5th Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21
“No one has ever seen God,” it is written. “No one has ever seen God.”
This seems a straightforward statement. God is beyond human seeing and beyond human understanding. The present-day version of “seeing God” might be more akin to “proving God’s existence.” There have certainly been times in my life when I longed for a hard-and-fast, clear-cut proof that God was real. I thought such a thing would be comforting to me. And there are people–very, very clever people–who make a living telling anxious religious folks that they have proved God’s existence. And of course on the other hand there are other very clever people who make a living telling anxious atheists that there is no good reason to believe in God.
The Bible, as far as I know it, doesn’t really go in for any of this. The Biblical writers took God’s existence as a given. They did not try to present God in such a way that a skeptical twenty-first century mind in search of definite proof would be convinced. They did not try to present the eternal and transcendent God as a reality that a human being can grasp in the same way that one can grasp a geometrical proof. As Saint Augustine once said in a sermon, “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God.”
There are stories in our Old Testament of people who seem to see God, who might test the statement we heard today that “No one has ever seen God.”
There’s Jacob, for example. Jacob was on his way to meet his estranged brother Esau, and he had good reason to believe that Esau might kill him. Jacob had stolen Esau’s inheritance, and cheated him out of the blessing of their father, and he had fled. After fleeing, Jacob married and had children, and then heard that Esau was abroad with a small army, looking for him. The night before he met Esau, when Jacob was all alone, it is written that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” And the next day Jacob named the place Peniel, the Face of God, for he said, “I have seen God face-to-face, and yet my life is preserved.” But Jacob did not see God as God; he saw a man–that’s all the Scripture says by way of description, just a man–who wrestled with him.
“No one has ever seen God,” wrote the Apostle. “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
And the apostle also writes this: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
The Scriptures also say of all humankind when they were created: “So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It would be too much for us to see God; in our finiteness and weakness we would be overwhelmed. But we see around us the image of God in other human beings, in family members, friends, and strangers; in those we love easily, in those we have a hard time loving; even in those we fear, those we despise, those we hate.
The day after his mysterious wrestling match, Jacob went with his family–his wives and children–his servants, his livestock, and all his possessions–to meet his brother Esau. Now here is what the Scripture says of their meeting:
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Jacob had some kind of divine encounter the previous night; had wrestled with a man who was perhaps God’s angel, or a manifestation of God’s own self. Despite what Jacob said, I don’t think Jacob actually saw God while he was wrestling with his strange opponent.
But when Esau forgave Jacob, and the long-lost brothers embraced, there, even if it was only for a moment, God lived in them, and they saw a glimpse of the perfection, the completion, of God’s love.
And that was no proof of God’s existence, no proof that would satisfy a skeptic; but perhaps it was more needful, more beautiful, and more powerful.