Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pentecost 7B - 40th anniversary of the first moon landing

I wonder whether you remember where you were forty years ago tomorrow - when you saw those first seconds of grainy black and white footage live from the moon?  I remember sitting, transfixed, in our lounge room in Cottesloe – I couldn’t tell you what time of day or night it was – living through one of the defining experiences of a generation.  In fact this is just about the most succinct definition of a baby-boomer – someone born after World War II who can remember the moon landing.

When I looked up some facts and figures the other day to refresh my memory, I discovered that the lunar landing module, appropriately enough named Eagle, landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining.  Armstrong and Aldrin only ventured outside their vehicle for 2 hours in total, and yet they sat in the tiny module on the surface of the moon for over 21 hours.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were terrified, as they sat there, that the pint-sized rocket in the lunar landing vehicle might not get them back up into orbit.

My memory of the moon landing goes back a year or two earlier, actually, to the dry runs and the fly-pasts made by both the American and the Soviet space programs, and I remember the mounting mood of competition as the Space Race reached its conclusion, but also the feeling, when it finally happened, that on this day, the whole world was holding its breath and willing the safety and the success of the Apollo mission. 

It was a defining moment – perhaps for a couple of reasons.  First, because it was audacious, and technologically brilliant.  The computer I used to write this sermon, believe it or not, is far and away superior to anything on that rocket ship.  And yet, right back then in the days of vacuum tubes and transistors, the human species, for a brief moment or two, inhabited two worlds.  And the other reason that made this moment remarkable is that – for, perhaps, an equally brief moment – humanity looked up in wonder.  The war raging in Vietnam didn’t stop, maybe it didn’t even pause.  The tensions of the Cold War didn’t relax.  But for a magic moment everything that divided and diminished our species was transcended.  We shared a cooperative and cosmic vision of ourselves as we might one day become.

It’s a vision that wouldn’t have surprised the first-century writer of the magnificent letter to the Ephesians.  Bible scholars these days talk about the so-called letters of Paul as representing not just the prodigious outpouring of Paul the Apostle himself, but of at least two generations of disciples.  Ephesians represents maybe the most mature development of the Pauline school’s reflection on the risen Christ, a reflection that by the time of this letter has become nothing less than cosmic in its scope.  Paul himself, in his letters to Rome and Corinth, developed an understanding of Christian life as somehow participating in the tangibly real life of the risen Christ, Christian life centred in Christ not just ethically but organically, almost physically.  You get the feeling that Paul is stretching the limits of his linguistic ability to describe salvation as an active process, not a passive waiting for the return of Jesus, or for whatever life beyond this one awaits us, but as a real and present participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a life in which we gradually grow into the new identity that Jesus’ resurrection has mapped out for us.  And then in the Letter to the Colossian Church, the writer takes Paul’s vision and drives it even further.  Jesus now is identified with the Jewish figure of Wisdom, who is with God in creation – a heavenly figure humbled in the act of creation, identified with the humiliated and crucified one raised and exalted by God – Jesus, in this vision, becomes the one through whom and for whom the entire universe is created.  Here the vision of Christ gets abruptly wider, becomes cosmic in scope – not only Christians but the whole of creation is envisaged as being on the move, all things being drawn together towards their final completion as a unified whole, centred on the risen Christ who the writer imagines as nothing less than the hub of the entire universe.

This vision was breathtaking enough in the universe that its writer inhabited – the universe of Greek astronomers like Ptolemy, who thought the earth was surrounded by the heavenly spheres, the orbits of the moving bodies, the planets, and beyond that the farthest sphere which was the orbit of the fixed stars.  The whole thing, when you add up all the numbers, was still pretty large, about 125 million miles across, but the point is that it was centred on us, on the sphere of human activity.  Paul’s disciple, maybe early in the second century, who described this cosmic vision of Christ was dreaming expansively, but his vision becomes even more stunning when we put it into the frame of the universe as we know it today.  Astronomers now complain that they can only see 13.2 billion light years, that’s about 80 billion, trillion, miles – not because their telescopes aren’t good enough but because that’s as far as the light that’s entering their instruments has been able to travel since the universe began.  Whatever’s further away than that, if anything, we have no way of knowing.  Yet even what we can see – the Hubble space telescope focussed recently on one little patch of sky the size of the moon and counted just in that tiny area no less than 10 million separate galaxies – each galaxy a cluster of 50 billion or so stars.

What does it all mean?  When the universe becomes this unimaginable, this terrifyingly beautiful and lonely and mind-numbingly vast, what does human life mean?  What is the context in which our lives are anchored?  And the writer of Colossians says, with what now looks like considerable understatement, the whole shebang finds its centre in Christ, the Wisdom of God, and all this is drawn together, transformed and fulfilled in Christ.

And this cosmic vision of Christ is the starting point for the Letter to the Ephesians.  Just the starting point!  We heard it last week in our reading: as the people of Christ we are not just observers, not just passive recipients of God’s grace but participants and confidants in the divine plan:

he has made known to us the mystery of his will ... a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

(Eph 1:9-10)


Because in the Letter to the Ephesians the cosmic vision of Paul is being brought to bear – on us.  And the writer reflects that the miracle of a universe that converges on the person of Christ – a universe that finds its consummation not in a meaningless ball of fire, or the Big Crunch that some physicists predict in another 14 billion years or so, but in a person who is love itself – that the miracle of cosmic convergence is the same thing as the miracle of reconciliation, because the closer we are drawn to Christ the closer we also drawn into the mystery of one another, and the more we realise that our own identity can only be worked out in relationship to one another.  And the Letter to the Ephesians reflects on the Church itself as the down-payment on and the catalyst for what is happening with the entire cosmos: ‘just look’, the writer says, ‘you were Jews and Gentiles, you were chalk and cheese, you were mutually incomprehensible to one another and at loggerheads, but you were also incomplete without each other, and now you are the Body of Christ.  The Berlin Wall of incomprehension that divided you has vanished.

It raises the bar a bit, especially when we reflect on the daily reality of a church that today is still just as torn by conflict and competitiveness as the churches St Paul wrote to.  We experience in our life together the clash and the contradiction between what we know ourselves to be, and what we are being transformed into.  For each of us, in our daily lives, it’s a work in progress.  And yet, in the view of the Letter to the Ephesians, the work of the Church is to be the body of Christ, the fullness of the one who is the fullness of creation (v.23).  Our practice of reconciliation, our painful first steps towards learning to take a wider view of the world and of ourselves, learning to look beyond individual differences, cultural and religious divisions to see brothers and sisters in Christ, our learning to see even the non-human creation as our own kin – all this is nothing less than the practice of transcendence, the practice of being Christ’s resurrection Self.

So what does this mean for us, as Christian men and women, as a parish church in Cannington?  We’re not in the business of flying to the moon – how does this cosmic perspective help us?  On three levels, I think.  Firstly on the level of spirituality.  Because if the crucified and risen Christ is the literal centre of the universe, and if all things, including we ourselves, find their end and their true home in Christ, then the universe itself is a sacrament.  We begin to recognise the brokenness of our world and our own shortcomings, our own failures and disappointments, as nothing less than the broken body of Christ.  It’s the miracle, in other words, of integration, of finding our true centre and our true direction.  Secondly, I think, on the level of ecology.  Because the perspective of Ephesians is the recognition that despite our differences, we belong together and are completed in one another.  And we discover the truth of that not just in the human creation but in the beauty and integrity of all creatures, animate and inanimate, that reflect the beauty of God.  It means that it matters how we live, it matters how we impact our natural environment.  And lastly, on the level of peace.  We can’t take this cosmic perspective of Christ without being peacemakers, without looking for reconciliation in our own lives and working for peace in the lives of others.

Ephesians, in other words, gives an answer to the question, ‘what’s church about?  Why do you come here?’   And the answer is: ‘because it makes a difference – it makes us look up in wonder – then it makes us look out in love.’