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Friday, 26 May 2017

sandals in the clouds



Acts 1: 6-14
Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35
1 Peter  4: 12-14, 5: 6-11
John 17: 1-11

If you live in a busy world not ruled by church dates and festivals, by the lectionary, then like me you probably missed Ascension Day last week. Since my, for want of a better word, departure from liturgical ivory towers, many events in the church calendar have passed me by. But I always had a theology that said I was privileged to say liturgies, pray and praise and lament on behalf of others too busy or too disinterested or too remote to do so. That was my job in Christ. Now I’m one of the others, and that’s okay, too, however annoying it might have been!
But I love the symbolism of the Ascension even if I missed the day.
We have no idea what happened, in factual terms, between Good Friday and Ascension Day. The scriptures break into mystical poetic language, language of mythology. This is not the language of lies, as many would suggest in our post-Enlightenment, so-called rationalist age, but language of love and poetry and mysticism and mystery. The scripture writers had only words, and words were not enough.
What they knew was that what happened between Good Friday and Ascension Day was worth living and dying for, however imperfect we might be. What happened between Good Friday and Ascension Day is what has inspired Christians, like the 28 or so martyred in  Egypt yesterday, choosing to live and die for Jesus. 
Nor was what happened between Good Friday and Ascension Day some abstract intellectual indulgence to be thrown away in the twenty-first century.  What happened between Good Friday and Ascension Day was not something to be sneered at because we think we’re smarter than first century Christians. I see that happening in countless circles of Christianity in the world, and particularly in Tikanga Pākehā circles of New Zealand, today. To adopt that attitude is to become a clanging gong, a meaningless sound, a beacon of emptiness in the cacophony of a dying earth.  To adopt that intellectualist attitude is to become a slave to meaninglessness and to empty the pews of faith.
As an aside I was told when I went to the cathedral that of course the resurrection was true. I got that, until the speaker went on to explain that the resurrection happens every spring, when daffodils reappear, or when the cherry blossoms bloom, or when a baby is born after a family has experienced bereavement, or someone gets over a crisis. Wonderful though those matters are, they are not the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the cold tomb of Joseph,  nor the liberation through space and time of all that Jesus was and is that Ascension last  Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday symbolize.
Because the Ascension, whatever happened (and I tend to have a more Doctor Who image of Jesus fading into time and space zones beyond our access, rather than his sandals hanging from the clouds as he heads skyward, but whatever) – whatever happened it was

  • beyond human words, and
  • the release of the man Jesus back into the eternities from which he had stepped nine months before his birth at Bethlehem.  

So words are not enough.  
The readings we have, beneath the veneer of actuality  – (the word we gave in broadcasting to the sound effects we put behind a voice to make it sound as though the interview were happening somewhere “real”!) –  the readings we have are the readings of love. Love for the risen ascended Lord who gives strength even in the darkest deepest times of trial. 
Even in the times of trial when we can no longer feel Christ-touch or see Christ-love and light, that touch and love and light is there, holding us. Even sometimes when we feel we are sliding in a vortex of despair, or being crushed by the weight of sorrow. Even when, as one hymn writer put it, “when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, there we find that self-same aching, deep within the heart of God.”  
Even when assassins gun down a busload of Christian pilgrims, men women and children, in Egypt, as happened yesterday, or hatred murders young concert- goers in a British city, there God is, and there the resurrection-life wrought in Jesus is, and the resurrection life begins.  Even when the leader of the free world seems to be leading the world into a spiral of meaninglessness, there God is, and the promise of resurrection and the new heavens and new earth that are foreshadowed in the Ascension, these do not fade away.
Resurrection is not the blooming of the rata or the kowhai or the pohutakawa, however wonderful they might be, for they are merely magnificent cycles of  the Creator’s gift of nature, granted to us as a taonga to preserve. Resurrection is not  the return of deciduous leaves that will eventually come after this winter.  It is the bursting out of death of the one who conquers all death.
The Ascension, inseparable from the Resurrection, is not some conjuring trick or a week narrative ploy by a naïve first century writer. The Ascension is an “Amen” to the Resurrection, as Jesus of Nazareth is released from the limitations of space and time.
Next week we will celebrate Pentecost: that too is an amen, for in the coming of the Wairua Tapu we receive  our assurance, receive  the ability to live the beginnings of resurrection life, wherever and whenever we are. In the coming of the Spirit we are empowered to know the risen-ascended Lord in our hearts (as our Pentecostal friends , at their best, remind us!). In Ascension and Pentecost we are empowered to journey on our way to God and God-filled eternities.
Ascension:  beyond words, but in the words our scriptures give us we glimpse by faith and by poetry the inexplicable, liberating Jesus through space and time, so that all who live and die live and die in his unending, undefeatable love and light.

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