|Reflection is an important aspect of any spiritual journey. To sustain it, we need to constantly think about the life to which we are called. The specific peg may vary - it may be a verse of scripture, a political development, a situation in our own lives - but the process helps us develop. Here we share some elements of a Celebration journal.|
In one way or another, summer this year has been preoccupied with thinking about difference. We attended a Community conference that focused on just that, particularly ‘the other’ that is presented to Christians by a resurgent Islam. In the church at large, difference has dominated the agenda, to the extent that it now looks as if the Anglican Communion will not survive in the form we have known in the past.
Here, the issues are not to do with Islam or any external challenge to the church but with sexuality, conservatism or traditionalism versus liberalism, cultural clashes, anti-colonial feelings or a combination of all of the above, according to one’s point of view. It is not that these debates are new, but we seem to have reached a boiling point where mutual tolerance is now evaporating faster than the desire for unity can contain.
Some see this as a fracture in the fundamental narrative of Christianity. On the one hand, the starting point is the love of God; on the other, God’s purpose in redemption. The one may lead to an uncritical inclusiveness; the other to high moral commitment but also to a strictly conditional (and therefore exclusive) salvation. As these fundamental beliefs have worked themselves out in a world that supports Christian tenets less and less, they have come to be seen by many as irreconcilable.
Yet Jesus himself seems to have combined both elements. To the crowds he preached God’s unconditional acceptance; to his intimate friends he taught the necessity of taking up their cross if they wanted to be his disciple and taste what eternal life really was. He included Judas among his disciples, knowing what kind of person he was, yet there was no trace of inclusiveness in his dismissal of the loyal Peter who tried to deflect him from his spiritual mission.
Whether or not this is the root of the current battles, the struggles with difference in the church are taking place against the backdrop of a worldwide emergence of secularism, which cares not a jot for religious arguments. The apostles faced a similar indifference in the world of their time - probably even more overwhelming than today - yet they found a way to deal with their religious Jewish-Gentile arguments whilst still respecting each other. The church was infinitely stronger as a result.
This was not because of an abstract principle, e.g. that unity is more important than truth, but because we encounter God when we truly embrace each other. That is, perhaps, one of the key insights of the modern community movement.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the very early days of Christianity the great symbol of the faith was not so much the cross as the good shepherd. Christian art depicted Jesus as the shepherd carrying the lost sheep around his shoulders. The image of the shepherd and the sheep is one of the most enduring of all the pictures Jesus left to describe the people of God.
Yet it’s also one that hardly resonates nowadays – and not only because of its ancient rural setting. It has become a cliché to speak of the vicar’s flock. Intelligent people don’t readily identify with sheep, who convey the impression of a mindless herd or a crocodile of kindergarten children obediently trotting along behind their leader.
That isn’t surprising until we realise that what is being held out to us here is not an image of mental or emotional maturity but a spiritual analogy. Jesus ministered to the lowly, the powerless whom he describes as harassed, like sheep without a shepherd. By following Jesus they become something very powerful indeed. His Spirit binds them into a flock, a spiritual entity whose life together is graphically described in Acts: sharing possessions, giving to all who had need, worshipping together with glad and generous hearts.
The picture is of being called out of isolation into a new spiritual identity. Today, most Christians have all the resources they need to be self sufficient, so they don’t feel the pain of isolation and vulnerability nor do they see the need to be gathered into a spiritual flock in the sense Jesus is talking about. It’s enough to be part of a church congregation with friends you can call on, on the rare occasions when you really need it. But we may well ask ourselves if we have lost something in the process.
Isolation is dehumanising. We can anaesthetise ourselves from the pain of it with material resources, but we don’t experience the joy of generous friendship and the affirmation of our identity. In the parable of the sheepfold, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate of the fold. Those who enter by another way, says Jesus, are thieves and robbers who steal and destroy. But who are the thieves and what do they destroy? They are not necessarily evil people. They are just people who propose a different spirit or way of relating than that which Jesus commends. They scatter the sheep, i.e. they cause them to retreat back into their isolation, and hence they destroy the joy that they share.
Jesus’ parables sound cosy and innocuous, but when you dig into what they really mean, they frequently draw out responses such as “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s impossible.” What they really do is ask us deep questions, like what is the real basis for happiness, how much do we really want it and how far would we really trust what Jesus said about it, when push comes to shove?
‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Lent this year is all about vocation.
Maybe that’s the way it really happened, by a chance encounter between Jesus and a couple of fishermen as Jesus was taking a stroll along the Sea of Galilee. But these stories are not random anecdotes; they have a spiritual meaning, often linking to some passage or incident in the Old Testament. In this case, there is an echo of Elijah’s call of Elisha while the latter was ploughing in the fields. In other words, Jesus call comes to us, like Elisha’s, in the midst of daily work.
The days when work was described as a vocation are long gone now in modern times, even for doctors and nurses. It used to mean that work was not just a means of survival but was also, in some indefinable way, linked to who you essentially were. So here: Jesus is saying to Peter that his job does not define who he is but who he is may well determine what he does in future and how he does it. Peter is a fisherman, but that is not who he really is. Really, he is a fisher of people. Jesus’ call is for us to be who we really are.
Jobs and roles often do give people a sense of their identity, especially men; but they can also have the opposite effect. They can be a burden or they can make people feel worthless. But who you really are is not defined by job or circumstance, or even by natural gifts. All these things can assume an importance that they don’t really have. In spiritual terms they cannot define us, even though we may cling to them and mourn their loss as times change and we get older.
To discover who we are we have to go on a spiritual journey, i.e. we have to follow. But what does that mean? It sounds straightforward to follow Jesus, yet within 20 years of Jesus’ death Paul is asking: why do some of you say I follow Paul, I follow Apollos and I follow Christ? We kid ourselves we are following Jesus, but we all need something a bit more immediate than that, so we find ourselves living by the norms of someone else, or some institution or system. We decide for ourselves what kind of beliefs we are going to adopt, what kind of church we’ll go to, what style of worship we like, who we agree with and who we don’t agree with and so on.
What may get lost is the fact that the search is what is important, not having the answers; the journey, not the arrival. Maybe the theology we disagree with or the practice we feel uncomfortable with is the very thing we need. Once spiritual life becomes shaped by some ‘ism’, it may well cease to be spiritual at all. From a spiritual point of view, often what is important is not what the Bible or tradition tell us is right, but how it came to be decided in the circumstances of the time.
Following Jesus takes time, a lifetime in fact. It is as much a matter of learning from mistakes and failures as it is from studying and attending church. It is not a matter of achieving so much as persevering. It’s a direction, not a defined road, yet if we so much as begin to taste who we really are, we discover the real meaning of joy and peace. If we truly follow Jesus, he may not make us fishers of people, but he will make us something.
“His name shall be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”
Matthew’s story of the circumstances of Jesus’ conception read like the cover up of a domestic nightmare, written for the benefit of good respectable people. Little Mary, betrothed to Joseph, has gone and got herself pregnant – and it isn’t by him. So the rationale begins.
Joseph is an upright man, so after thinking about it he decides he’s going to do the right thing – he’s going to divorce her. In Jewish terms, he’s a man who keeps the law. He is then told by God in a dream that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, so that makes it all right for him to marry her. It is Joseph, we learn (not Jesus), who is the true descendant of David, so by adopting Jesus he makes him a descendant also in the eyes of Jewish law. In other words, Matthew is making Jesus acceptable in the eyes of god fearing Jews. He is making him a proper candidate for being the long expected Jewish Messiah.
We, of course, are a totally different audience. Yet there is something eternal about this waiting and hoping for a Messiah – and about our expectations of what it will look like when he comes. In Jesus’ day people looked for a Messiah; today we still live in the hope of the world to come. Advent is all about the spirituality of waiting. Mary waits for her child to be born; Jesus waits for his mission to be fulfilled; and we’re still waiting.
It’s not waiting in a temporal sense, like waiting for Christmas. It’s a spiritual outlook, a spirit of looking for God, expecting God, being in a condition to recognize and respond to God whenever and however he comes. It can easily be diluted or misdirected by a variety of extraneous ideas or presuppositions. Joseph takes a bit of nudging from God to realize what is happening to Mary is from the Holy Spirit. Matthew feels it necessary to present a case from genealogy to boost Jesus’ credentials.
The fact is that no one expected to see God in the shape of the illegitimate son of a peasant girl from Nazareth, or in a man executed as a criminal with the approval of religious authority. It seems that whenever the world of eternity touches the world of time and becomes incarnate, or visible, it’s almost always unexpected rather than expected. That’s way it is with God. The real signs of God’s presence don’t look like the fulfillment of solemn prophecies and they aren’t wrapped in Christmas tinsel. They are usually quite mundane and can even seem to be a bit of a disaster in our lives. It takes real spirit to recognize them as God.
The spirit of Advent is perhaps the difference between Joseph and Mary. Joseph is a good man: he always goes by the book and does the right thing. Mary is confronted by exactly the same reality of what’s happening to her, but the response of her spirit is to utter the Magnificat. The question is, are we a Joseph person or are we more of a Mary person?
The November issue of the Link was inspired partly by contact with the 'new monasticism' movement and partly from a feeling of despair at the current state of the Anglican communion. It seems almost incomprehensible that, with all our modern knowledge of historic church splits, of how permanently damaging they are and yet how inconsequential in the long run, we are again threatening to take that route.
Those who promote such a strategy will no doubt claim that they are guided by the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit does not inspire splits. The Holy Spirit inspires unity, which is on a higher level than truth.
Unity comes from the spirit, and in its biblical dimension from the Holy Spirit. It is a form of truth in its own right - spiritual truth, which has to be lived in order to be known. Intellectual or propositional truth cannot destroy it or take precedence over it. Those who assume that a theological viewpoint or outlook is a sufficient basis for unity should reckon with Jesus: if you only love those who love you, what use is that? Everybody does that. Perhaps for 'love' we should substitute a few other words, such as 'work with', 'get along with', 'take communion with'.
To be filled with the Spirit is a profound experience for anyone. One of its effects is to put all theological debate into its proper perspective. It is not that disagreements and sources of division disappear, but they become less important. If that were not so, Christianity itself would have remained and probably died as an ancient Jewish sect. To live by the Spirit is something far more profound and far reaching than being freed up in worship and gaining a few small victories over personal habits.
Perhaps the unity of the Spirit is taken too much for granted. Perhaps, like the theological messages that people are fed with every week which define their churchmanship, it needs to be consistently taught together with its implications. The parochialism of many churches already causes many to reach for other sources of nurture. Perhaps we need strong voices that can help us understand the real spiritual meaning of coming before God 'in the company of all the saints'.
For modern Christians, Pentecost conjures up images of people speaking in tongues, being set free from many of the limitations and handicaps of their lives and being endowed with remarkable gifts to bring God’s grace and power to bear on other people’s lives.
It’s a picture which all too often seems to be more of an aspiration than a current reality, and even when we do have a taste of it, it seems hard to maintain over the long haul.
It would be interesting to know if that was exactly how the first Christians saw it. There was certainly a good deal more involved theologically than the manifestation of various spiritual phenomena. Pentecost is one of the major Christian festivals, celebrating (along with Christmas and Easter) one of the central features of the ‘new humanity’ brought into being by God.
This is what makes Pentecost different from other occasions when people are said to have been filled with the Spirit. It is linked to the Tower of Babel, the story of the confusion of languages that is ultimately the source of division between peoples and races. At the feast of Pentecost, everyone heard about the wonderful deeds of God in their own tongue, the meaning being that the curse of Babel has been reversed: through the action of God, there is now no division between races and categories of people.
Even the church has found that hard to believe. It has been divided itself and continues to be today. The church built on the very site of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the Church of the Resurrection or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, depending on whether you are Orthodox or Catholic) is a testimony to this. Control of it depends on a centuries old agreement to preserve the status quo at that time. The absurdities of this are illustrated by a story we heard of a tourist who collapsed on a flight of steps. A call for help to a nearby Armenian priest was refused, on the grounds that he was not allowed in that section of the Basilica.
In its early days, ‘Pentecostal’ experience seems to eliminate human barriers. That was certainly so in the early days of our community. Perhaps that is one of the most important things that communities can contribute to the church today: the sense of belonging based on our common humanity rather than on particular religious convictions.
In some sections of the church, the idea of fasting is taken pretty lightly. Christian faith tends to be understood primarily as a private interior matter. It is acknowledged that fasting features in the Bible, including the life of Jesus himself. But it remains a matter between the individual and God, and may even be considered as an option for ‘advanced’ Christians rather than a norm of Christian life.
Consequently a seasonal fast such as Lent may feature hardly at all in the life of some churches, or may be observed mainly in ritual such as the use of certain liturgical colours. The idea of ‘giving things up for Lent’ is seen as an unnecessary asceticism or even a kind of penance, atoning for excesses indulged in freely during the rest of the year.
On this view of things, the value of Lent for spiritual life is comparatively minimal. That aspect of it gives way to a much more practical (and basically self-centred) outlook: it’s a good opportunity to detox, shed a few pounds and get a grip on one or two unhealthy addictions.
Of course, not all Christians approach Lent in that way. Nevertheless, there has been a tendency of late for the emphasis to switch from the negative-sounding aspect of self denial to something more positive. For example, ‘the fast that I choose’ of Isaiah 58.6ff involves letting the oppressed go free and sharing bread with the hungry. In John 8.1-11, one of the readings for Ash Wednesday, those zealous for observance of God’s law are put to shame by Jesus’ mercy for the woman taken in adultery.
In community we have had our share of Lenten fasts, including one in the early days that left us unable to eat a hearty meal on Easter Day because our stomachs had shrunk! But when it came to tithing (a not altogether dissimilar subject) we used to say that our tithe was not 10% but 100%. The point was it never felt like a tithe because we were all in it together, giving our lives to one another in order to accomplish something worthwhile.
And that is one of the important things about Lent. It isn’t just a private fast. It is a truly communal affair. It may or may not be the case that a modern western lifestyle makes the ‘self denial’ aspect less meaningful as a spiritual pursuit, but when it comes to positive aspects of fasting, the examples given in the scriptures are almost by definition best done together.
When we approach Lent in that way, joining together to accomplish God’s fast, it doesn’t feel like a fast. It feels like something exciting, the memory of which we carry with us into the rest of the year.
For people brought up in the modern world, whose world-view is shaped and formed by the scientific outlook, the only believable thing about the Christmas story is the birth of an illegitimate child of a poor 1st century villager in a stable. Everything else – shepherds, angels, star, wise men bringing gifts – sounds like a made up story.
As such it is a bit like the story of Robin Hood – a traditional story that has become part of western culture. It bears no relationship to historical truth, but we like the story and enjoy telling it and re-telling it, incorporating it into traditional festivities at this time of year.
Christians, of course, don’t see it that way, but their world-view is a little different. Once you have had an experience of God, the encounter with the transcendent makes it easy to incorporate into your beliefs the stories that explain its origins and roots. It’s not that you are uncritical. The stories make deeper sense because there is much more to them than a traditional tale. They can be understood on several different levels.
There is of course an argument for incorporating Christian stories into the secular culture – it makes the Christian story widely known and creates a climate generally favourable to Christian faith. The down side is that it makes Jesus into a figure of sentimentality. The baby Jesus is, at best, symbolic of a season of good will, and in an age that is increasingly hostile to the church, he is often a figure of fun for comedians.
The danger is that Christians themselves become subverted by the secular world-view, so that they too begin to see the story only on the level of a traditional tale. They may defend its truth because it is part of their belief system, but its inner meaning may not necessarily touch their hearts.
Whatever we mean by the phrase ‘God was in Christ’, it includes the meaning that God was identified with a poor, illegitimate and defenceless baby in the same way that Jesus said he was identified with the poor and the ‘little ones’. This means that when God is visible to the senses and revealed in humanity (as opposed to creation generally), what becomes visible is extreme vulnerability – not power or superhuman strength.
Hence the God we worship is a being who is discovered in vulnerability – physical, social, economic and political. We cannot truly worship something, or someone, without identifying ourselves with what we worship, and this is why it is important to reflect on the inner meaning of the Christmas story. Without that, like the secular world, we lapse into sentimentality. We offer our praises to Jesus, to be sure, but we have little desire to be like him.
Advent is of course the start of the church year, but such is the power of the secular celebration of Christmas and New Year that it always seems like part of the old year, a sort of preliminary to the real turning point of the calendar.
Yet the nature of Advent is that it is a preliminary. Lectionary readings feature the story of John the Baptist, who ‘prepared the way’ for Jesus – not just in a limited religious sense, but also, probably, in a public way though a ministry that touched a deep chord in the public consciousness and raised expectations.
The church year is a re-enactment of the major events in the Christian story. But that can easily distract from the theological and spiritual significance of the events themselves. So we sing carols because this is the time of year to do it. And we do it every year, year after year, in the same pattern. It’s part of the Christian culture.
But the real story was not a ritual
re-enactment. I happened in real time, in real people’s lives. There was a
spiritual dynamic to it. How did John ‘prepare the way’ for Jesus? By his
preaching of repentance, yes, but also by making the connection between current
felt needs and longings for deliverance and the foundational Jewish story of
deliverance from slavery in
We do not need much imagination to recognise that many Christians today are in need of a similar uplift in their consciousness of God and in hope. We live routine lives in many ways, with little real expectation or motivation to take God seriously. Many sense the loss of vitality and yet feel powerless to do anything about it.
The result of John’s preaching was that Jesus was received with hope and gladness, and amazing things happened in people’s lives. In our early community history, a small group of people started to take God seriously, and as a result were open to the coming of Jesus by the Holy Spirit that eventually led to communities in several countries. That is the spiritual dynamic of Advent – not a ritual celebration, but a real determination to be open to God. Openness to God is a prerequisite for recognising the coming of Jesus among us.
In community, saints’ days are usually observed by reading the story of the saint during one of the offices. Some stories are well known, some are obscure but fascinating while some are frankly myth. But why do we read them?
To anyone living in community, community life is one long story. Story telling is an essential feature of the life. Stories are not necessarily anything to do with religious life as such. They are tales of characters in the past, of the things they did and the situations they found themselves in. They are often the source of much laughter.
In community, the meaning of Christianity as the story of God’s dealings with his people is brought into focus. The story is a human one, of human frailties and absurdities, and also, sometimes, of heroics. Community life is often a story of struggles and triumphs over various obstacles. For us, it was the story of what God did with a bunch of ordinary people who gave themselves to each other to be Christ in a particular place.
For the more discerning, it was like a romance. Just as the Bible is the story of a spiritual tradition, full of triumph and tragedy, heroism and frailty, the sublime and the mundane, so in community we continued the ongoing story, at least in one small corner.
So the stories of the saints are not just interesting accounts, nor are they some sort of substitute for reflecting on the scriptures. They are part of the ongoing story that never ends, which also costs lives. We need the sense that we too are part of that story.
Ordination day! That’s how I shall always remember Petertide (June 29), though it is only comparatively recently that it has been used in that connection. Associated with it is a group of Ember days, days of fasting and abstinence, which have a longer history as the occasion for ordination.
Recently a question was posed in the Church Times as to whether the Church of England had, or could have, elders. The answer given was that elders today in the Anglican Church are priests. Whether one agrees with that or not, the responsibilities conferred by ordination certainly include those you would expect to be included in the role of elders.
That, to me, makes Peter’s feast particularly appropriate to be linked with ordination, not because Jesus said he is ‘the rock on which I shall build my church’, but because of the kind of man he was: a leader with feet of clay.
Peter is the first to recognise who Jesus really is, yet within seconds of doing so is being called ‘Satan’ by Jesus. He is the first apostle to recognise that Gentiles were accepted by God on the same footing as Jews, yet we later find him backtracking, opposed by Paul because he gave way to the feelings of the ‘Judaisers’, separating himself from Gentile Christians.
That sense of being called but with feet of clay is something that any priest worth their salt carries with them.
The easiest thing to do is to hide behind the role. In community, particularly in the early days, it was necessary to address the issue of roles, not just for priests but for everybody. Technically, there are very few things that can only be done by a priest, so the role was virtually reduced to that of a functionary, e.g. consecrating the elements at the Eucharist. Most other aspects, such as preaching, teaching, counselling or pastoral work, were done just as well or better by lay people.
This enabled those who were priests to address their own human issues just as everyone else was doing. There was no need to hide behind a role, and for some that was a relief. Later, it would be possible to return to vocation from a more integrated place.
We are all liable to look for our identity in the wrong place - in roles, titles, positions or gifts. The task of the church is to provide the milieu where we can all be ourselves. We look for our identity in the wrong place because that is where we are expected to look. We are given our identity by others according to those same criteria.
The radical nature of Jesus’ gospel was that it accepted people as they were and gave them their identity as people without regard to extraneous criteria, religious or otherwise. That is the only thing that truly sets us free, and enables roles and gifts to be used for their proper purpose.
One of the problems with religious truth is that it expresses things in terms of doctrines, which are necessarily highly condensed. As a result, belief is often understood as adherence to a formula, which in turn becomes almost more important than its underlying meaning.
It’s not surprising that this should be so, for all theology has profound consequences when it is worked through in human life. What may appear to be a small variation in doctrine can lead to quite big long term results, so it’s important to get things right. Nevertheless, ‘getting it right’ can easily cause us to take our eye off the ball.
The Trinity is one such example. Of course, Christians understand that it does not, as people of other religions think, mean that we worship three gods. In effect, the Trinity encapsulates the way in which the Christian tradition has found God to be in life, but we sometimes have a tendency to talk about it as if it referred to three characters on a heavenly stage.
That imagery can be useful. For example, the picture of the divine as three persons living in perfect unity could be a model of human community. We emphasise our unity in community because this is the way God is. It is through unity in community that God is revealed and known.
But seeing things in terms of characters also limits God. God becomes altogether too much like ourselves; vastly superior, no doubt, but thinking and behaving in ways that we can relate to, because they are much the same as the way we think and behave.
Jesus spent much of his time trying to teach people to change their imagination of God. Their picture of God was a heavenly character, one who issued laws that were certainly good but also divided people into the law abiding and the lawless, the acceptable and the unacceptable: in other words, a picture very similar to the way in which all human beings naturally think.
In direct contrast to this, Jesus spoke about the Spirit, which fulfils the law as often as not by setting aside or reinterpreting the written code. He also spoke about his own identity with God as a human being. There was no doctrine of the Trinity in those days, but these seminal teachings ultimately led the church to revise the received wisdom on who and what ‘God’ is and how we know God.
To this day, Jesus’ wisdom on the subject of incarnation and the Spirit remain part of the genius of Christianity. Our own community was founded by ‘following the Spirit’. Incarnation, ‘seeing God in each other’, was at the heart of community life too - with profound consequences for life, theology and religion. God was known in ways that gave both meaning and immediacy to the familiar language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We miss a lot when we simply think of the Trinity as three characters in the heavens, without awareness of the wisdom locked away in that doctrine.
Once again we have a story that takes different forms, depending on which story we follow. The story we’re all familiar with is in Acts, where the Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire resting on believers present. How we’d love it if that happened to us!
But there’s another story of the Holy Spirit, in John 15, where the Spirit is referred to by Jesus as the Counsellor. This is a forensic term. Much as Americans refer to their legal officials in court as ‘counsellor’, so Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the defence counsel.
But what does the Holy Spirit defend us from? Are we defendants in some cosmic but invisible court, where Satan is the prosecution or the accuser, the Holy Spirit is the defence counsel and God or Jesus is the judge?
Jesus said the Holy Spirit will convince the world - another translation could be ‘prove the world wrong’ - about sin, righteousness and judgement. ‘The world’ (which is another way of talking about the way everyone naturally thinks) has pretty fixed ideas on all those subjects.
Jesus’ ministry was largely about telling people they had got the wrong idea. Take sin, for instance. It’s not lawbreaking, but having a heart that is closed to God. Justice (the same word as righteousness in Greek) and judgement are part of our vocabulary, but we have the wrong idea about what they are too. (There is no more typical example than Jesus’ own trial, where the Son of God himself was condemned.)
‘The world’ thinks there is a standard by which we are all judged. Whether we call that ‘God’ or simply ‘what’s right’ matters little. We act in the name of God when we judge people; we assume God does the same. ‘The world’ is always in the business of condemnation and judgement.
But Jesus often offended people’s notions of what was right, because he was in tune with God’s Spirit. The Spirit of God frequently ignores or rewrites supposed ‘laws’, in the interests of things like mercy, forgiveness or simply creativity. When we follow the Spirit, like Jesus, we may find others are scandalised.
Jesus said ‘Blessed are those who are not scandalised by me’. Those who are will always condemn the wrong target, and for the wrong reasons. It is very hard for us to be immune from the power of condemnation; part of us will always agree with our accuser. But the Holy Spirit defends us from the world’s condemnation.
The defence is the sheer joy of living by God’s Spirit, which in Jesus’ case made even the cross worthwhile. In our own days of ‘following the Spirit’, community life at its best was like a romance with God. Sacrifices were accepted because they never seemed like sacrifices. The joy of the Spirit was the best defence against fear, doubt or condemnation.
The Ascension is a good example of the use of pictorial language to convey a spiritual truth. A concrete statement is easier to get hold of than a mystical idea, and it has other advantages too. It preserves the core truth through time, whilst allowing each generation to understand it in the context of its own worldview.
So, when it finally comes time for Jesus to take his leave, he goes up in the sky on a cloud. Why? In ancient times, people located the gods in places inaccessible to human beings. In Jesus’ day, God lived above the heavens, so for Jesus to return to God inevitably meant flying off up into the air.
Something like that view of God prevailed, at least in popular imagination, right up until the twentieth century. Hence Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported that ‘there’s no sign of God up here’.
Of course, we understand the Ascension means that Jesus took our humanity back into God. That is harder to understand and certainly not as graphic as the picture of Jesus going up on a cloud. But it means the same thing. If we had to accept the worldview in which the Ascension had its original context, we’d find that pretty difficult today.
In the story, the angels say to the disciples, ‘Why are you standing gazing up to heaven? This Jesus will come in the same way as you saw him go’. There is always the temptation to ‘stand gazing up to heaven’, perhaps thinking of past glories no longer experienced, or perhaps cultivating a ‘heavenly’ imagination.
In fact, Jesus will return ‘in the same way as you saw him go’. Just as he has taken our humanity into God, so he will bring God-inspired humanity back to us. And even though the Christian hope is for a perfect fulfilment of that promise some day, that should not divert us from the expectation of seeing it amongst us today.
The first believers had to wait for Pentecost for that to happen, but since then Jesus’ God-inspired humanity has always been available to us. Maybe it has not yet appeared in its fullness, but that should not stop us. Why stand gazing up to heaven, pleading for God to send Jesus back as in the old days? Let’s just get on and live Jesus’ life, confident that resources are there to enable us.
But let’s not think we’ve arrived either. There is always something more, something yet to be revealed, the extent of which we’ll never know until Jesus’ resurrection life is present among us without let or hindrance.
One of the things I’ve always liked about the Gospels is the variety of ways in which they tell the story. Mark’s story is perhaps the most interesting of them all, because the most ancient manuscripts finish it at ch. 16 v. 8.
Two or three women come to the tomb after Jesus has been buried. They see a vision, but they don’t see Jesus. A young man in white tells them he is risen. Their reaction? They dash out of the tomb, terrified, and say nothing to anyone about what they have seen.
That’s it, as far as Mark is concerned. And since Mark is generally regarded as the oldest Gospel, the story has a ring of truth.
One thing that stands out from this account is that whatever experience the disciples had of the risen Jesus, it was a good deal more mysterious than the way we sometimes imagine it. The stories can be understood on different levels, reflecting various ways in which we encounter the divine and react to it.
Here, we see a very basic response to the risen Jesus: not belief, or even wonder, but fear and running away. It’s a much more common response to God than we might think.
A recent reality TV show followed the fortunes of four women who spent time in a convent of Poor Clares. One, by her own account, was a very damaged person. Abandoned by her mother as a small child, she was full of fears and felt worthless. One day, the Gospel reading was about the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Jesus’ words, ‘Little girl, get up’, spoke directly to her, yet her initial reaction was to be scared. The risen Jesus challenges our entire picture of reality, and often we don’t want to face it.
The source for Mark’s story is supposed to have been Peter, so it’s interesting to read Peter’s summary of those amazing years with Jesus in Acts 10.34-43. Once again, you can’t help feeling that the language is much more restrained than you might expect.
But the context is the conversion of Cornelius, a gentile and the first recorded non-Jew to become a Christian. This was a huge shift, the like of which we can hardly imagine today. Reality, for Jesus’ followers, suddenly lost its boundaries.
As in Mark’s story, this episode generated a fair amount of angst. But the impossible had suddenly become possible, and the rest was history. This was our community story too: the impractical and the impossible became possible. This is the meaning of resurrection.
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