SERMON: Being in Limbo

Being in Limbo

A sermon preached at St.Mary’s, Iffley

by Anthony Phillips on 13 May 2018

From to-day’s Gospel: ‘As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world’.  This Sunday we are in a kind of limbo created by Luke whose Gospel the Church has chosen to follow so celebrating the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost as three separate events played out over fifty days.  Had the church followed John, we would have celebrated all three feasts on one day.

John’s narrative is highly dramatic. It is early in the morning still dark.  Mary Magdalen has discovered the empty tomb and brought Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved to see it for themselves – the linen burial clothes neatly folded, but the body gone.  Then the two disciples went to their homes ‘for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’. What point was there in hanging round an empty tomb?  

But Mary stayed behind weeping. In the darkness she again looks into the tomb and sees two angels, but although they express concern for her, ‘Why are you weeping?’, they do not help. Sixth sense makes her turn round.  There in the shadows is a man who asks the same question.  She thinks it is the gardener who has taken the body away.  But one word from him is enough: ‘Mary’.  ‘Rabboni’ she replies.

The narrator does not tell us what happened next.   He leaves us to imagine it – imagine what Mary must have felt confronted by her teacher alive. Clearly she attempted to embrace him, but Jesus repels her: Do not touch me, for I have not yetascended to my Father’.  She who thought he was lost to her for ever wants now to hang on to him, enjoy that safety his body gives her.  

But that is not to be.  That is not the way of discipleship.  She can indeed only enjoy his presence by letting go, so that he may ascend to his Father and as the risen and ascended Christ give to his disciples his Spirit.  So that same evening he comes through locked doors and commissions them repeating what he had said before his death: ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you’.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them saying: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

The resurrection and ascension of our Lord is not then to be reduced to the kind of ‘he lived happily ever after’ ending of a Cartland novel. For the commission to the disciples lurking behind closed doors is a commissioning to enter into the same pattern of ministry as was our Lord’s – a sharing in his death and resurrection – a dying to live.  The four Gospels are in their different ways meditations on the death of Christ and how his disciples are to embrace for themselves that death, make it their own. Only in that way will they be able to show forth that love which is to be the hallmark of the new Israel.  What distinguishes Christian vocation from any other vocation is that total abandonment to the way of love which is the way of the cross.

The Christian then is called to renounce the world not in the sense that he turns his back on it – far from it.  But he renounces the world in the sense that he neither possesses nor is possessed by it.  He both surrenders his power over the world and the power which the world exercises over him.  

This is the issue facing the rich young man who came to Jesus for spiritual help. But Jesus is not thinking of the poor when he tells the rich young man to sell all that he has and give to the poor: he is thinking of the young man possessing and protected by his riches. It is with the demand for absolute abandonment which Jesus faces the youth whom he loved, a spiritual nakedness which the boy dare not embrace.  As a good Jew, the young man by obeying the ethical demands of the law would in any event have shown concern for the poor.  But Jesus is after another poverty.  Blessed are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Denied all earthly power, the true disciple, empowered by the Spirit, is freed to be his master’s love.

If then you wish to be one with the risen and ascended Christ, then you cannot be conformed or conform to this world.  But paradoxically the faithful disciple does not forsake his fellow men and women.  Freed from the thraldom of the prince of this world, the disciple brings to men and women that costly love symbolised by that cross which marked him or her at baptism.  There is no way round the cross: the only way is through it.  The whole meaning of the encounter with the rich young man is that by refusing Jesus’ invitation to dispossess himself, he fails as a man.  The challenge which Jesus poses is a challenge to assume our true humanity neither possessed nor possessing but naked and unashamed as God intended in our creation, a nakedness which we ever after seek to cover up. Christ’s call to his disciples is a spiritual vision which challenges every man in his manhood, every woman in her womanhood.

‘Do not touch me’.  The feast of the ascension demands anew that we let go of all that prevents us being truly ourselves, independent to be truly human, let go above all of everything that prevents us participating in the mystery of love.  The grace which Christ gives us is not some external gift which we can enjoy as much of or as little of as we like: it is the internal presence of that love made possible only by taking into ourselves the brokenness of his body, drinking the cup of his passion and death.  That is what it means to join in this love feast.  

‘Do not touch me’.  Mary Magdalen lets her Lord go.  In freeing him, he frees her to be him in his world in which his lordship is not yet acknowledged but which his ascension assures.  But it can only be acknowledged in so far as those whom he challenges are prepared to assume their full humanity, a humanity which depends for nothing, is secured by nothing, is controlled by nothing other than the cross of passion whose blood warms the heart to love.

‘As thou did send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world’.  Whew!