13 May 2018 – 7th Sunday of Easter – 10.00am – Parish Eucharist – Revd Michael Camp
Of all the events in the Gospels, the Ascension must rank among the most awesome and the most mysterious, and the most questionable. The idea of Jesus shooting upwards into the sky is frankly preposterous is it not? Now I’m quite sure that God is perfectly capable of doing preposterous things if he wants to but I do wonder what this particular one says to us.
Let’s think for a moment about what the Ascension is. There is a practical necessity about the Ascension. Once Jesus’ body is raised from the dead there needs to be some way of explaining how he comes not to be still walking the earth. More than that though, the Ascension speaks of the conclusion of the incarnation; it reveals Jesus as king; it is about Jesus returning to his Father in heaven; but it raises for me all sorts of questions about what we believe about heaven.
Do we believe that heaven is a place that is physically up in the sky beyond the clouds? Do we believe that we can get to heaven simply by going upwards? I don’t think we do, do we? The people of Jesus’ day undoubtedly did, but I don’t, and so for me the idea of Jesus returning to heaven by going physically upwards is not particularly helpful.
OK, maybe that’s a bit shocking, sorry if it is; but you’ll be pleased to know that my heresy doesn’t extend to junking the Ascension story completely because the element in the story which does seems to me to be absolutely helpful and entirely appropriate is the cloud.
All through the Old Testament the idea of a cloud is symbol of God. When Moses went up Mt Sinai to meet with God the top of the mountain was covered with cloud; when the Israelites were tramping through the desert God led them and the narrative tells us that he appeared to them in a pillar of cloud.
Clouds, clouds and clouds. God always appears in a cloud. And that’s really important because of course it underlines the sense of mystery around God.
When we try to describe God we are limited aren’t we? Speaking of God is like trying to describe something which is enveloped in cloud; when we try to visualise God we can’t because he is shrouded in a cloud of mystery and we simply cannot discern any clear shape to God. We trust that he ‘is’ and we declare, and live by, that faith, but when it comes to anything more specific our imagination; our vision; our powers of description are clouded in mystery.
So the idea of a cloud was an absolutely brilliant image to represent God and it was a stroke of genius by whichever Old Testament writer it was who came up with it. In the Ascension story it is the cloud that tells us that this is a story about Jesus returning to his heavenly Father; a cloud that tells us that this is a story about Jesus entering heaven so my advice is not to worry too much about the vertical movement but do focus on the cloud. That’s where to find God.
I want to tell you a bit, now, about a very great medieval book about prayer. This book is called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. It dates from the late 14th century so that’s thirteen something and it’s totally anonymous, we haven’t a clue who wrote it. What we do know is that it was someone who had spent a good deal of time in prayer; someone who was a great mystic; someone who had the great gift if being able to put into words what it was like to devote oneself to prayer and just how difficult it could be.
It’s important to remember that prayer is not easy. Prayer can be hard work and very often it can seem like a thankless task. Very often in prayer you can feel like it’s not achieving anything at all; that there’s some kind of barrier; that it’s all pointless. But at times like that remember that prayer is not there to make you feel that you’re achieving something; prayer is not there to make you feel better or to give you rewards or to make you feel virtuous because you’re working hard at it. Prayer is there to keep you close to the eternal God and to make you more loving like he is. What’s important in prayer is not getting answers, but just being faithful and just doing it.
Anyway, back to ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. The author picks up on that Old Testament idea of God being represented by a cloud and he says that what we need to understand is that that cloud is more or less impenetrable. There will be times when the smoke seems to clear and times when you come to a new insight about God; there will be times when you feel you’ve had a clear vision; and when you feel you’ve felt something of the love of God or understood something new but your relationship with God will always be cloudy. Here’s the nub of it though. What the writer of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ says is that you must never stop hammering on that cloud with your prayers. You must pierce that cloud of unknowing with a dart of longing love. That’s his great phrase ‘A dart of longing love.’
Your prayers, says the writer of this great book are darts of longing love. You pray because you love God and you long to be with him; you pray because you know God to be the eternal truth of all there is and you long to be part of that. Our prayer is not about asking for stuff or seeking enlightenment; our prayer must simply be about longing for God and about loving God and it is only though loving God and absolutely longing for him that you will really come to understand him. In the end being a friend of Jesus is about love and it’s only through love that we shall come to know God who is love.
If you’ve ever been separated from the person you love or the thing you love doing you will know what that longing is about. You must long for God and your prayers must be about loving God and if they are they will become sharp darts of longing love and they are the only things that can pierce that mysterious cloud of unknowing.
That I think is the message of that wonderful book “The Cloud of Unknowing” and I commend it to you. It’s only short and its pretty accessible.
Now, all this talk of prayer brings me back to the story of the Ascension which we celebrated on Thursday.
In our Gospel reading today we heard part of chapter 17 of John’s Gospel and in that chapter we heard Jesus praying and we heard him say some strange words. He said “I am no longer in the world; they are in the world and I am coming to you.” This is part of St.John’s account of the last supper; Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and he has said all sorts of things to them in what theologians call his farewell discourse; this is Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples. Now in chapter 17 he turns his attention away from the disciples and he starts talking to God; he starts praying. Jesus relationship with his Father is so intimate that you get the sense that in this prayer he has already gone to heaven he is already with the Father. Of course Jesus and the Father are one and here in this chapter we see Father and Son together in prayer and in Jesus’ mind and in his heart as he prays are the disciples he has chosen to be with him. In other words he is praying for them; indeed, he’s not only praying for them but he’s praying or us too. That’s what intercessory prayer is; it is about being with God with a person on your heart. Jesus is with God and he has us on his heart; he is praying for us. He is longing for that intimate loving union with his father and in that longing love he is piercing the cloud of unknowing and he’s praying for us to do likewise.
I wonder whether you can remember from Thursday’s readings what the disciples did after Jesus left them. I’m sure you can. After the Ascension they returned to Jerusalem and they prayed. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that they devoted themselves constantly to prayer. In other words, they had seen Jesus leave and be enveloped in the cloud of mystery and unknowing and they went straight into prayer just as Jesus himself did and just as the writer of the cloud of unknowing tells us to do. They didn’t just say a prayer; they absolutely and constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
And that’s what we’re doing at the moment isn’t it? Thy Kingdom Come is a worldwide initiative of constant prayer by Christian people. Just like those disciples, we are following Ascension Day with nine days of prayer and we’re now three days into it. There are six more to go and then we shall celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And what we are to do during those nine days is simply to be with God; we are to long for God; we are to yearn for our relationship with God to be deeper; we are to express our love for God and to tell him every day that we love him, that’s what our prayer is for. In those prayers we shall be doing the same as Jesus did, and we heard it in our Gospel reading this morning. We shall be doing the same as the disciples did, and we heard that in the story of the Ascension on Thursday; we shall be doing the same as the writer of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ did and we shall be piercing that cloud of mystery around God with darts of longing love. As we show our love for God let us pray that we shall find his love growing in our hearts.
As we join our brothers and sisters around the world in those prayers, in our hearts and minds will be some particular people. I hope you have your little leather thong with its five knots in. Each day spend some time longing for God and expressing your love for God and as you do so remember your five people and pray that God’s kingdom will come for them in some new way. And know that as you do that Jesus himself is praying for you and for them.