May 21, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Excerpts from Psalm 104; John 14:15-21
I will not leave you orphaned
Paula Norbert and I had a long lunch together this week. I had spoken with her on several occasions, but this meeting was 1) a real get-acquainted meeting and 2) a sharing with her about how we’ve been doing things here. First, let me assure you that you are going to love her. She is warm and open and very pastoral. She is enthusiastic and has a rich academic and experiential background, so, she’ll have new ideas to offer, but at the same time, she wanted to come here as pastor because she loves what she has come to know about our church and wants to support that, honor the unique community that we are, even as she helps us grow. All will be very well when Paula settles in as pastor in September.
One of the questions that she had was whether we follow the Common lectionary here at Union Church. That same issue was a discussion topic this week when I breakfasted with local clergy at our regular twice per month morning meetings. Many faith communities, Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterians and more loosely Methodists ,Congregationalists as well as other Protestant churches follow a set list of readings, based on a three-year cycle , and from them, the themes of the services emerge and sermons are developed. This Revised Common Lectionary which was the product of collaboration among many North American church groups was publicly released in 1994.
Each week this Lectionary offers an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel passage and a segment of one of the letters to the early Christians. Many denominations use all four readings each Sunday. The gospel readings in the first year (Year A) are mostly taken from the Gospel of Matthew, those in the second year (or Year B) from the Gospel of Mark, and the third year (or Year C) comes mostly from the Gospel of Luke. Portions of the Gospel of John are read during major liturgical seasons.
Here at Union Church we often select different scripture passages than those offered in the Common Lectionary and even poems and other creative writing when they are a better fit for meaningful themes such as celebrating spring, reflecting on the virtue of hospitality in preparation for our summer guests or learning from our pets.
However we generally use the Common Lectionary during: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Following it during these times allows us to walk alongside the Teacher during key moments in his life in an attempt to learn and be inspired. Today, as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, it is such a time.
By the time Jesus addresses his disciples in today’s Gospel, they have already participated together in the first Christian Passover. They have seen Jesus crucified and experienced Easter. They now most likely are feeling significant grief about having to part with him and be deprived of the kind of intimate companionship which they have all experienced together. In some ways, in the stories about his appearances after Easter, Jesus has been ministering to that grief. They are the assurances of Christ to his followers that he will not desert them, he will return to them, and make his presence known.
This feast of the Ascension is reminding us of two facts. One is that the resurrection means we are deprived of the physical presence of Jesus as he was known in history to his disciples. The other is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is able to be known and is present to far greater numbers at the same time than would be possible in human form. So the disciples are being told, we are being told, while this is the end of one significant experience, it is the beginning of another one. The historical Jesus is no longer present. However, the cosmic Christ will be with us until the end of time. As we walk through the church calendar again this year, our Easter celebration is coming to an end; the joy of living a new life in Christ is still just beginning.
This week Anne Murray and I led our monthly prayer service at St. Andre’s Health Center. We used some of the material from last Sunday’s service here at Union Church. We talked about different images of God, different names for God. At one point, one of the residents said, I know a different name for God. Very pleased at his participation I asked, “Yes Bob, what is it?” He replied enthusiastically, “Andy!”
“Andy?” I responded quizzically.
“Yes,” he said, and began singing, “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me. Andy tells me I am His own”
You laugh, but there are those who think that Christ is Jesus’ last name or that Jesus and Christ are interchangeable names. Most Christians know about Jesus of Nazareth, but far fewer know what is meant by the Christ.
In today’s Gospel when the historical Jesus assures his friends, “I will not leave you orphaned,” He is saying that I, the Risen Christ, the Cosmic Christ will remain with you. Of course they didn’t understand. They, like some of us when we hear bad news, may have heard just the first part: “I’m leaving.” They missed him saying, “I will give you another to abide with you, and be in you.” And if some did hear this, they likely did not understand because then Jesus then tried to explain: “The Spirit is coming and on that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.” (So much for clarification!)
Theologian Matthew Fox describes it well, I think when he says. “Christ is our shortcut word for. . . God materialized. This Christ is much bigger and older than either Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion, because the Christ is whenever the material and the divine co-exist—which is always and everywhere.” In the beginning of the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, and in beginning of his letter to the Hebrews – always at the start to make sure that we don’t miss it- and at the beginning of John’s gospel and in the first chapter of the first letter of John; at the start of each of these scripture passages we are told something very significant – that Christ existed from the beginning and for all time. I am the Alpha and the Omega.
The Christ is about the utter incarnate availability of God. I will not leave you orphans.
How is this so?
Well, there are innumerable ways and I suggest that we consider a couple today. The divine name from Exodus that we reflected on last week, “I am Who Am” was appropriated by Jesus of Nazareth many times in the names he is said to have described himself: I Am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, the Gate of the Sheep, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and Life, The Way and The Truth and The Life, True Vine, etc. Jesus not only used those metaphors to give us a broader, richer sense of who he was; in calling us forth to imitate him, Jesus tried to teach us how to embrace our own divinity. Theologian Matthew Fox says that though this “I am” language is mysterious, it touches us deeply. He goes on to explain that the Cosmic Christ is the “I Am” in us. Each of our lives is a one of a kind story of how the Divine One lives and develops; a distinctive image of God that comes to birth uniquely, once in a universe in us. Our life story is one blessed narrative of how ‘I-am-ness’ came to be and how it flowers into its own and beautiful expression of that divine name.
Jesus’ revelations of “I-Am-Ness” challenge us to claim and live our lives as he did. How are we the bread of life or living bread to each other? How am I “the light of the world”? How are we “the resurrection and the life for others? How, in other words are we also expressions of the Cosmic Christ as Jesus was so fully?
Fox suggests that as we discover our own ‘I Am’ we gradually grow into an ‘I Am” with others. We grow into compassion and in doing so the divine ‘I Am’ takes on flesh again.
“I will not leave you orphans” in large part depends on us, individually and as a people. The Divine One in us can bring comfort, can support, and can feed or not. As a people we have an opportunity to progress; to continue the social/moral evolution of human existence by placing larger and larger numbers of other people within our circle of ethical consideration.
And not just people. If all of creation co-exists with the divine, how are we called to relate to
it? The Cosmic Christ is the “I Am” in every creature. In the first reading this morning we heard the psalmist innumerate God’s intimate relationship with all of creation. The language used describes not a one-time act of generating the material world, but rather an ongoing involvement where we can encounter the divine anywhere, any time, day or night. The divine mystery and miracle of existence subsists in each atom, each galaxy, each tree, bird, fish, dog, flower, star, rock, shell, and human.”
This concept challenges the imagination, implying far, far more than we normally dare think. Among other things, it tells us that Christ lies not just at the root of religion, spirituality and morality. The fact that Christ is cosmic, that everything in the cosmos is shaped in his likeness means that God is manifest everywhere. If physical creation is patterned on Christ, then we can find God not just in our scriptures, and in our churches but in every interaction, all experiences, and all things. We have not been left orphaned. The Cosmic Christ has been here with us all along, in and all around us, now and forever.
When Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples and assured them “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” When he said encouragingly, “In a little while the world will no longer see me but you will see me.” They most likely didn’t get it. So he tried again. He promised to send the Spirit, the Advocate and “ordered them,” scripture says, not to leave Jerusalem; to stick together until they were imbued with the Spirit. “On that day,” he continued, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Until that day when we also really get it, we, like the disciples need each other. This community of faith; full of imperfect yet magnificent, giving, loving, and generous people are one of the clearest signs of the Cosmic Christ. The divine is here in and among us. We are Christ to each other. We are food, light and strength. Cynthia Bourgeault says, “One meets an infinite tenderness in Christianity that we identify as the living Christ.” In a couple of weeks we will celebrate Pentecost, reminding ourselves that we have received the Spirit and that we have all of the gifts that we need to be Christ in today’s world. Today, the feast of the Ascension of Jesus, we remember that we have not been left orphans. We look around our church, we walk around our glorious bourgeoning spring earth and gratefully acknowledge Christ among us. Alleluia!