Posted by: owizblog | June 1, 2014

“Previously, on Luke-Acts…” Sermon, Ascension Sunday, UCB 1 June 2014

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Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24:44-53

I

Our readings today are unusual – at least, the first, from Acts, which you heard a moment ago, and the last, from Luke’s Gospel, which you haven’t heard yet, tell the same story. In fact, it’s the same story told by the same “author”, in the same work. It’s the story of the Ascension, of course, and of all the Gospels, only Luke tells it. Only Luke has the period after Easter divided up into a period of fifty days – and he divides that up into a period of forty days, during which the risen Christ is with the disciples in a very special way, teaching them, showing himself to them, taking them through an advanced course on How To Be The Church. (They’d had the beginners’ level courses, Who Is This? and What Happens Next? from Jesus over the whole period before Good Friday and Easter, when they were his disciples, when they were trying to work out who he was.)

So Luke has the disciples, the soon-to-be-Apostles, immersed in this transition from the past to whatever-the-future-held (“Lord,” they ask, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”) for this forty day period. Forty days; just like the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, just like the forty years Israel had been in the desert… Luke’s story is saturated in symbolism. And then, again unlike any of the other Gospels, Luke has a period of ten days of anxious waiting, before, after fifty days, we get to Pentecost, and the Spirit falls, and the disciples become Apostles, and the anxious, timid little huddle becomes the Church

Because on the fortieth day, the Thursday ten days before Pentecost – last Thursday, since Pentecost is next Sunday – Jesus goes away. He doesn’t just stop coming, stop appearing, stop being with them, as Luke depicts it, in an intensely real, physical way (and Luke stresses this in a way none of the other Gospels do.) He takes them to the Mount of Olives, takes his leave of them, and goes up, ascends, to heaven.

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II

Now this is one of those passages we really need to approach as adults. As a human race, we have lived on a spherical – or nearly spherical – earth for five centuries now. We are all used to pictures from space, showing the curvature of the earth. We use SatNav, we watch satellite TV, we look up at the moon and we see a rocky ball, 238, 000 miles away that human beings have stood on, and looked back, and covered the round blueness of the earth with their thumb, and seen the unglinting stars (because stars only twinkle for us because of the atmosphere) not as dots painted on the bowl of the sky, like the stars painted on the ceiling of the magnificent hall at Mount Stuart, which I was gazing up at from my seat at Julia and Neil’s Wedding Breakfast a week yesterday, but as points of light measuring the distance out to the edges of the galaxy, and beyond into an ocean of galaxies…

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And because we are adults, we know these things. And because we are adults, they don’t shake our faith. They certainly shake our small, paranoid parodies of faith, when we slip off into the belief that the world can’t be bigger than we can grasp, or we lose our grasp of God. They shake us out of that, into a larger faith, a faith that trusts in God’s grasp of us, of our place in the mystery, a faith that sits amid its questions, and asks them, and bears with them, and continues to trust…

It’s only from a faith like that that we can approach this story, which only Luke tells, but which he insists on telling twice. If we come at it in an infantile way, if we say “We can only understand it the way it’s written,” then as James Barr, the Oxford Biblical scholar, in his book on Fundamentalism insists, in a vast universe, billions of years old, strewn with galaxies millions of light-years apart, we are left asking questions like “How fast did Jesus go up?” and “How far up is heaven?”

Those aren’t the questions of faith.

We need to remember that this story isn’t just Luke’s understanding; it’s Luke’s understanding from decades after the event. That’s why Luke tells things differently. But he is still telling us something important, something we need to hear and know, in our twenty-first century lives, and in our life of faith.

What is it?

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III

“Previously, on The West Wing…”

If you watch those big serials, which the Americans have taught us to watch in “seasons” of “episodes”, with “story arcs” – themes which run across episodes, and whole seasons, and beyond – you’ll be used to words like those.

“Previously, on The West Wing…” says a portentous voice, usually a member of the cast, sounding stilted and unlike herself. “Previously on The Good Wife…”  “Previously, on Silk…

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And what follows those two words, “Previously on…” is a compilation of what happened, that you need to know in order to understand this episode. Series on television relate past to future, events to possibilities (and remember that scriptwriters will still be working on how the series unfolds while you are watching the latest episode) in ways that mirror life – our living in the real world, and how we understand it. Things we thought were over and done with suddenly come back, with a new meaning, a huge and unexpected salience. Things which were huge at the time sometimes – and this is where TV series differ from films, or “miniseries” or “feature-length” or one-off dramas – just peter out without explanation. A plotline fizzles out, and we forget it was ever there.

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If any of you watched that iconically wonderful, terrible soap opera Crossroads, set in a motel in the English Midlands, which taught us all how to do a Birmingham accent, you will remember characters such as Amy Turtle, or the simple, harmless Benny who did the odd jobs and gardening, or Shughie McPhee, (with the off-island Phee spelling) played by the wonderful Angus Lennie. You might also remember Glenda, the maid, played by Lynette McMorrough, who, so the story goes, left the series on maternity leave, and returned fourteen months later.

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In the laid-back days of seventies soap operas, Glenda was speaking to someone during an episode – if memory serves, it was the redoubtable Meg Richardson, owner of the motel (and that’s not Meg Richardson in that photo) – and excused herself to go to the bathroom. And she disappeared. There was no explanation of her absence, and nobody among the characters noted her disappearance, which wasn’t registered in the plotlines.

And fourteen months later, she emerged from the same bathroom, and simply resumed her place in the flow of the story as though she had never been away.

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IV

That’s practically the reverse of what happened with Patrick Duffy’s character, Bobby Ewing, in one series of the American soap Dallas. Bobby was killed off, and without him the series started to disintegrate. The viewers were enraged that a character they loved had been excised, and responded by not watching.

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The scriptwriters responded in a way you can only take once. Indeed, once they had resorted to this expedient, no other scriptwriters could ever resort to it again. At the very end of that season, Pamela Ewing, wife of the late Bobby, wakes up to the sound of someone taking a shower in her en-suite. There is no prior explanation for this, nothing to set up the scene in advance. She – and the much-diminished audience – can have no idea who this is. The water in the shower stops, and out steps – Bobby Ewing. Not just alive. Never dead. The whole of the series, the whole ill-conceived season which had wrought such havoc with the viewing figures, turns out in that instant to have been Pamela Ewing’s dream. It never happened!

I imagine that many cushions were thrown at television sets when that was first aired. I imagine that many televisions were broken by people not checking what it was they had in their hands, and were throwing at the screen.

But the effect of it was to take a giant ice-cream scoop to the history of the series, and to scoop out a huge amount of unliveable-with “Previously, on Dallas…”

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The French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard tells us that it’s a conceit of the age of modern science that we can do without stories, and story-telling. That belief, he says, is actually itself a Big Story – the story that science doesn’t tell stories, which is really a mask for the belief that science’s is the only story – and that’s a story itself. When we tell our stories, we pick things out that are important, and we leave out things that are not important, to the story we want to tell.

That’s what the writers of Crossroads were doing, when they left poor Glenda in the bathroom for fourteen months. For that period, she wasn’t important to the story, so they just stopped telling us about her.

That’s what the writers of Dallas were doing when they decided that the sad story of Bobby Ewing wasn’t just an embarrassment, it was jeopardizing the whole show. They cut it out, turned it into a dream, pretended it never happened.

V

But what Luke is doing here is the very opposite of that. He’s saying “Previously, in Luke…” “Previously, in the Jesus-and-the-Disciples story…”

There are things which are over and done with. Finished. And there are things which go on. Things which will continue to have their effect, even though they are over and done with, once-for-all, and there are things which continue.

The period of following, of watching and listening, of gauging this Jesus’ impact on people, and of asking what this might all mean – that’s over. That was then – but it explains who people are now, and why. “Previously, in Luke…”

The story of Holy Week, the trauma of arrest and crucifixion, the agony of contemplating their own responses, of flight, denial, panic, self-serving fear (all of which is more than understandable, by the way, even if it brings to the surface things people didn’t know or imagine about themselves) that, too, is all by. That’s history.

But so, too, is that initial impact of Easter. The astonishment, the vivid, overwhelming sense of presence, the unutterable thrill of living in a world in which nothing means what it used to, nothing weighs, and oppresses as it used to, nothing frightens as it used to – that’s by. Or is it?

Well, says Luke, bits of it are. But bits of it aren’t. This story arc hasn’t come to an end. In fact, this is the beginning of the new story arc, that’s going to take us into this new season, in which, based on what has happened, what’s over and done with, all sorts of new things can happen.

There’s continuity. And there’s a break.

That’s what this whole episode of the Ascension is about. It’s about the way in which things come to an end – the overwhelming sense of Jesus being there with them, the one who was gone, apparently gone forever, dead, back, and back not as a ghost, or a dream, back not to wake us from a nightmare and tell us that it never happened. Back and marked forever with the scars of the experience, now transformed into a story written on the body. That’s why the Christian tradition is so insistent that the Risen Body of Christ bears the marks of the crucifixion into all eternity.

“Previously, in the Gospel…”

We may wonder what that means. But there’s no doubt why we say it, as Christians. Life isn’t like that any more – but it’s still in touch with that, built on that, built on the earliest Church’s experience of the Resurrection, and its struggle to put the certainty, the world-inverting, all-transforming certainity of what it had experienced, into words.

This is Luke’s way of doing it.

John, for example, does it differently. Thomas missed the crucial episode. He needs a catch-up, because he doesn’t believe the plot-spoilers his friends have given him. So there he is, the following Sunday, and “Previously, on John…” Jesus appears. And Thomas catches up. “My Lord and my God…” And that’s the season finale. “Because you have seen and believed, people who haven’t seen, who weren’t here for this, will believe…” The new story arc will begin, based on a new “Previously, in John…” “Previously, in John, Thomas encountered, and believed…”

And now we do. The same pattern…

VI

This is Luke’s way of doing it. There’s an Ascension. A going away. The disciples totter up their equivalent of Canada Hill, to watch the Christ go away. And he does. And then they must go back down the hill, and resume their lives.

Without him?

No.

This is the beginning of the new story-arc, the preparation for what comes next. And what comes next, next week, is Pentecost. And we won’t understand that, won’t understand the Coming of the Spirit that brings us to, and brings to us, the Presence of the Risen Christ in this new way, without something that says “Previously, in Luke…”

And here we are, coming to the Table of the Lord. We who come from the plot-lines and the story-arcs of our own lives in the world, things which we have to live with for years, things which worry us for the future, things which we suddenly remember disappeared fourteen months ago, which we thought at the time were enormously important…

And we come here, to this story. “Previously, at the Communion Table…” Jesus said “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden…” “This is my body, broken for you…” “Do this for the remembrance of me, for the re-membering, the putting back together, of my story…” Because this is the story-arc that doesn’t come to an end this side of the Kingdom, the feast we shall eat anew in the Kingdom, with the Jesus who has gone from us into heaven, the Christ who is here with us by his Spirit…

Let’s hear the Gospel reading, which the Acts reading picks up on and develops: “Previously, in Luke…”

 


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