Readings: Acts 10: 44-48; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 15: 9-17.
Poetry has been described as a ‘raid on the inarticulate’ – what lies beyond the reach of speech. Something similar could be claimed for preaching where we venture to explore what is always beyond us and our understanding. We reflect on the scriptures while clutching all the baggage of our lives; we pore over these writings in the dust – and in this moment we are explorers. Will you join with me in this?
Has anyone seen the science fiction film Interstellar? In a dying world where dust storms ravage the earth, one household identifies inexplicable anomalies in gravity: in one room the intruding dust forms patterns that can be decoded into Morse code. From beyond the universe there seems to be some inexplicable force that wills to communicate. It seems that for humanity to survive a new world has to be discovered. Consequently astronauts are launched through a wormhole and beyond space and time into a dimension where the speculations of relativity theory change reality as we know it. In a critical moment of decision one of the scientists thinks beyond their ‘science’ and speculates:
Love isn't something we invented. It's much more powerful. It has to mean something. It means something more, something we can't yet understand, some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension we can't conceive. Love is the one thing that we are capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can't understand it yet.
Our language of faith is a strange thing. While much of our faith is a matter of the heart which as Pascal said “has its reasons that reason knows nothing of”, there are also those mysteries that we wrap in such words as ‘Incarnation’, ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Ascension’; we stumble over these mysteries in the creed, in the Eucharistic prayers and in sermons but when we try to comprehend them we can feel our eyes glaze over and our minds threaten to blow a fuse.
Think of these strange words, these utter mysteries, as a message from another world, another dimension; a message reaching us across time and space, intruding in to our finite space and inviting us to receive and decode – even if we can’t quite comprehend it, let alone believe it. Saint John staggers under the weight of its wonder when he puts into words the unimaginable, and confesses that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.
Those first Christians must have been on a spiritual and intellectual roller-coaster. They had to come to terms with the mind-bending mystery of the incarnation – that Jesus is indeed God but in our flesh; they came to follow him, love him but saw him die. But it did not stop there: after that grief and loss there was the resurrection –and here is this much loved one back, very much alive but different – by the empty tomb he says to Mary ‘don’t cling to me’ but in the locked upper room he invites Thomas to probe his wounds; the boundaries of time and space have telescoped; the rules of the material world seem to have collapsed. But still, it did not stop there: for, just when they might have accepted this new order of reality – the resurrected Jesus says he is going away – and there we have the mystery we call the Ascension. If you could summarise all of this – maybe it would be to say that we are caught up in a constant transformation of vision and understanding; just when you think you might have grasped something – everything changes again.
For example that first reading from Acts where, while in Joppa, Peter and some fellow Jewish Christians visit the house of the gentile Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit is made manifest among the Gentiles present – seemingly without any preconditions of circumcision, baptism or belief. For those first Jewish Christians this was a world-changing moment. God was more than they had imagined or ever bargained for. Rules, concepts, the old cultural habits and ways of seeing the world just could not apply any longer. Here is a love, a power, a force, that cannot be contained or managed.
On this Sunday before Ascension it is no accident that our Gospel reading comes from St John’s account of Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples before his death. To say farewell to loved ones can be the hardest thing we endure; our instincts fight against it – we want to hold on. To watch a loved one pass away, slip from our reach – to go beyond our grasp or comprehension is so hard. Years later still our love remains – a pulse flickering into space.
But in that brief moment of farewell when hands may still be held and words exchanged, all speech is condensed, reduced to its essence. So our Gospel today cannot be reduced further: our Lord merely says “Abide in my love,” (and) “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Written in our dust is this message from beyond our world … love one another … I love you. All our faith-speech of incarnation, resurrection, ascension … is bare code that traced in our dust carries the message of immeasurable love.