Sunday after the Ascension
Love; be easy, and be warm,
Find the fire beyond the form.
From the Collected Poems of A S J Tessimond (1902 – 1962)
Let me offer you a picture of our faith. I want you to imagine what it was like three minutes after the ascension. Suddenly the Jesus, who, according to the story has been around the disciples since his resurrection, is now taken into heaven, is taken out of the story, and three minutes after the Ascension the Apostles are looking around desperately for Jesus and all they can see is each other.
This is the picture of the Ascension that moves me most: 3 minutes after the Ascension all they have (and make no mistake it’s enough but they don’t know it yet) all they have is each other. It’s the same here this morning. We gather to celebrate the Ascension and, as we look around, all we can see is each other.
For the Apostles and for us, instead of the ‘happy ending’ sort of celebration much loved of our Ascension hymns, we have something far more exciting, far more risky, far more tentative, and this is the beginning of life in God as the community of faith: each other. You see my Mum loved happy endings and they are very tempting, a happy ending for the Christ who suffered and was put to death. This morning I want to take issue with this theology of Ascension Day or at least consider another side of the picture.
The early Church had two ways of telling the story of Jesus, the Christ. The first, the dominant way, comes from the church in Jerusalem. It’s the story told by the people who had a real sense of place. They lived intimately with these places: Bethlehem, Calvary, Emmaus, and the Mountain of the Ascension. It’s the way of telling the story of the Christ that fills those pilgrimages to the Holy Land – “here is a rock which Jesus sat on”! For the Church in Jerusalem the story is place specific. It’s very ordered, linear, tidy, and affirms the happy ending of the Ascension. It’s a very familiar hero story; a battle with enormous odds; everything is difficult and painful and looks for a moment like total failure, but don’t worry, in the last reel of the film the hero rides off into the sunset or in this case is taken up into heaven.
Contrast this with the way the story was told in Rome in those early days of the life of the church. Here nothing was linear, nothing was one thing after another, everything was held together as one, a complete and whole story in the palm of the storyteller’s hands. The birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is one story held firmly in the worship of the church, not a sequence of stories that happened one after the other in different places.
In this way of telling the story, the birth of Christ and the passion of Christ are the morning and evening of the same day. The risen Christ is present on the cross as is the crucified Christ met in the garden of the resurrection.
There is no separation between life, pain, death and resurrection, between the baby who is greeted by the wise men, the man who turns water into wine, who cries out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the Christ who holds out his wounded hands to Thomas, or breaks bread at Emmaus, or is taken into heaven at the Ascension.
Christ is birth, life, suffering, passion, resurrection, and ascension, all one, one story.
It has little to do with the Hollywood naivety of the happy ending but the much richer reality that we know in our own lives, that death and life, pain and passion, joy and sorrow are different sides of the one coin of our faith and our lives. Here is God incarnate. That’s what the Apostles saw three minutes after the Ascension. That’s what every Eucharist says. All is one.
The word that is used for this unity of a story is ‘passion’, the passion of the Christ, which we know in our passion, and which is always at the heart of our faith and our living.
It is the passion that turns the happy ending on its head; the passion, where love, self giving love, is the only response to hate, where love in the face of hate does not transform hate (much as we might wish it did) but shows us that we must tolerate it, we must hold love and hate together in the palm of our hands and tolerate it in fearless living, in truth telling, and inevitably in persecution, pain, martyrdom, death.
And this evidence of passion, this passionate evidence, is what we’ve tidied up, tidied away, leaving only the familiar thoughts and feelings and happy ending of the Ascension, lest we are discomforted.
As Swinburne, the nineteenth century poet said of the church of his day, “for their comfort’s sake they served up only half a Christ”, and how tempting that is: to serve up only half a Christ!
I want to think about passion this morning and I’m aware that when faced with passion, it’s easy to become shy, reserved and embarrassed, to look for easy words and trite ideas that won’t take us over the top or too deep down, that sidestep the full demands of the Gospel and send us home with our sensible sensitivities intact.
But that won’t do.
What does it mean as followers of Christ to be passionate followers of Christ? We know from Christ that it’s about life and death being one. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, talking about how we make meaning in our talking and in our living, said that, ultimately, the only thing that has meaning, that has life, is what we are prepared to die for. That’s what the story of Jesus shows us in its entirety. So what does it mean in our living out of our Christian faith to be prepared to die for what we believe? Here I believe is the context of the passion, passion in all its varied and rich forms, passion from its root passio meaning pain and suffering, passion meaning the crucifixion of the Christ, passion meaning the orgasmic, ecstatic energy of loving, of abandonment, of sex.
Pain, death and sex have always sat close together and even embraced each other; it’s no accident that, in the Middle Ages in English, and, still to this day, in French, the metaphor for orgasm is “the little death”!
So here we have pain, sex and death – passion’s trinity.
When we try to hide our pain rather than see it as giving us information about ourselves and our God, we are dumbing down our faith to nothing more than a harmless religious sit-com, an Anglican, Coronation Street, that helps us pass a pleasant hour or two each Sunday but keeps the reality that we tuck out of sight from disturbing us?
In keeping sexuality out of sight, when we ignore and repress the glorious sexiness that is part of Christian worship and Christian theology, when we ignore the sexuality that informs us and excites us whenever we get together intimately, closely, with each other, in doing all this we are shutting off a vital part of God’s incarnation at the very heart of us. After all we all have sex lives, whether it’s in our heads or our beds!
That’s why I have so little patience with the flaccid and feeble debate in our church about sexuality, a debate you, here at St Matthew’s are facing into head on. As a gay man I want to say “thank you” – thank you to you at St Matthews for confronting the naive, Mickey Mouse, nonsense that passes for argument in the Anglican Church about sexuality.
Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy of our church, that supports the ministry of a good number of clergy like myself, who are living in same-sex relationships, while at the same time refusing to allow other gay men and lesbians, who would wish to explore a possible vocation to the priesthood, from doing so. It’s nonsense, it’s un-Christian, it’s un-Godly, it’s hypocrisy!
I’ve been a gay priest in the Anglican Church for 40 years, quite a bit of that time hanging on by my fingertips. I am grateful, so grateful, for the privilege of being a priest, holding the hands of so many men and women as they lie in hospital dying, welcoming countless babies into new life in Baptism, conducting the weddings of my heterosexual brothers and sisters, celebrating the Eucharist together with the motley crew that have made up the body of Christ in countless Christian communities around the world, not least here at St Matthew’s.
God has allowed me, welcomed me I believe, as a walking sacrament of God’s love for all people, whoever they are. And I am grateful, but I am not unaware, as I have lived out my priesthood, what the Church has been up to, putting people into spurious, binary boxes labeled ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ so that the fear of sex and passion, which has lain at the heart of the Church for 2000 years, can be projected onto those shut up in the box marked ‘gay’, as, in the past, it did to women, to the divorced, to the crippled, to the unmarried, all who at various times have been conveniently excluded from the full celebration of the heavenly banquet, so that what’s left, dull, passionless and so very safe, can soldier on like a damp squib, a damp, flaccid, impotent squib, that spends so much time bemoaning it’s declining relevance. Is it any wonder that so little comes to birth when so little is risked! How easily, I reckon, this can happen, this has happened: passion gets destroyed, perhaps without guile, without manipulation, in good faith, but destroyed none the less.
I know how much of a temptation this is in the work I do as a psychotherapist, the temptation to help people fit into this passionless world, the temptation as a therapist to meet the desire of the patient to survive what is unsatisfactory but familiar, rather than supporting them to risk the unknown, the unfamiliar, the chance of a life of passionate intensity and creative living.
How easily we do that in the church as well, offering people an anodyne, safe, exorcised experience where it is easy to belong because little is demanded, and little is celebrated other than the sanctification of the normal and the passionless, where inclusive means anything safe, where acceptance means no one is ever challenged to tell their real story and be their real selves.
What I am suggesting then is that we look for that place in ourselves and in each other, that part of us, as a community and as individuals, where passion lies hidden, where we can feel it tentatively, and rather than hide the pain and the ecstasy, risk showing it, encouraging it, letting it live, letting it transform us into the passionate, ecstatic people we really can be. I believe that’s what the ascension is about: Christ free to be at the heart of each of us, free to be the language and love that enables us to understand and integrate the whole of ourselves in God. That’s what passion is: the passion of being alive, being truly human and therefore truly divine. AMEN