Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 29 May
29 May 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
Sometimes in a play, to move the drama on, you have to get a character off the stage – and some of the ways of doing it may need to be quite imaginative: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ was one of Shakespeare’s most memorable ways (The Winters Tale). And this is nothing to the ploys used in other kinds of dramatic productions: the Phantom of the Opera is exited even more exotically, variously dropped through the bottom of the stage or whisked up aloft by strange contraptions into the vaults.
In the great drama of the Christian story of salvation, God’s way of getting Himself off the stage of history in the character of Jesus Christ is even more remarkable. It happens in the event of the Ascension we celebrate later this week. An event so remarkable it is literally indescribable, as all actions and movements of God must be. It was no ordinary physical event, certainly no theatrical trick, but something much more mysterious. That’s why the bible uses a symbolic image to describe Jesus’ departure. It describes it as an ascent ‘to the clouds’: clouds are an ancient Hebrew image often used to describe the sense of God when He’s on the move.
But that is to anticipate. Today the Gospel reading took us not quite to the event of the ascension itself, but just to the cusp of it: to the point where the disciples are being prepared for it. And it prepares them not by attempting to describing the nature of it, but its meaning. Namely, it was to be a sort of bereavement. It was going to be a parting. ‘I am going away’ he says earlier, and now ‘in a little while the world will see me no longer’. Though he does also reassure them he will not leave them orphaned.
What he is preparing them for is a religious bereavement, not just a personal one. Because Jesus in the flesh had not just been a personal friend to the disciples, he had also been a religious authority for them. He has been doing what religion does: given a new structure and meaning and purpose to their lives: he’s been a support, teacher, guide, challenge, at the most profound level - like a parent, but even more so, for he’s been as a heavenly father-figure to them. When the philosopher Socrates died Plato described even his pupils as so bereft they were like orphans. For Jesus’ disciples, even more so. Their most ultimate support of all, not just their teacher but their religious authority, was about to be taken away, at least in the form they had known him so far.
Why? Why did they have to lose him in that form as a visible human being alongside them? There is a vital theological reason. A close divine presence in that form had actually become a limitation to their understanding of God. For Christ to remain just as a particular, Jewish, male, bodily presence in Palestine, would have prevented them and the early church from realizing the full reality of God and God’s mission in Christ - which wasn’t just to found a new Jewish sect in Palestine but to be a transforming life for the whole world, and even beyond this world. They needed to realize that the God they saw in Christ could be found and worshipped anywhere and everywhere, just as Paul later tried to explain in his speech in Athens in our first reading. For the disciples to see this they needed to realize that Christ was not limited to the bodily form of Jesus, or even to the Church, but would and could return as a Spirit: a Spirit who also roams abroad far more widely, through all things and peoples.
This is something the church keeps needing to hear. Time and again, historically, the church has tried to re-embody Christ in restricted ways: in the bread & wine of communion as if it’s the only place where God is really present; or in the exact words of the biblical text, or some particular much loved liturgy, as if that’s the only place God speaks or the only way we can pray; or in just one particular group of people who believe in a certain way. God certainly does meet us in all these particular places and ways. Sacraments, scripture, church, are key gifts and symbols to help us on our way, providing us with visible, accessible certainties to hold onto: and they are vital gateways to finding God in the wider world too . But - if God is then seen to be restricted to them it makes the church just a sect, too limited in its vision of God – and simply unbelievable to most people who live in a wider more complex changing world, in which these symbols alone are simply not sufficient to convey the reality of a believable God. And so time and again, at Pentecost, at the reformation, the enlightenment, the church has had to be prized away from depending on them alone. It has had to be bereaved of some of its limiting certainties – so that the Spirit can help us see the wider more generous ways of God’s working, which is not just in religion but in the arts, in science, in all human experience. The temptation to retreat back to the securities of a restricted faith, a sectarian fundamentalism, is always there, especially at times of uncertainty, But at its best the church has resisted. It has faced this bereavement. It has given up some of its limited certainties - not to be left just empty and doubting, just as orphans, but to become open to the Spirit who helps us believe more, and more widely, not less.
This kind of religious bereavement happens with individuals too, not just churches. I have often found myself sharing this sort of journey with people personally. People who have been brought up to find God just in very particular, restricted ways which gave certainty and direction for a while, but which then crumbled and ceased to convince – sometimes from a growing intellectual incredulity that the God of the universe should be so restricted; or under the pressure of some bitter life experience which makes us question whether God is there at all. What our Gospel wants us to hear is this: if this sort of religious bereavement is our experience, it need not be just a journey from faith to doubt, to emptiness. Instead the Gospel is preparing us, like the early disciples, to see that this can lead us to see more of God, not less: a journey into the Spirit in which we find a fuller faith, a bigger God.
When we leave the stage of this drama of worship this morning I trust we will find God has indeed met us in these words of scripture, these sacraments and prayers, in this place and congregation. But if He is to stay with us after we’ve left, if He is not to be confined just to this hour, this place, these things, we need also to find the Spirit of this Christ elsewhere – in the experience of many who never come to church, in our home life and work life, in all the mysteries of this extraordinary universe in which we play out the drama of our whole lives. Do not let your God be too small – only then we will not be left as orphans…