Now you see him, now you don’t. He’s just a flip-flopper. Back again (yay!); gone again (boo!). Or to quote (Saint) Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “My, but people come and go here so quickly!”
I could be referring to our crazy-making political climate of late, but I have in mind instead some religious trivia. I actually believe the two go together, or they ought to do so, and rather urgently.
This weekend is a bit religiously messy, chronologically speaking. This past Thursday, Christians celebrated “The Feast of the Ascension.” This marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus “ascends” to heaven (see Luke 24:50-53 and/or Acts 1:6-11, both seem to tell the same story but in significantly different ways).
Okay, so the risen Jesus is now “gone.” But tomorrow is the seventh Sunday of Easter on the Christian calendar. Weirdly, many Christians will hear in church a portion of John’s gospel in which the pre-crucified Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before he dies (John 17:6-19).
So is Jesus “here,” “there,” or “in between”?
We’re smack dab in the midst of yet another potent time on the Christian calendar, that peculiar liminal time between the ascension and the particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost just a week from now. I wrote a bit about the holiness of liminality roughly seven weeks ago, on Holy Saturday. I love that day, that peculiar day when Jesus is dead, but not yet risen, yet wonderfully busy harrowing Hell. Not least among his glorious tasks is dragging Adam and Eve of their graves (as one particular fresco that I love depicts it).
I truly believe that such religious arcana actually matters for how Christians think about how we live in a world that’s so clearly gone crazy. (Surely I don’t need to catalogue the myriad ways our world has recently gone off the rails.)
To navigate the madness, I seek faithfully to live out of synch with it by taking John’s Jesus to heart when he prays this about his disciples, both then and now: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:16).”
Too many Christians, in my view, have read that verse as a kind of divine permission to absent themselves from “worldly concerns.” To the contrary: I read the Johannine Jesus as urging his disciples to live out of synch with the world’s standards of reasonable, proper, efficient, and respectable proposals for sustaining the way things are.
Among the many ways to read the gospel texts, for example, taking them as testimony to “business as usual” would seem quite a stretch. I cannot imagine any of Jesus’ disciples thinking of themselves as champions of the status quo. Jesus instead seems at nearly every turn to lead his disciples into troubling both the religious and civic order of things. In today’s courts of law they would qualify as “disturbers of the peace” or stand guilty of “disorderly conduct.”
Shouldn’t these pioneers of Christian faith set the standard for the (dis)orderly life of God’s people today? Shouldn’t the Gospel lead all of us who claim to follow it into profound acts of disturbing the cultural peace?
Along with many others, I’ve been noticing just how much religion and politics have been blending of late in our public discourse: whether women actually have any rights over their own bodies; whether couples of the same gender can get married; whether economics ought to have anything to do with the “least among us.” The list goes on and on.
There are many ways to analyze all these confluences of religion and politics. Here’s just one: In an age of profound change and anxiety, the default position is certainty, dogmatism, and safety. The final cry of any civil or religious institution in the throes of fear is, of course, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”
Quite remarkably, that posture is precisely what the Gospel urges Christians to avoid. So what it would it mean to live out of synch with both religious and cultural trends? I don’t know precisely. But I’ll venture this: The dry, institutional certainties of the past (whether civil or religious) won’t save us. Only the scary vagaries of a future we cannot see and for which we risk everything will bring us into the orbit of the risen and ascended Christ.
I’m thinking a great deal about that claim this weekend in my own life. And I’m wondering how it might translate into our public discourse about social policy.
The risen Jesus won’t be tied down and domesticated. Certainty is not a theological virtue. But faith is. And so is hope. And love most especially is. Could we imagine, in this liminal season as we await the Spirit’s manifestation, a politics of risk that privileges love above all else?
That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul urged (1 Corinthians 13:13) – love matters above everything else.
How clichéd can we get? I mean, really. Isn’t that just a Hallmark greeting card we toss into the recycling bin?
But how about this: What if love is what we do in all those in-between times when we can’t figure out what’s really going on? What if love isn’t about certainty or dogmatism or safety or anything else we try to confect to soothe our wounds of anxiety? What if love is mostly about risk without any guarantees?
What if those are the very questions those first disciples of the risen Jesus asked as they watched him disappear into heaven?
Let’s answer those peculiar questions and change the world.