Sunday 29 May 2022

My Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension - 29th May 2022 - We are in Christ so lets live that reality!


'The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one'

Unity or Oneness is a constantly recurring theme in the New Testament and it is especially emphasised in John's Gospel and most especially in the passage we heard today from John 17. Jesus desires and asks of his father that all may be one. For Jesus the goal is one of ultimate reconcilliation when all are united through participation in the divine Unity of God. Despite the misguided behaviour of so many of his followers then and now who seek to divide the World on the basis of those who are in and those who are out Jesus is conversely about drawing people together, creating a unity of diversity and also revealing the fundamental unity of the whole of Creation.

We have a long way to go to achieve that unity when we look at the state of our World today – The Ukraine is an obvious example where one side has denied any sense of common human identity or unity by the most terrible and gatuitous acts of murder which ignore the humanity of those they kill.

So too is the Texas school massacre of last Tuesday. We have seen displayed here once again the fundamental disunity in a nation which is at war with itself over its historic love affair with guns – And this is rooted in a mindset where the individuals right to bear arms trumps all other rights and responsibilities.

The tragic results of this and so many mass shootings before this is the most obvious demonstration of how exercising our rights with no regard for others or for any sense of unity can have very destructive consequences.

It is of course an extreme example and we rightly condemn it but it is not unrelated to the philosophy which underpins most western society which is the cult of the individual or in some cases one group of individuals over and against another group of individuals. Unity is not high on our agenda. We see that ironically as much as anywhere else in church circles where certain groups are more concerned about being doctrinally right than being in right relationship with others – we see it in our increasingly disfunctional and broken politics which is so often single issue driven and takes no account of other issues or people for that matter - we see it in the failure to respect the rest of Creation in the way we live on this planet and are now reaping the consequences in terms of global warming and climate change - we live in a world of THEM AND US and for many people that is not a problem – they see no issue with it – For me to succeed somebody else has to fail – Unity is not the goal but rather my personal realisation of my goals and God help anyone who gets in the way!

And that is the kind of world in which such tragedies as the Texas massacre will continue to take place – a world where my individual rights are both the route and destination of life – and this is the predominant philosophy in our world today and it is antithetical to any possibility of unity, reconcilliation or healing.

Where did this come from? Ironically Christianity had a large part to play in this and it goes right back to the events of that 1st Easter.

As you know this is the Sunday after the Ascension and the Ascension like many other events in Jesus life is depicted very clearly in art and iconography deriving from the Gospel stories – Indeed right through from the Annunciation to the Ascension all the key moments in Jesus life and ministry are recorded in the Gospels and by extension in art and iconography with the exception of one event which is not described in the Gospels but only its aftermath and that is of course Easter – the single most important event in the life of Jesus and the calendar of the Church.

However as the New Testament theologians John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah Sexton Crossan, in their book Resurrecting Easter, have observed it was inevitable that in the absence of any direct record of the Ressurection the Christian imagination eventually created a direct image of Christ's Ressurrection............In fact 2, one in AD 400 and the other around AD 700 but they were very different. The first focuses on Christ alone and is based on the empty tomb and is seen as part of the individual ressurrection tradition whereas the second is part of the universal Resurrection tradition because in it Jesus raises all of humanity with him. In it (and here I quote): 'he reaches out towards Adam and Eve, the biblical parents and symbols for humanity itself, raises them up, and leads them out of Hades.'

Although the universal image appears initially to be a later one, the Crossans also note that this universal concept was in circulation at the time of the earlier individual image as demonstrated in the writings of St Ambrose of Milan - this next extract written on the death of his brother in 379 - ' If Christ did not rise for us, then he did not rise at all, since he had no need of it just for himself. In him the world arose, in him heaven arose, in him the earth arose. For there will be a new heaven and a new earth'

..............and later they quote the Gospel of Nicodemus which is one of the Gospels that did not make it into the canon of scriptures: 'Why then do you marvel at the Ressurection of Jesus? What is marvellous is not that he arose but that he did not arise alone, that he raised many other dead ones who appeared to many in Jerusalem'

While some might dismiss this because it is not included in the canon of Scripture its basis is absolutely concrete and is found in two New Testament verses about which very little is ever said:

Matthew 27:52-53:  The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

So it is clear that this much more unified and universal vision of Salvation is a genuine part of the Biblical and early Christian understanding of what happened at the Resurrection and the fact that the narrower concept of individual Ressurection and Salvation held sway in the Western Church had huge implications not only for our theology but for the whole of our Western society in its emphasis on individualism. It is important to note that the opposite is the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition which is very much in the universal tradition.

And yet despite the triumph of this narrow view of salvation there is so much in the New Testament that points towards a more generous view and dare I say it and as the Crossans suggest in their writings a view that is closer to what Jesus intended and pointed.

In his recent book 'The Universal Christ' Fr Richard Rohr, who is I think perhaps the most insightful theologian at this time, has dealt with this very issue and I find his thinking exciting and compelling:

His treatment of Paul and his writings is especially helpful. Referring to Paul's conversion he says:

'The deep and abiding significance of Saul's encounter is that he hears Jesus speak as if theres a moral equivalence between Jesus and the people Saul is persecuting. The voice twice calls the people “me”! From that day forward , this astounding reversal of perspective became the foundation for Paul's evolving worldview and his exciting discovery of “the Christ”. This fundamental awakening moved Saul from his beloved, but ethnic bound religion of Judaism towards a universal view of religion, so much so that he changed his Hebrew name to its Latin form 'Paul'

Richard Rohr notes that the key phrase in Paul's writings is 'In Christ' which he uses more than any other in his letters, 164 times in total and Rohr summarises the meaning of this phrase: 'Humanity has never been seperate from God – unless and except by its own negative choice. All of us without exception are living inside a cosmic identity, already in place, that is driving and guiding us forward. We are all [in Christ], willingly or unwillingly, happily or unhappily, consciously or unconsciously.

Paul seemed to understand that the lone individual was far too small insecure and short lived to bear either the weight of glory or the burden of sin. Only the whole [Body] could carry such a cosmic mystery of constant loss and renewal. Paul's knowledge of 'in Christ' allowed him to give God's universal story a name, a focus, a love, and a certain victorious direction so that coming generations could trustingly jump on this cosmic and collective ride.

I don't know about you but the first time I read that it changed my whole perspective on Paul and his writings.

And its not just in Paul that we find this broader wider vision of fundamental unity. In St Mark's Gospel Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim the good news to “all creation” or “every creature” (not just humans) and Rohr notes that Paul takes this up in Colossians 1:23:

'if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. '

However we have sadly lost so much of this Biblical tradition – Richard Rohr comments that 'Paul's brilliant understanding of a Corporate Christ, and thus our cosmic identity , was soon lost as early Christians focussed more and more on Jesus alone and even apart from the eternal flow of the Trinity, which is finally theologically unworkable. Christ forever keeps Jesus firmly inside the Trinity, not a mere later add on or a somewhat arbritary incarnation. Trinitarianism keeps God as Relationship Itself from the very beginning, and not a mere monarch.

Rohr also places St Augustine within this more universal tradition which might horrify those who revel in his other legacy of the theology of Original Sin! In his 'Retractions' Augustine said this:

For what is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race”

Any reading of the prologue to St John's Gospel tells us that Augustine was right:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

In support of Augustine Rohr asks rhetorically:

'[Were] native peoples on all continents and isolated islands for millenia just throwaways or dress rehearsals for us? Is God really that ineffective boring and stingy? Does the Almighty one operate from a scarsity model of love and forgiveness? Did the Divinity need to wait for Ethnic Orthodox, Roman Catholics, European Protestants and American Evangelicals to appear before the divine love affair could begin? I cannot imagine! ....................Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it.... in God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more.'

And so we come back to today's Gospel and that prayer of Jesus which I think speaks emphatically of a God of all things and all peoples, a Universal Christ who calls each one of us to live in the Unity that is already and always was a reality and so bring healing and reconcilliation to a World that is already in Christ.

Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

And finally today's collect for the Ascension reminds us that we are forever in Christ:

Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;

How different would our World look if we lived this reality that Christ is all in all and we are all one in Christ? – That is our calling and it is never to late to start! Amen.

1 comment:

Paddy Crean said...

Thank you for posting your sermon, Stephen. Social cohesion (which is another term for unity) began to disappear with Reagan and Thatcher and has gone completely today. Here is a good paper on the subject. Google it if you have time.

Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research Volume 32, 2019 - Issue 2
Social cohesion revisited: a new definition and how to characterize it
Xavier Fonseca Stephan Lukosch & Frances Brazier
Pages 231-253 | Received 22 Jan 2018, Accepted 03 Jul 2018, Published online: 16 Jul 2018