Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 20th May 2012
20th May 2012 at 11:15 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
One thing we discover in different ways, as part of the process we boldly call 'growing-up', is that dealing with loss is a terribly difficult thing. We learn this in a myriad of ways: whether it be the death of someone close to us, dramatic changes of circumstances which leave us feeling impoverished, the shattering of a relationship of intimacy or trust, such changes of our essential coordinates often leave us without focus, perhaps stripping us of our frame of reference, or even forcing us back into one we’d rather forget. All of this is not only true for the human person, but also for society more broadly. The profound amnesia in which our society languishes, and the destruction of its narratives has led some commentators to remark that society itself has become disenchanted – with the old structures and certainties torn up, an inherent distrust of insititutions, and certainly a distrust of anything like a common narrative. This may be over-describing the social problem, but there is no doubt that for those of us who would call ourselves Christians, learning how to deal with loss, as individuals and as members of society, and how we integrate that into our everyday living, is an urgent and serious part of a discipleship which wants to mature.
A very common feature of being unable to deal with a sense of loss at first, is an inability to glimpse the goodness and healing which can spring from it. For most of us, when we feel that we have lost someone or something dear to us, or essential for our daily coordinates, it’s hard to see what we might have gained or how we might actually grow as part of that new situation. When such an awareness does come, it breaks through in occasional shafts of light, strange bursts of realisation, rather than a continuous beam – that takes altogether longer to emerge. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances in-between the Resurrection and Ascension, are filled with examples of a gradual, increasing awareness of what has been happening. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples rub their eyes and wonder how they didn’t recognise Jesus before; Mary Magdalen thinks he is the gardener, before he utters her name; Thomas repeatedly insists that he will not believe until he forensically examines Jesus’ wounds. In all instances the individuals involved become part of the story as it slowly unfolds before their eyes.
The period after the Ascension and before Pentecost must have been marked with similar, and perhaps more complex emotions. Surely, now, the apostles believe – they have been transformed from a bedraggled group of hopeful followers into a band of men and women who would literally give everything for the belief that Jesus who was crucified is now alive. This hope, this new reality, is now deeply imprinted on them. And yet, what does this really look like now that Jesus has gone? How is it sustained? How do they ensure that that familiar sense of loss and disenchantment doesn’t overwhelm them once again?
It is all too easy to defer answering these questions until next week, at Pentecost when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant Church. But of course, the different early accounts record precisely when the Holy Spirit came on the apostles at slightly different times. For some writers the anointing of the Spirit is actually at the same moment as the Ascension; for St John, there is a strong hint that Jesus actually breathes out his spirit on Mary and John as he breathes his last from the Cross. It is not necessary to pinpoint the precise moment, merely to realise that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was as a result of God’s actions in Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. It is this which revitatalises the disciples, this Easter truth which turns any sense of loss into joy.
The writer of 1 St John, himself reflecting some time after both Ascension and Pentecost, puts it slightly differently. St John tells us that 'God has testified to his Son', and that those who believe in Christ have this testimony 'in their hearts.' We’re used to thinking that a 'testimony' is something somebody says, a declaration under oath. This 'testimony' is something different. It’s not something we do – but rather something God has done. This 'testimony' is the Father’s relationship of mutual and total loving consent to what Christ has done for the world in his dying and rising. St John is saying that those who believe in Christ, have this 'testimony' in their hearts. In other words, they carry Easter in their hearts, as the fundamental shaping of their lives and hearts, as the treasure into which they have been enfolded, to share the very life of God: to share this life in his Son.
And so, on this Sunday in-between the Ascension and Pentecost, when the apostles must have feared another sense of loss, we need to go back to the proclamation of Easter. Christ is risen, and in one sense, that is all. The great theologies of St Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth in one sense say no more than this. Christ is risen. And it is the intensity of that testimony, the testimony of the Father to the loving acts of the Son, which we need to bring to our disenchanted society, that testimony which will enfold us in the very life of God as – like Mary – we learn to treasure it in our hearts so that it shapes all that we do and are.
It is that treasure which ultimately will overwhelm all our losses – no longer little, short shafts of light, or occasional bursts of realisation, but a gradually enriching treasure, bubbling up from a faith within which because of its intense richness, will burst the dams of our apathy, fear, and hopelessness, and will give us the courage to allow our privacy to be opened up to the perfect love of Christ which casts out all fear. It’s this kind of life which the Lord himself promises in today’s Gospel, as it were, from the other side of the resurrection, in a text of such intimacy that it becomes clear that those who belong to Jesus, have lost nothing. He prays, 'I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy complete in themselves… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.' It is in this mission, in sharing the life of the Son that all our own losses and fears are overwhelmed, as we become the sent ones of the Sent One: participating in a testimony of joy so complete that we are sanctified in the truth, fully alive.
And yet, so often, it just doesn’t appear that simple. Surely, even after the most intense periods of prayer, in great acts of love or human kindness we are still aware that we are just amateurs in all this, getting it wrong, with the danger of becoming overwhelmed again by loss or the fear of loss. It was JRR Tolkein who wisely observed in his poem 'All that is gold does not glitter' that 'Not all those who wander are lost.' We do wander, we might flail around, and we will get it wrong, but we have within us the Testimony of Christ, the Good News of a love stronger than death. We may wander, blindly, sometimes, but we are not lost anymore because Christ has gone before us leading us on, ascended to the Father in our flesh, offering us a new way of looking at everything, sanctifying us in the truth of Easter, and summoning us to life.