May 4, 2008

Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennessee

John W. Sewell

St. Augustine said, “God has become man that man may become God.” This is not to be confused with an attempt to make ourselves god. That has been tried ever since the first apple; no this is the becoming that is the gift of God and the consequences of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

God is beyond knowing. God is beyond time and space. We can intuit his presence but we cannot know Him. God sent Jesus, born of a woman, in order that we could know what God is like.

Now we know that God is like Jesus.

Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. If this were Star Trek Jesus would go outside Jerusalem, bless his followers and say, “Beam me up!” You remember the transporter on the star ship Enterprise. Molecules were scrambled into energy and moved across space to a new place and reassembled, which would be a wonderful trick if you could pull it off!

That is precisely what DID NOT happen on Ascension Thursday. What happened that day was not a change of position. Jesus has not gone FROM us. The ascension represents not a change of position/place, but a change of the mode of existence, a passing to God.

The good news this day is that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, has passed to God, carrying his humanity with him. Now the Trinity includes the “human”. By faith, we can participate in the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. The good news also is that by going to God, Jesus has not gone from us. We see him physically no more, but we experience him directly by the Holy Spirit.

This is the power of the resurrection that we receive at our baptism. This is the new life/energy we receive the Eucharist. We receive grace/power in all the sacraments. These reliable means of grace are available to all Christians. But of course that was not obvious to the Disciples on that Ascension Thursday. The forty days between the resurrection and the ascension was a time of transition: a movement from despair to empowerment.

I have recently been re-reading a book by William Bridges called, TRANSITIONS: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Bridges says that there are three components to the transition process: endings, the neutral zone, and new beginnings.

I. Endings: They must have been living in an daze of excitement

ever since Easter afternoon when the Risen Jesus appeared to them and said, [I paraphrase,] “it worked!” During the forty days that followed, He said that he was going away. He said that this was in their best interest because his departure would bring the Spirit who would dwell with them and in them.

Then on that Thursday, he told them to continue what he had begun with his ministry and resurrection. Then he blessed them. Then he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.

We like to think that change comes with a new beginning. Not so. Every change begins with an ending. We should not confuse an ending with finality, however. Recognizing endings is the way in which we can mobilize our resources to move on and through change. But without recognizing endings, it is hard to move forward into new beginnings.

to arrive where we know the place for the first time.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

T. S. Eliot “Little Gidding”

II. Neutral Zone: confusing disconnected. It is a time of “lostness” in which our disorientation needs to become reorientation. If this occurs then we move into the third stage. Two men in white robes standing by them said, “Why are you standing around looking up? The same Jesus you saw go will return in like manner.

They went back to town and gathered in the upper room (likely the same one where they had gathered for the Last Supper). They were all there, with some of the woman that had been with them from the beginning including Mary the mother of our Lord and his brothers. There they waited and constantly devoted themselves to prayer sorting out the meaning of what had happened, but mostly they waited. In John’s Gospel when things were uncertain Peter went fishing, but this time they waited.

Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole, “It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying, ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else — but, oh dear!’ — cried Alice, with a sudden burst of tears “I do wish they would put their heads down! I am so very tired of being all alone here!” [ Alice in Wonderland, LEWIS CARROLL]

III. New Beginnings: We start over. New rhythms and new patterns emerge. Hope returns. The future and life itself — once again feels exciting. Next week is Pentecost when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days after Easter the new beginning was in full flower. And the world has never been the same since. The disciples moved from despair to power. It was hard to believe it was the same crowd.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. … “I —- I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” [LEWIS CARROLL Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]

 The disciples were given new energy and hope – but their contribution was to act creatively in the circumstances of our lives. God gave the energy as God does for us but they and we must move in order for grace to be manifest.

  A wealthy old lady decides to go on a photo safari in Africa. She takes her faithful pet poodle along for company. One day, the poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long discovers that he is lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the obvious intention of having lunch.      
 The poodle thinks, "I'm in deep trouble now!" Then he notices some bones on the ground close by, and immediately settles down to chew on them with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the poodle exclaims loudly, "Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here."
  Hearing this, the leopard halts his attack in mid-stride, and a look of terror comes over him as he slinks away into the trees. "Whew!"  says the leopard. "That was close! That poodle nearly had me."
 Meanwhile, a monkey watching the whole scene from a nearby tree figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. So, off he goes. 
  But the poodle sees him heading after the leopard with great speed, and figures that something must be up. The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans, and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard. The leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, "Here monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"
  Now the poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back, and thinks, "What am I going to do now?" But instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get within earshot the poodle says...
"Where's that foolish monkey?! I sent him off half an hour ago to bring me another leopard!"

For Christians the issue is not what happens to us but how we react. Our response is often the key factor. Genuine beginnings depend on inner realignment rather than on external shifts. On this Seventh Sunday after Easter 2008, we stop and ask ourselves where we are in transition? What is ending in us and around us? Have we used up the energy in some part of our life? Do we need to find a new way to live and make a living? Has the way we have been relating to God or the people around us ceased to be life giving? What has died, or needs to die?

Are we in the neutral zone, disoriented wondering who we are and which way is up. What makes sense? Who and where do we go? What would we like to be or do if we should ever decide to grow up?

Are we in new places in our lives? Are we amazed at the possibilities? Do we risk moving forward or turn back because the new possibilities of abundance require more responsibility than we have ever taken before. Pentecost meant that the Apostles could no longer hide but had to move into leadership in the growing Church.

The good news is that regardless of where we are: ending and saying good bye, in neutral and asking where we are, or in new beginnings and saying hello, the Risen Jesus who returned to God is here with us. It is always good when in transition to remember that our Lord promised that he will never leave us or forsake us.