s031o99 Somerton Park Easter 7 16/5/99
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Acts 1:11.
And we spend much of our lives looking up to heaven and wondering when ... When will God act? When will the pain and suffering cease? When will we finish the painting of the ceiling of the Church :-)
It is particularly appropriate that this Sunday we are without our Church, with the ceiling being painted. It is appropriate that we are without the usual trappings of our worship - just a bare table, chairs instead of pews, and in our noisy hall rather than the quietness of next door. For some it will bring back memories of "the good old days" when the priest could hardly be heard in this the original Church for the children; and people regularly fainting during worship. It is appropriate that we experience some of this "desolation" - this lack of comfort and convenience - that Jesus too experienced, certainly on the Cross, but also as he left the disciples gazing upwards.
It is not easy to preach each and every Sunday, for the same themes recur. For I have been reflecting during this Easter tide, that Jesus left the disciples. Jesus was not raised from the dead to resume his former position as the central figure in the little band of disciples. I spoke earlier of Jesus not waiting at the tomb for the women and the disciples to perchance come back on the first Easter morn. The risen Jesus was off and about. And the feast of the Ascension which we celebrated last Thursday, and echoed in our first lesson for this morning - reinforces the same message.
Jesus goes away. The conventional interpretation of the ascension is that it shows that "heaven" is up there, and that we have to stand about gazing upwards until the second coming, when he will come down "in the same way". Is it a Christian virtue to have an eternal cricked neck - both in this life and the next? :-)
But surely the words of the "men in white" are to discourage them doing this. There is an urgency about the task of the disciples. We are not to spend our lives searching for Jesus, and heaven. We have been put on this earth to love our brothers and sisters - to be fruitful and to multiply, and to till and care for the earth and so provide for ourselves and those around us.
The first response of the disciples was to return to familiar territory, to be with one another and to pray. And this is certainly a worthwhile exercise. The opportunity to worship with others is one of the precious heritages we as disciples enjoy. It may not be that we know everyone else here - we may not have the time or the inclination to join in every activity of the parish - and I hope that no one ever is made to feel uncomfortable if that is the case.
This coming together is unique. People gather to watch football, to experience an artistic performance, or to provide some useful community service. In these situations our focus is towards the team we support or the umpire who makes the mistakes, those playing the instruments and the music that results, or the fundraising or helpful task. But while our coming together in Church, we might think is focussed on God, "up there", if that does not flow to others in our worshipping community, we have lost the essence of our faith. Our coming together primarily expresses our human solidarity, one with another - in acceptance. We might particularly enjoy singing, we may look to the moral teachings in the Bible, we might be particularly nourished by the act of receiving the Holy Communion, but as likely we might appreciate the time to be with ourselves and express the yearnings of our hearts, quite privately and yet amongst this supportive community. There is, I suggest, nothing more important than this simple incorporation. Incorporation whoever we are, whatever level of activity we might be able to give to the work of the Church or not. It is good to be able to be active and doing, but there are many ministries beyond the walls of this parish for which our time here is essential nourishment. Surely the ministry of parents caring for young children is what they should be doing - not engaging in arcane religious activities.
The ascension which figures particularly prominently in Luke's writings (Luke 24.51/Acts 1.9) has only a feint echo in the additions to Mark's gospel (16.19) and is completely absent from Matthew and John's recollections. I conclude that we are to take the story for it's religious point not as a historical account. The story of the Ascension is not to say that Jesus was killed, then later raised to life in a unique bodily form for 40 days (Acts 1.3); after which this bodily form ascended into heaven and the risen Jesus is no longer accessible to humanity. It is not about detailing the various transformations, in substance and in location, of Jesus' bodily accessibility that happened long ago.
The Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965) writes in "The Shaking of the Foundations" (pp151-2 quoted in the "Glenstal Missal" Advent 1B p685 - (and sorry for the repetition of the masculine pronouns for God)): "Both the Old and New Testaments describe our existence in relation to God as one of waiting ... Waiting means not having and having at the same time ... The condition of man's relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. ... I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he possesses him, enclosed within a doctrine. I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he possesses him, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he possesses him, enclosed in an institution. I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he possesses him, enclosed within his own experience. It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God. It is not easy to preach Sunday after Sunday without convincing ourselves and others that we have God and can dispose of him (and I would say dispense him / her to others as we choose or not.) It is not easy to proclaim God to children and to pagans, to skeptics and secularists, and at the same time to make clear to them that we ourselves do not possess God, that we too wait for him. I am convinced that much of the rebellion against christianity is due to the overt or veiled claim of the christians to possess God, and therefore, also, to the loss of this element of waiting, so decisive for the prophets and the apostles. ... They did not possess God; they waited for him. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free and incalculable, we must wait for him in the most absolute and radical way. He is God for us just in so far as we do not possess him. ... We have God through not having him." (End of quote.)
And just to reinforce the point about the repetition of themes - the Missal puts these words for Advent, and I am using them for Easter and the Ascension.
How much of our "Christian" faith is based on the overt or veiled premise that we have God at the very least in a more real way than other faiths? This has lead the Church to either try desperately to take God to those less fortunate, or if they are intransigent, to dispose of them.
And can I make the sweeping statement that in Jesus' earthly ministry, Jesus spent his time also avoiding being anyone else's possession. He spent his time accepting the hospitality of saint and sinner alike. He was not anyone's possession, he was everyone's possession. So I conclude likewise the incarnation was not a preliminary form of Jesus' earthly existence, prior to his risen, and then his ascended form. Jesus was never owned by the disciples, he was always owned by everyone. The ascension makes it doubly plain that this ownership extends to all of creation.
We as disciples accept others. Some might prefer the "traditional" form of the service or the "modern" form of service - but we don't foist our preferences, whatever they are, on others. Some might like joining in the greeting of peace, yet we accept that others find that this invades their personal space. My task as a priest is to ensure that acceptance reigns, not that everyone joins in the greeting of peace whether they like it or not!!!
For Jesus in not the exclusive possession of the traditionalists or the modernists, the Anglican, or even the Christian. As disciples we look for the risen and ascended Jesus not upwards, but all around us, in the people with whom God has blessed us. The words of the "men in white" surely tell us that we are looking for Jesus in quite the wrong direction, if we are looking up.
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