June 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Sunday after Ascension
Texts: Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
Theme: Whether you are using these readings, or those set for Ascension Day itself, the theme must surely be something to do with the Ascension. It depends, therefore, on what you make of the Ascension; do you wish to skip quietly around it on the ground that to express belief in it can be almost as embarrassing as professing faith in the Virgin Birth; or having come this far through the Easter Season without flinching over the resurrection, do you intend to stand firm and stick to the doctrines of the faith as this church has received them? Perhaps it would be wise to adopt the phraseology our Lord himself used, and go for "Returning to the Father", or some variation of that. I have more and more a sense of the whole drama of Christ's death and resurrection coming to a final glorious conclusion with the Ascension, and perhaps something like "The Grand Finale" might appeal – although there is a sequel to come, of course. I am taking a slightly different approach: I have spent most of this Easter Season "re-pondering" the Fourth Gospel, and recognising the need for a new term to describe the Christ I have found in that work. So my theme this week is "The Bi-Natural Christ".
Introduction. There is no need to stress again that only Luke has a clear account of the Ascension. We begin this week with his description of the Ascension in the Book of Acts, but it is little more than a re-working of the last few verses of his gospel. Our reading from Peter shows the reality of life for the believers who are suffering persecution for their faith in Christ. John's "Farewell Discourses" reach their own glorious climax with Christ's high priestly prayer, including its astonishing description of the transformed disciples. Once again, if we are to take the encouragement intended to be offered here, we will have to abandon our obsession with chronology.
Background. We hear a lot about biculturalism these days, but very little about what it means. If our aim is to build a "bicultural" society", what would that look like? Is that something different from "bi-ethnic" or "bi-national"? And if we bring it down to the individual level, what do we mean by a bicultural individual (assuming we mean something by that term)? Does it mean a Maori who is thoroughly grounded in Maoritanga and fully at ease in the Pakeha world – or a pakeha who is fully at ease in the Maori world? Or does it mean a person who claims/owns two cultures equally and refuses to identify with only one?
Well, calm down because this is not the place to pursue such issues, and I'm not going to do so. I'm using the term "bicultural" only to give you some idea of what I mean when I describe the Christ of John's gospel as "bi-natural". It is, of course, orthodox theology to proclaim that Christ has two natures, meaning that he is fully human and fully divine; but where does such theology come alive? Where does it help us to understand Christ better? And my answer to that is in the first half of John's gospel. Think yet again of the marvellous encounters between Jesus and Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and others. Jesus "operates" out of both of his natures – but the person he is talking with does not. He/or she operates only out of his/her human nature. Just as we might say of a bicultural person, that person is at home in both cultures, so we can say of Jesus he is at home in both "realms" – the material and the spiritual.
Perhaps I can make a little clearer what I'm trying to say with another analogy. Think of a person who is bi-lingual: let's say she speaks Russian and French with equal fluency. If she is speaking to a French person she speaks French; if to a Russian person, she speaks Russian. It makes no difference to her, but it would make a huge difference to the person she is speaking to if she suddenly switched to her other language. Now apply that example to Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus. If Jesus spoke only Aramaic and Nicodemus spoke only Greek, they would have great difficulty in understanding each other. In fact, Jesus spoke the language of the Spirit while Nicodemus spoke the language of the world, so they had great difficulty in understanding each other.
Of course, we cannot push the analogy too far. This is not a problem to be solved by translation from one language into the other. The things of the Spirit require their own language: they cannot be communicated accurately in, or translated into, the language of the world. To understand Jesus, Nicodemus would have to learn the language of the Spirit. So, of course, must we. Hence we must look to the Spirit to lead us into all truth. That surely is one thing we can say with confidence as we read these difficult texts: until the Spirit came, Jesus' disciples were no more capable of understanding him than Nicodemus was. There was a "language barrier".
Now this is where my speculations may plunge into heresy, so brace yourself. The idea of Christ's two natures – or his bi-naturalism, as I am now calling it – may give us a picture of two natures complete and distinct from the beginning subsisting within the one body. But let's think for a moment about his birth, or, more correctly, I suppose, his conception. Is the incarnation to be understood as involving a separate entity (his spiritual nature) being placed alongside his physical nature, or is it the entry of the Spirit into the physical – the material of which his body is being made? Could it be then, as he grows physically, so the Spirit becomes more and more manifested in him – his physical body – the matter of which he is made – becomes more and more "spiritualised"?
Until "a tipping point" is reached at his baptism, symbolised by the descent upon him of the Spirit and the words of divine love from above. Only at that point is he sufficiently bi-natural to undertake the mission for which the Father has sent him into the world, the mission, of course, to bring the whole creation back to God who is Spirit. At his death on the cross he commends his spirit into the Father's hands, and dies. Three days later he is raised (by the Spirit) from the dead, and appears in a very different form which we might well describe as a "spiritualised body". He is then "seen" to ascend to the Father and disappear from our sight. From then on he is with us as Holy Spirit (Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ).
So perhaps the Ascension is the "completion" of the incarnation that began with Christ's conception? (Matter is ultimately fully spiritualised: how else could it become one with the Father who is Spirit?) And perhaps it is even more. I have long thought that a better name for the Ascension would be the Transcension, because in it Christ transcends all human particularities. This is definitely heretical – I have that on the assurance of the former Professor of Systematic Theology at Otago University – but I continue to believe it. Briefly, the argument here goes like this. Jesus was a certain height with a certain complexion. We could have said of him that he was, say, 179 centimetres tall, with black hair and beard, brown eyes and a sallow complexion. But can we say the same of the ascended and glorified Christ – the cosmic Christ? Would that make sense? Now comes the tough bit: Jesus was Jewish and male: can we say the same of the ascended and glorified Christ, the cosmic Christ?
In my view we can't: in the Ascension, in his return to the Father, he transcended all such particularities: male and female, Jew and Gentile, free and slave, all such particularities are transcended in and by the cosmic Christ through whom all things return to the Father.
And a final thought for now: if not the Ascension, what? For the story of Jesus without the Ascension read again the closing paragraph of Matthew's gospel. Is that any easier to explain – whatever your choice of language?
Acts. Did you notice the wonderful start of this passage! Never mind that there is no suggestion of this conversation in the relevant verses at the end of Luke's gospel. (Perhaps he has done further research.) Here again (verses 6-7) is a reminder that the disciples have still not got the real message. Two other quick observations. Christ has just commissioned them to be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth"; but the angels address them as "men of Galilee". They have a long way to go in both senses of that expression. Secondly, perhaps the message is don't stand there looking at the departing Christ: look forward to the time when he will return.
Taking It Personally.
· What is your take on the Ascension? Do you find it embarrassing? Should the Church "play it down", or should we seek to understand it more?
· Does the argument set out above make any sense to you or does it just add to the confusion? Does the meaning of the Ascension have any relevance to your day-to-day life of faith?
· Does the concept of "bi-naturalism" have any appeal for you? Does the idea of a different "language" for spiritual truth make any sense? Does it help to explain why the language of the Fourth Gospel is so different from the other three?
· Try using this model on one of the stories (Nicodemus, etc) and see if it helps to illustrate what is going on in the story.
· Spend some time each day in prayer as you prepare for Pentecost.
Peter. This is a very pastoral passage; the emphasis seems to have changed from telling believers how to behave, to reassuring and encouraging them in their sufferings. The idea of sharing in Christ's sufferings may not sound right to us today; perhaps better to say that they are suffering as he did and for the same reason. But they are also reminded that the Spirit of God is resting on them, and ultimately God will vindicate them. On that assurance they must base their hope, and stand firm in the faith.
Taking It Personally.
· Have you suffered for your faith? What in this passage would you find particularly helpful in such a situation?
· Pray for people who are being persecuted for their faith. Use this passage as a template for that prayer.
· When have you been most aware of the Holy Spirit resting on you?
John. There is probably no point in denying that this wonderful "prayer" does not sound like a prayer that Jesus would have addressed to Abba on the night before he died. Verses 1-5 sound like a theological statement of John's thinking up to that point. Apart from anything else, Jesus refers to himself as the Son in verse 1, and as Jesus Christ in verse 3, before reverting to the first person plural in verses 4-5. But many key theological ideas are summarised in this passage, including glorification, eternal life, authority, and mission, and ending with the clearest possible assertion of the doctrine of the pre-existent Christ. As mentioned above, verses 6-8 cannot really be a description of the state of the apostles' understanding of Jesus on the night before he died: that has got to be post-Pentecost, to put it very mildly. It is when the prayer becomes noticeably intercessory that it begins to sound more like Jesus – more like the prayer of a Good Shepherd concerned with the welfare of his flock.
Taking It Personally.
· The whole chapter is presented as one prayer, but in the content can be divided into three parts. Jesus prays for himself, then for his disciples, and then for those who will come to faith after them. What do you make of the fact that Jesus prayer for himself first?
· Are you more inclined to pray for others before yourself? Why?
· Read verse 9 slowly. Notice how the prayer "discriminates" between believers and others. What do you make of that?
· Now read verse 11. Jesus asks the Father to protect his disciples, but from what? It appears that he is more concerned about their unity than their physical well-being. What do you make of that?
· Do you pray regularly for the protection of your faith community from the threat of disunity?
· Right now, what is your most heartfelt desire? Pray accordingly.