2 Kings 2: “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?”
Mark 16: “Proclaim the good news to all creation.”
In the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England, behind the High Altar, is a little chapel dedicated to the Ascension. In the ceiling is a plaster cloud, and embedded in the plaster cloud is a pair of plaster feet disappearing into the ceiling.
On the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem is an octagonal brick chapel inside a walled garden. When I went there, you got to it through a metal door on which someone had written an arrow in black felt-tip with the words “Ascension Place”. For a few shekels, the Muslim guide will point to a footprint once pressed in the wet cement and then up at the ceiling – “’E go up!”
It’s crude stuff. But it is very effective in making an important statement and asking a vital question. “Jesus is gone. Where is God?”
It seems to me that having an answer to this question is crucial for how we look at our own lives. It is crucial for how we behave towards others and how we minister to them. Having some sense of where God is and what God is doing will have a lot to do with whether our lives have any meaning. Do you think Christianity is the true religion? Do you think that people who aren’t Christians are somehow defective? Do you believe that Jesus Christ was the greatest philosopher who ever lived?
I just look at my week and wonder what any of it has to do with Jesus.
Sunday, I skipped Church because I had a plane to catch. I was off to Bloomington, Indiana, to spend Monday with a group of Episcopal bioethicists who have been commissioned by the Church to write a report on the “new genetics.”
I spent a chunk of Tuesday with a student, trying to figure out the math to help decide which 200 or so out of 6,500 genes were contributing to risk for prostate cancer.
I spent much of Wednesday at a urology clinic with about a dozen other middle-aged overweight men trying to find out whether I had prostate cancer myself. There are few places where you wonder where God is than in a urology clinic!
Thursday, Ascension Day, started with a faculty meeting. Faculty meetings, staff meetings. You name it. It is hard to find God in those most of the time. By lunchtime I was on the mezzanine at the Jefferson with two witnesses marrying two people very much in love who have lived together for twelve years and will probably never darken the door of a church. The wedding would make sure that the bride wouldn’t be deported back to England by the INS.
Friday night, we watched Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life.” In the last part, “Death” – dressed as the Grim Reaper – visits a dinner party where an obnoxious upper class British couple is entertaining some equally obnoxious American guests. Death tries to get a word in, but fails. Finally, in frustration, he points a bony finger at the most talkative American guest and says: “I hate you Americans. You never shut up.” Then he points at one of the Brits and says: “I hate you British. You are so pompous.”
Most of this seems very un-God. 90% of it is very un-Church. But lurking just below the surface of every moment from bioethics on Monday to Monty Python on Friday, is the question of meaning. How do I interpret my life? How do I interpret the enormous scientific and cultural changes around me? How do I interpret the lives of others who don’t share my religious convictions? How do I understand my own dying? How do I interpret my work? The people I work with? The list is endless. They are all questions of meaning. They come up every moment. Ultimately, they are all theological questions. They all hinge on how we understand God.
Back in 1966 I met one of my first Americans. I was at seminary. We were visited by a young woman seminarian from the States. She was loud and opinionated. Today, I would recognize her instantly as a Yankie. But thirty-five years ago all Americans sounded the same. She told me she didn’t believe in the resurrection. I said to her piously “If you don’t believe in the resurrection, what do you say to a dying man?” I remember her answer to this day. “Tell him a dirty joke and let him die laughing.”
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mark is different. He simply says: “Proclaim the good news to all creation.”
I prefer Mark. He is less in your face, more realistic. He speaks to me much more where I am in my life and ministry. It seems to speak of a God who is already out there, of a victory that has really been won. Mark says to me “Look, God is already there. Find him. Seek him where he is. Love him where he already is. Don’t be afraid.” My neighbor’s life is real and unique and God given and just as rich and messy as mine just the way it is.
That young American seminarian had begun to discover in her 20’s what has taken me another 35 years to begin to learn. The good news comes in all shapes and sizes. The good news is often incarnate before we show up with our bibles and prattle about God. The gospel respects the shape and integrity of the person.
I have two lists of clergy. There’s an A list and a B list. The A list are clergy I want to visit me when I am dying. The B list has the ones who have O.D’d on religion and want to pray all over me. I know what’s it’s like. I’ve spent time in the hospital. Of course, who can really say what you will need when the time comes. But there are some Christians, clergy included, who have the religious subtlety of ghetto-blasters. When I’m scared, maybe I will be glad to settle for a gentle hand and a dirty joke. That may be the form in which the incarnate God reaches out to me. Who can tell?
It is part of the genius of God that he got rid of Jesus by taking him into heaven on Ascension Day. Having revealed himself to us as utterly and completely present, it as if God now says, “OK. Now you know what I’m like and what I’m up to, get on with it.”
Today, we are poised between Ascension and Pentecost. Our lives are lived between the past of Jesus and the future of the Spirit. We live between God showing himself as present in a particular human life and the day of the Spirit when the whole of creation will vibrate visibly with the fire of divine love.
God’s future starts as we wrestle with the new technologies. It begins as we understand the mystery of creation. It starts as we live with our mortality and the reality of our bodies starting to creak and fall apart. It starts on the mezzanine of the Jefferson with two people whose lives show love incarnate. It starts whenever we ask the question of meaning.
If there is a God, then God is hidden. Jesus has gone. But the good news, if there is any good news, is that God is hidden. That is what makes life livable. That is what lets us dream of a new heaven and a new earth.
I was recently at a workshop led by an Episcopal priest turned Roman Catholic sociologist. He said that the resurrection was one of the best-attested events in history. I was probably a bit irritated that someone with half a brain could ever leave the Episcopal Church, so I may have been a bit more touchy than usual. Anyhow, for whatever reason, I answered: “Look, all sorts of ridiculous stories can take on a life of their own in culture. It’s only taken a hundred and fifty years for Mormonism to catch on. Who says we are any different?” At which point, someone else said. “If you believe that, what do you say to a dying man?”