Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 24 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
It’s an odd story, the Ascension, as we discussed on Thursday night—a story told only by the author of Luke/Acts, and by him in two slightly different versions; imagery which has led to some rather extraordinary Christian art featuring dangling Jesus-feet and heaven imagined as equivalent to outer space; and—incidentally, but I can’t help mentioning it—in the version we heard this morning, Luke’s rather grudging admission that the inner circle of Jesus’s friends also included “some women.”
But the Ascension, for all its oddness, and as much as we have to avoid taking it as anything like literal history, is a story which resonates with us, a kind of imagery which speaks to deep longings. Perhaps the most universal and inexorable force we experience in our lives is that unavoidable downward force of gravity. We dream of escaping that force, of soaring upwards, we tell fairy tales of flight. It is part of my family legend that I spent a good part of my childhood throwing myself from high places, determined to learn how to fly. I remember that; I remember, at some point, deciding that it was somehow about maintaining an absolute stillness within myself, a singular focus which would override that inevitable pull of the earth and allow me to float, weightless and free. But gravity, like mortality, continues unavoidable.
And so—and I will acknowledge that I owe this insight to Mother Andrea—when we try to imagine Christ’s divine life, that life which is not owed to death, which is free from our confinement in constructions of time and space, we come up with the image of a life free from gravity, and we picture Jesus rising up from the earth and into the air, our childhood dreams made concrete. And we imagine, perhaps, that in becoming a part of that life we will be somehow freed from gravity ourselves, will rise weightless in the air. We may not imagine this quite literally, but it shapes, nevertheless, our thinking about what life in Christ means. When we imagine angels, when we imagine the life of the world to come, we almost always imagine flying, weightlessness. And though there is truth in this, it is not the imagery of scripture. What we are shown in the Bible is the holy city coming down to the earth, the tree of life planted here in the earth. Angels walk on dirt roads and meet us here, and our destiny is not to leave it for an imaginary sky, but to inhabit an earth which is absolutely real and absolutely changed.
And we, smaller bodies that we are, we have our own specific gravity. We are drawn to one another, inevitably, inexorably, and it is from all these specific gravities that we acquire such weight and shape and meaning as we have. It is literally true, though on a tiny scale. On less literal levels, it is even more true. We are drawn to all the other bodies which inhabit our shared space, and they are drawn to us. Each human being is a demand upon on; each human being is an answer to our own demand. We are impossibly intertwined with each other; we are always drawing and being drawn, by those we love, by those we hate, by those we pass in the street, by all those who need us. We are connected by webs of gravity and love, and we cannot escape it, any more than we can escape the drawing of the earth which compels our bodies, or the desire of God which compels our souls.
It is a truth more poignant now when bodies cannot touch. It is painful both to remain alive to our need for other bodies, and to preserve the distance which is so important to their, and our, welfare. It is easier—it is all too easy, right now—to respond to other bodies only as threat, a thing to be avoided, especially when some of those around us seem quite unconcerned about the well-being of others; or else to imagine the risk away, to let ourselves forget that right now, the dense network of connection is, must be, sustained by six feet of distance. But this is our time, this is our task, to live in the hard gap between these evasions, to live out the demands of love in this moments.
As the disciples stand on the hill of the ascension, looking upwards, they are met by two men walking on earth, who tell them to stop staring into the fantastic sky. For their work in here, in the city of Jerusalem, the city where they have failed and been forgiven, and later in the other cities and towns and farms and lakeshores, among all the people who live there. We live within the network of obligations and desires and needs and gifts which flow from human existence. And God does not pull us out of this network, God does not divide us from gravity. God—even now, even in the strangest of times—enters the world of gravity, and makes what could be dumb automatic force into meaningful life.
This is part of the meaning of that complicated doctrine of the Trinity. This week, as for the last few weeks, the Gospel reading is a selection from the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, a piece of writing which is dense and abstract and sometimes repetitive, in part precisely because Jesus is trying to use human language to talk about things which are outside the boundaries of our full understanding. But one of the themes he comes back to regularly is his relationship with the God he calls Father. And one of the central truths contained in the doctrine of the Trinity is that God, the God who is both one and three, exists in relationship, by God’s own very nature. To put it in the terms of this metaphor we’re playing with now—God chooses gravity. The three persons of the Trinity exist in love and relationship, they exert that pull upon each other and move accordingly, they depend upon each other for their very meaning.
God is, of God’s very nature, an existence of love, relationship, and interdependence; the persons of the Trinity choose to need each other, to depend upon and be defined by each other, they choose to fall eternally towards each other, drawn by an engraced kind of gravity that is both inevitable and entirely free. As Christ in the incarnation chooses to enter the world of human gravity, to walk on this earth with human weight and connection and responsibility, and to take that knowledge of gravity into the heart of God. Those childhood dreams of flying are not wrong, exactly. They are a natural way for human creatures to imagine freedom. But unbounded freedom is not, finally, the nature of love. Love has weight. Right now, we must choose, out of love, to restrain our freedoms, to restrict our gathering as a community, to be alone on a summer day, to do without some of the things to which we have become accustomed, even some of the things we deeply and rightly need. We do this because we love each other, and that is never easy.
We submit ourselves to the gravity of this earth, the pull of it; we act it out by living on this earth as creatures who belong here, growing our gardens, holding space, walking mindfully, trying to live here kindly and well. We submit to the gravitational pull of the bodies around us, the hungry bodies wanting food, the lonely bodies wanting presence and attention, we search for ways to be what is needed even at a distance, for all those to whom we are drawn by affection or chance or need, that gravity the power of God for us. And in the weight, and in the falling, we must find our grace and our flight.