Scripture Readings: Acts 17:22–31 | Psalm 66:8–20 | 1 Peter 3:13–22 | John 14:15–21
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:18-19)
One of the biggest challenges we face in the West today is loneliness… isolation… the ongoing lack of connection.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, made the striking claim that their country is facing a “loneliness epidemic”… a serious and a growing breakdown of people’s general sense of togetherness, that has dramatic implications for everyone’s wellbeing.
He writes that “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.” And as much as we might like to draw a line between ourselves and our neighbours to the South at times, this same story is playing out all over Canada as well.
Loneliness is just as much a problem for us and our communities.
In many ways, this isn’t a new problem. All throughout the human story, we people have had to search for ways to belong… to be surrounded by others we can share life with, in all it’s ups and downs.
In fact, overcoming isolation was one of the first acts of compassion and rescue in the story of the Holy Scriptures. In Genesis Chapter 2:18, the very first thing in all of creation that the Living God says is not good is that the human He made should be alone. To remedy this, God creates a community… created to share life side by side. From the start, the Living God longs for us His children to belong together.
And yet, here we are, so far from that gathering in the Garden… cut off in so many ways… and unsure how we are supposed to come together again. The question before us calls to min the words from the Beatles’ song, Elanor Rigby: “All the lonely people… where do they all belong?”
No doubt, all of us have stories of when we felt isolated and alone. And maybe some of us are feeling this way today, and are longing for something more… somewhere to belong.
Before we turn to our Scripture readings this morning, I just want to take a moment and share a small part of my story… from when I was a small and lonely boy, and someone saw me and stepped into my life.
I have a vivid memory from my very first day of school… in part because it was everyone else’s second day. I had missed that crucial first day of Jr. Kindergarten when everyone else came together, made new friends, and found out what school was about… and so when I arrived, a timid and socially unsure child at the best of times, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that everyone else already belonged, and I was stranger. When it came time to play, I remember just standing there all alone, while everyone else knew what to do, and could easily join in the fun with their newfound friends.
Mercifully, this moment did not last too long. Another boy saw me standing their, and came over to me, and in a friendly voice he simply said: “Do you want to play?” And suddenly I belonged. I was welcomed… invited in. Able to share in the fun that was happening all around me, but that seemed so far away.
Now I was supposed to belong there already. After all, I was a student not really all that different from the rest, but that’s not how it seemed to that frightened and isolated little boy. As far as I could understand at the time, I really was alone… until this other boy came and found me and befriended me. And from this simple invitation to play, a lifelong friendship has grown. It was such a simple gesture, a simple act of kindness and hospitality… but even so, it truly changed my life.
I know this story might seem pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but just remember: everyone is capable of feeling cut off and alone, no matter their age, or stage of life. Everyone has times when they feel lost and don’t know what to do. Everyone can lose sight of where they truly are meant to belong, until someone else invites them in. And everyone can play a part in helping others discover that they don’t need to be alone.
We often hear that God loves everyone… that everyone belongs by God’s side… but what does that love really look like? How can we come to know the power of this love that truly changes lives?
Does God’s love for everyone mean, that basically, everyone can just keep doing their own thing? That because God loves everyone, there’s no need to bother about actually letting them know? In other words, does it really matter that everyone comes to know the Good News of the Living God?
Our Scripture readings today teach us to say “Yes!” It matters so much! More than we often realize… though perhaps for different reasons than we might usually assume.
Our first reading today from the Book of Acts Chapter 17 tells the story of the missionary Apostle, St. Paul, and his time in the city of Athens. One of the great centres of Greek culture and civilization, that had spread all across the Mediterranean world and beyond, Athens had a history of great thinkers and philosophers… not to mention a very diverse religious life as well.
But then St. Paul, this Jewish stranger from the backwater regions of the Roman Empire arrives… someone who could not have felt more isolated and out of place in Athens. Acts 17:16 says that St. Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”, which for someone raised on the Ten Commandments, never mind the rest of God’s Law, would have been a major obstacle. For the Jews, idolatry… worshipping statues, or anything other than the Living God alone was unthinkable, and the source of all kinds of wickedness and sin. And yet, despite his isolation, St. Paul stays in Athens a while, where he begins to get into some debates with his fellow Jews and Greek philosophers about the Good News of Jesus.
Unsure about the message this stranger was trying to share, the Greeks invite St. Paul to say more in a more formal setting at the Areopagus, where these kinds of discussions were held for a crowd to hear. And put on the spot, St. Paul starts to share the Good News about the Living God with these people who in some ways seemed so different from him, but who he knew God still loved.
St. Paul, this Jewish Christian, a stranger in Athens so many ways, invites his listeners to come to know the Living God, who is so unlike anything they had yet imagined. Acts 17: 24-28,
“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”
St. Paul points out on the one hand that the Living God is not like the other spiritual beings they worship through idols, and living for this God looks very different as well. But on the other hand, he claims that the one true God has always been reaching out to them in love… graciously providing everything they need, and longing for them to truly come to know Him too.
I suppose St. Paul could have left it at that. Encouraging his listeners with his message of this unknown God’s love for everyone… But St. Paul knew that coming to know the Living God and the reality of His saving love makes all the difference in the world! Acts 17:29-31,
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
What does St. Paul think it means for the Living God to love everyone? It’s an invitation for everyone to repent… to turn around… and turn away from everything that keeps us from Him, and to place our trust in the love of the Living God made known to us in Jesus Christ… the One who was raised from the dead, and who will reign over God’s Kingdom forever… sorting out all of the messes we humans have made that cut us off from one another and from our Creator, so that God’s good justice and peace will fill all the earth.
St. Paul’s point is that God longs for us all to belong, and be right with Him. In love, God has reached out to find us all in Jesus Christ, no matter how far off we may be… to bring us all home. To draw us together to His side, and share His New Life with us.
Through the strange words of this stranger, God Himself was speaking to the people of Athens, inviting them to draw near to the One who had been right there all along, and let Him change their lives for good… helping them find their own place in the world He created for them to share.
Turning now to our Gospel reading, we hear the words of our Saviour, Jesus, speaking to His disciples, on the night He would be betrayed. Christ speaks words of comfort to them, knowing full well the horrors of the cross that the next day would bring… reassuring them, that He would never abandon them… even in death. That even if the world could no longer see Him, Jesus and His Heavenly Father will not leave them all alone.
John 14:18-21, Jesus says: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Jesus wants them, and you and I, to know and share in the love and life of the Trinity, the Living God… Father, Son, and Spirit, holding onto His holy ways, and knowing we truly belong in Him. This is an image of community… of sharing in a deep relationship… and fellowship… of knowing, and being known, and having our lives transformed by the presence and influence of the other.
At this crucial moment in His life, and the life of His followers, Jesus invites them to trust in His love for them… a love they have come to know through His whole life… through the things that He said and did… a love that He ultimately shares with God the Father, and with God the Holy Spirit, and which He was about to share with the whole world, offering His life upon the cross for everyone.
We come to know the power of God’s saving love… a love that truly changes lives through Jesus Christ on the cross. Dying and rising again to reconcile us all to God, and give us New Life… breaking down every barrier that keeps us apart from God, and from one another.
And even more than that, this love show us where we belong in His great rescue mission too… serving as God’s partners as He keeps seeking and saving all who are lost.
“In a little while” Christ said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
As Christ’s followers today… as the community who has already come to know Him, and through Him has come to know God’s saving love… we find our sustenance and strength from our ongoing connection to Jesus.
And though the world today may not see Jesus… the world does see us! So if they can see the life of Jesus at work in us, through the Holy Spirit, the whole world can catch a glimpse of the Living God and His life-changing love through us as well.
This is why how we live our lives as Christians really matters. It’s not to prove how morally superior we think we are, but to mirror God’s own character… His mercy and compassion, His justice and peace… His holy, life-changing love… so that through you and I, the Living God can reach out to everyone… inviting them to draw nearer and come to know that in Him, we all truly belong.
In Jesus Christ, God has made Himself and His love known to the world in a unique and ultimate way… and His Holy Spirit has been at work in all the world, seeking us out and drawing us all to the Father’s side through Jesus His Son. And now we all get to be part of His great invitation… our simple, everyday lives shaped by God’s love are how others will come to know where they too belong.
The story of my friend’s invitation to play has a sequel to it. Two years later, I missed the first day of Grade 1. But this time, instead of just being a stranger in my classroom, I was lost in a strange new part of the school, wandering the halls alone after the first bell range, without a clue where I was supposed to go.
As I wiped the tears from my eyes, and walked back and forth, looking for anybody who might help me find where I belonged, that very same friend saw me, left his classroom, and stood there with me… and again, I was no longer alone. On his own, this little boy helped me discover that I was actually supposed to be in his class again too! Such a simple, beautiful thing… to be together with friends… to belong.
God loves everyone. God is seeking out everyone. God came to us in Jesus so that all of us might come to know Him and His saving love.
It doesn’t matter what age we are, or where we come from, we get to be part of God’s gift of love to everyone. So, like my friend all those years ago, let’s not hesitate to step out and share God’s welcome with the world. To help those around us come to know the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord… to draw near and share in His New Life… and find our place together by His side. Amen.
 Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf)
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School