Sunday April 20, 2008
9:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
A Presence within an Absence
Easter is a season that starts with an explosion of joy but before it ends turns bittersweet. For Jesus who is given back to us in the utterly unexpected resurrection does not stay with us, cannot stay with us. He must return to the Father. After Easter comes Ascension, and with the Ascension we must come to terms with the absence of Christ, not only from the tomb, but from the world as a whole.
It may be hard to discern this bittersweet quality because the cycle of the church year is so well-trod for us. But if we had not yet experienced the Ascension, if we did not know that beyond the Ascension Pentecost was coming, if we did not yet grasp that the Holy Spirit would be God’s gift to us making Christ always present to us in sacrament and hope; well, then perhaps we would feel the edge of sadness that pertains to this latter part of the Easter season.
The night before he died, Jesus said to his friends gathered at supper: Let not your hearts be troubled. Jesus knows everything; he knows their hearts are troubled. His heart also was just recently troubled. We saw it in the story of the raising of Lazarus where, the Revised Standard Version put it, Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Raymond Brown would translate that verb as “shuddered.” Jesus shuddered when he saw the women and the Jews weeping over the death of Lazarus.¹
What moved Jesus’ spirit to make him shudder? It was his experience of the working of the enemy. He sees what the devil has done: the devil who, he argued in John chapter 8, was a murderer from the beginning, and who hates the truth because he is a liar and the father of lies. This devil brought death into the world by means of a lie—so, at least, Jesus seemed to be saying, and it is a defensible reading of Genesis chapters 3 and 4—and he continues to sow lies and populate graves. Mary and the Jews wept before Jesus: and Jesus shuddered with anger at the devil who brought humanity to this.
So when Jesus tells us not to be troubled he is saying we need not shudder at the devil’s ongoing work; we need not quake before the grave. For Jesus, who shuddered at Lazarus’s grave, has triumphed over death and the devil, has triumphed over sin and lies. He tells us not to be troubled, not to shudder, because he has gone to prepare a place for us. This is a reference to the Ascension, a doctrine that means Jesus has taken his earthly humanity into the heart of God’s being. And the paradoxical thing about that is that the way to follow Jesus is nothing other than Jesus. Jesus is the way to Jesus.
Because if Jesus had told them that he was going to Portugal or Hawaii or even the moon, then if we had the resources and the wits we might be able to follow him. I might not know the way to Hawaii but I could find out. But Jesus is going to the Father, who is the creator of the world and thus in no place in the world. The Father is neither in the universe nor outside it. Place does not apply to the Father. And Jesus is going there.
Which means, the bittersweetness, that he will not be here. But we can follow him just by being with him, for Jesus himself is the way. It is one of his most famous lines: I am the way and the truth and the life. He is the truth because he is in the Father and the Father is in him: he is the truth about God and thus the truth about God’s great work of creating humanity. And he is life since he lives only because of the Father. So he is life because he is truth; and he is truth because he is the way.
Thus, although Easter Day is now a month past and something of a fading memory, this time of getting ready for Jesus to return to the Father need not be bittersweet. Although he departs, he takes us our humanity with him. And by the gift of the Holy Spirit, he remains with us as a presence within an absence. We must go on living within a world still troubled by sin and death, by the lies of the devil. But we have the rebirth from above, the well that springs up within us to eternal life; in short, Jesus as the Way remains with us.