Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Someplace Else.

Recently my daughter Risa has begun a new chapter in her life.  She’s begun to sleep over at the homes of her friends.  And so, Meg and I have been experiencing the strange new sensation of waking up in the morning and going to her room and remembering that she is not there.  This is the next natural step in a process that began that morning, over four years ago, when we first dropped her off for a few hours at the home of a friend who does child care.   And we can expect that with each year that passes the absences will continue to grow longer and more frequent.  It is becoming easier to imagine the day when she is grown, and her presence is the exception, rather than her absence.

When you think about it, absence is one of the salient experiences of our lives.  Our bodies occupy a single point in space, like a mote of dust swirling in the infinity of the places where we are not.   Each moment of present time is like a tiny boat drifting across the ocean of a past that is gone and a future that has not yet come.  And as real and compelling as our relationships and interactions with other people are for us, we are absent from the lives of those others, even the ones we are closest to, as much if not more than we are in them.

Perhaps when we think about these things we know what the apostles felt like, watching Jesus disappear from their sight into the cloud.  From the time they had first met him they had been drawn in by the power of his presence, by his proclamation of a kingdom that had finally, definitively come.  In him they found that the spirit of the prophets, so long absent from Israel, had not only come back but in spades.  In him the old promises of what would happen someday in the future, of return from exile, of a new King to sit on David’s empty throne, seemed to be coming to fulfillment. 

Then he died.  For two days he was nowhere, or if he was anywhere he was in the land of death, where nothing is remembered and from which nobody returns.  But then he came back.  “He is not here,” said the angel to the women at the empty tomb, which is to say, “He is alive, but not in the way he was.”  For forty days he was here and then gone, appearing and disappearing, suddenly present where his absence was most keenly felt, and then gone again.  

The apostles kept waiting for him to pick up where he had left off, as if his death had been just a kind of temporary setback, a flat tire that had been fixed.   But now, as they see him go away again, it is suddenly clear that the destination of their journey is not what they had thought.  He is lifted up before their very eyes, not suddenly vanishing but disappearing gradually from view on his way to…someplace else.  Which is where he still is today.  Not gone.  Certainly not dead.  But someplace else.  Someplace where he is alive in a way that only God can be alive, where he is present in a way only God can be present. 

Where is Jesus now?  Someplace which is not a place at all, because it is not limited by the extent of space or the duration of time.  Just as the division between Divine and Human nature is overcome in Christ’s Incarnation, just as sin and death are transformed in his Cross and  Resurrection, Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is where God’s grace reduces to zero duration and extension.  We can’t know any world but the one our minds construct out of concepts of space and time, this world of the speck of dust dancing in infinity and the tiny boat drifting across the bottomless ocean.  Where Jesus Christ is now is not in this “world.”  But his absence is the fullness of his presence.  The “someplace else” is the Glory of God.

Yesterday, I went with the elected lay leaders of St. John’s to the Bishop’s Ranch up in Healdsburg where we held our annual board retreat.  We went someplace else, so we could get a fresh perspective that would help us be more effective leaders.  But we took this place with us.  We were in beautiful surroundings on a forested hillside overlooking the vineyards that line the Russian River valley, but the whole focus of our prayer and our conversation was this community at the corner of 5th and C in Petaluma.  And Jesus’ ascension into heaven is like that. 

He goes up out of this world to another place, but he goes in his body.  In the gospel passage from John we hear today, Jesus prays on the night he is betrayed.  His public work is done.  He has eaten the Passover with his disciples, and washed their feet.  His betrayer has left, and he has instructed his disciples on what is to come.  And now he prays: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me…”  All that follows is the answer to that prayer.

On the cross, God glorifies the body of Jesus, lifting him up as the enduring sign of forgiveness and compassion for the depths of our suffering and blindness.  On Easter morning, God glorifies the body of Jesus, raising it from the bondage of death and hell.  And on Ascension Day, God glorifies Jesus again by exalting him bodily to heaven, restoring the Son to the glory he had before the existence of the world.  But now he shares the glory of the father in a human body.  

And, as Jesus says in his prayer, all this is consummated in us.  The upward movement of the world into God in Christ is followed by the downward movement of the Holy Spirit, bringing God into the world.  Through this gift, Christ is glorified yet again in us, in the communion of those who believe in his name.  We are his body that transcends the extension of space and duration of time, filling the gulf of absence with the presence of glory.

Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, we sing of the holiness of God, saying “heaven and earth are full of your glory.”  This hymn comes from the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne, and the Eucharistic preface says that we are singing the same song as the angels and archangels who stand in attendance on the Most High.  Thus the song does what the song says.  Heaven, the someplace else where Christ reigns, and Earth, where his body is broken bread and poured wine, are united in the Spirit, in the fullness of his glory. 

This same Spirit unites us in one glorified body with absent brothers and sisters throughout the world, transcending the divisions of tribe and language and nation.  Likewise with our departed loved ones, and all God’s holy people of ages past and all who are yet to come.  All are present, all united in a single symphony of praise that fills creation and rings through eternity, “all of us”, as Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, says “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”   Come Holy Spirit, that we may see the world in this light, not as the desert of your absence, but as the luxuriant garden where you dwell.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Knowing the Unknown God

In the May 8th issue of The New Yorker there is an article about a lawyer in Houston named Danalynn Recer.  She has made a career of defending people in capital cases, and she’s been very successful in saving them from execution.  She doesn’t do this by trying to prove their innocence—usually they are guilty of terrible crimes.  Instead she focuses on that stage of the trial after a verdict has been reached and before sentencing, called “mitigation.” This is where the defense has the opportunity to try to convince the judge and the jury that the accused is a human being, and not, as the popular media would have it, “a monster.”  Recer brings family members and acquaintances to the witness stand to tell the rest of the story of the defendants’ lives: childhoods of abandonment, deprivation and abuse,  traumatic brain injury, lifelong struggles with addiction and madness; and the failed efforts they made to build normal lives, to hold down jobs, make friends, to go to church and better themselves. 

The mitigation strategy sometimes works, because it only takes one juror to change a death sentence to one of life imprisonment—one juror who decides that the crime is not the whole truth of the defendant’s life.  Recer is quoted in the article as saying, “People want us to apologize for the company we keep, but I don’t buy it.  I don’t apologize for saying I love my clients in all their complexity.  We insist on seeing their humanity, despite what they’ve done.”   But that is what love does.  The old saying that “love is blind” is another way of saying that love sees the whole truth.  Love is the willingness to know the whole truth about another person, and to accept it.  It means seeing that there is an ultimate value to that other life that we can’t know because it comes from God.

That’s not always easy.  Some people couldn’t even love Jesus.  They said he was a blasphemer and a rabble-rouser, and resolved to put him to death.  And that death sentence was supposed to be the last word about his life.  But they were wrong about him.  They were wrong about his life and about his death.  God raised him from the dead—that’s how wrong they were. They took him out of the world, but God raised him up and gave him back.  The things he did, the things he said, even the wounds of his cross—his whole life came back to his disciples with more power, more meaning because of the death he had suffered, and then they new that their relationship with him was only beginning. 

But that wasn’t easy to swallow either.  It’s hard to love a crucified Messiah.  Saul the Pharisee could not and he went after Jesus with a vengeance, hunting down his disciples and throwing them in jail, until the day when the risen Lord came to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  And then even Saul knew he’d been wrong about Jesus.  He had been terribly wrong, and because Jesus came not only to convict him, but to forgive him and give him a peace he’d never known, Saul knew he’d also been wrong about God. 

The story goes on to tell how Saul, now called Paul, was anointed with Holy Spirit and sent out to tell the whole world about his new relationship with God.  This morning we hear how this led him to Athens.  Now the ancient Athenians had kind of a split personality.  On the one hand they thought of themselves as very reasonable people.  They liked to find explanations for things and argue about them as if they knew what they were talking about.  On the other hand, they were avid for religion--they explained the things they didn’t understand by making them into Gods.   Destructive forces of nature, such as lightning and earthquakes and volcanoes, or irrational forces in the human psyche, like the intoxicating power of love or the madness of war—they would personify these as Gods as a way to make them less mysterious and terrifying. 

But Paul comes to them and says, “The Gods you think you know are no Gods at all.  I see that you have an altar to the ‘unknown God’.  Well, I’m here to talk to you about that one.  The God you don’t know is the real God, the only God there is.”

Now this might not have been all that surprising—Paul after all, was a Jew, and Jews had been telling pagan Greeks this sort of thing for years.  Nor is it surprising that Paul quotes pagan philosophers and poets when he explains to the Athenians that this unknown God does not personify the forces of nature but created them.  This God is not a being but is the ground and fact of being itself.  He is not swayed or placated by human service but orders all things according to his own unfathomable plan and purpose.  But Paul wasn’t the first Jewish teacher to use pagan philosophy in this way. 

What was really new in Paul’s teaching, what was really weird and surprising was what he had to say next.  “There is a man named Jesus”, said Paul, “who makes the will and purpose of the unknown God known.  This fully-human person reveals that purpose as it is already working, and its final fulfillment is in him.  And we know this because God raised him from the dead.”   

According to Paul, and the whole New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection is God’s testimony that he is the human being in right relation to the true God.  It means that the relation which he had to God in his life and in his death has a future—in fact, his relationship to God is the future, the plan and destiny of the whole universe.  To know this, Paul says to the Athenians, is to repent.  It is to want to change, and to be in that same relationship.  And we can do this, or better to say, we can receive this gift.  In today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that if we love him, we will know his resurrection. And in that knowing and loving the Spirit, the Spirit of right relation with the unknown God that comes through him, is with us an in us.

Jesus says, “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  To love Christ, the crucified and risen, is to be in that right relation with the unknown and unknowable God.  It is to receive our own lives as a gift from one who created us and is near us, who knows us fully and still never fails to love us.  Knowing Jesus means having faith that our lives have a meaning and a destiny which are in some way ultimate, even the mistakes we make, the losses we take, the deaths we die.  To know Jesus is to love him, and to know him as redeeming us completely and forever from our own false judgments of ourselves.

But to love him, says John’s gospel, is to keep his commandments.  It means to remember what he said, and to try to put it into practice: “Love your enemies.” “Forgive your brother not seven times, but seventy times seven.” “Do not repay evil with evil.” “Judge not, lest you be judged.” And supremely, “Love one another as I have loved you.” To love Jesus is to is know our brothers and sisters as also having ultimate value, as being children of the one he called Father.  It is to be redeemed from our false judgments about everyone else, too.  This is where we stop worshipping idols and start to know the unknown God.


About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.