Text: John 4: 23-24
23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Aspirate means to breathe. Can you see the word spirit in the word aspirate? The word spirit in Latin actually means breath, so these all seem very related to each other. Then there is the Greek word for spirit, which is translated for us pnuema, which again means air, or breath, or moving air. We still see the impact of this today with words like pneumonia or certain tools that are powered by air are called pneumatic tools. So you can see that we could build a case fairly easily that the words spirit and air, or spirit and breath are almost interchangeable. This is quite interesting when we begin to apply this concept to the scripture I read just a few minutes ago. Let’s look at it again…
…true worshipers will worship the Father in breath and truth…God is air, God is breath, God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in breath and truth.
I know there is always wiggle room in the scriptures, and I also know that is particularly true when it comes to John’s Gospel, however I do want to point out that the author didn’t say maybe it would be a good idea to worship God with breath or with air, but the author said those who worship must worship in spirit and truth. Must is a fairly demonstrative word. It seems the author of John at this point is really trying to be clear.
I have mentioned a number of times about the perils of imaging God in what I call anthropomorphic terms, that is with human qualities. Here in the Gospel of John, we have Jesus also trying to communicate that with this reference to God as spirit – or in other words, God is like air. But it is not that simple, because in the very same sentence, God is also referred to as father. So, what seems to be the case, at least for this scripture, is that God is perhaps both and. When it is appropriate, we would do well to image God in non-human, non-being ways, like the reference to spirit, or air suggests. There may be other times when it is appropriate to image God in human terms, but we perhaps should pay attention to when those times are, and why it becomes necessary.
I wanted us to take a look at our opening hymn that we sang a few minutes ago for a few more clues about this issue. This hymn was written about 250 years ago by Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley, who we credit for founding the Methodist movement. The opening line of the first verse, I think sets the tone for the entire message; “Maker in whom we live, in whom we are and move”. If you really look at this, the words say we live in God, not that God is apart or separate from us, but rather God is something that we live inside of. Sort of like air. Verse three identifies God as a spirit in the opening line, and then God is called a “sacred energy” in the next line. Imagine, 250 years ago, before physics, before microscopes, before a true scientific understanding of the universe, before atoms and electrons, before telecommunications, before electricity, before microwaves, TV’s or telephones, before flight, before automobiles, before gasoline, before nuclear power, before almost anything that we associate with energy in the present time; Charles Wesley identified God as a sacred energy. That is extraordinary! It also helps us image God in ways other than anthropomorphic terms.
But there is a basic problem that we encounter when God is only air or only energy. That problem lies in our ability to communicate. How do you talk to energy? How do you talk to air? The anthropomorphic God allows us to more easily comprehend the notion of communication than does the non-anthropomorphic God. This can be helpful for some of us. When we construct an image of God in our minds that is a being, or perhaps some of us picture the person of Jesus, it becomes easier for us to communicate. It creates an area of comfort for us that we can relate to and becomes a useful image of God. This can be a tricky balance because if we overemphasize the human qualities of God, there are any number of downsides and pitfalls, many of which we have already talked about. But if we create a God that is completely void of all human characteristics, some of us may have problems finding comfort, companionship or have trouble communicating with such an image. For this reason, I don’t believe the two images of God must be mutually exclusive; in other words all one way or all the other, God can be a “both and” construct of our own creation. Keep in mind, that how we choose to image God in our own imaginations does not change God. Even in our hymn, which I pointed out how remarkable it was that Charles Wesley was able to identify God as a sacred energy 250 years ago, that same Charles Wesley in the fourth verse speaks of God’s glorious face; a very anthropomorphic image. So even in our hymn, we have a God that is imaged with both spiritual and human qualities.
Sometimes it is less difficult for us to explore concepts when we create some distance for ourselves from the subject matter. What I mean by that is when we speak of God, most of us already have an image of God created in our minds which we are very close to. If we are close to that image and it is important to us, we will seek to protect that image and resist or ignore anything that is counter to that image. This is just human nature; I think it is a form of self-preservation. Because we already have an image of God in our minds, it becomes very difficult for us to see God in other ways or other forms because we want to stay in our area of comfort and the image of God that we already have brings us comfort.
With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting for us to explore some of these constructs in a different process that does not threaten our current image of God but still is relevant to the conversation. This may seem like a difficult proposition, but I think I have just the ticket.
How many of you remember the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks? This film was released about 15 years ago and the story revolves around a Fed-X employee who survives a plane crash and ends up stranded on a deserted island. Over the years that our character is alone on the island, he creates a persona in his imagination that is physically represented by a volley-ball that washed ashore a few days after he did. During his time on the island this volley-ball is the only thing that our character has to talk to, and the volley-ball slowly becomes much more than just a volley-ball. The ball also begins to become anthropomorphic in the sense that he gives the ball a face and hair and so on. He even names it Wilson. If you saw the movie, you are sure to remember Wilson. When our character decides he must leave the island or he will never be rescued, he takes Wilson with him on the raft that he built. After a storm, the raft breaks apart in a few places and Wilson falls off the raft while our character sleeps; as he wakes up, he realizes Wilson is missing.
Play movie clip
This scene where Wilson is lost at sea is a very powerful moment in the movie; particularly when you have been watching the movie for a couple of hours and you have become familiar with and friendly towards Wilson. He is a character in the movie, even though it is just a volley-ball.
I also think this scene can offer us the opportunity to make some interesting observations regarding or own relationship with God, the use of anthropomorphic images and our need as human beings for companionship. For example, I think it is an interesting question to ask if Wilson actually exists or not? An interesting follow-up question could be to ask if Wilson did exist, after the volley-ball was lost, did Wilson cease to exist?
I think it is also interesting to realize that many of the things we seek from God, things like comfort, compassion, companionship and connection, were manifest in the character of Wilson. In the same way we see God manifest in the person of Jesus, was God also manifest in Wilson? If you think it is possible that God was manifest in Wilson and provided comfort to our character through that manifestation, how does that inform our thoughts about other faith traditions? If God can be present in a volley-ball can God also be present in some other way in a different faith tradition other than our own?
I know this is just a movie and all this is hypothetical and didn’t really happen, but that is what makes it safe territory for us to explore. I’m just asking the questions; it is up to you if you decide to try to answer them or not in your own mind.
If the character of Wilson had not been so physically attached to the volley-ball and if Wilson had not been so anthropomorphic in nature, would the level of communication, comfort and companionship have been diminished?
One final question that I think is very interesting for us to consider is this; what does the experience of Wilson tell us about our human need for relationship and companionship?
For me, the example of Wilson points out that there are multiple right answers to our questions about the Divine, there are many ways to relate to the energy, the spirit, the air that we consider to be God. When necessary, we put a face on that energy and it becomes even more comforting, even more compassionate and perhaps even more real. What speaks the loudest is our desperate need as human beings to connect and be in a relationship with each other and to be in relationship with the Divine; we simply must have companionship, even if that means we find our companionship in the form of a volley-ball that becomes our best friend. Wilson does not represent a new religion, Wilson does not challenge any long standing theological traditions, Wilson is about as non-threatening as possible-and yet for me, Wilson in a very real way allows us to experience the heart of God.
Go in peace and go with God. Amen.