Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ascension - Where is Heaven Anyway?

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Acts 1: Verses 1-11: Ascension Day

Have you heard the story of the family of country bumpkins, who decided one day to go for a trip to London? It was their first trip ever away from their farm, and there were all sorts of exciting things to see and do. They decided that they would stay in one of 'them there fancy 'otels', and so they drove their tractor to the Ritz, in Piccadilly.

The father of the family took his son, and told his wife to stay in the tractor while he got them booked in. The farmer and his boy entered the lobby of the hotel, and looked around them in amazement. There were so many things they had never seen before - marble floors, chandeliers, water fountains. But the most amazing thing was the lift at the end of the lobby.

“What’s that thing there?”, asked the son - as they stared at the shiny doors. “I don’t know” said the father - “let’s watch”. So they watched, as a little old lady of 93 pressed the button to call the lift. When the lift arrived, she got in and was seen to press another button, before the doors closed, and she disappeared. A few seconds later, however, the doors opened again - and a stunning young blonde came out of the doors.

“Son,” said the old farmer, “that’s fantastic! They have a machine which makes old women young again! Go and get yer mother!”

The sense of wonder that the old Farmer experienced must have been a bit like the wonder of the Disciples as they saw Jesus taken from their sight, up into heaven - hidden by a cloud. They must have wondered what on earth was happening. According to Luke’s account (in the book of Acts) “they were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men in white stood beside them”. These two men, whom we assume to be angels, then reassured the disciples that Jesus would come back in the same way that they had seen him go up into heaven.

Some people have wondered whether this is, in fact, a completely accurate account of what happened that day. The biggest problem for the modern reader is that we don't tend to think of heaven as 'up there', any more. This is been a suspicion of modern people for many years.

Perhaps the most famous example was when the first man in space came home. Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gregarin, was the first man to pierce the sky and look into the depth of space...and according to his Premier, Kruschev, 'Gragarin didn't see God up there'.

That's a very different picture than the people of Jesus' day would have had. For them, and many primitive religions, heaven was above them, and hell below. Today we call that a 'triple decker universe'. But over time, we've started to change that view.

One way of thinking about heaven is to suggest that it is with us all the time. After all, Jesus proclaimed that “the Kingdom of Heaven is among you”. We may even have the capacity to enter, or at least touch heaven, albeit briefly. We might also say that heaven is present whenever there is peace, or justice. Or whenever we pray, or feel the touch of God upon our lives. Tom Wright, the Bishop Durham, describes heaven and earth as not separated by a vast expanse of sky - but rather by a sort of spiritual curtain, which even we can sometimes step through and touch.

But perhaps Jesus chose not to worry about that particular theological point. Perhaps he realised that if he simply stepped through the curtain into heaven, the Disciples might not really understand that his time on earth had come to an end. After all, during the days leading up to this event, he had popped in and out of their lives, and rooms, very frequently. He appeared out of nowhere in a locked room where they were all hiding one day. After breaking bread with other disciples at Emmaus, he simply disappeared again. It seemed that Jesus' resurrection body had the ability to step through the invisible curtain which separates our world from heaven. What was needed was a grand gesture - something which made very clear that a new stage of the Christian journey was beginning.

One thing that Christians have always believed is that Jesus, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all aspects of the same One God. But it was clear from what Jesus taught his disciples before he left them, that he needed to remove his physical body from them, in order for the Spirit to be sent. One way of thinking about this might be to imagine Jesus going up into heaven, and then, like a firework, exploding and that his Spirit could reach out over the whole earth. Jesus, if you like, can be thought of as a kind of Big Bang!

We believe that Jesus is now everywhere, by his Spirit. Any of us, at any time, can speak with him and pray to him.  That couldn't happen if he was limited to his physical body. We'd have to make an appointment if we wanted to talk with him!

Do you remember the movie Bruce Almighty? Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, wanted the power of God - and he was given it for a while. Great fun - for a bit - while he lassooed the moon for his girlfriend, and had the power to do anything he wanted. But then Bruce learned that with great power comes great responsibility...and he was given the responsibility of answering prayers.

Aargh! Prayers started flooding in. What should he do? Make them all into post-it notes perhaps? No - his whole house was quickly covered in the things. Put them all in a filing cabinet? No...too many cabinets. Maybe turning them into emails would work? But then, Bruce found that he didn't have the time to answer them all individually - so he just pressed "Answer All" and then "Yes!". The result, as you might remember, was catastrophic! Everyone's prayers were answered...including everyone who had asked to win the Lottery....which meant that there were millions of winners! Riots broke out. The city was in chaos!

You see, although Bruce had been given the power of God, he was not given God's ability to be everywhere at the same time, and to know all things at once. Bruce, like Jesus before his Ascension, was confined to a physical body...confined by time and space.

But when Jesus 'ascended into heaven', or 'passed through the invisible curtain', the Bible tells us he sent his Spirit back into the World...and that by that Spirit, we can be inspired, forgiven, loved, cherished, encouraged, and prompted to live in ways that are God-like. By that Spirit, we can talk to Jesus, and know that he hears and feels our every need. By that Spirit, we can reach out and touch God...and be led by God.

So because of his Ascension, we can have confidence that God is with us. It's one of those weird ironies of Christianity, that you've heard me talk about before. We serve a king who was born in a stable. We worship a God who taught us to give up everything in order to possess everything. In order for us to live, Jesus had to die. In order to be fully with us, Jesus had to go into heaven.

That's the kind of topsy-turvey faith that we are about to baptise Lucie Jayne into. By her baptism, in a few minutes, we are going to offer her the gift of life that never ends. We are going to welcome her into the family of God's people - ordinary, yet spiritual people, who have discovered that a life lived with God is a better life.

We are people who are discovering that living a simple life is the best way to a rich life. We are people who are learning that forgiveness towards each other is so much better than anger. Love is stronger than hate. Peace is more powerful than war. Generosity is more life-giving than selfishness. Singing is better than crying. Praying is better than coping on our own. We are people who are learning that although Jesus is no longer physically with us, he is much more with us - deeply with us by his Spirit - than we could ever imagine.

So now let's welcome Lucie into this faith....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Peace be with you!

John 14:23-29

There is a moment which arrives in the middle of every service that, I know, gives some people a real sense of dread.  It's a relatively new innovation.  Those of us who are over 40 remember only too well when the idea of Sharing the Peace was first introduced into our services.  Before that, the priest would say "May the peace of the Lord be always with you".  Everyone would reply "and also with you" - and the priest would announce the offertory hymn.  Simple as that.

But back in the 1970s and 1980s, someone - I don't know who - decided that it would be a good idea to 'share the peace' in a more tangible way.  For many of the older generation - this was truly an awful thing to do.  For many, it completely disrupted the solemnity of the service.

As a response to this new innovation, those masters of the comedy song, Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern, wrote the following words, about a fictional character, called Mrs Beamish...

Mrs Beamish stands in church,
expression calm and holy...
(the remainder of the song is withheld out of copyright respect for the authors).  Please go to this link to obtain them)

The whole song underlines that sense of uneasiness which some people have at sharing 'the Peace'. In my last parish, there were people who would routinely ask me whether I was going to make them share the peace at the next Sunday's service.  If I said that I planned to, they would simply not come.

Now I do understand something of the nervousness.  I confess to not finding it the easiest experience myself...especially when I'm not leading from the front.  You know what it's like - you turn around and look for someone's hand to shake...but there's no-one there...'cause they are all shaking hands with other people!  So you stand there like Billy No-mates, waking for a hand to become available.  And then, when you do find an available victim, what should you do...a polite handshake, a 'holy kiss' on the cheek, or a charismatic bear-hug?! And if I shake one person's hand, and exchange a kiss with another - what does that communicate to the person who only got a they feel less loved or valuable?

So, let me be frank.  I have some grave reservations about the Peace...but...but...I do think that it has an important place within church life.

Does anyone know what a liturgical action is?  Sharing of the peace is a 'liturgical' action...its an action which has deeper meaning.   There's a real danger sometimes - especially in Anglican churches, that so much of the service is conducted from the front of the church - by the priest - that congregations can become more like audiences.  I think it is vitally important that people have the opportunity to engage in liturgical action - and that's for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it is a visible sign that worship is something we do together.  Those of us in the congregation are not passive recipients of worship - having worship done to us!  We are also participants.  By singing, standing together, reading and praying together, sharing the peace together - we live out the practical reality that we are the body of Christ - called to be the people of Jesus in this place.

The second reason that sharing the peace is a good thing - is because things that we act out tend to be much more memorable than things we merely observe.  You might watch 100 episodes of Top Gear - but until you've sat behind the wheel of a car, you can never be a driver.  By touching and doing things together, we help them to become rooted with us.  Things we do together are important.  They are what help to define us - and they help to give us shared memories...memories which become the heart of our community.

One of the complaints that I've often heard about sharing the Peace is the one that goes: "It's not very peaceful is it?!"  And people who say that are right, of course.  The Peace is anything but peaceful.  In fact, around here its quite often total chaos - and I have to shout to make myself heard when it is time to announce the next hymn.

But in fact, we shouldn't be surprised about this.  Jesus quite clearly told his disciples that the kind of peace he was offering was 'a peace which the world cannot give'  (cf John 14:27).  When we share peace, we are not sharing silence, but peace. This is peace in terms of a lack of conflict...not the peace of a period of silence.  As the standard words of introduction have it..."let us therefore make for peace, and for all that builds up our common life". This peace we share is a liturgical demonstration of our one-ness, of our peace with our neighbours, through Christ. It is the "peace of God which passes all understanding" - an expression of the peace of our souls granted to us through Jesus, which we share with one another.

This peace that we share is the kind of peace that exists between people who 'love Jesus, and keep Jesus' word' - to paraphrase another section of today's gospel reading.  Jesus is quite unequivocal in what he says in  verse 23.  "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them".  This statement was actually made in response to a question...from a disciple called Judas.  He had asked Jesus, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world".  By his reply, Jesus teaches that he will be revealed in the lives of his followers - in those who love him, and who keep his word.

Jesus' word - or, as he calls his word a few verses earlier, his commandments - are pretty simple.  Love God, and love your neighbour.  "On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets." (Mt 22:40).  In other words, it is only people who are living lives of love - for God and for those around them - who can ever really know what God's peace is like.  We could sit in silence for a whole hour - but never know peace...if inside our minds we are filled with resentment, or hatred, or if we are lacking forgiveness towards one another.  God's peace is not silence - in fact God's peace cries out from the Cross with a loud shout "It is finished".  God's peace is a kind of peace that passes all human understanding - because it is peace between God and humans, and peace between people whose normal instinct is to make war with one another.  

One more thought about sharing the peace - which I wonder whether you've ever considered.  As we grasp each other's hands, we say the words "peace be with you".  What we are doing, in fact, is praying for one another.  As I take hold of your hand, I pray that you will know the real peace of God.  You pray for me too - that I also may know God's peace.  We are praying for each other in a real, tangible way.  At the moment of sharing peace, prayer is rising above the whole congregation.  Arguments and even hurt feelings over some previous slight or other is put aside while we pray for each other's peace.

It is for that reason that I want to encourage you to learn to see the sharing of the Peace in a new light.  Sharing the Peace is a time of prayer.  Its a holy moment of real we make this liturgical action together.  By our action, we demonstrate with our bodies what we pray for with our souls - that each one of us may know God's peace.  We do it together, as the body of Christ, finding healing and reconciliation between us.

So, to Mrs Beamish, and all who share her opinion, I would urge a re-evaluation of this important gesture. There, just before we gather together around the Lord's Table, we have an opportunity to pray for one another.  We have the chance to make peace with our sister or brother - and come, as one body, united in peace, to share the Supper of our Lord.