Saturday, June 25, 2011

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

When I was a kid, we had a big red book with black and white illustrations in it, called Fairy Tales for Children.  Every now and then my sister and I would get it out and read some of the stories, and it’d never fail to scare us out of our wits.  Fairy Tales for Children, indeed!  Fairy Tales for Scaring Children Witless and Making Them Do What They’re Told, more like it.  Do you remember Rumpelstiltskin?  First the loving father drops his daughter in it by telling the greedy king, oh, yes, she knows how to spin straw into gold – with the predictable consequence that things are going to look a bit bleak for her if she doesn’t – and then this dreadful little deity Rumpelsiltskin turns up and offers to do the job for her, on condition that once she’s married the king (a fairly dubious honour in itself), she has to turn over her first child to Rumpelstiltskin.  Well in this story the miller’s daughter comes off best because she has a good network of spies and they uncover the secret of Rumplelstiltskin’s unlikely name.  And if little children can go to sleep after that bed-time story, good luck to them.

But it has a certain energy, doesn’t it? Someone told me recently this sort of story is like an onion – you peel off one layer of meaning and find a whole other layer underneath, and then you peel that off and so on.  At the most obvious level there’s the rags-to-riches story with a slightly sinister warning that there’s always a price to pay.  But underneath that is where it starts to resonate with some of our deepest desires and our darkest fears, the troubling undercurrent of child abuse that maybe echoes our culture’s ambivalence towards children, the fearful image of malevolent magic that maybe conceals some of our ambivalence about God and about the basic goodness of God’s world.  Good thing Rumplestiltskin isn’t in the Bible.

Except, of course, he is.  Like the miller’s daughter, Abraham today has to make good on his side of the bargain, Abraham has to sacrifice his only son to an arbitrary and frightening God.  It’s one of the stories in the Bible we wish wasn’t there. Not the only one, by any means.  Stories of rape and genocide, of racism and betrayal – many of them stories we never read in church and certainly don’t want to read at home.  Stories that suggest that God commends this sort of behaviour or worse, that God even commands it, that God inspires the darkest and most violent human passions.  Stories that we should read with a shudder, because it isn’t too great a distance between the fall of Jericho and the 9/11 fall of the Twin Towers, between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the sexual abuse of children in our own society.  A common Christian interpretation of these stories is that this was God’s old way of doing business, the old deal that was replaced by the new deal in Jesus Christ. 

But some of these stories won’t go away quite so easily, and the call to sacrifice Isaac is one of them.  A story that has become so deeply embedded in the Christian psyche that it is one of the readings set for the Easter Vigil every year when we remind ourselves of the story of God’s saving acts among humanity.  A story that in some versions of Christian theology is seen as a pre-figuring of the sacrificial death of Jesus himself.

This story is terrifying. This story paints a very disturbing portrait of God. This story says that God tells an old man to murder his own son, simply to see what the old man will do. On the face of it, such a God could never be the source and model of our ethics, such a cruel and manipulative God would not be worthy of our worship.  Any person who behaved the way God does in this story would be locked up.  This is one of the stories that Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible calls a ‘text of terror’, and with good reason.  But at the same time we know that at some deep level it rings true, at some level it’s telling us something important about who we are, and about who God is.  It’s a story that won’t go away.

But, what does it mean for us?

The first thing, I think, is that it raises a necessary suspicion.  Is God really telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or is that just what Abraham thinks God is saying?  I have to admit, I often get suspicious when I hear people saying, without any apparent doubt about it, that God told me such-and-such.  How do you know that’s what God is saying to you?  Is it possible that God gets the blame - or the credit – a lot of the time for things that human beings want and human beings decide?  So I don’t think I can fall for the story-teller’s line that God told this to Abraham, it simply doesn’t match what I know about the God who created us for love and in love – but I don’t have any trouble believing that that’s what Abraham thought he was hearing. 

Because we know that child sacrifice did happen in ancient Israel:

·       we read in 1 Kings chapter 16 of two kings of Israel who sacrificed their own sons in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle,

·       in Judges chapter 11 we read the dreadful story of the sacrifice to Yahweh of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. 

·       in the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, the prophet finds it necessary to  remind the people that God does not require child sacrifice but justice, kindness and humility. 

And I think that in this story from Genesis what we are witnessing is a turning point in the development of human ethics and spirituality.  A coming to understanding of what God is like, and of what it means to be human.  As with all developmental turning points, the understanding comes painfully.  In the story of Abraham and Isaac we see the coming to understanding that the sacrifice of children is inconsistent with God’s character and God’s priorities.  And it’s a story that is important for us, because it rings true with our own living memory, with our own history which includes the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the forced separation of child migrants.  Our shameful and ungenerous mistreatment of asylum seekers, with the incarceration of vulnerable men, women and children behind razor wire in the most inhospitable parts of our continent.  And it reminds us of shameful episodes in our own history as a Church, the present history of the cover-up of child sexual abuse – and the coming to understanding that is still reverberating through the Church that the protection of vulnerable people and children is more important than the pretence of holiness or the protection of our own privilege.  The Abraham story reminds us that being God’s people means continually having to learn and reassess our own ethical practices against our experience of the holiness of God.

Even today we still don’t hear God clearly.  Even today, Christians find it hard to agree on what God is saying to us.  Even today, there are Christians who believe that God requires us to act in ways that are cruel and fanatical, or that offend against common standards of decency and fairness.  And sometimes what we ourselves think we hear God saying to us or demanding of us seems downright contradictory - outrageous, terrifying, or even unfair.  And perhaps because God does sometimes seem like that to us, there’s a disturbing sense in which this story rings true for us. 

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about it.  If our relationship with God is a real relationship – a relationship that demands first place in our lives – then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that we find ourselves struggling with divided loyalties, trying to negotiate our way through a minefield of unreasonable expectations, misunderstandings and mixed messages. 

And so, when it comes to listening to God, and trying to work out what God is saying to us and how God is leading us in our lives – what the Church calls discernment – the history of Christian spirituality lays down some wise guidelines.  If God is telling me something, calling me in some way, then it’s likely I’m not the only one who can hear God’s voice.  And so the practice of discernment is best done in company, by seeking the counsel of a trusted and holy friend.  In prayer and integrity, by holding what we think God is telling us up to the standard of the scriptures.  Is what we hear God telling us, consistent with the way of forgiveness and love that we see modelled in Jesus of Nazareth?  Does it serve our own purposes, or is it for the good of our brothers and sisters?  Following the leading of God – God’s true leading – is never the easy or self-serving option.

But scary as it is, this story also contains the promise that God’s apparently unreasonable demands will not destroy us.  When it comes down to it, Abraham obeys God – but not blindly, because by this time of his life he has learned that God can be relied on – that God can be trusted.  When we learn to step out of our personal comfort zones, our lives become richer and fuller and more alive than ever.  When as God’s church we learn to trust in the future and not cling to the past, then God’s promises can come true in us.  Because the God who demands that we sacrifice our certainties, our security and even our greatest treasure, promises to be with us every step of the way.  Because the Incarnate God who comes among us and shares our lives with us, the God who sacrifices for us, can be trusted.



Saturday, June 18, 2011


In his autobiographical novel, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, the celebrated Irish writer James Joyce talks about his childhood religious education.  Joyce describes a childhood that was a mixture of grinding poverty and humour, a family life dominated by alcohol abuse, hunger and Latin verbs, and the wild delight of discovering sex and Irish folklore – and the time a hapless young priest tried to explain to his class of adolescent boys about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  It being Ireland, St Patrick was the ultimate authority.  Aware, perhaps, that his explanation wasn’t deeply helpful, the priest explained that God was like a shamrock, the Irish white clover leaf, also a sure-fire protection against snakes since St Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland.  I actually read the other day that St Patrick’s explanation of the Trinity remains one of the best there is, so there you have it.  God is like a clover leaf, unless you’re unlucky enough to find a four-leafed one, and then you’ll just have to settle for a leprechaun and a bag of gold.

Since before recorded history, men and women have wanted to know what God is like, or what the gods are like, and have painted or sculpted or drawn their gods on the walls of caves not, I think, because they made the mistake of confusing their own handiwork for the divine but because they sought reassurance that – whoever or whatever God was – that the mysterious life of God was somehow connected with their own life, that the force that moved the stars and sent the seasons, the sun and rain that determined the growth of crops and set the seasons also of human life was not arbitrary or malicious but familiar and domestic, or at least approachable.  Anthropologists believe that the primitive deities we still find scratched or painted on the walls of caves represent the earliest attempts at theology, the attempt to understand and so to limit, control and domesticate what our ancient ancestors experienced as mysterious and terrifying.

Our reading from Exodus tells of the second attempt by Moses to take delivery of the gift of the Law, the gift of the template for how to live in life-giving connection with the source of all life.  The first set of tablets lie smashed, as on his return from the mountain Moses finds the people partying, led by Moses’ own brother, Aaron the priest, who has got them all to melt down their golden trinkets to make a calf that they can worship.  The God that Moses has introduced them is too scary, known as much by his absence as by his presence, hidden in the clouds that ring the tops of the mountains and speaking in the rumble of an active volcano.  The people want something at once more tangible and more familiar.  No doubt they don’t think the golden image of a calf that they themselves made is an actual god, but like all good nomads they yearn for a god who will guarantee the fertility of cattle.  We smile at this, but the truth of course is that we ourselves routinely make gods of our own obsessions, we make a fetish of youth and idealised images of beauty, of money and power, we escape into the fantasy of movies or look for security in material objects or medical technology in order to distract ourselves from our awareness of our own fragility and foolishness and ultimate mortality.

There is even a Christian equivalent of melting down our jewellery to make a golden calf, and it can be quite seductive.  When we get more attached to our own religiousity than to God, when our religion becomes less about God and more about defending the right beliefs or the right way to celebrate the sacraments, having the right traditions or singing the right hymns – then our religion can become a sort of golden calf of our own making and we lose sight of who God is, and who we ourselves are.  Even the intellectual pursuit of theologians trying to explain God as a Trinity of three persons becomes idolatrous, when we get so attached to our own creations, our own words, that we forget our awe for the God who is deeper than the mystery of our own existence.

So Moses cuts two new stone tablets and climbs back up the mountain, into the silence and darkness of God, and he waits for God’s self-revelation.  This is where we sometimes find ourselves, at defining, powerful moments of our lives, when we face a difficult choice or a terrifying outcome.  And the deepest wisdom tells us that at such times we need to embrace the silence and the apparent absence of God, and to wait in silence for the one who speaks out of the emptiness.

The people of Israel wanted to know what God was like, they wanted to know whether God could be trusted, whether God was reliable, and they were always looking for evidence that God was really there for them.  And at first they thought that God was a god of the trackless desert, or a god of war or of fertility who could be appeased and cajoled.  And Moses, who waits in the darkness for God, hears God’s name: the name that Moses hears in the rumbling of the mountain, the name that the Hebrew tradition refuses to write in full or to speak out loud. “I am”.

God is the one who is, the one who is at the heart of the universe, and at the centre of who we ourselves are.  The heart of existence is God, God is being itself.  Perhaps it’s just symptomatic of the modern tragedy of self-cancellation that atheism – actually a fairly recent trend, as these things go – manages the grand oxymoron of asserting that the ground of all being – is not.

But what sort of deity is this “I am”?  And God proclaims to Moses what sort of deity the people of Israel were to expect – through his love for all that is, God transcends their tribal and all our own self-serving categories.  The one who is at the heart of all that is – is compassion.  God reveals himself – or herself, or itself – Godself – as steadfast love and faithfulness.  The heart of the universe, of all that is – is love.  Reality, then, is to be understood as fundamentally good, not hostile or capricious or meaningless or cold – because the underlying logic and structure of the universe is love.  Which, when you are wandering in the trackless desert, as the Israelites were, or when the bottom falls out of your world, as it does for each of us some time, is deeply reassuring.  God, the fabric and design of all that is – is love.  To know this – deeply and certainly – orients us, puts us right way up.  To know this about God is to know that our lives matter, and that it matters what we do with them.  To know that the God who is the ground of our own being – is love – gives us the courage to act in ways that are loving even when we feel frail or foolish or defensive.

It seems to me that the point of Christianity has never been to define God out by tricky doctrinal axioms, or to prove God’s existence, but simply to experience God. The only question that matters is the same question it always has been: how do we know God? Where do we find the courage to live and the strength to love? How can we be at home in the vastness of the universe and be confident that our lives have meaning?

If we wander outside at night on a crystal evening and look up, there are stars and constellations and meteors, there is a sliver of moon, and Mars and the Milky Way, the great belt of our own galaxy of which we are on the very tail end. And this is just the infinitesimally tiny part of the universe we can actually see, ours is just one of between 50 and 100 billion other galaxies.  What about the dark depths of space above our heads and under our feet, the unknowable heavens that, as the psalmist reminds us, are like God?

Because in the part we cannot see, in all that lovely black non-empty sky, beyond the stars and Milky Way, there is still God by all the names we know him – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Energy, Wisdom, Light, Justice, Hope, Perfection. In all that we see and know, and in all that remains a mystery to us, there is God, hidden, yet eternal.

There is both a smallness to us human beings, and a largeness. The smallness is our finite existence, our self-centred lives, but our largeness is the capacity to dream and imagine and ask questions that transcend our own limitations.  The more we open ourselves to the largeness of our own selves, the deeper we are drawn into the mystery of God whom we find to be – if not comprehensible – a satisfactory answer to all our questions.

And yes, if we look carefully – we do see God in a three-leafed clover.



Saturday, June 11, 2011


One of my bug-bears is special effects.  In movies, I mean.  Because I think we have got so used to whizz-bang special effects, we’ve come to expect them so much and look forward to the next movie that promises special effects that are so amazing, so sensational and improbable that we’ve started to let Hollywood get away with dishing us up movies that don’t even have a proper story.  Reviewers seem to spend more time discussing the technical wizardry of a movie’s special effects than what it means or what it might be saying about modern life.  We’ve fallen for the lie that amazing car chases and explosions and animated monsters are what makes a movie special, not a strong story line and psychological tension and good acting.  Of course there’s no going back – I remember a couple of years ago trying to watch the old Charlton Heston version of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea – towering walls of water on either side and the people hurrying across the sea bed with fearful looks over their shoulders at the Egyptian chariots back on the beach – only trouble was you could actually see the line where the two strips of celluloid were glued together.  We’ve got too sophisticated to be taken in by the tricks of yesteryear.

Pentecost – Luke’s flashy lights and mirrors version of it at any rate – is big on special effects.  And, like Cecil B. de Mille, the special effects are looking a bit clunky by today’s standards.  Hollywood could do it way better.  And like special effects in movieland, these ones can get in the way of paying attention to the story.  You might have even been to a church service at Pentecost where they had red balloons or strips of crepe paper hanging from the ceiling, you might have even seen a flame font which I’m assured you can make quite easily out of naphthalene and rubbing alcohol, and no doubt you’ve been to Pentecost services where people got up and prayed or read the Bible in their own languages and even though most of the rest of us didn’t understand what the words meant we got the point.  But if we go home with our heads full of images like this and tut-tutting because the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to make a grand entrance like that any more – if all we really notice about Pentecost is the special effects then we’ve way missed the point.

So we start back at the beginning and ask ourselves what it means. 

Pentecost, as the name suggests, has got something to do with the number five – and in fact it is fifty days after – not Easter, because it isn’t a Christian festival, it’s a Jewish one – fifty days after the festival of Passover.  Where Passover is the celebration and remembering of God’s saving action in bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt, after the Charlton Heston moment, they come to Mt Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments.  That’s what Pentecost celebrates, or to give it its proper Jewish name, Shavuot, the celebration of the gift of the Law.  So our Christian festival of Pentecost has got this foundation, which is the Jewish story of the liberation of God’s people – the gift of freedom, and the gift of the Law which is freedom to really live.

And the two are connected, because having been freed from slavery in Egypt, the next question is: well, now what?  Now we are free, what are we going to do?  How are we going to live?  And the Ten Commandments answer that question by giving clear, concrete descriptions of how to live as God intends: with joy and justice, service and contentment, duty and delight. At Passover we gain our freedom to live, at Shavuot we gain the knowledge of how to live well.

And the number fifty doesn’t just come from nowhere, it contains a message.  The Book of the Law takes the Sabbath observance of the fourth Commandment and drives it further – every seventh year would be a year of Sabbath rest for the land, which was to be allowed to lie fallow and rest, and after a Sabbath of Sabbath years – that is after seven times seven, the fiftieth year would be a year of Jubilee - the forgiveness of all debts; the return of all land to the original holders; and release of those who had sold themselves into slavery for the payment of debts. [1] The memory of this Jubilee Year echoes in the Jewish festival of Pentecost.

So Luke’s story of the Pentecost miracle builds on exactly the same themes.  We begin with freedom from slavery; we come to learning how to live in freedom and right relations with each other and with all creation.  Fifty days ago, in the Passover of our Lord from death to life, we were set free from slavery to false and limiting self-images, from slavery to oppressive and unjust images of one another.  Our Christian Passover celebrates that release from slavery, but we forget it too quickly – already we have forgotten the light of Easter and like the disciples fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, we meander and fall back into old patterns of self-pity and self-indulgence.  Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the template for how to live, the Torah which the Jewish people understand as the Wisdom of God, the Holy Spirit that not only animates us, but teaches and inspires us to live the way of freedom into which we have been given entry.

But we are not just flapping canvas sails waiting listlessly for the puff of wind that is the Holy Spirit to start pushing us along.  The image in St Luke’s account of the fire of Pentecost is not about passively waiting for God’s next good thing, but about animating us to accept the vocation of being the next good thing ourselves.  In St John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the helper, the Spirit of truth, in other words the Spirit that challenges us and prepares us to recognise and live into the truth about ourselves.  And we get some hints in the story, in what happens to the Christian community when the Spirit goes to work among them.

For a start, the visual image Luke uses is of tongues of fire, accompanied by a sound like wind.  We don’t need to take the metaphor literally to understand that we ourselves use language like this, for example when we talk about somebody who is energetic and motivated having fire in their belly, somebody who is lazy needing to have a fire lit underneath them.  This is get moving language.  Churches who are on fire for the Gospel, churches who live their vocation of proclaiming the good news they believe in, are filled with people who are passionate about what they believe and who want to share it with others because the only way the fire is going to rest on us is if we provide it with fuel and oxygen, if we fan it into life and keep it moving.  The Holy Spirit rests on us if we are prepared to live like people who are on fire.

Secondly, the languages thing.  It’s not quite the same as glossolalia, people apparently talking in languages that nobody understands.  The miracle of Pentecost is exactly the opposite, the miracle of people making sense.  People hearing themselves addressed in their own tongue, in the language they learned at their mothers’ knee – the miracle not of incomprehensibility but of comprehensibility.  And there are two implications here – the first is that the Church on which the Holy Spirit rests makes sense.  That we learn to how to speak into the lives of men and women in a way that they recognise as true and coherent, that we learn, in other words, how to talk about the truth of the gospel in a way that is actually relevant to the lives of people around us.  We learn how to translate, if you like, the truth we have discovered in the Gospel so that it makes sense to people who come here desperate to hear it.

And the second implication?  Is that everybody’s voice is heard.  As Peter says in the reading from Acts, quoting the prophet Joel, your teenagers will see visions and your old age pensioners will dream dreams, even the outcasts, the unimportant and the excluded ones amongst you will prophesy.  In a Church filled with the Holy Spirit, young people and old people, rich people and poor people, unimportant and disabled people, clever people and unintelligent people are heard because it is understood that God speaks through them.  And that by listening to one another we learn how to be God’s people.

And there is one more thing, something we didn’t hear in the reading from Acts because the lectionary writers cut it short but the very next thing that happens in the story – which is that people listened to the Gospel that the Spirit-filled apostles were preaching, and their lives were changed.  And it says, verse 42 onwards, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts”.

Funny thing is, when people talk about reading the Bible literally, verses like this one aren’t the ones they generally quote.  Even though Jesus says it too, “if you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven – and then come, follow me”. [2]

And we make excuses, we say, well, they were simpler times.  They didn’t have inflation, back then.  They didn’t have .... well actually, they didn’t have a whole lot of things we take for granted.  But the point is, that a Church that is filled with the Holy Spirit is a Church filled with the Spirit of generosity.  A Spirit-filled Church is a Church full of people who find joy in giving because they understand that the blessings of the Holy Spirit are only blessings if they are shared.  If we understand the Holy Spirit to be about joy and exuberance and talking in different languages but fail to recognise that it is about what we do with our money and our time and our energy – then we sadly miss the point.

We might not want to be in a Spirit-filled Church.  Nobody forces us to be, whether or not we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit is totally up to us.  Most of the seven churches described in the first three chapters of the Revelation of St John were anything but Spirit-filled.  A lot of the time the Church seems to be about affirming the status quo, rather than about transformation.  We can choose to be like that.

Or we can pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can talk about what it might do among us here, in Cannington, we can learn to recognise the tell-tale signs of its presence – and we can take the risk of allowing it to transform our lives together.

I tell you what, it beats red balloons.


[1] Leviticus 25.8ff

[2] Mtt 19.21

Saturday, June 04, 2011


I think most Christians today, if someone was to ask them, what was really important about last Thursday, might reply – um, not much. And yet – according to St Augustine the Feast of the Ascension – which is traditionally celebrated 40 days after Easter Day – is the crown of the Christian year, representing as it does the triumph and glorification of the risen Christ.  These days we give the Ascension a quick nod as we make our way from the season Easter to Pentecost and the long green season of ‘Ordinary’ Sundays – I think modern Christians are a little perplexed and possibly even a little bit embarrassed by its clunky literalism and its unabashed triumphalism.  It was only a couple of weeks ago, you might remember, that we were solemnly assured by Harold Camping that proper Christians would defy gravity on May 21st and slide gracefully up to heaven accompanied apparently by the corpses of long-dead proper Christians who would be rejuvenated on arrival.  It was never, unfortunately, properly explained which way up actually is – if it’s above your head when you are standing in North America then for antipodean Christians it’s somewhere down there – but in any event the date came and went with no mass departures of Christians orbiting the planet a few times before presumably heading off somewhere in the direction of Saturn or Jupiter and beyond.

Which of course is half the problem for modern, scientifically savvy Christians – we no longer know how to take this kind of stuff seriously, if our sense of what’s realistic no longer allows us to take it literally.  And for Christians all too aware of the Church’s failure in recent centuries to provide a moral compass or to coherently proclaim the truth or even to agree consistently on anything much – the image of the exalted Christ and by implication the glorious Church can be a bit hard to swallow.

And yet, I suggest, the Feast of the Ascension is every bit as important as St Augustine thought it was.  Because – well, to borrow another space-travel idea – the ascension represents the apogee of the gospel – the farthest point of an orbit of a satellite before it changes direction, perhaps springboarding off the gravitational pull of a planet to gather speed for its rush into the depths of space.  Ascension is a turning point for what it means to be a disciple, from focusing on our own life and our own community as followers of Jesus to looking outwards to the needs of the world, recognising that we have been empowered and commissioned for a task and pausing briefly before getting on with it.

Part of the key to understanding this is to remind ourselves that Luke the Evangelist wrote his story in two parts – the Gospel that bears his name is just part one of Luke’s good news, and it’s just the first half of the orbit, the meteoric rush of Jesus’  life and ministry which begins and ends in Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles is the second half, the turning of the story which tells of the gospel flowing outwards from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.  In the Gospel, the great Temple in Jerusalem is like the centre of the orbit, everything is pulled back to the centre.  The gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies, where the angel Gabriel appears with the news that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s elderly wife would soon give birth. The son born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is the forerunner, John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke keeps returning to the temple - for Jesus’ naming, and for his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple, including in the fateful last week of his life.  Finally the gospel ends with the verse, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”

Then in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then the story veers outwards in a dramatic arc, like a satellite that uses a planet’s gravity as a springboard to propel it out to the farthest reaches of the solar system.  The gospel drives the early Church outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not exactly to the ends of the earth, at least to the centre of Empire, to Rome and beyond.  And along with the journeys of Peter and the other apostles, we get Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the Apostle.

In Luke’s Gospel, everything is focused on what it means to be a Christian community, on what it means to be a disciple.  In Acts, the community of followers that hardly has even had time yet to realise that it is a community is shot out from the centre point.  Pentecost is going to come like a third-stage rocket, that catches the spaceship at the farthest point of its orbit and magnifies the pull of gravity to accelerate it toward the stars.  Ascension Day is the apogee, the pause point that holds those two halves of the story together. This is where the inward focus turns and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus begins.  Or to put it another way, this is where the reflective, contemplative part of the cycle of Christian life morphs into the active spirituality and Christian vocation of service.

Acknowledging that for some the claims of Jesus floating upwards on a cloud are too much to take seriously, while for other Christians the idea of Jesus literally defying gravity aren’t necessarily out of the question – the real challenge of Ascension, I suggest, is to focus on what it means – and what it accomplishes.  Jesus’ followers – whether they thought they were ready for it or not - were in the process of becoming apostles, which means people who are sent - and for that to happen they needed Jesus to leave - so that they would stop hanging around and get on with the job.  As sustained and challenged and reassured and forgiven as they were by being the community of Jesus’ disciples, the time had come when what they now needed was to let go of a particular experience of Jesus so they could get on with doing what the community actually existed to do.

And Ascension Day works.  With Jesus departure – however that happened – the disciples become apostles.  They stop looking for Jesus here or there, and they began to pray for the Holy Spirit – the spirit of Christ who would be with them always in a new way. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.

So the point of Ascension Day is that it re-focuses us, it forces us to ask ourselves whether we have accepted the vocation of sharing God’s love that we find in Jesus with a broken and confused world, or whether we behave more like a club that exists mainly for the purpose of reassuring and serving its own members.  Because for us to be a Church means that what we are actually here for is to strengthen and encourage one another to take part in Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.  The Church exists to further God’s mission – which is the reconciling the world to God – and to be a Christian is to be a missionary, which means to be a person who sees their vocation as enacting and proclaiming the love of God in everything you do and even, as St Francis put it, from time to time in words.

This need to turn outward is so crucial, that maybe at the end of every Eucharist someone should say to us, “Women and men of Cannington, why are you standing around looking up toward heaven?”  Because these words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples’ gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission.

Actually, we do hear those words, or something like them, at the end of every Eucharist, in the dismissal when the LA says to us: “Go in the peace of Christ”.  It’s not just the welcome end of a long dull service.  It is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar – that place where we last encountered Jesus.  The dismissal we hear at the end of every Eucharist is a reminder that while the worship is finished for today, the service of the week ahead is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.

The circumstances and the pattern of our lives are different, our weekly journeys take us to different places and different people, even different cultures and ways of life, before we meet back here again next week.  But we have one common task, which is to give flesh and blood to the love of God that we have known in Jesus Christ, to allow God’s love access to every corner of God’s earth that we travel to this week – and if necessary – yes – to talk about it.

This is the transformation of Ascension Day. Our weekly orbit has reached its apogee.  In a few minutes, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Then we leave this place to begin to fulfill the mission of the Church in the unique journey that every one of us undertakes in the week ahead.  Today is the day for turning our eyes outward, for changing our focus from seeing Jesus to seeing Christ in the needs of the world around us.  And to make a fresh start in loving and in service.