SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, JUNE 5th 2011
(SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION)
Ps 68. 1-10, 32-55
1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11
As Anne mentioned in her Ascension Day sermon last week there is both embarrassment and humour in traditional (more or less) Christian circles with regards to the doctrine of the ascension of Jesus Christ. There have been many jests about the appropriate symbol for this season being a pair of sandals hanging from a cotton wool cloud – perhaps had the past week not been so debilitatingly frenetic I might have replaced our butterflies with sandals collected from op shops around the town! But – and in her reference to the levitating sandals Anne was making a serious point – there is a real sense in which the doctrine of ascension is one of those stumbling blocks that many Christian theologians would rather jettison in order to make our faith more so-called ‘accessible’, more so-called ‘relevant’, to the purported person in the street.
The doctrine of the ascension of Jesus Christ, like the doctrine of the resurrection, and even, dare I say it, like the doctrine of the virgin birth, are fundamental corollaries of the doctrine of the incarnation, and that doctrine is a fundamental corollary of the doctrine of the trinity. Remove them and we may have a comprehensible faith, but we do not have Christianity. We may approach Islam, we may approach Judaism – we may approach many other variants of monotheism, but we do not have Christianity.
So what is this moment we observed last Thursday, which informs our transitional thoughts today, as we strive towards the celebration of the coming of God’s Pentecostal Spirit? What we do not have, and do not have in any of the Christological doctrines I have just referred to, is a description of the mechanics of how God achieved divine aims. In exactly the same way the doctrine of creation is misunderstood if it is reduced to a mere mechanical six or seven day process, so the great Christological moments are rendered impotent and banal if we see them as merely mechanical descriptions of process. This of course is easy for me, the rigorous non-scientist, to say. If I may draw comparison from the other great love of my life that parallels my faith, I have no understanding whatsoever of the workings of a motor vehicle. Few things give me more pleasure than flinging a car – preferably manual so the driving pleasures are not depleted! – through the variants of its potential, hour after hour if possible (always, I hasten to add, within the boundaries of legal and sensible responsibility). I love driving, and take pride in it. I have absolutely no idea of the mechanics of the process, either with regards to the internal combustion engine or other centrifugal and centripetal forces that allow the vehicle to handle as it does.
Of course the parallel breaks down. Many of you, and many others even more so, totally understand the principles of mechanics and physics that make automotive transport possible. No one, not one person, has a copyright on the recesses of divine method. The ancient adage ‘no man looks on my face and lives’ still to this extent applies: we cannot claim, like some modern variant of the arrogant builders of the Tower of Babel, to usurp the mind of God. The workings of the Trinity are God’s business, and must remain so. They are a mystery before which we can kneel in adoration, but they are not a celestial carburettor to be dismantled or a piston shaft to be re-bored.
What then are we left with when we kneel at the throne of this mysterious God and this bewildering moment on God’s relations with us? Not, we are suggesting, merely sandals hanging from the clouds. Nor are we left with a departed God, deus absconditus. Jesus in John’s gospel-telling has been at pains to make clear to us that we are not, no matter what befalls the Christ, going to be left bereft in a Godless universe. We can of course choose to disregard the promise of Jesus, ‘lo I am with you always’, just as we can choose to drive our vehicle with the handbrake on. It is not, however, given the circumstances with which we and our forebears have been presented, the most sensible choice.
There is a theological college chapel in Melbourne – not my alma mater (though that of my future bishop!) – that has, emblazoned across the front of what they would call the communion table, the words ‘he is not here, he is risen’. They are of course words from the resurrection scene, and not directly related to the ascension. Except that John makes little separation between the two events, and even Luke would allow that they are a part of the one magnificent supernatural, divine purpose: the conquest of darkness and mortality by the incarnation of God in Christ. The theological college in question was attempting in its chapel architecture to make a doctrinal point: doctrines of the presence of Christ in the elements of communion were abhorrent to the evangelical founders of that college and to their Reformer forebears. They were however powerfully wrong: he is there – and here – precisely because he is risen and ascended.
This celebration of Ascensiontide, and the event it points to, is the liberation and the release of the Christ event – Jesus Christ and all that he has achieved – so that it is effective throughout all time and space, and no longer limited to a huddle of bewildered rag and tag itinerants from first century Palestine. He is here, yet he is risen. He is here in fellowship, in scripture, in elements of bread, wine, and (as we shall shortly observe) water. He is here. He is not visible – in part because, as the poet R.S. Thomas put it, he is always moving just beyond our sight, leading us into his future. He is not visible, too, because we are too limited in our comprehension to grasp the dimension into which he has entered. It is though the dimension of eternity to which you and I, too are invited, and of which we receive foretaste in word, sacrament and fellowship.
Next week we will celebrate Pentecost. In that celebration we acknowledge and rejoice in the coming of the one who makes all this possible, the liberating Pentecostal Spirit, third person of the Trinity. For now we simply acknowledge that it is in the departure from our sight – or from our forebears’ sight – that our experience of God is made possible, even here and now, in the mysterious purposes of God.