While the first type of experience – the ecstatic – may seem to be beyond the reach of many of us (though I suspect we might be surprised how openness to these experiences can, in and of itself, be a precursor to having such an experience), this second type of experience – simple awareness of the dailiness of God - is available to us all. One of the ways we do this is through our weekly worship together. At the very least, the liturgy is designed to enable us to experience the presence of the living God through word, through sacrament, through song, through community – through the engagement of our senses. At its best, the weekly liturgy shared in community helps us to open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence throughout the week. Seen in this way, our time together is like a practice session for living in the world and living in God at one and the same time.

But for most of us, once a week practice is just not going to cut it. Unlike the ancient Israelites whose very culture was steeped in the belief that God was active at all times and in all instances, making it impossible to think of God not acting through the course of history, we have access to a world of many cultures, steeped in religious pluralism, and in a country that continues to struggle with its own identity as it pertains to the separation of church and state. For these reasons, we have to be deliberate in our efforts to experience God at work in our lives; we need to strip off the cultural baggage of eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and minds that do not understand.[11]

There is a website based in the UK called Rejesus which offers a version of daily prayer that provides an interactive approach to the daily office. I have begun incorporating some of its liturgy into the noonday prayer service offered at The Branches on Wednesdays.[12] One aspect of the liturgy which I particularly like is the beginning prayer which invites us to focus our thoughts and attention on God and our life by asking us to think about our situation or mood through a series of questions. Questions like “What can you be thankful for?” And “What dreams and hopes can you share with Jesus?” encourage us to think intentionally about God’s presence in all aspects of our daily life. And, when exercises like this are practiced regularly, they can open our hearts to an experience of God – to a journey with God - in the here and the now wherever “here” is and whenever “now” is. Where is God in your journey?

[1] Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 32-3.

[2] Borg, 73-75.

[3] Borg, 33, 46.

[4] John 14:17b, 20.

[5] In Borg, 156.

[6][6] Acts 17: 27-28.

[7] Borg, 37-8.

[8] Borg, 38.

[9] Borg, 38, 52 (note 23).

[10] Borg, 39.

[11] Mark 8:18.

[12] Rejesus accessed online on April 22, 2008.