Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Drawn to His Feet

Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” So says the Nicene Creed, capturing a moment that would have gone viral if YouTube had been available in the first century. Instead, it was by the social media of the New Testament that the Ascension became the culminating feature, truly the high point, in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ.

In the middle ages, paintings—another form of social media—depicted the Ascension, sometimes giving the impression that Jesus was levitating. These paintings have in common a hill top, a band of disciples huddled around an empty central spot, craning their necks to see rising above that central spot their Lord Jesus, not in an action hero pose of ascent, but, well, levitating, rising, as if in no rush, as if intending to be seen, persuasively seen, one hand holding a scepter, the other raised in blessing. You can see a good example of this scene in the next to last window in the Gospel series above our altar. And, unavoidably, perhaps strategically, in some of these paintings one’s eye is drawn… to his feet. There they are, dangling in mid-air.

This would be a good moment to remind you that next Sunday our Bishop begins his walk through Berkshire County, starting in North Adams for eucharist at All Saints, coming here for lunch at 12:30, leaving by 1:30 heading south, his goal for that day being St. Luke’s, Lanesboro, for evening prayer at 5:30.

In his ascension, Jesus is glorified, exalted far above all earthly power and authority, showing that his rule transcends all other dominion, his love embraces all. There’s a Greek name for this exaltation. Apotheosis, making God-like what was previously hidden.

The story of Cinderella has an apotheosis, the servant girl who sweeps the hearth sweeps up the heart of a prince and, through gradual revelation and the overcoming of obstacles, she is freed to rise and claim a new life, a throne, a kingdom.

The story of a real person, George Washington, comes complete with apotheosis. What a rise to glory, from feisty teenager trying out his tree-felling skills in his neighbor’s orchard, to accomplished military officer, to first President of the United States (remember that many were so taken by him that they wanted to ditch democracy and make him king). At least one artist of the time, attempting to capture the moment of Washington’s death, showed him rising from his deathbed to ascend into heaven. Talk about ranking high in the popularity polls!

Apotheosis: making like God what was once hidden. Exalting the humble. Revealing the true and ultimate worth, the highest degree of development. The last shall be first, the least the greatest.

Our Bishop is demonstrating some of these themes in his plein air pilgrimage. He is allowing hidden worth and importance to be revealed along highways and town roads we’ve driven countless times without looking up, without looking-in to see who is there, without getting out of the car to set our feet on the earth, without hallowing the ground by actually seeing what’s there and how it might delight God by its beauty or disturb God by its condition, might in some as yet undetected way matter more to God than it does to us, might therefore be inviting us to recognize opportunity to learn, to serve, to love.

I believe that our Bishop, in these three long walks the full lengths of our three geographic valleys, is walking for all of us, nudging us all to wonder and imagine, recognize and consider, how the work of the church and the work of the world are related, how what lies hidden might be holy, how ultimate worth might be revealed, and the highest degree of development encouraged. How what we think of last when we think of the mission of the Church might deserve to be put first, and how what we tend to put first stacks up against the wider world, with its needs and opportunities, its realities. All of this is the work of apotheosis.

Exaltation is the English word that best translates the ancient Greek word. Our collect of the day says that the King of glory, God, has exalted his son Jesus to his kingdom in heaven. Just when we might be wondering, Is this like Dad (or Mom) passing on the family business to his (or her) next generation, or handing-on the deed to the family ranch?, just then we hear the collect shift the focus to us. Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.

We are going to be promoted to headquarters. That is the Holy Spirit’s job: readying us for management. Management of our own body-mind-spirit complex, management of our multiple relationships, management of our life in community, management of this fragile earth, our island home. Or is it that we have already been promoted? I believe that’s more in line with the message of St. John in his letter today: “This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life…”

The final verse in a hymn we sang here on Ascension Day (this past Thursday) catches this puzzling theme of our own exaltation: “Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand: There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne; mighty Lord, in thine ascension, we by faith behold our own.”

Jesus embraces all, absolutely all. All who embrace him-- by baptism, by faith, by practicing his love—whoever has the Son-- has life. And life, says St. John in his Gospel just two or three verses before today’s portion, is for glorifying God on earth by finishing the work we have been given to do. One might say finishing the work of reconciliation and redemption, and on a good day seeing that we can do this through the finishing of our own work.

Not working in ways that silence the Spirit, or distract us from the Spirit, or result in our rejecting the Spirit: That would be the opposite of exaltation. No, in today’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that we are not to be dominated by demands and obligation and duty, but we are to have his joy made complete in ourselves. We are to stop, from time to time, and look up—to clear our senses, gain fresh perspective, allow room and space in our work for joy and laughter, wonder and imagination, openness and inspiration. For these will rank high among the spiritual gifts that equip us to reach our fullest development and train us to trust God’s reach. For by that unerring grasp we shall be exalted, as his ascension becomes our own.