Saturday, May 18, 2013

Down and Up

John 14:8-17  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

            For as long as the world lasts, we’ll probably continue thinking on some level that up is good and down is bad; that God lives somewhere in the sky; that heaven is where God lives and thus must be somewhere up, up, and away; and that if anything like Jesus or the Holy Spirit comes from heaven to earth it must involve a coming down.  In other words, it is virtually impossible for us completely to free ourselves from thinking spatially about these things. 

            What to do?

            I have long been on a program to call all that into question, enough so that people can begin thinking differently about it, a program which I continue to think is worth the effort.  But I have to admit that there is, after all, some value in the up-and-down kind of thinking, as limiting as it is.  One might even say that there is built into the human experience a predisposition to thinking that up is better than down because in all human cultures that seems to be the way we imagine spatial values, with few exceptions.  So when we come to Ascension Day, which we celebrated ten days ago, we imagine that Jesus after his resurrection went “up” although we know perfectly well that heaven, being everywhere precisely because God is everywhere, is no more up than down.  And when we come to today, Pentecost, our prayers and hymns say things like, “the Holy Spirit came down on this day from heaven, lighting upon the disciples,” and “Come down, O love divine.”  We know the limits of that language if we have been hanging around the world longer than about five years, though we still use it. 

            So, without exactly throwing in the towel, I invite you to move in the direction of seeing that there is some usefulness in thinking about life and death, God and humanity, heaven and earth, time and eternity in up-and-down terms.  Before it is over with, I think you’ll be able to see that we wind up in an amazing place where the adverbs “up” and “down” blend together and disappear.

            Let’s start with the motion of baptism, since that is the centerpiece of our Pentecost celebration.  You have heard me tell you before my mantra about baptism:  when you forget everything else about baptism remember that it is “down under and back up again.”  If you remember that, you will not likely forget that baptism is a way of ritually acting out and applying Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Down under the water is like “down into the grave.”  It is a symbolic burial.  And “back up again” is the movement of the resurrection.  Remember that the best kept secret in Christianity is that the resurrection does not happen after you die.  It happens in your baptism.  When we come out of the water and back up again, we are indeed united with the Risen Lord, and we thereafter are living in the resurrection.  It has no end, to be sure.  But its effective beginning, certainly symbolically, is in baptism.

            When you think about it, all of life is a matter of going down under and coming back up again.  Peter Senge and some colleagues describe that process in a very interesting book called Presence, one of the most deeply theological books I know, although it says nothing formulaic about God.  [Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers,  Presence:  An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (New York:  Random House/Doubleday/Currency, 2005).]  They speak of the “U,” which captures the motion of traveling downward and coming back up again. The three parts of the U are sensing (observing, becoming one with the world), presencing (retreating, reflecting, allowing inner knowing to emerge), and realizing (acting swiftly with a natural flow).  Traveling the U, going down and coming back up, involves letting go of our pre-established ways of thinking, going down into deep reflection, and coming up having let go of our own will, ready not to impose that will on a situation.  We could put this in a dozen, perhaps a hundred, different ways and it would amount to the same thing:  letting go and being open.  I suggest that that is exactly what our mythical language of “dying and rising” is getting at.  Each day, each moment, we have the opportunity to hear the call to let go, to rest in silence for a time, and to rise again, living in openness from a place quite different from our ego with its habit of controlling and imposing its will on situations. 

            Pentecost has everything to do with going down and coming up.  But it is not perhaps what you think.  It surely is not what the traditional language implies.  Pentecost is not a matter of the Holy Spirit “coming down” except in the sense that coming down can mean the great joining the small, as when an adult bends or kneels down to look a child in the eye or to hear what the child is saying or to share a moment of supreme importance with the little one.  Pentecost is an infusion.  It is a filling.  It is a breathing of life and energy into an otherwise dispirited, innervated, confused and paralyzed community.  Like all the other events in the story of salvation, Pentecost is not a one-time event, but a reality that makes itself felt time and time again.  When we feel—justifiably—that we are little more than a sack of dry bones, here comes Pentecostal wind, breathing new life into us.  When you appear to be a fallow field, just waiting to become fruitful and productive but somehow unable to do that on your own, the fire of Pentecost can rush through you like sparks through stubble, consuming all that holds you back and igniting your energy to do what you have believed was impossible.  So if you want to locate Pentecost on the U, somewhere on the journey between going down under and coming back up again, it is right there at the bottom, exploding, giving you the kick that lifts you into new life.

            But Pentecost is really even more than that.  I mentioned that last week we were celebrating the ascension of Christ.  The ascension is not a commemoration of Jesus’ flying up into the sky and out of sight, but rather that the entirety of human nature, which he himself embodied, he took with him into the very life of God.  Do you get that?  Your human nature and mine becomes a part of the godhead, the life of the Trinity, the essence of God.  No longer can we talk about God and humanity as being distinctly separate.  We get a taste of that in the gospel for today.  “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied,” says Philip.  Jesus replies that when we have seen him we have seen the Father, because he and the Father are one.  That is powerful language!  It means that if we are united with Jesus, then we are united with God.  There is no getting around it.  Your life, your decisions, your struggles, your heartaches, your aspirations, your energies, your laughter, your work, your prayer is the ground on which you meet God.  God is in your body, God is in your mind, God is in your imagination, your dreams.  You will discover the Most High God in the most lowly depths of your own experience.  There is no place you can go where God is not.  And that is the miracle and meaning of Pentecost.  It really is quite simple.  It is about God’s Spirit being in you and your spirit, your nature, being inextricably bound to the reality of God.

            That is why Baptism is down under and back up again.  It is about traveling the U down into the grave and all the dark places and finding there the power which raises you up.  It is about journeying with Christ through the sicknesses in which you find strength, through the failures in which you learn to cope, through the times when you doubt your own worth and yet come to the indescribable peace of accepting yourself as simply human.  Baptism keeps going on and on because there is literally no end at the end of the U.  The more we travel the U, the more we see that we haven’t finished one trip before another begins.  The deaths and resurrections begin flowing together.  “Up” and “down” glide together and become indistinguishable, because the worst things can be blessings and the best things can turn out to push us to our knees.  Past, present, future all mix together in a timelessness which we mostly know through the moments that send shivers of excitement through us, or the sights and sounds that move us to tears, or from the occasional minutes when we find ourselves still in the presence of God while praying or meditating.  All of it is Pentecost.  All of it is resurrection.  All of it is taking to heart that nothing about us is or ever can be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

            Thomas Diaz and his little brother Felix are going to be baptized now.  Thomas I think is most excited by the knowledge that he is going to get a candle when he has been baptized in water and sealed by the Spirit.  The candle will burn and go out, but the fire of the Spirit never will.  It is the energy that will raise him up from every fall and the light that will shine through him and before him in every dark place he will ever go.  And that is your gift too.  Down and up, up and down:  God is in motion, and the motion of God is always God attempting, so to say, to nestle in your heart.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

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