The Sunday After Ascension May 17, 2015
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17
Easter might be seen as the time when the perception of the nature and scope of God’s purposes and possibilities exploded and went ballistic, or became cosmic. Ascension is the exclamation point on the awareness that the life of Jesus has moved into another realm altogether.
The Carmelite Tessa Bielecki (in “Wild at Heart: Radical Teachings of the Christian Mystics”) said that “the reality of the Christ was not exhausted by the historical person of Jesus.” Richard Rohr says: “There were clear statements in the New Testament giving a cosmic meaning to Christ (Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, John 1, 1 John 1, and Hebrews 1:1-4),” a realization that “the Christ was clearly something older, larger, and different than Jesus himself. They mystically saw that Jesus is the union of human and divine in one person, and the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time” (from “Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi”).
In that era there was hardly language or concepts available to express what was transpiring in the life of Jesus. But as John’s Gospel insightfully suggests, the Christ is part of God, an aspect of God’s being, from the beginning and always, and was personified in Jesus of Nazareth. Insightful people of the time identified him as Messiah, Suffering Servant, Son of God, Saviour and Redeemer. John often puts it in more generic and universal terms: Word; Bread; Life; Light; Gate; etc. But our understanding of the full nature of God in Christ has been evolving, expanding, virtually exploding, ever since.
When people once upon a time prayed to the God of “the universe,” their sense of what that meant was pretty much limited to the world around them (that they had experienced personally), and the sky immediately over their heads. Their sense of history was in generations that could be counted back to “the beginning,” which they understood to be merely a few centuries previous.
Now, thanks to Science, we have a much different perception of the world and the universe and the place of human life in the scheme of things. Over the centuries, people like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking came to realizations about the way things operate, and invited the world to adjust its vision about how things are. As these and other scientists began to realize the scope, the immensity, of time and space involved, they found conventional concepts of God impossible to reconcile or accept, completely inadequate to provide a deeper sense of meaning for what they were discovering, but because most religious leaders insisted that God could only be conceived in the conventional manner, many if not most scientists rejected traditional religion completely.
Rohr suggests that “mature religion serves as a conveyor belt for the evolution of human consciousness. Immature religion actually stalls people at very early stages of magical, mythic, and tribal consciousness, while they are convinced they are enlightened or ‘saved.’”
Our concepts of what God is and how God works are always inadequate, and like the universe must always be expanding, regardless of whether that feels overwhelming or intimidating. John’s Gospel begins with a powerful vision that is cosmic in scope, and offers a warning about the way in which some people refuse to welcome the light because they cannot comprehend it. A “god” we could control and completely understand would not be God at all – St Augustine knew that 1500 years ago.
I believe that John, even in that pre-scientific era, was pointing beyond his time. John has Jesus say: “My kingdom is not of this world,” perhaps as a way of saying that the kingdom is not confined to this world, not comprehended by what we see before us in this dimension. The German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke spoke of “living the questions,” trusting that human consciousness is evolving to a point when we may one day be able to comprehend (even though that may be hundreds or even millions of years from now).
Many religious people have failed to see Science as a gift of God, or as a manifestation of the commandment to love God with “all our mind . . .” Scientists are not theologians per se, but in pushing toward truth, they oblige religious people to continue to re-examine their ideas about God and to see things in a broader perspective.
The rise of fundamentalism in our time has drastically lowered the IQ, narrowed the vision and isolated the life of religion as it attempts to relate to the world; it has taken religious people out of a lively partnership with those who seek the truth, and into an antagonistic, reactionary and inevitably ignorant stance. “I am the truth …” Christ says. In an age of much fundamentalism and reactionary thinking, John’s gospel gives us permission to embrace the truth, even when it is not completely comprehensible to us.
Pope Francis said last month at the Easter Vigil: “To enter into the mystery demands that we not be afraid of reality: that we not be locked into ourselves, that we not flee from what we fail to understand, that we not close our eyes to problems or deny them, that we not dismiss our questions” (Catholic News Agency, Rome).
At one point in history, believing in a fixed and closed universe, people defined themselves in terms of limitations and boundaries, and often limited and restricted their life to a local, tribal and traditional way of being. Women, for instance, were to see themselves as weak and dependent and primarily concerned about children and domestic duties. Nothing was ever going to change that – in fact, as many saw it, to depart from that fixed way of being would be going against the will of God.
As we have discovered more about the nature of the universe, that it is incomprehensibly huge, comprising hundreds of billions of stars and planets, having no real boundaries and expanding at the speed of light, our own sense of what we are about has loosened up considerably. The universe has no limits, so maybe we don’t either.
And so I think we can begin to look at Jesus differently as well, as pointing to possibilities we can not yet even imagine, but only receive in faith, on the basis of our understanding of and trust in God the Creator of all. As Pope Francis said: “We cannot live Easter without entering into the mystery. It is not something merely intellectual, something we only know or read about … It is more, much more!”
The Gospel of John is trying to communicate the incomprehensible. He seems to be less interested in what happened than why. I believe he is trying to portray the inner purposes, the hidden, mystical meaning in what Jesus was saying and doing. This Gospel, from the opening verses, puts the Word, the Christ, into a cosmic framework, and proceeds to proclaim how that radiant glory was revealed in a series of “I am” moments throughout the Gospel of John.
As he gathers with his disciples he articulates an extended farewell, explaining to them his imminent departure and the larger and ongoing nature of his purpose. In the midst of it he says a rather odd thing: “now I am no longer in the world.”
John is writing this well after Jesus’ death, so it may be understandable that he might have Jesus speaking present tense of a future event, but I don’t think so. Again, John’s Gospel is notable for the many “I am” statements that Jesus issues. At one point he quotes Jesus as saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). Perhaps this is one of those sayings, in this case suggesting that Jesus is not only the door for the sheep but also the link between the present and the eternal – between this life and the next. As John presents it, this is no longer just an historical person limited by time and space; already he has begun to transcend reality as we know it; already he is in a relationship of oneness with the eternal Divine. In having Jesus say “I am no longer in the world…” he shows that the life Jesus is speaking about is not just a future promise, but becomes a present reality through Christ.
John is writing about a great mystery, trying to make something that is incomprehensible accessible to those who desire to follow the way, to know the truth, and to have the life that was in Jesus.
What exactly Jesus was remains hard to define; our understanding must continue to unfold and evolve. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest and scientist who integrated Science and Spirituality, once said “Matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen.” That might be a good way to look at what Jesus was about, as one fully and perfectly embodying the divine image – as the light and the energy of God in physical form. Jesus as Messiah, as the anointed of God, allowed the love of God (which they labelled as “Christ”) to flow into human life, to be with us, and also became the way for us to enter this new level of being. “I am the life” he says at one point, and suggests that we may be where he is – that through him we have access to this same reality, and this same way of being.
John wants very much to make this accessible, for the faithful to realize it as a present reality. But it’s all so mysterious, so seemingly beyond us, how can we know? – how can we have some measure of confidence that we are on the right track? – how can we be sure that what we are trying to do is right – that the one we are trying to serve is actually God and not a figment of our imagination?
The First Letter of John strives to point out that this is not just a matter of acquiring special or specific information; rather, it is something that is validated in relationship with God through Christ and manifests in certain characteristics and attitudes. John says “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.” In Christ, we become a kind of sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
And so like the Gospel of John, our life is about signs – signs that speak of God’s presence and glory in our midst. Jesus said “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” As de Chardin said: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” And John would add qualities like unity, community, eucharist, hope, and faith, because as John puts it, “believing is the life.” These are all signs of something bigger at work and alive in you.
The greatest sign of an authentic relationship with God in Christ is the presence and expression of love. “Love is of God,” John says, and goes on to say “God is love.” Teilhard de Chardin, noting the relentless human quest for certainty and knowledge as power, said: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
“Whoever has the Son has life” John says. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
We are not lost in some vast, incomprehensible and meaningless void, as so many people today dread. In Christ, the unknowable becomes familiar and accessible. In Christ, God reveals the essential integrity of all things in the cosmos. In Christ, God reveals to us how we make the transition from death to life, and from time to eternity. “I am the way …” Jesus tells his followers that his death is not an ending but the beginning of a new age of the Spirit in which love and unity will be manifest — and that is what we will celebrate next week at Pentecost.
(The Ven.) Grant Rodgers+
1 John 5:9-13 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
John 17:6-19 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.