Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sermon -- 28 May 2006

7 Easter — 28 May 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Acts 1:15-26 Ps 47 1John 5:9-15 John 17:11b-19

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.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day, and as you recall, the first reading for Ascension Day from the Acts of the Apostles tells how Jesus was seen to be parted from his disciples and to be taken up into heaven. The point of course is not that Jesus was going away, but rather that only in this way does it become possible for Jesus to be with us always, to the end of the age. The Ascension of Jesus proclaims that his presence is no longer limited to Palestine in the first century; Jesus now can be and is present in Davenport in the twenty-first century. As the Collect for Ascension Day puts it, “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”

But today I’d like to think a moment about another aspect of the Ascension of Christ, to which the Gospel today points us. And that is precisely that Jesus does after all ascend to heaven. And this raises for us the issue of God’s transcendence.

But a word here about the imagery that’s in use here. We all know, at least up here [head], that heaven is not a “place” which is located “up.” A few of us remember back some forty years ago when one of the early Soviet cosmonauts came back from orbit and in loyal Leninist fashion solemnly proclaimed to all the world that he had looked all around while he was up there and hadn’t seen God anywhere. And we all snickered at that; was that really supposed to be taken seriously as a scoring attempt by atheism? But let’s also not underestimate the power of these very simple spatial metaphors; we are, after all, by our very nature beings who live in space and time. We do speak of transcendance as “higher,” as “above”; heaven—the direct presence of God (“direct presence of God”—see? Even that’s a spatial metaphor)—heaven for us is “up,” not literally but powerfully figuratively. And this image is not disdained by the New Testament authors themselves: Jesus is spoken of as “ascending,” and although clearly he’s not sailing off in a hot air balloon like the Wizard of Oz, he still goes “up.” (The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, suggested that the Ascension event may be understood as an “enacted parable” by Jesus, a final resurrection appearance in which he vividly demonstrates to his disciples that they should not expect to see any more appearances. If Jesus had just vanished, or if the appearances had just stopped and Jesus was never seen again, the disciples might well have wondered what had happened to him, and have thought that Jesus was really gone for good now, absent forever. If Jesus had gone sailing off from the Mount of Olives on a westward trajectory, they might have thought he had gone to Cleveland. But Jesus is taken up into a cloud (cloud: symbol of the divine presence) so that the disciples will understand that he is going to the right hand of the Father (right hand: another spatial metaphor). Hey. We can appropriate this very direct imagery without being simple-minded literalists. After all, that’s the way it was meant in the first place by the New Testament writers, who also were not simple-minded literalists.

But I’m disgressing from my point about transcendence.

Most of us, I think, are very eager for our Christian faith not to be just a matter of “pie in the sky when you die by and by,” but to be a faith which impacts powerfully and transformatively upon this world in which we live. We recognize the validity in Karl Marx’s critique of much traditional religiosity as an otherworldly escapism that anesthetizes us against present evils, an “opiate” that dulls our sensitivity to injustice. A lot of Christianity used to do that. A lot of Christianity still does. We’re right to be on guard against it.

But we must also not forget that this world, the world of our own observation and experience, is not all there is. This world of ours is not the center of the universe, and certainly is not the center of all that is. And however much we come to know, in a descriptive, analytical way, about our universe and the process by which it came to be the way it is over the billions of years, however much we may be able someday to include within a unified theory the quantitatively unimaginably immense dimensions of astrophysics and the quantitatively unimaginably infinitesimal dimensions of quantum mechanics, it is still the case that the world, our world, our universe, does not account for itself. It is not self-explanatory, not to those who have the intellectual courage never to cease from asking “why?”. The ultimate meaning of this world is not to be found within this world itself.

As Christians our home base is not here; for we belong to the One who “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things,” “the One who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,” “the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart,” the creative Word eternally uttered by the Source of all Being — the risen Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we must remember that reality is not to be reduced to our own measure; and all the more so our Christian faith.

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus in his great priestly prayer give voice to the tension, the paradox: we are truly in this world, but we do not finally belong to this world, we are not captives of this world, we are not beholden to this world. But we are in this world; we are not to be taken out of the world, we are not to try to escape from this world. But in this world we are to be protected from the evil one, sanctified by the word of the Truth Itself, made holy, claimed by that Truth as Truth’s own. And then sent back into this world as agents of that other realm, heralds of a transcendent dominion: the dominion of heaven, the eternal reign of God, which is after all the ultimate destiny of this world, the ultimate destiny of all worlds.

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Sermon -- 7 May 2006

4 Easter — 7 May 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 a.m.
RCL: Acts 4:5-12 Ps 23 John 10:11-16

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

The picture of Jesus as the good shepherd is one of our most popular and by many most loved images of Christ. But typically, these are portraits of gentle Jesus with long flowing silky brown tresses, often carrying this cuddly little lamb curled around his neck.

Have any of you ever actually raised sheep? I had a parishioner once who raised sheep, and I’ve had a couple of encounters with sheep in the middle of the road, once in Scotland (where the sheep basically said, “Och, aye, what is it ye’re no’ understandin’ about whose country this is?”), and once in New Mexico, where the sheep didn’t say anything but I got to watch a really amazing demonstration by a cohort of sheepdogs.

So you know that the traditional depiction doesn’t have very much to do with real sheep, which are not particularly cute, or with real shepherds, who have to be pretty tough and rarely take time to blowdry their hair. Still, there’s something catchy about the image of the Good Shepherd, and in fact some of the earliest Christian art we have, reliefs and frescoes in the catecombs from the days of the Roman persecutions, include pictures of the Good Shepherd; though typically as a clean-shaven young man (for what that’s worth!). And on Good Shepherd Sunday, in the middle of Eastertide every year, we focus on this image of the shepherd, an image which Jesus is picking up from the Hebrew Scriptures: The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Most years on this Sunday there now follows a disquisition on what stupid and stubborn critters sheep are.

This year, instead, I’d like to look for a moment at another aspect of this shepherd-sheep image. Jesus has just said, a few verses earlier (we heard this part on Good Shepherd Sunday last year): “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And then today we hear him say: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is interesting, I think. And we might keep in mind here that in John’s Gospel (and for that matter in the Scriptures as a whole), “to know” doesn’t just mean “to be acquainted with,” it’s not just a cognitive or intellectual term, it’s an existential one. It’s the difference between “knowing something” and “knowing someone.” Roughly, the difference between wissen and kennen. In the Bible, “to know” signifies a deep relationship, one that implies commitment. This is the real point of “to know in the Biblical sense,” in which “to know someone” is “to be one with someone, to be united with someone.” Not only does the shepherd know his sheep, he says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The pattern for the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep—between Jesus and ourselves—is the relationship between the Father and Jesus. And that’s a relationship of the closest love, a relationship of union.

That’s really an amazing thing to say, when you think about it! We’re talking about union with God.

But this passage here in the tenth chapter of St John is not an isolated instance. This idea runs throughout the Gospel. For instance, at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And at the end of the supper Jesus prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And after his resurrection, as we heard in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “As ... so.” What powerful little words! “As ... so.” As the Father and Jesus are, so are Jesus and we to be. The loving union between God and Jesus is replicated in the loving union between Jesus and us. “As the Father knows me and I know the Father, so I know my own and my own know me.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Listen to this: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. As I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love, so if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” One step further! As God and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! The life of God is given us to live and share with one another! John’s Gospel isn’t fooling when it says at the end that it has been written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

These are not just mystical clouds, though this is a call into the depths of the mystery of God. Through Jesus we are caught up to a unity with God. As the Father and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! Caught up into the divine life, to live and to share! Nothing less!

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead