Sermon preached by
I wonder how you "hear" the Bible passages we listen to on a Sunday morning? Do the words alone make sense enough? Do they instantly mean something? Can you easily follow the story or the train of thought?
One way in which I "hear" Bible passages is to "see" them; not in detail - I don't get an image of what the characters looked like or what they were wearing. But sometimes I get a very simple but strong picture in my mind, of what must have been happening. There is a very strong visual message which comes to me from the two passages we've just heard from Acts and from John. It is that of people looking from earth up to heaven. It happens twice - In John we see Jesus "looking towards heaven" as he prays first for himself and then for his disciples; in Acts we see the disciples "looking intently up into the sky" as Jesus ascended into heaven. I am left then with an image of men looking up to heaven. The two incidents happen at different points in the story of Jesus' ministry, and they mean quite different things to the people there. But it's a strong visual depiction of faith which we can perhaps unpack.
Firstly then, the passage we hear from John chapter 17 is part of what has become known as the high priestly prayer offered up by Jesus before his betrayal and death. For in it Jesus consecrates himself as the sacrificial victim who gives himself in atonement for the sin of the whole world. He acknowledges a special relationship between himself and God, that his time has come, and that he will be submitting himself to suffering and, ultimately, to glory. The prayer is in three parts and we heard the first part and a bit of the second in today's lectionary passage. He prays for himself, for his disciples, and finally for all believers. But it's not particularly the content of the prayer I want us to think about, nor why he prayed the things he did. It's why Jesus prayed at all, and why he did it in the way he did that I'm interested in.
Secondly, in Acts chapter 1 we watch the ascension of Jesus taking place as he is removed from sight by a cloud, and the disciples gaze after him into the heavens, watching him leave for the very last time. You can see them, can't you, with dropped jaws, staring heavenward as they watch their world change for ever?
So, everyone is looking towards heaven. What can we draw from these striking images?
Well, for Jesus he was striking up a pose which speaks of prayerfulness and reverence for God. He wants to acknowledge the point of need he has come to, that is, he is about to die, and he wants to offer up sincere prayers for himself as he knows he will face great suffering. He wants to pray for the disciples, recognising how much they've learned and how much they've endured for his sake, and also asking for God's protection for them as they move forward now alone. His prayers are sad, and serious, and serene, but it is his pose which speaks loudest. For Jesus says all these things with his eyes lifted towards heaven. He turns to point himself to God, to stand face-to-face with Him. There's a strong intimacy here, and one which is not confined just to a father and son dynamic. It's the intimacy which makes a devoted follower seek out her God at those formative moments. Jesus is God-staring.
And as for the disciples? Well, they are too are staring into heaven.
Let's not be too harsh on them. They've been through the mill - they were complicit in the betrayal of their companion, watched the torture and death of their friend, were baffled by the resurrection of their saviour, and now are watching the final exit of their leader. Small wonder they're left staring into space, perhaps.
Perhaps you have experience of watching after someone as they leave, someone much loved who is moving away from you and whom you don't want to be without? We then have to learn to internalize an image of the person we love because we can't see them any more.
We can imagine the sense of loss written all over the disciples' faces. They know they've lost someone hugely significant and they also are beginning to feel the burden which has fallen on them as leaders of the new church. They continue to look heavenward partly because to bring their gaze back down to earth would literally cause too much of a bump. But they don't get away with it for very long. They are rebuked very gently by "the men in white" - semi-divine beings, angels perhaps. "Why do you stand here looking into the sky?" in other words, "that is not what is important any more; that is not where your focus should be". They are God-staring.
So, the same activity - God-staring - but one is positive and one less so. What can we learn from this comparison?
At its best God-staring is an intimacy we should crave and should learn to look for. I wonder which way we turn our heads when we are seeking out God? Do we ever feel that need? Do we know where to look? Do we know where to guide others to look? Where is our "heavenward"?
If we are to grow ourselves fully as spiritual people, which we are certainly all called to do, we need to know where to find God. Probably not many of us will physically turn our heads skyward. But we each need to know where and how to come close to God. I remember standing staring at Monet's Haystacks in the National Gallery in Australia - it is much more than just a picture, so entrancing that I knew it had God in it.
Part of our calling as God's people, the Church, is to create public worship in which people can draw close to a real and living sense of what is God. We try to do it through word & sacrament, through music and symbol, through prayer and fellowship. I think we sometimes get that right and we sometimes don't. But we, the Church, also need to enable people as private individuals to draw close to God on their own and in privacy. For the very absence of God as felt so keenly when Jesus ascended, enables a new form of presence.
Think back to that image of having to watch the person you love walking away from you - when they've gone you might feel bereft or lonely or sad. But soon you will construct that alternative, internalized picture of them which carries you forward and which has meaning. We should be able to do that with God. What is our internal image of God, the one which has meaning for us and works for us in moving us forward?
We also need to be scrupulously honest with ourselves when our God-staring becomes vacuous or simply a ruse to avoid doing God's work. You've heard the expression "she's so heavenly-minded, she's no earthly good!"? Jesus' ascension and departure from the disciples heralded a new era of activity for them - they had to get on with the business of forming and growing his church. We don't want a false piety from people who claim to be very God-centred but not very God-active. And we are, of course, given the Holy Spirit to help us here. The Holy Spirit is that internalised form of God which powers us to move forward and do God's work rather than staying in a place of sadness and mourning the loss of Jesus.
By all means let's encourage one another to be a God-staring people, focused on a clear image of our God which moves and inspires us. But let's also make sure we are an active people who see God everyday on earth and spread his gospel.