Reformation Sunday Resources

Preparing for Reformation Sunday? Some of these posts might be useful:

Here We Stand, For We Can Do No Other

Luther, Spong, Fox, and Holy Cross

Enough with “A Mighty Fortress” Already! Sing a New Song!

95 Theses for the Twenty-first Century

Freedom from What?  All this Reforming is Wearing Me Out!

What Darwin Never Knew

A Reformation Day Nailing to the Internet – John Shelby Spong

A Prayer for Reformation – Thomas Berry

“I Pray God, Rid Me of God” – sermons for Trinity Sunday

Eckhart rid me of GodMeister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church, so I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom

click on the sermon title

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity,

Our Congregations Shrink???

 

“Trinity: Image of the Community that is God” Desmond Tutu

The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity

Wolf Blitzer Learned that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes

Poor Old Nicodemus – Doomed to Play the Fool – John 3:1-17

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

Reformation Sunday Resources

semper reformanda

Preparing for Reformation Sunday? Some of these posts might be useful:

Luther, Spong, Fox, and Holy Cross

Enough with “A Mighty Fortress” Already! Sing a New Song!

95 Theses for the Twenty-first Century

Freedom from What?  All this Reforming is Wearing Me Out!

What Darwin Never Knew

A Reformation Day Nailing to the Internet – John Shelby Spong

A Prayer for Reformation – Thomas Berry

 

Wolf Blitzer Learned that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes! – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

Eckhart rid me of GodThis Trinity Sunday sermon owes much to John Shelby Spong’s book a “New Christianity for a New World” You can listen to the sermon here then watch the tail end of the Wolf Blitzer interview mentioned in the sermon.   

In the midst to the devastation and debris that was left of the town of More, Oklahoma, it was all to clear that the power of the tornado that whipped through such a heavily populated area had left behind the kind of destruction that tears not only the foundations of buildings but also of lives. In living rooms around the world millions of people watched as the news media descended on what was left in the wake of nature’s wrath. One particular news report is still reverberating around the Internet. I had just come from my office where I had spent the afternoon, reviewing the Doctrine of the Trinity in order to write this sermon. My wife Carol was in the kitchen cooking supper and I sat down to catch up on the news events of the day. I tuned into CNN and there amidst the rubble of More Oklahoma was the familiar face of Wolf Blitzer. It was the day after the tornado and the big name newscasters had been rushed to the scene in time to provide color-commentary on the evening news. Wolf was interviewing a young mother named Rebecca Vitsmun who was holding a squirming her 19 month old, toddler Anders in her arms. The young mother gave a blow-by-blow account of her narrow escape from. All afternoon Rebecca was paying attention to the weather reports. Rebecca was not from More, but rather from New Orleans and so she was not used to tornado warnings. She’d grown up with Hurricane warnings and so her first instinct was to evacuate the area. But her husband and neighbours had told her that the safest thing to do would be to take shelter. Six-teen minutes before the tornado struck the weather service issued a warning to take shelter. As Rebecca’s husband raced home from work, this young mother grabbed her laptop, a mattress and her toddler and took shelter in the bathtub. Huddled in the tub covered by a mattress she anxiously watched the reports on her laptop. Tracing the path of the tornado, Rebecca realized that the tornado was headed straight for her street. Rebecca’s New Orleans’ instinct kicked in and with her baby in her arms she jumped into her car and without taking time to put her baby in the car seat, she drove as fast as she could out on to the freeway where she pulled over and put Anders into his car seat and then drove some more. After the tornado, Rebecca reunited with her husband, and they headed back to what was left of their home. The bathtub was so full of debris that it was clear to them that Rebecca’s instincts had saved her life.

After telling her harrowing tale, Wolf Blitzer congratulated Rebecca for saving her baby’s life and then said to this young woman, “You gotta thank the Lord.” Rebecca was clearly taken aback by the comment and hesitated. I held my breath, annoyed as hell at Blitzer for asking such a stupid question. Rebecca’s hesitation gave Blitzer the opportunity to move on, but no he just had to have an answer, and so he persisted. “Do you thank the Lord?” Rebecca gave Blitzer the kind of look that says, “Are you kidding me?” Then Rebecca gave Blitzer an answer that he sure wasn’t expecting from an American from the heartland of Oklahoma; Rebecca smiled as she answered, “I’m actually an atheist.”

As Rebecca laughed awkwardly, I cheered so loudly that Carol came into the room to see what was going on. I was so proud of that young woman for not going along with Blitzer’s nonsense. Who in their right minds would believe in a Lord who would pluck one family out of a bathtub and let seven children die in an elementary school? I mean, if this Lord that Bilitzer is so willing to give credit too is such a great rescuer, why didn’t this Lord change the twister’s path and send it out over the cornfields where the only damage it could do would be to crops?

I know they say there are no atheists in fox-holes, but I for one think that that bathtub Rebecca was hunkered down in was indeed a fox-hole and I’m delighted that when all was said and done, she and little Anders were saved by her instinct for survival. As for this Lord of Blitzer’s, well, judging by the awkwardness that Blitzer exhibited after Rebecca stood her ground, I can only guess that this reporter misjudged the situation. Blitzer a city-slicker from New York, assumed that all the local yokels must be bible-thumping Christians, and he probably thought that his question would have received a mindless ra, ra, yeah God, kind of response from all Oklahomans. I trust he won’t make that mistake again. I kind of feel sorry for him, because after all it only took a few hours before some televangelist’s were suggesting that God did indeed send the tornado to teach people a lesson. According to some bible-thumpers, if people prayed hard enough they would have been saved. Some even went so far as to suggest that the tornado was punishment for gay marriage. Continue reading

One In God – a sermon for Easter 7C on Mothers’ Day

made of God Julian pastorDawn copyWith readings from Julian of Norwich, Julia Ward Howe and the Gospel according to John 17:20-26, our Mothers’ Day was infused by Sophia! I am indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic and John Philip Newell’s “Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for insights beyond my own imaginings.

Listen to the sermon here

         First Reading             Revelations of Love, by Julian of Norwich

                                                                 Chapter 26:

Again, our Lord showed himself to me, this time more glorious than I had seen him before.  I learned that our soul will never find rest until it comes to the fullness of Christ’s joy.

So Christ said, again and again,

“I AM the one.

I AM the one.

I AM the one most honoured.

I AM the one you love.

I AM the one you enjoy.

I AM the one you serve.

I AM the one you long for.

I AM the one you desire.

I AM the one you yearn for.

I AM the one who is everything.

I AM the one whom the holy church preaches and teaches.

I AM the one who showed myself to you.”

There were so many words, I couldn’t understand them all.  But the joy I had in listening to those words went far beyond anything I could think or desire.  I won’t try to explain them, but, as the grace of God gives you love and understanding, you will know what God means.

Second Reading                The Founder of Mothers’ Day

                                            Julia Ward Howe’s

                                            Mothers’ Day Proclamation   (1870)

 

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own.

It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.

Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

SERMON:

When I was just a kid, my mother would ask me a question that would be the beginning of a conversation, a routine of sorts that comes out of my Mom’s own childhood in Northern Ireland. The routine goes something like this. Mom would ask me: “How much do you love me?” and I would answer as I’d been taught to answer: “A big bag of sugar!” To which my Mom would reply, “I love you more, I love you two bags of sugar!” To which I would reply, that I loved my Mom, “Five big bags of sugar!”
Over the years I’ve met lots of people from Belfast who measure love in bags of sugar. As near as I can tell this loving conversation has something to do with sugar’s ability to make all things sweet and the fact that over the generations sugar was in short supply because most people simply couldn’t afford to buy sugar. I’ve also been told that during and after the two World Wars sugar was rationed, so a big bag of sugar was more sugar than most people ever saw. Sugar was a much sought after satisfying treat, that was essential to a happy life, so measuring love in bags of sugar is something that to this day, my great-nieces and nephews still learn from their elders. But these days even children know that sugar isn’t what it used to be. We all know too well the dangers of a big bag of sugar. Sugar in large quantities is bad for us! Loving someone today, often means limiting their sugar intake. I suspect that expressing love in terms of bags of sugar will soon go the way of Ring-around-the-rosie…while children still sing it they have no idea that it is all about the black plague that saw millions of children fall to their death…. Love measured in bags of sugar, like packets full of posey, is a thing of the past…vaguely remembered by only a few. Given a few generations and our ways of expressing things, like language changes over time.
Take for example our way of expressing the Divine, the Source of All that IS and all that Ever Shall be, the names we give to the ONE who is responsible for our Creation, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, the ONE we call God, has been known by many names over the centuries. The earliest name for the ONE credited with our Creation is quite simply “El”…”El” is if you will, the generic name for “God” El a word found in both the Ancient Sumerian and Canaanite languages translates as, god. In the ancient manuscripts of what we know call the Hebrew Scriptures, but our parents called the Old Testament, the earliest expression used for the God we were raised to worship is, El Shaddai, which is all too often incorrectly translated into English as God Almighty, but which quite literally translates into english as “breasted one” or the more accurate translation, “She Who Has Breasts”.
Elohim, often incorrectly translated as LORD, is the feminine plural word for “majesty”. El Shekinah, is the Ancient Hebrew expression for the presence of God, which quite literally means, “she who dwells among us”.
Chokhma is another Ancient Hebrew expression which was used to express the feminine spirit of the Divine which was later translated in to Greek as Sophia, we translate as Wisdom.
Ruach is the Ancient Hebrew way of expressing the very essence of God, in the Scriptures it is used in Genesis as the Ruach Elohim, which literally translates as the feminine, majestic “breath, wind, or spirit of God, which we now express as the Holy Spirit.
All these feminine ways of expressing what is meant by the word God, were supplemented with images of God as a mother eagle, a mother bear, a mother hen, a birthing mother, a suckling mother, a comforting mother, a woman in labour, and yes even as a woman looking for her lost coin; all these feminine ways of expressing the very nature of our God, were lost to us for generations. Slowly, we are rediscovering these old ways of understanding the nature of our God who is LOVE. LOVE infinitely sweeter than any old bag of sugar.
So, today as we read the words put into the mouth of Jesus by the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John, in which Jesus insists that he and God are ONE, I can’t help wondering about the ways in which this expression has changed over time. Our Gospel text this morning comes from what is commonly called Jesus’ farewell discourse or the High Priestly Prayer. The story-teller we call John puts Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane just before the events that happen on what we call Good Friday.
In this discourse Jesus prays for his followers, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all may be one, as you, Abba, are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me that they may be one, as we are one—I in them, you in me—that they may be made perfect in unity. Then the world will know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me.
That we may be ONE…so often this fervent prayer has been interpreted as a plea for unity.
Listen to what our friend Jack Spong has to say about the all too common ways this discourse has been used by Jesus’ followers: Jack writes: “The “high priestly prayer”..proceeds in three parts. The first is a prayer that Jesus utters for himself, the second is a prayer he prays for the disciples and the third is a prayer that is offered for those throughout history who will believe because of the witness of the disciples. The primary request in this prayer is that unity be achieved among believers. The desired outcome is not ecclesiastical unity,” (that is to say the unity of the church), which is how this prayer has been interpreted by the church. That interpretation, “that usage is always in the service of institutional power. Nor is it content or doctrinal unity, as various councils of the church have so often implied and sought to impose. It is not a unity imposed on any basis from outside the service of any agenda. No, the unity of which this prayer speaks is the oneness of the human with the divine that has been the constant theme of this gospel. It is the unity of the vine with the branches. That unity is found in understanding God, not as an external being, but as the essence of life. John even makes Jesus use the third-person name and title for himself to make his point: Unity comes in knowing “the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Word of God comes from God, reveals the meaning of God and returns to God. It is a mystical experience of oneness-not a oneness in which individuality is lost, but a oneness in which individuality is affirmed, security is surrendered and new being is entered.”
What our friend Jack Spong is trying to open us up to is the way in which Jesus followers understood Jesus to be opening humanity up to a new understanding of what it means to be human. A way of being in the world that understands our origins in the ONE, our existence as ONE, and our passage into the ONE. This radical expression of our humanity as being ONE with the divine, or seeing divinity in humanity changes everything. But most importantly, it changes the way in which we relate to God. God is no longer expressed as some far off distant super-natural being, but rather as an intimate, integral, being, in which we live and move and have our being.
I reminded you at the beginning of our worship that today is also the feast day of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century woman who understood this ONEness in the same radical way. Julian of Norwich insisted that we are not just created from afar by a distant Creator. We are born from the very womb of the divine. John Philip Newell writes of Julian: “This is why Julian so loves to refer to God as Mother as well as Father. She sees us as coming forth from the essence of the ONE who is the Source of all things. What does it mean that we are made of God rather than simply by God? In part it means that the wisdom of God is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done. It is to say that the creativity of God is deep within us, deeper than any barrenness in our lives or relationships, deeper than any endings in our families or our world. Within us—as a sheer gift of God—is the capacity to bring forth what has never been before, including what has never been imagined before. Above all else, as Julian says, the love-longings of God are at the heart of our being. We and all things have come forth from the ONE. Deep within us are holy, natural longings for oneness, primal sacred drives for union. We may live in tragic exile from these longings, or we may have spent a whole lifetime not knowing how to truly satisfy them, but they are there at the heart of our being, waiting to be born afresh.”
We are not just made by God, we are made of God. Think about it. You and I are made of God. When we begin to see our fellow human beings as ONE with God, this has profound implications for how we relate to one another. For as much as you do unto the least of these you do unto me. Jesus is teaching a whole new way of being in the world. Jesus knew this intimacy, this ONEness with God, and sought to instil the wisdom of this Unity, this divinity that finds expression in humanity, into his followers so that all would know the truth of our ONEness in the unity that finds expression in each of us.
The implications for how we live together are enormous. Bags and bags of sugar could not even begin to sweeten life in the way our ONEness with the LOVE that we call God offers to those who embrace this unity. God is not an external, distant entity; God is a life we enter, a love we share, the ground in which we are rooted. The call of Christ is not into religion, but into a new mystical oneness.
Jack Spong puts it this way: “The good news of the gospel, as John understands it, is not that you—a wretched, miserable, fallen sinner—have been rescued from your fate and saved from your deserved punishment by the invasive power of a supernatural, heroic God who came to your aid. Nowhere does John give credibility to the dreadful, guilt-producing and guis-filled mantra that “Jesus died for my sins.”
There is rather an incredible new insight into the meaning of life. We are not fallen; we are simply incomplete. We do not need to be rescued, but to experience the power of an all-embracing love.
Our call is not to be forgiven or even to be redeemed; it is to step beyond our limits into a new understanding of what it means to be human. It is to move from a status of self-consciousness to a realization that we share in a universal consciousness. John’s rendition of Jesus’ message is that the essence of life is discovered when one is free to give life away, that love is known in the act of loving and that the call of human life is to be all that each of us can be and then to be an agent of empowering others to be all that they can be.” Jack Spong, like Julian before him, like the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John, see in Jesus the expression of the ONEness of which we are made.
How much do I love you? Well lets just say that once, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child. But when I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Where once a bag of sugar, was enough to express my love, now I am beginning to understand that I was not just created by love, I am created of love, a love beyond my ability to imagine, a love in which I live and move and have my being.
The love that we call God, El Shaddai, the breasted one, Elohim, majesty, El Shekenia, She Who Dwells Among us, Sohpia, Wisdom, Mother of us all, Yahweh, I will be who I will be. The I AM, in which I live and move and have my being. And just as, if not more importantly, the I AM in which all humanity lives and moves and has being. The implications of this way of expressing Divinity and understanding humanity are as immense as the LOVE that makes us ONE. Amen.

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But last year I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson (formally of St Matthew-in-the-city, now serving Auckland Unitarians)  for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death. Continue reading

“I Pray God, Rid Me of God” – sermons for Trinity Sunday

Eckhart rid me of GodMeister Eckhart’s fervent plea: “I pray God, rid me of God” becomes a sort of mantra for me whenever the task of contemplating the Trinity rolls around on the liturgical calendar. Once again, I have failed to have the foresight to book my holidays so as to avoid the task of preaching on this festival of the church, so I find myself plumbing previous sermons in search of a way through the quagmire of doctrines which threaten to overcome even the most dedicated of preachers. I offer them here to my fellow preachers as my way of saying, “I pray God, rid me of God!!!” Shalom

click on the sermon title

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity,

Our Congregations Shrink???

“Trinity: Image of the Community that is God” Desmond Tutu

The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity

Wolf Blitzer Learned that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson, formerly of  St Matthew-in-the-city and now a minister at Auckland Unitarians, for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?           Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

Wolf Blitzer Learned that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes! – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

Eckhart rid me of GodThis Trinity Sunday sermon owes much to John Shelby Spong’s book a “New Christianity for a New World” You can listen to the sermon here then watch the tail end of the Wolf Blitzer interview mentioned in the sermon.   

In the midst to the devastation and debris that was left of the town of More, Oklahoma, it was all to clear that the power of the tornado that whipped through such a heavily populated area had left behind the kind of destruction that tears not only the foundations of buildings but also of lives. In living rooms around the world millions of people watched as the news media descended on what was left in the wake of nature’s wrath. One particular news report is still reverberating around the Internet. I had just come from my office where I had spent the afternoon, reviewing the Doctrine of the Trinity in order to write this sermon. My wife Carol was in the kitchen cooking supper and I sat down to catch up on the news events of the day. I tuned into CNN and there amidst the rubble of More Oklahoma was the familiar face of Wolf Blitzer. It was the day after the tornado and the big name newscasters had been rushed to the scene in time to provide color-commentary on the evening news. Wolf was interviewing a young mother named Rebecca Vitsmun who was holding a squirming her 19 month old, toddler Anders in her arms. The young mother gave a blow-by-blow account of her narrow escape from. All afternoon Rebecca was paying attention to the weather reports. Rebecca was not from More, but rather from New Orleans and so she was not used to tornado warnings. She’d grown up with Hurricane warnings and so her first instinct was to evacuate the area. But her husband and neighbours had told her that the safest thing to do would be to take shelter. Six-teen minutes before the tornado struck the weather service issued a warning to take shelter. As Rebecca’s husband raced home from work, this young mother grabbed her laptop, a mattress and her toddler and took shelter in the bathtub. Huddled in the tub covered by a mattress she anxiously watched the reports on her laptop. Tracing the path of the tornado, Rebecca realized that the tornado was headed straight for her street. Rebecca’s New Orleans’ instinct kicked in and with her baby in her arms she jumped into her car and without taking time to put her baby in the car seat, she drove as fast as she could out on to the freeway where she pulled over and put Anders into his car seat and then drove some more. After the tornado, Rebecca reunited with her husband, and they headed back to what was left of their home. The bathtub was so full of debris that it was clear to them that Rebecca’s instincts had saved her life.

After telling her harrowing tale, Wolf Blitzer congratulated Rebecca for saving her baby’s life and then said to this young woman, “You gotta thank the Lord.” Rebecca was clearly taken aback by the comment and hesitated. I held my breath, annoyed as hell at Blitzer for asking such a stupid question. Rebecca’s hesitation gave Blitzer the opportunity to move on, but no he just had to have an answer, and so he persisted. “Do you thank the Lord?” Rebecca gave Blitzer the kind of look that says, “Are you kidding me?” Then Rebecca gave Blitzer an answer that he sure wasn’t expecting from an American from the heartland of Oklahoma; Rebecca smiled as she answered, “I’m actually an atheist.”

As Rebecca laughed awkwardly, I cheered so loudly that Carol came into the room to see what was going on. I was so proud of that young woman for not going along with Blitzer’s nonsense. Who in their right minds would believe in a Lord who would pluck one family out of a bathtub and let seven children die in an elementary school? I mean, if this Lord that Bilitzer is so willing to give credit too is such a great rescuer, why didn’t this Lord change the twister’s path and send it out over the cornfields where the only damage it could do would be to crops?

I know they say there are no atheists in fox-holes, but I for one think that that bathtub Rebecca was hunkered down in was indeed a fox-hole and I’m delighted that when all was said and done, she and little Anders were saved by her instinct for survival. As for this Lord of Blitzer’s, well, judging by the awkwardness that Blitzer exhibited after Rebecca stood her ground, I can only guess that this reporter misjudged the situation. Blitzer a city-slicker from New York, assumed that all the local yokels must be bible-thumping Christians, and he probably thought that his question would have received a mindless ra, ra, yeah God, kind of response from all Oklahomans. I trust he won’t make that mistake again. I kind of feel sorry for him, because after all it only took a few hours before some televangelist’s were suggesting that God did indeed send the tornado to teach people a lesson. According to some bible-thumpers, if people prayed hard enough they would have been saved. Some even went so far as to suggest that the tornado was punishment for gay marriage. Continue reading

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

Wolf Blitzer Learns that there are Indeed Atheists in Fox-holes!

Eckhart rid me of GodToday’s Trinity Sunday sermon owes much to John Shelby Spong’s book a “New Christianity for a New World”

You can listen to the sermon here then watch the tail end of the Wolf Blitzer interview mentioned in the sermon.   

We sang Shadow and Substance as our Hymn of the Day: view it here

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But last year I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

God: A Changing Reality – John Shelby Spong

jack spongFrom the spirit-filled world of animism, through the tribalism of the patriarchs, the warnings of the prophets Jack Spong’s sermon examines our visions of God and demonstrates the journey from God as tribal god who orders genocide to the loving god who calls us to love our enemies. This sermon was preached at Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska on April 14, 2013.

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But last year I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here