This is, I think, the John’s Gospel version of the Ascension – as Jesus prays about what things will be like post crucifixion, and resurrection. He will not be in the world, but his disciples will be – we will be. He’s kind of saying that it’s OK because he has left all that matters about him in our hands. He even says that he is glorified in his disciples – in his friends – in us. So now, he says, I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
This is a bit like that famous thing attributed to Theresa of Avila. You will have heard it before I’m sure. She said…
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins said something a bit the same in a poem;
‘….Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…’
This is quite a thought – that Jesus is present in the world now through you and me, though our bodies, lives and deeds. I think he is present in other ways too but this is certainly one way in which Jesus can be part of our world now. I do believe that Jesus is present when we break bread and wine together. I think he is present through the power of the Holy Spirit. I think he is present still among the very poor and among those who suffer most in this world, and that he comes to us in places and in people, sometimes where we least expect to find him. But I do believe that he can be in the world through our bodies, our lives, our actions…
I remember vividly very few conversations of the many I must have had so far. But I remember one when I as minister in Oxford. I was leading a discussion and I said that it was interesting that different Christian traditions focus on different things within our faith. I said that Roman Catholics tend to focus on the cross, the crucifixion, that the focus of their churches is so often the passion of Jesus – with a crucifix at the front. Whereas in Orthodox churches the focus is much more on the resurrection. Christos aneste! They are more likely to have a painting of the risen Christ ruling creation in their churches than of Christ on the cross. So, I asked, what would you say is the main emphasis of the Reformed churches when we think about Jesus. Very quickly one woman said ‘his teaching’. And everyone agreed. I’m not sure it’s quite true as a statement of ecumenical preferences, but it was a great reminder that one way in which Christ can be present among us is through his teaching remaining alive and active among us, shaping us and all that we do.
In this passage from John’s Gospel Jesus seems to be saying that he has given the words that God gave to him to his disciples and that they now understanding that those words come from God; ‘for the words that you have to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you;’…. ‘And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…’ So, here we are, in the world, carrying the words that came from God, and that were given to us by Jesus of Nazareth…. It is part of our calling to keep on listening to those words and to keep them alive in the world. That is part of the challenge of living in a time when Jesus has ascended, and it is part of the challenge of Christian Aid week too – since such a time calls us to remember the teaching of Jesus in a world that so deeply needs help, all of it.
One of the challenges of keeping those words of Jesus alive is that history has a habit of trying to make us forget them. If you took your Christianity only from the creeds (much though I personally value them), you would not remember any of Jesus’ teaching. The Apostles’ Creed takes us straight from Jesus being born of Mary to suffering under Pontius Pilate, with nothing in between. The Nicene creed at least mentions that he was fully human. In the planning of the next WCC Assembly there is a bit of struggle going on as we reflect on Christ’s love that moves the world to say that the love we are talking about is not just an abstract idea of love, but is the real, humanly expressed, compassion for the dispossessed and the poor that we actually saw being lived out in the life of Jesus of Nazareth – but some prefer to keep it more abstract. And I’ve noticed that as we sustain the practice of keeping the Christian year as we plan our services, it can sometimes happen that we use only a few weeks between Epiphany and Lent to study what Jesus actually said…which means that a lot of it gets missed out.
I’ve read one book recently that reminds me that one effect of forgetting to talk about the teaching of Jesus is that we also forget how profoundly and faithfully Jewish he was, how rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, how connected with the tradition that he was born into and that he leads us into as Gentile disciples. His prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is a Jewish prayer, his parables stand in a tradition of playful and revelatory story-telling, his beatitudes and blessings come from a tradition that celebrates the deeply wonderful creation which God enjoys and declares good. This forgetfulness of Jesus’ thorough Jewishness has fed, course, a sinful antisemitism that still lurks in Christian cultures.
And – perhaps what I want to emphasis most of all today is that the erasing of Jesus’ teaching from our focus means that we so easily lose the radical edge of Christianity, the deeply challenging things that probably meant he got crucified, the scandalous teaching that really challenges the way the world is set up now where inequality grows and the poor are not blessed but exploited. There’s no easier way to exclude Jesus of Nazareth from our lives than to say he was born, died, raised and gone, ascended, up higher than us, beyond and away – and to forget everything he ever said. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus’ gift to us was the words that God gave him, words that in themselves carry the most holy gift of God’s presence and truth. That means we are called to make those words part of our very bodies – to let them sink into lives deeper than any tattoo – and even more ineradicable! We can never forget that Jesus said how hard it would be for the rich to enter the Kingdom, or how blessed are the poor, or how we are called to love even our enemies and to forgive seventy times seven…
Jesus is no longer in the world in the way he was once. He will not walk into this building on a Sunday morning in a gown woven in one piece with feet coated with Palestinian dust. He will not turn up in person at our local Parish Council or at the meeting of your residents association. He will not go to visit our church members who cannot leave their home anymore. He will not write a letter to our local paper or publish a book. He will not be the guest at your family table. But you and I can do these things. We are in the world. And we have been given his teaching and his story to tell. Jesus prayed that we would be protected and made one, and he sends us out to be in the world for him. His hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears. So let us not stay looking up to heaven, but fix our gaze upon the people and places of the world that so need the compassion of Jesus and do what we can to find him and to follow him there. Since we have received and known his compassion, let us now offer it in his name to the world. He is no longer in the world, but we are in the world. Amen.