Doubting Faith

The reflections of the fourth Gospel take us into a rich understanding of how faith was understood by the church communities that were being encouraged by John and his circle. 

As the last Gospels, it has a greater development, nuance, and sense of inclusion than the earlier ones. Whereas Mark’s is rather breathless and toddler-like in its excitement and use of phrases like “and then this happened… and then this… and then this…”, St John has had a good few decades to ruminate on the nature of the faith in Jesus Christ.

The passage this morning (John 20:19-end) raises some vital questions about the nature of belief.

It was the first day of the week, and the disciples had locked the doors for fear of the Jews. It’s important to note, though, that:

a. The disciples themselves were Jewish, too – but Jews who were questioning their inheritance through Jesus

b. At this stage, ‘Christians’ etc did not exist in the way that we think of them – the disciples would most likely number themselves among other the Jewish sects

c. The ‘Jews’ they feared were not only the authorities, but their friends and families, and perhaps (after Judas) one another, maybe even themselves, as they could not believe what they were thinking, and where those thoughts might take them.

d. Into that setting, Jesus appears through locked doors to instruct them in the way of life: Peace be with you.

‘Peace be with you’ was an encouragement, for sure, but it was also a challenge. It feels to me like Jesus was asking ‘how can you say you believe in me, and then meet behind locked doors? This was never intended to be a Kingdom with locked doors.’

The disciples, though, didn’t necessarily get that – in their awe-struck state, they missed point of the new world in which they had found themselves. It took another to voice for them all what was happening.

Thomas was not there on the first evening, and he was not going to trust the words of his friends for something so strange. A week later, then, the risen Christ appears to his disciples, this time with Thomas present, to whom Christ says: Do not doubt, but believe.

Except he didn’t quite say those words. My own preferred, but rather clunkier translation of the written Greek would be something like: “Do not be un-trusting, but be trusting.”

The difference may, at first, appear small and insignificant, but remember – this is the last Gospel written, full of reflection on what following Christ had become in the early days of the church.

To say, as the NRSV does, that either a person doubts or believes rather misrepresents the nature of belief. It suggests that doubt is wrong, and is a voice that should be silenced from the faithful believer. As if doubt is the opposite of belief. Such an understanding of belief, though, leads us into the sort of religion where questions are forbidden, where boundaries are immovable and set by religious authorities, and where people either get with the programme, or get out – the kind of belief that Jesus criticised and rejected as hollow.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty leaves no room for growth or change, no space to be changed by encountering other people and experiences. Certainty leads people to fear the views of others, as if other world views will poison or erode our own faith. Certainty leads us to lock the doors and meet in secret. It is not doubt that cripples faith, but an unthinking, unrealistic insistence that ‘God be the God I want God to be’ that cripples faith.

Doubt, however, does not cripple faith – rather it corrects faith. Doubt is what drives us to ask questions; doubt is what unsettles us to seek better ways of living and speaking; doubt trips us out of our comfort zones into a more realistic, complicated, uncertain view of the world. Doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its ally.

Doubt is a part of faith, of believing, because it allows us to refine what we say we believe. It is, perhaps, that kind of refining to which S Peter was referring in his epistle – ‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith… is tested by fire.’ This ‘testing’ is a ‘refining’ – it is not a test sent by God to see if you’re good enough – the God of creation, life and love, does not try to catch people out like the Greek stories of the Olympic gods suggested. This refining is how faith develops in the reality of life – that is, if we let it, if we don’t lock our faith behind closed doors, but allow it to be something that grows.

In this sense, Christ invites Thomas: Do not be un-trusting, but be trusting.

This is an invitation to something that is active, living, dynamic. The object of the invitation to be trusting is not in a set of principles, but in Jesus Christ himself. The form of that trusting that was being invited was not a memorising of rules, but was relational and human.

Thomas’ response to this invitation to trust was the very thing the disciples missed when Christ previously appeared to them – “My Lord and my God.”

It is perhaps significant that this trusting came out of the one who doubted and asked difficult questions, not out of the ones who locked themselves away in fear. 

This same invitation and challenge is made also to us – sure, you can lock yourself away in a Christian silo where what you believe is shared and goes un-challenged. But know that if you do, your trusting will not be given the opportunities to be questioned, refined, and grow; like a lake with no fresh water source, that kind of approach to religion soon becomes stagnate, and eventually poisonous. 

It makes no sense, actually, to attempt to keep the faith in the Kingdom of heaven behind locked doors, because this faith, this trusting, is in the one who takes no notice of doors and boundaries. It is faith in the kingdom of sitting at tables with drunks and prostitutes; the kingdom of washing the feet and deeply serving others; the kingdom that goes to the cross with common thieves (and worse); the kingdom that smashed open the locked door of death to show that it is not to be feared. This is not a kingdom that meets behind locked doors; this is a public and provocative kingdom that stirs people to see beyond themselves to a life that is beyond anything we dare even imagine.

Trusting in the one who initiated this kingdom actually demands us to doubt – especially in the world as we have inherited it. Trusting in Christ is to join with him who shook the boundaries and preconceptions of his own age to reveal a better world that was being missed by the unthinking, the unquestioning, and the fearful. It is not a safe path, and it will not be without pain and suffering. As with Thomas, though, if we can resist fear and comfort, and instead strive to overcome our own un-trusting, then we, too, may proclaim “My Lord and my God.”

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Why foot washing terrifies me but I do it anyway

How many times have we heard this story? How many times have we heard the words of institution, consecration: this is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me?

Goodness knows.

So I was rather surprised that, when I sat down to write this sermon, with this service in mind, how moving and difficult I found it. Why was that?

 

Well, it was the foot washing that did it. I wonder how you feel about the presence of foot washing this evening. If I’m honest, the idea fills me with horror. And I know, that it has had a similar effect upon some of you. Foot washing is an enormously divisive action.

 

Sure, we can live in a culture in which many, many people pay large sums of money to go to spas, to have massages, to receive chiropodist and podiatrist treatment. But foot washing. In church. Done by the ministers. That is surely beyond the realms of taste and decency.

 

And on this point, you and I will be glad to note, that we are completely in line with S Peter. He was very clear on this modern nonsense: foot washing is what slaves do for their masters. It’s not what the Messiah does for his followers. It’s not even what friends do for one another. We have the right people, in the right social setting, who do this for us.

 

So what was Jesus up to? 

 

Look at the things that Jesus instituted in addition to foot-washing: a common cup and loaf, giving one’s coat to strangers, allowing enemies to strike you on both cheeks, helping others on the Sabbath… I could go on.

 

On the surface, we can see that Jesus was getting his followers to take seriously the business of serving one another. But actually, there’s more to it that that. What Jesus was doing, I think, was much more radical, and certainly less wooly than ‘serving one another’. There’s something about these things, particularly the foot-washing and food sharing of Maundy Thursday, that goes to the very centre of what it means to be human.

 

Those things move us from having a relationship at arms length, using words and body language to communicate, to a much greater intimacy where we actually touch one another.

 

What is it about touch that so terrifies us, yet is also something we so desire?

 

Like S Peter’s view of who should wash people’s feet, we may be happy to pay for a massage or spa treatment, but there are social rules there that keep it safe; it’s a transaction, and we all know who we are. But what Jesus is doing here breaks those rules.

 

And it is terrifying. Certainly, for me, that’s the right word. Yes, I can dress it up by saying foot washing’s disgusting, or it’s silly etc. But actually, if I’m honest, I don’t like it because it terrifies me. And it does so because touch, the touch of another human being, shocks me into realising how close humans are intended to be, and yet the reality of how far apart our lives really are.

 

Central to understanding the answer that comes back to S Peter is found in what Jesus instituted at supper: you want me to stay around, you want me to be present with you, then carry on what I’ve begun. In the lead up to that moment Jesus has had disciples fighting over who’s the most important, a disciple planning to completely betray him, and all of them questioning what on earth he’s doing. And in the midst of their politics and agendas, he picks up a bowl and towel, and washes their feet. Touches their arguing, selfish, betraying feet, in the hope that they will wake up to what it means to be alive.

 

So, it’s no surprise that so many of us are uncomfortable with the foot-washing tonight: and whether you have your feet washed tonight, or not, there will be a sense of discomfort and uncertainty for us all. Just as there was for the disciples. 

 

It’s no wonder I’m terrified. I’ve built up my defense mechanisms, I’m happy with my distance. But the seemingly useless act of foot-washing challenges me to stop hiding. It’s an intentionally emotive act that reminds us of relationships we’ve lost; it’s a childish act that can evoke both good and bad memories; it’s a risky act that can make me look silly, that I might get wrong; it’s an exposing act that not only reveals all the lumps and bumps on my feet, but some of my own fears, hurts and hopes within me.

 

But, so much more than words, it challenges the way we live. Your politics, your need to hold grudges, your anger, your need to be important, in control, your need to keep people at a safe distance; all these things we do to make us strong, independent, modern people are challenged, not only for being unnecessary, but actually as lies that stop us from being all that we can be. 

 

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Please leave your message after the tone

Much has been blogged and tweeted on the recent House of Bishops’ Statement, which you can read here:

http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx.

I initially resisted from saying anything, as I felt the letter was simply reassertion of what the House had said before, and who would have expected otherwise without further consultation? Also, others had already provided helpful commentary:

http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/house-of-bishops-same-sex-dogs-breakfast.html

http://jeremyfletcher.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/sex-marriage-and-the-house-of-bishops/

http://therachelmannblogspot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/personal-response-to-house-of-bishops_15.html?spref=tw&m=1

What I haven’t been able to shake off, though, is the tone of the pastoral letter toward the priests and deacons who serve in the Church of England. Whether intended or not, the final paragraphs felt finger-wagging at best, and threatening at worst. I had thought that the Bishops were working hard to shake off the paternalism of ages past, but this (far-from) pastoral letter suggests that such a change is easier said than done. Perhaps, though, I am being too harsh; as with any person or group, changing attitude and character takes years of un-learning and learning. I certainly know that to be true for me.

That doesn’t change, however, the global reality of non-heterosexual human beings. In a context where countries are introducing imprisonment (and far worse) for ‘homosexual activity’, does a pastoral letter that threatens discipline send an unintended message of support to such régimes? Certainly the Bishops have spoken against any Ecclesiastical support of such laws, but this letter does little to provide action to back up those words.

Whilst I personally regret that the Church has not had facilitated discussions about this before now, at this stage of discussing Pilling the House can do little other than ask for a moratorium on Equal Marriage in the Church of England. (Easy for me to say, as a married man with children, I know. Or perhaps, I don’t know.) What needs to be recognised, and what is sorely missing from the letter, is any sense of the enormity of what is being asked of our clergy who are not heterosexual. To agree to such a moratorium will have a huge impact upon their mental and physical health, as well as their relationships. As is so often the case, the Church is asking those members who are not Heterosexual Men to practise far more Christlikeness than the Institution can itself display.

Such a moratorium should have been called for with lashing and lashings of care, support and tears, and not just the threat of lashings.

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My first and last sermon containing a football story

The question that many of you appear to be asking is: So what’s the new vicar going to do? Quite right, too; good question. If you find, do let me know.

Perhaps a story will help give an answer to that question.

A number of years ago I was persuaded to join a five-a-side football charity championship – I think they played it pretty loose and fast with the word ‘championship’. When you get to know me better, you’ll know how very funny it was that i was asked to play football. Really.

I joined a group of nearly-retired businessmen, and together we made a pretty comical team. Our uselessness was further highlighted when we played our first match against the Royal Marines. In case you think this is going to be a story about the underdogs-done-good, let me assure you that we were humiliated.

About half way through the match I started to get frustrated that my team was unable to do anything. So, having conceded yet another goal, I took the ball from the goalkeeper and decided i would take it up the pitch myself and put it in the back of the net. What I haven’t told you is that this championship was being played in Singapore, in the midday heat. So, in the midday sun and humidity, I charged up the pitch, taking past bemused Marine after bemused Marine. It was quite a sight, and as I approached the goal I knew I was ready for glory. Sadly, my legs didn’t, as they collapsed beneath me and sank to the ground like a sack of potatoes. 

It was a moment that reminded me of my sporting uselessness, as well as in the importance of playing your position, not chasing the ball all over the pitch. If different people do not occupy different positions, and instead put all responsibility upon one player, then that person will fail in spectacular fashion. As with that silly game of football, so with the church.

The quality of a Church should be judged not on how sensational are the priests at the front, but how servant-hearted is the whole community.

Our Lord gathered others and ministered with them – he did not come on earth to perform a one-man magic show and wow people in their seats, but to empower people out of their seats to join in with the kingdom of God.

He also encouraged and challenged people to look inside themselves to see that God had made them in such a way that they already had all they needed to participate and flourish in the kingdom. Leave your purse, your coat, leave your bag!

It’s not that those things don’t matter – they do – what we do with our money and possessions matters a great deal. Your worth in the kingdom, though, is not derived from those things, it is derived from God, and his overwhelming love for you. The source of all that you are, all that you can be, all that the church is to be, all that we are to be and do together, is found in God’s overflowing life that creates and draws us to love.

As a Parish, we may not have all of the resources that we think we need – and maybe we can work on that; the ministry to which we’re all called, though, does not come out of the richness of buildings, nor the richness of bank accounts, but principally out of the richness of God’s love for those he has made. 

The way of life that is needed by our neighbours comes out of encountering God’s love for us in such a transformative way that we cannot but get out of our seats, our homes, our everyday lives, and give ourselves in love to this extraordinary miracle which is life, and glorious good news in Christ that shows that life is sacred, eternally held in God.

Getting a new vicar is a funny time – there is a sense of hope, sense of excitement, sense of concern, sense of fear – and those things will hang around until we get to know one another better. The central question, though, the one that really matters, the one that will really make a difference, is not what the new vicar may or may not do, but how deeply each one of us will continue to respond to the God who made us, and will not let us go, the God who meets with us in bread and wine, so that the whole church – all of us – would overflow with the life and love of God.

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Is the church afraid of the truth?

We are, today, in the presence of two prophets who questioned, tested and pushed at the limits of tradition and good taste. The musical prophet, Benjamin Britten, is still treated a little like marmite: you either love his music, or you can’t stand to be within 100 yards of it. Personally, I find his choral music extremely affective, as we have just heard in the Antiphon, as well as with pieces such as A Hymn to the Virgin, and the War Requiem, even if others would wildly disagree with me.

Today is the eve of the birth of S John the Baptist, which also brings us into the presence of that camel hair-clothed prophet who lived on locusts and wild honey. As well as challenging sartorial and culinary norms, he famously criticised the religious elite of his day, called them to change their ways, and prepare for the new things of God.

Given the presence of these two tradition-questioning giants one would think that the church would have a better track record than it does at exploring and accepting the truth as it emerges. One can almost – almost – hear S John the Baptist’s voice directed at the church in parts of one of George and Ira Gershwin’s numbers, mocking ‘they’ for being small minded:

‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus

When he said the world was round;

They all laughed when Edison recorded sound;

They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother

When they said that man could fly…’

The church does not have a particularly good track record in welcoming the truth as it emerges in unseen ways. A quick glance through various historical events confirms that the church has a nasty habit of fearing the truth:

When Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the world was not the centre of the cosmos, for example, the church prevent the publication of his thinking as it appeared to jar with a single line in the book of Joshua. The result was that Copernicus’s book was banned for hundreds of years.

Or take the early modern pioneer of anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, who had to dissect bodies in secret because the church believed such experimentation brought the resurrection of those bodies into question.

More recent is the debates over Evolution, particularly between Bishop Wilbeforce of Oxford and Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog. Often, the bishop is said to have played the crowd by mocking Huxley, asking whether it was through his mother or his father that he is descended from an ape. In response, Huxley carefully explained how the bishop had clearly not understood the theory, and that he was unashamed to be descended from apes, but would be ashamed to be ‘connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.’

The church is, too often, the political party that likes to say No: “It’s not how we do it at the moment, it’s not how we’ve done it before, so why change now?”

Preservation of that which is good is, of course, an essential task of all of humanity. The church, with a prophetic role to attempt to speak of God, and of those voices which are often overlooked, is an important player in preservation. Conservatism is important; caution has its place. The voice that is brave enough to question that which others have assumed is good or obvious, is a welcome voice in the public square. The church, however, cannot only be a conserving group; the National Trust at prayer, if you will.

There is more to prophecy than preservation. The other side of prophecy, the more dangerous and risky side to criticism, is vision, imagination, and looking forwards, beyond what is now. The prophetic is both preservation and progression.

Progression is particularly tough for the church, as it involves saying we were, at a previous point, wrong and that what we taught our members as good and true and God’s Truth, was actually a misunderstanding, error

We have seen this happen in the last fifty years or so: the Church of England has rightly admitted it was wrong over all kinds of issues. But it didn’t come to these truths on its own; rather, the Church came to face up to, what are now taken as self-evident truths, in the work of scientists and philosophers, through literature and art, and in the living of everyday life. The voice of God needed to be discerned from outside of the tradition; and surely this should not come as a surprise, should it?

The church is a multi-voiced institution, and it is made up, not only of the ordained and consecrated, but of a many-gifted laity. Specialisms and life experiences abound in the church, and it thrives when spaces are made for ideas and concerns to be shared, which fights against the church’s structural fear of the truth

Of course, when an idea is emerging out of science or social thinking, the discernment as to whether it is wisdom or hubris, is a threatening time for everyone involved. And those feelings are all too clear in the debates of our own day. However, if the church simply rejects new thinking on the basis of having never done it like that before (as it did with, for example, the understanding that the earth is the centre of the cosmos), then it is removing itself from the public square out of fear, refusing any prophetic engagement with that which is new, and may be of God.

The curious thing about the church is that, for it to be faithful to God, it must be humble enough to listen for the voice of God in the prophets who are outside of its own traditions. If it doesn’t, it will struggle to know of what it should repent. That doesn’t mean the church jettisons its own traditions for any latest fad – which is the usual criticism levelled at this kind of thinking – but that the church’s very tradition is bound up with the movings of the world in which it resides: praying for all, speaking its partial truths to all, and seeking out the depths of God in the life which all of creation shares.

Rather than mocking new thinking as novelty, hiding from dialogues behind the traditions of what we’ve always done and said, the church is at its best, at its most faithful, at its most closely in timing and tune with God’s Spirit, when it engages through Christ all the wisdom and folly that is being revealed in the world so that, along with all of the people of God’s world, everyone can continue to grow in truth, and flourish in life.

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8am, on Trinity Sunday

The last few weeks have, for me personally, been rather unremarkable. Nothing has happened to me of any interest or note. For certain friends, colleagues, parishioners and acquaintances, however, it has been a very different story. It has been a number of weeks surrounded by difficulty, disappointment, profound loss, in a way that it is almost impossible to experience as anything other than unfair. Profoundly, wastefully, painfully unfair.

Whenever I sit with people in these kinds of situations, beyond the face-value, visceral loss and solitude, I am often aware that there is also something so profound about suffering. It would surely be difficult to think of someone who is well-respected and admired, and has not suffered. It is, perhaps, the most notable experience shared by any human being who has earned wide respect from their fellow humanity.

Yet, when suffering comes to us, when it comes to me, I cry: that’s not fair. Perhaps that’s why I’m so keen to celebrate saints and heroes – they have done something that I don’t think I could do, or have any intention of doing. Much like Flash Kitchen cleanser, they’ve done the hard work so I don’t have to.

It’s not so stupid a position. Suffering and pain are not pleasant, and it is not so foolish to seek to avoid such things. I do not want to be in pain, and I do not want to see those I love in pain.

And yet, there’s the snag: love. Show me someone who has loved, who has not suffered for that love. The love experienced by humanity is not the love that is presented at the end of a Rom Com. Love is not only that which is shared by two people ‘in love’. It can be there, but it is also the love that takes people to make enormous sacrifices for whole communities, sacrifices for the lives of others.

Love is a gift; the giving of a part of oneself to another. To be free of pain, a person must not love, and choose instead to be cut off from the world. This, though, seems to lead to a far greater terror than pain, which is the numbness of non-existence, non-being, exclusion from life, hell.

Love drives a person to give up some element of their own freedom or security for another, or group of others. To love is to lose something of oneself; in return for this risk, there is the joy of giving, and the gaining of a shared humanity – being in community, which is the only kind of existence I can imagine.

But where two or more lives are shared, there is an inevitability of pain: not only is there a cost in giving, but one day those lives will end, those loves will fail, be distracted. Whether this pain is brought about under the circumstances of death, or unfaithfulness, or failure, they are not, in themselves, the causes of this suffering. Rather, this pain is felt out of the depth of the love that was shared, and now seems lost. That grief is for who we were with, and the hope that emerged from, that person or people now lost, mourning also the person that love had made us. The grief is for those lost, and also for our own sense of identity.

Yet, through that pain, there comes a point when we realise that we still exist. At this point, in the mess of configuring a new world, we have an option to become embittered, to stop trusting, to remove ourselves from the world, to diminish ourselves so that hurt can no longer touch us. (The irony being, of course, that in doing so, we are giving past hurts far more power over us than they should have.)

In seeing that we still exist, though, we are also invited to see that the love that we thought had gone, continues. It continues because this love made us who we are, we are not ourselves without it, and it continues to shape our speaking and ways of being. That which we gave in love, has not been a loss, but has become a part of who we are. And the suffering and the pain are all evidence that love has been shared, deeply, and it has been worth it.

Jesus took this even further, painting the most extraordinary picture of suffering, not merely showing that suffering is not fatal to our identity, but that suffering actually leads to the heart of God’s life.

“Blessed are you who are poor…

Blessed are you who hunger now…

Blessed are you who weep now…

Blessed are you when people hate you,

when they exclude you and insult you,

and reject you as evil because of the Son of Man.”

To suffer pain at the loss of love, is to enter the divine; to suffer through the disappointment of love gone awry, is to enter the divine; to suffer pain through giving so much in answering the call of love, is to enter the divine. In order to suffer these losses, a person must have given in love.

There cannot be love without suffering. Suffering is at the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive, to exist. Any fool can think. Any fool can become rich. Any fool can be powerful. But to be human, there must be love; and to love, there must be suffering.

If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me.

Those looking for a short-cut to God cannot seek out suffering for its own sake. Any form of self-flagellation is a terrible misunderstanding of suffering for the call of love.

God is made known to humanity through the suffering of the Son, whose pain is so great (so human) that he is abandoned even by his own self. Through the Son, humanity is given the presence of the Spirit, to sustain them in the risks that are so a part of what it means to be alive. Through the Son, the Father is shown as the creator whose nature is so abundantly creative, that all life comes from that one source.

The risk of giving, of loving, of creating something from ourselves in another is woven into the fabric of the cosmos. It leads to life and joy, but it also leads to suffering. This pain is terrible as it reveals the depths of our love, and how much we rely on such love to live and define who we are. This suffering, though, takes us into the depths of God, as we share with the giving and losing experienced by him.

As we finally die, again through suffering, we enter into God for all eternity, at which point we are fully welcomed into the embrace of the Trinity, which is God, and the whole communion of those who have gone before us. Here, suffering is no more, and it is shown to have been worth it, so that all the love that we have given and received is then known without risk, without loss or pain. The giving was worth it. The suffering that moulded and shaped us has ended. All that was sacrificed for a life we barely glimpsed, so unfairly less than our sense and hope of life says it should be, now surrounds and fills us in unfathomable glory; love is eternally worthwhile.

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For Ascension Day

I was set a challenge for Ascension Day, by someone from one of the Churches in which I serve: If you are so sure that the resurrection was physical, surely it must follow that the ascension is also physical? If that’s the case, then where is Jesus? Do you believe, like the ancient New Testament writers, that there is a three-story cosmos – with heaven at the top, earth in the middle, and hell at the bottom?

My first response was the usual place of sanctuary for a desperate priest: I said that it is a mystery. Then I laughed at myself and my own answer, because so much untruth, conjecture and evil can be shrouded in such an excuse; so on its own, ‘mystery’ will not do. Will not do at all.

Actually, Ascension, if it is anything at all, is banal. It is not special, it is not extraordinary, it is certainly not supernatural. Such categories allow us to keep Christ at a distance, as a myth we like to believe in when it suits. If Ascension is anything at all, it really must belong to the physical realm, even if it is a different order of physicality than is known before resurrection. Reality does not break when it takes place, only our own limited view of what we consider to be real and fantasy.

The early twentieth century New Testament theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, was quite right to say that God does not live in the top floor of a three story cosmos, and Jesus does not live up there with him. To use this as a reason to discredit Ascension as mere myth, though, is to reject what is obviously ancient (a three-story cosmos) and what stretches us to consider the divine and the possibility of life beyond life and death (ascension).

Look at the text: Jesus did not put on his Superman kit and jump up to heaven. Rather, there was some kind of lifting up by, and enfolding into, what looked like a cloud. Something physical was taking place, but what it was was beyond the categories known to the witnesses. They saw something, but they did not have the vocabulary and experience at their disposal to adequately describe what was going on.

Similar to witnessing two people falling in love, we use our own reference points to attempt to describe what is, in reality, beyond the categories at our disposal.

We cannot go back to know what this was, we cannot go and excavate the scene. All we have is a description that comes at the end, and at the beginning, of a set of narratives that speak of this Jesus of Nazareth who is God-amongst-us. The Ascension is the end of one set of those narratives – the life, death, resurrection and divine enfolding of that man – and the beginning of the next set of narratives – about those who were so empowered by him that they set out to change the world. Which they did.

Ascension does not break reality, but it does break our view of reality, it does break us. How could it not? The physical Christ re-enters the Godhead, just as God always has been, yet somehow changed by that human face that has experienced the joy and trauma of human living – that human face is now present amidst the divine dance of Father, Son and Spirit. Humanity’s view of God is changed, because Ascension demonstrates that humanity is now part of that dance. This absolute, solid world of absolute, solid ideals is made relative before a greater, broader, more enduring reality which appears to be beyond those senses we trust so much.

In many ways, this doctrine that is often made to look so ridiculous in art (with feet dangling from a roof) and liturgy (talk of Jesus trumping to heaven) is, in many ways, when the gospel get really serious:

That thing about God becoming man that we celebrate around tress and lights; that gruesome cross before which we weep and shudder and fall silent; that bright, sunny morning we celebrate with chocolate and roast lamb; they all become a bit.. well, too real for comfort.

That Jesus really is God-amongst-us, God-for-us, God-leading-us.

This Church really is a bunch of people who seek to be God’s own people, leading all into life.

It’s not a hobby, the church. It’s not a distraction. It’s not a tradition. This Christ is God, is Lord and Servant, is Lord and liberator, and the Ascension of Christ into God, of the human nature into the divine nature, changes everything. It is one of the few things, perhaps the only thing, that has the power to break us to such a degree that we fall to our knees.

Christ is God, the human is shown to be one with the divine, and this Christ shouts to his people: “Follow me.”

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