Limbo-land

May 28, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith using 2 Samuel. 23: 1-5; Ephesians 1: 15-23 at Choral Mattins on Sunday 28th May 2017, Sunday after Ascension Day.

In the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, there is a chapel dedicated to the Ascension of our Lord. The dedication is clear for all to see, for when you raise your eyes heavenwards, a pair of feet can be seen, frozen in time, disappearing through the ceiling! I think when I first saw this, my abiding thought was that, however Christ’s ascension happened, it sure can’t literally have been like this. It’s surely this kind of thinking that led Uri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, to comment that God can’t exist as he had not seen him as he was orbiting earth.  The key thing to understanding how the Ascension of Christ is depicted  is to remember the Jewish over riding belief in the flat earth-three decker universe. Above the earth is heaven, below the earth is hell, prophets climb hills to commune with God, malicious animals lurk in the depth of the seas. Because we understand the universe differently now, we must understand Christ’s Ascension differently. Rather than shooting up into heaven like a sky rocket, I guess we might find it more helpful to say that our Lord passed from a dimension where he is seen, to another dimension where he isn’t seen by finite mortals. Just as St. John describes the veil of the temple being torn in two at our Lord’s crucifixion, there seems to have been a momentary lifting of the veil that separates finite and eternal realities. However our Lord’s ascension actually happened, and let’s face it, no one can know for sure, the problem that it causes the disciples remains the same. What happens next? Having just got used to their risen Lord appearing amongst them and then disappearing from their sight, how are they to carry on without Jesus ever appearing again? Their prayer to their heavenly Father, whether outwardly voiced or inwardly felt, must have been something like the plea contained within this morning’s Collect. “We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless.”

Our first reading reminds us that Jewish people felt something similar after the death of David. David for all his faults (and some of them, let’s be clear, were pretty major faults), was felt to be a receptacle of wisdom for his nation, artistically and politically astute. He was the poet/musician monarch who in his psalms left a legacy, covering a wide gamut of emotion, that permeates Jewish and Christian worship today and for the foreseeable future. His model of kingship enabled the Jewish people to gain a sense of security and stability which they hadn’t really experienced since entering the Promised Land after their years of journeying through the wilderness. Furthermore his kingship had a dynastic quality to it, offering Israel the possibility of similarly wise kings to follow in his footsteps. His leadership had not been tyrannical but had been rooted in justice with an accompanying interest in the social concerns of his people. David’s wise leadership is compared to the interplay of rain and sunshine, the two together being essential elements for growth and new life. Despite the fact that some of his successors  fell very short of of being wise monarchs, with the gift of hindsight that Christianity gives us, he can be seen to prepare the way for the messianic king, in other words Jesus himself.

The wisdom of the church, the interplay of rain and sunshine of the church, if you will, is similarly manifest in its loyalty to God through Christ, and the loyalty of individual Christian men and women to one another not just within the church but in society at large. Because of the amount of self-doubt and in extreme cases, self-loathing at large today, we might want to add that third element contained with Jesus’ summary of the law, a true loyalty and respect of oneself. These three loving elements together are also essential elements for growth and new life and indications of God’s Holy Spirit at work.

That period between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension must have been a rather strange, not to say confusing, time for those first disciples. His comings and goings seem to be preparing them for the time that their Lord will no longer we with them. There seems to be something of a similar confusion about the coming of the Holy Spirit. As someone who finds razzmatazz events rather difficult to deal with, I am greatly encouraged by the fact that the first account of Pentecost happens behind locked doors on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when we are told in John 20: 22, that Jesus “breathed on the disciples and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’”.  It couldn’t be simpler yet no less life changing. Then there is a third account in Acts 10 where God’s Holy Spirit is poured out upon Cornelius’ family in his house. That too couldn’t be simpler. But it loudly proclaims that God’s Holy Spirit is for all people for all time. But it will be the razzmatazz account that we shall focus on next week. In the first of these accounts, it is words from 1 Kings 19 that come to mind as Elijah hides in the cave as God passes by. “ Now there was a great wind,…. but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence”. In my ministry it is in small pastoral encounters that I have been most aware of God’s life changing spirit at work.

With the physical withdrawal of Jesus from the company of his closest disciples, even after the first inrush of the Holy Spirit described in those first accounts of Pentecost, in his letter to the Ephesian Church, Paul prays that the Holy Spirit of wisdom may continue to enthuse and inspire every aspect of the church. Perhaps one of the main ways that that this longing for wisdom impacts on us today, just as it must impact on Christians in every generation, is that we all have a responsibility to open and then engage our minds to process what we hear and what we read in church, and in what we read, hear and see in the wider world and in the privacy of our homes. Does it make sense to us in the context in which our Lord has placed us? If it doesn’t, is it the context or the message that needs to be challenged? With the horrific accounts of the recent suicide bombing in Manchester still very fresh in our minds, we are only too aware of where the blind following of religious texts can lead. But to have no guiding principles at all, leaves our society open and defenceless against such bigotry and butchery. We need to pray more than ever for the  loving and transforming presence of God’s loving and transforming Spirit loving and transforming our lives, not a wishy washy wisdom, but a wisdom that has teeth, enabling the pruning of ‘wisdom weeds’ allowing social justice to thrive. Therein lies resurrection hope which is at the very centre of what we as Christians believe.

What a contrast there has been this past week between the horrors of the Manchester terrorist attack and with the beauty that is revealed the Chelsea Flower Show. Using the biblical height and depth metaphors that lie behind that first account of Jesus’ Ascension, the former reveals the lowest depths that one human being can stoop to in his murderous interaction with his fellows and by so doing, possibly putting himself beyond the love of God; the latter reveals the heights to which creative gardeners can aspire, pointing to the creator from whom all creation originates. But that loving creator was also witnessed to by those many loving acts performed in response to the suffering of others in the aftermath of the Manchester tragedy, all indications of God’s Holy Spirit at work.

Let us pray.

We thank you heavenly father for those times in the church’s year that allow us to reflect on what has been and to look ahead to what might be.  Through the ministry of your son, and in the ministry for your church, help us to be challenged and encouraged by your glory, yet upheld by your intimacy.                         Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We thank you that you have called us to be members your church at this moment in time and in the particular situations in which you have placed us. We pray for our brothers and sisters of other faiths who, in following you, seek to love their neighbours as themselves. Give us al the strength and the determination to challenge bigotry wherever and whenever it occurs, thus enabling your holy spirit to blow where it wills.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We thank you for the vision that you offer your world, that peace with justice must be continually strived for because it is practically achievable; we pray for all those places in your world where violence rules. We pray that the light of your truth may shine where ever dark practices fester, and that brought into the light such practises may be destroyed.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

In faith we hold before you all those who have been injured or killed in acts of violence.

We pray for all those who are unwell. From this community we pray for …

We commend to your loving embrace all those who have died …

We pray for all those who mourn.                          Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We thank you that as with the Children of Israel your grace goes before us and follows us. In that knowledge we surround our prayers with the words of your Grace.   THE GRACE …