Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 6-19.
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).
Some of you may know that I regularly take primary school assemblies for a neighbouring parish. I’ve got one this coming week, so I went online to find a visual aid to help children understand this Gospel passage.
I found this.
You take a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom (made visible with food colouring) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. This shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.
The script says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world, as he is.
Like any sensible teacher, I tried it out at home first! Lessons and assemblies can be ruined by visual aids that don’t do what they are supposed to do! And this turned out to be one of them! Once they are vigorously mixed up the oil and the water don’t ever separate completely. Bits of the oil stay caught in the water, and the food colouring in the water permanently stains the oil.
I was quite relieved that it didn’t work, actually; as I’d thought about this illustration, I had questions in my mind about the theology behind it.
The first question is about a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world, a view which tends to come particularly to the fore when we use the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.
I’ve read several comments this week about seeing the Ascension as the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a divine being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to his home in heaven, to reign with God. So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world.
This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into heresy, especially Docetism which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and so couldn’t be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world, and implies Jesus left the human part of himself behind when he ascended.
Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, wrote a blog which challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news. The way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail we all follow towards our destiny. The Ascension illuminates our present humanity.
He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:
He has raised our human nature
in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
there with him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension
we by faith behold our own.
This is an interpretation of the meaning of the Ascension which is much more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition than in the Western Church. Instead of seeing Jesus coming into the world to rescue fallen humanity, then returning to his natural home with God in heaven, it sees Jesus as raising humanity with himself to its natural home in Heaven with God at the Ascension, thus uniting earth and heaven, humanity and divinity. The word the Eastern Church uses for ‘salvation’ – theiosis = divinization – strongly expresses this belief.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians shares a similar idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate in order ultimately to escape from the world?
In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. Groups like the
desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist all modern inventions.
Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.
The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.
But are there limits to that?
Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of where this tension had to be worked out; and the question marks continue, particularly at the moment over the issue of how far homosexual relationships are acceptable in Christians.
One group thinks (to quote a previous Archbishop of Sydney) “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”
Others (including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, Jeffrey John) would argue that in fully accepting both gay and straight people into the church on equal terms we are following Christ’s example of placing love and faithfulness as the defining characteristics of the Kingdom, rather than making rules and regulations which exclude people.
How can we judge which one of these approaches is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?
It is not an easy judgement to make. It involves listening to the Spirit speaking to us through the Scriptures, but also through the community of those who follow Jesus, both throughout history but also in the contemporary world. It involves judgements about what best reflects the love and glory of God, what most inspires human beings to grow into their true destiny as children of God, and what limits and diminishes the humanity of individuals or whole groups of people.
It involves trying to decide what the writer of John’s Gospel meant by ‘the world’. I don’t think the writer meant the created world – Christians are not Gnostics who believe that the created world is inherently evil. I am convinced that for this writer ‘the world’ meant everything that obstructs God’s purpose for us, the purpose which Jesus demonstrated in his life, everything that prevents us from enjoying that oneness with God and each other that Jesus showed to us.
If that is the truth that Jesus came to show us, this farewell discourse doesn’t point us to a church which is other-worldly; it doesn’t point us to a church waiting to fulfil its destiny in another dimension, after death or after the Last Judgement. It points us to a church which is fully involved with everyday life, bringing to it a life rooted in and sustained by the love of God, recognising and nurturing the seeds of the divine in others, a church which is the vanguard of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises human society today and always.
Yes, Christians and the Church are meant to be different from those aspects of ‘the world’ which are hostile to God; but they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, who embodies God’s Truth and God’s Word and whose glory is destined to fill the world.
The ascended Christ, human and divine, eternally one with the God who is the ground of our being, invites us, his body, to continue his work in his beloved world, sharing the Way of Truth and Life which leads to perfected humanity, and raises us all to share in God’s glory.
But this is a daunting prospect. We would often far rather not ascend with Christ to a life of holiness, preferring to live on in the dark aspects of the world, isolated from one another and from God.
So, may the Holy Spirit, whose work we celebrate next Sunday, call us, strengthen us and inspire us to follow Christ in the way he pioneered.
Let us pray:
God our Father,
make us joyful
in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ.
Ascended Christ, present at all times and in all places, make us brave in following your way;
Holy Spirit, guide us as we follow Christ into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope.
We ask this in his name and for his sake.