Sunday, May 17, 2009

6 Easter

May 17, 2009

1 John 5.1-6; John 15.6-17

I remember with a certain fondness and humor, a past parishioner who would come up after the service and say to whomever preached: “Interesting sermon. I just wish there were a few less sermons about looooove.” And she would say that word just that way: “loooove.”

One time I asked her about her apprehension regarding sermons about love. She responded by saying:” I know love is important. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my husband. I love my kids. I will even say that I love God. But, dear Lord, there are more things we can talk about every Sunday than looooove.”

That woman, wherever she might be this morning, no doubt hates the readings for this Sunday. We get a double dose of love in our scriptures today. Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is telling yet again us to love. He tells us: “Abide in my love.” And John, in his epistle, reminds us of that commandment to love God and to love each other.

Certainly, to some extent, I can see where that parishioner was coming from. Love, in our society, has taken on a kind of fluffiness. It seems so saccharine sometimes. Love often seems to be equated with cupids and valentines and dreamy-eyed lovers gazing at each other longingly. But the love Jesus is speaking of is not a sappy, fluffy love.

Love, for Jesus, is a radical thing. To love radically means to love even those people who are difficult to love. To love those people we don’t want to love—to love the people who have hurt us or abused us or wronged us in any way—is the most difficult thing we can do. If we can do it all. And sometimes we can’t.

But we can’t get around the fact that this is the commandment from Jesus. We must love. And it is this commandment that he left us with in those days following his resurrection.

This coming Thursday is the feast of the Ascension. Some of us look at the Ascension as a kind of anticlimactic event. The Resurrection has already occurred on Easter morning. That of course is the big event. The Ascension comes as it does after Jesus has appeared to his disciples and proven to them that he wasn’t simply a ghost, but was actually resurrected in his body. In comparison to Easter, the Ascension is a quiet event. The resurrected Jesus simply leads his followers out to Bethany and, then, quietly, he is taken up into heaven. There are no angelic trumpets. There are no choirs of angels welcoming him into heaven. There is no thunder or lightning. He simply goes.

So, why is the Ascension important to us? It’s important because this is where our work begins. This is where we are forced to go out now and actually do the work Jesus has left for us to do. It is at this point that we need to live out that command to love. But what I like about the feast is more than just going out to do Jesus’ work. I like this feast but it’s so fantastic. I mean, Jesus actually goes up—he goes away from us. He goes off into some other place.

Now for those of us who have some sort of scientific knowledge, those of us who are rational, thinking people, this image is a hard one to wrap our minds around. Jesus is taken up. It is at this point that I find myself really examine that word—Up. I find myself approaching this word from the perspective of a poet.

As you know, I am a poet. And for a poet, words are everything. Every little word is important and must be carefully chosen and carefully examined. So, as a poet, I see this word “up” as important in a whole other way.

Remember what we were taught as kids; heaven is up and hell is down. So, of course, Jesus went up, right? For those early believers, who believed in the three-tiered world—heaven above, the earth in the middle and hell below—Jesus must in fact go up. By the Middle Ages the Church took this literally to heart. It was a custom in some churches at that time actually cut holes in the roof of the church. As the Gospel was read a figure of the resurrected Christ was raised on a pulley through the opening. Now remember, the Gospel would’ve been read in Latin. Most of the people probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway. So, here was a visual representation of Jesus going up.
As time went on, they got even more sophisticated. They also cut a hole in the floor so that as the figure of Christ went up through the roof the figure of the devil went down through the floor. But that was then. In their world up meant up and down meant down. We certainly know better now, don’t we? Up doesn’t mean the same for us as it did for them. We know that the world isn’t flat but round and so up and down are different for us.
I once heard a Unitarian minister speaking about the ascension once. He said that if Jesus actually went up in the air and flew off toward some actual physical heaven, then now, some 2,000 years later, he would still be out there somewhere, in outer space, still flying along. The problem with that thinking is that this liberal minister was being just as literal minded as those people in the middle ages who truly believed that Jesus went up. To some extent, what that Unitarian minister was talking about was that Jesus didn’t so much as go up—άΰέ (ane)--but rather that Jesus went out. The Greek word Luke would’ve used for this, if that’s what he meant, would have been έκ (ek) or “out of”. Jesus then isn’t off in space somewhere flying toward some far-off galaxy called heaven, nor do I think that the Ascension cancels out or defies all the laws of natural science. What both the fundamentalist Christians and the literal-minded minister missed is the ability to look at what Luke was writing about with a poet’s eye.

For those who witnessed it, it must’ve been an amazing and overwhelming experience. Already they saw this person they knew and loved and followed brutally murdered. Then, suddenly, there he was, raised from the dead, and was in fact standing before them, wounds and all. Finally, he was gone. He went up out of their sight. But let’s look at it from Jesus’ perspective.

In her poem, Ascension, Denise Levertov, one of my all time favorite poets, looks at the Ascension from his very perspective. In the poem, she imagines Jesus relinquishing the earth and stretching himself toward heaven (in her words) “through downpress of dust.” She compares it to

“a shoot that pushes its way, delicate and tough,
through soil to sunlight, as if it’s a kind of work,
and not some weightless body floating like a balloon.”

Jesus then, rooted as he is to the earth, to creation, moves upward then not through outer space like some astronaut but rather up through creation—through the fertile soil of created time and space—into the light and life of God. Now it really means something, doesn’t it? Here’s something we can grasp and make sense of and still not sacrifice what we know rationally.

But there’s also one other part of this way of thinking that we sometimes neglect. If we are truly looking at this from the perspective of Jesus, what do you think Jesus was feeling as he moved toward God? Certainly he felt Joy. Certainly he felt Happiness. When we are happy—when we are joyful—we use the word soar often. Our hearts soar with happiness. When we are full of joy and happiness we imagine ourselves floating upward. We talk about being on Cloud Nine. We talk about our feet barely touching the floor. In a sense, when we are happy or in love or any of those other wonderful things, we, in a sense, ascend. Conversely, when we are depressed we plunge. We fall. We go down.

So this word “up” is important. Jesus, in his joy, went up toward God. His followers, in their joy, felt him go up.

St. Augustine said of the Ascension, “let our hearts ascend with [Christ].”

For those followers, their hearts truly did ascend with Christ. So, it is accurate language.

The ascension is important too in dealing with one other reality. Like those first followers, we must face the fact that Jesus is no longer physically with us. The story of the ascension is that, somehow we must carry on without Jesus physically in our midst. He took his leave. He left us physically. Now I don’t mean that he doesn’t come to us physically. Certainly Jesus is present in the physical elements of the bread and wine that we are about to celebrate at this altar. Certainly Jesus is present with us, as well. We—Christ’s followers now—are the physical Body of Christ in the world. What I am talking about is that the Jesus those first disciples knew—the one who walked with them and talked with them and fed them and laughed with them, was not with them any more. He had gone up.

But two weeks from today, an event will happen that will show us that Jesus remains with us in an even more extraordinary way. On that day—Pentecost Sunday—his Spirit will descend upon us and remain with us always.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we must simply face the fact that it all does fall into place. Jesus will not leave us barren and afraid. Jesus loves us too much for that. God will never leave us alone. Although no longer with us physically—we cannot put our fingers in his actual wounds—Jesus is still present among us in his Spirit, in the bread and wine, in each other.

So, today, and this week, celebrate the ascended Christ. Celebrate him by living out his command to love—to love those we don’t want to love, that are difficult to love. As we remember and rejoice in the Ascension, let your hearts, full of love, ascend with Jesus. Let them soar upward in joy at the fact that Jesus is still with us. And we when we love—when we love each other and God—Jesus’ spirit dwells within us in a way that can never be taken from us.

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