Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25th May 2014
25 May 2014 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 in some kinds of dramatic productions the ways of doing this may need to be quite imaginative. The Phantom of the Opera is exited in a particularly exotic way – variously dropped through the bottom of the stage, or whisked up aloft by strange contraptions in 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 (in one form of that character) is unique. 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.
But that is to anticipate. Today’s Gospel reading is part of a chapter which takes us not quite to 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 describe not the nature of the event but its meaning. Namely, it was to be a sort of bereavement. In the verses we heard today we hear Jesus reassuring them that he will not leave them orphaned – he will return in some new way. But that means that first he really is going, he is leaving them: ‘I am going to the Father..’; ‘…in a little while you will not see me’ - that is what he has been saying.
What he is preparing them for is a religious bereavement, not just a personal one. That’s 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 had been doing what religion does: giving them a new structure and meaning and purpose to their lives; he’d been a support, teacher, guide, challenge, at the most profound level – like a parent, but even more so for he’d been as a heavenly father-figure to them, not just earthly. And he was going, at least in his present form.
Why? Why did they have to lose him as a visible human being alongside them? There are obvious practical reasons why this couldn’t last for ever. But there are also vital theological reasons. 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’s life and 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 this. They needed to realize that the God they saw in Christ could and should be found and worshipped anywhere and everywhere – just as Paul was trying to explain in his speech in Athens in our first reading. For the disciples to really see this, Christ could not remain in in the limited bodily form of Jesus, nor even just in the visible church. Instead, they needed to see him in a new form - as Spirit, who also roams abroad far more widely, in and through all things and peoples.
This is something the church keeps needing to hear. Time and again in history the church has tried to re-embody Christ in restricted ways: in the bread and wine of communion, as if that’s the only place where God is really present; or in the exact words of scripture, or in some particular much loved liturgy, as if that’s the only place where God speaks or the only way we can pray; or in just one particular group of people, one church, which believes in a particular way. God most certainly does meet us in all these particular places and ways. Sacraments, scripture, church, are vital gifts and symbols to help us on our spiritual way, providing us with visible, accessible vehicles for our faith which we can hold onto as certainties; they are also gateways to finding God in the wider world too. But – if God is seen to be restricted to these religious practices and symbols, the church becomes just a sect, far too limited in its vision of God. It also becomes simply unbelievable to many people – people who live in a wider world in which these religious symbols, just in themselves, are insufficient to convey the reality of a believable God. And so, time and again, at Pentecost, at the Reformation, at the Enlightenment, the church has had to be prized away from depending on these things alone. It has had to be bereaved of some of these limited certainties, so that the Spirit can help us see the wider more generous way of God’s working, not just in particular religious practices but in the arts, science, in all human experience.
Individuals, not just churches, may also have to go through this sort of religious bereavement. Many of us here may have been brought up to see God just in very particular, restricted, religious ways – ways which did indeed give us direction and certainty for a while, but which have then crumbled and ceased to convince. Often because of growing intellectual incredulity that the God of the universe should be so restricted. Or because of some bitter life experience which makes us question whether there is a God 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. It’s the opposite! Instead, this bereavement can lead us to see more of God, not less; it can be a journey of the Spirit who will lead us to fuller faith and a bigger God, present in the whole of life, not just the religious part.
When we leave the stage of this drama of worship this morning, do not let your God be too small, confined just to these religious words and symbols which now surround us. Look for Him in the rest of life too. Then we shall not be orphaned as we leave.