7 1 June, 2014
A - Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-11
‘Is this the time?’ the disciples asked. ‘The hour has come,’ says Jesus. That brief sentence is heavy with meaning on this day that is fuelled with irony. The liturgical calendar is driven by what we might call a Lukan approach: turning salvation history into bite-size chunks for carefully managed consumption but Eastertide, particularly, is coloured in by the farewell discourses of the fourth Gospel in which time is for ever collapsing into the unimaginable space of eternity. Today Jesus begins by throwing a grenade into the space: “The hour has come.” Which time? Whose hour? God doesn’t have time or hours, so our time perhaps? This was recorded a long time ago and the hour still seems a long time coming.
We do know that the early church struggled with the tension between the joy of renewed presence and hope represented by the resurrection of Jesus on the one hand and the sense of being left to manage a long (and still getting steadily longer) in-between time, on the other. All this makes this the space between Resurrection and Pentecost, between Ascension and the end of all things, especially poignant and immediate for us.
Living in between times is a familiar measure: we are somewhere between birth and death, somewhere between learning things and forgetting them, somewhere between making our mark in the world and being unable to make a cup of tea. The New Testament speaks with confidence of all this in-betweenness being lived out in the presence of God - God the Creator and sustainer of all things, present and active in creation. The sense that life depended on gods, if not on God, for its continuation, was broadly shared - just the other day we heard Paul in the Acts pointing to the inscription ‘to the unknown god’ in order to proclaim the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
In our generation the fragility of the in-between time is, it seems to me, very different. Then, there was a real fragility in that sickness, violence, natural disaster so frequently interrupted the course of life. Now the fragility (in the northern hemisphere) is less and less located in the physical and more in the metaphysical. For all that repeated surveys tell us most people believe in God, it is all too evident that fewer and fewer live as though they do - and that includes many paid up professional believers and churchgoers. This is clearly partly because the ‘need’ for God was more easily related to the tragic struggles to survive in earlier times; today many are baffled by the way life in the world has turned out. We are increasingly able to survive previously deadly attacks - the advances in cancer treatments are little short of miraculous but this has exposed the questions “Why?” and “for what?” - and for growing numbers of people there is little or no sense in the turn to God.
Here then, is the challenge of today’s Gospel for the church. For all the power of the Lukan narrative, we do not celebrate a God who became one with us, opened up a vision of communion with one another and with God, died on a cross to render dead all attempts to deny such life and communion, was raised from the tomb - and then disappeared, to leave us trying to recreate the glow of his presence. No, with John, we discover cross, resurrection, ascension, coming again to be all part of God’s single moment made present to us and for us in the joy of life in the body of Christ. Present meaning and ultimate meaning are intertwined but, above all, loving one another now (for all its precariousness) is truly part of the love that moves the sun and the other stars. This is made real because the one who is love is truly present to us in the world of the sacraments: that other in-between reality, that mode of connection between this world and the kingdom of love and peace. This immediately alerts us to the importance of some striking phrases from the post-resurrection days in the New Testament. “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” - stay together, that is, being sacramental signs for one another of this true presence. So too that text that lies behind all religious rules, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts”.
Why do we wonder that the reality of God’s presence, life and love have become so distant for most people? Participation in the means of discovering that presence has become reduced to a minimum - at best, the parish Eucharist on Sunday. Without a radicalisation of Christian practice there is little hope that the mainstream churches will hold back the present tide of atheism. This is, of course, the greatest irony of all. For God in Christ has truly reconciled the world to himself and no matter what we say or think or do, nothing can change that but it is a tragedy too terrible to contemplate that we might collude with a church that is making it harder and harder to live in the joy and hope and love of such a victory. For the mystery spelled out in John 17 is that Jesus goes in order to remain. He comes to the Father in order that his joy may be in us, in order that we may be one with the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
The rich gift of life in community is, perhaps above all, the way in which the boundaries between the holy and the ordinary, between the sacred and the secular are broken down. The more we go on, the more we find ourselves being cross with God in a very human way and delighting in one another as we see glimpses of divine glory (and, of course, the other way round too!!). There is a powerful invitation to us to go on opening our life together to others that they may come and glimpse something of the rich possibilities.
we accept this in-between time, not as a time of separation, of making do and
waiting for something better but as truly living with a foot in two worlds; yes,
living in Mirfield but also living in the heavenly Jerusalem enfolded in love
and unity and glory.