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Thursday, 21 May 2020

Let me go, because then the Spirit will come

Here's my reflection, with a new meditation, from the Ascension Day Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Imagine how the disciples must first have felt when they heard that Jesus was planning to leave them in order to return to his Father. They had had an incredible roller-coaster three years of ministry together with him which had culminated in the agony of watching him die. They thought that they had lost him and that all their hopes and dreams had been dashed. Then there was the joy of the resurrection; the dawning realisation that Jesus was alive, was still with them and was not lost to them after all.

And then the Ascension. The Jesus that they thought they had regained left them. What was that all about? There was so much that they still had to learn? There was so much that they could have done together? Why?

Because Jesus was physically distancing himself from the disciples at the Ascension, there is a similarity to the words that Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene when she became the first to recognise him after his resurrection. As she did so, she naturally reached out to embrace him but his words to her were, “Touch me not.” Why?

There is a strand of theology which is called ‘the Negative Way.’ Within this way of thinking about God all images and understandings of God are consistently given up and let go because they are human constructions that can only show part of what God is.

So, all talk of Jesus as shepherd, lamb, son, brother, friend, master, servant, king, lord, saviour, redeemer and so on goes out of the window because God is always more than the images that we construct to understand him. In saying that, I was speaking of God as being masculine, something which is, again, only a limited human understanding of God. Ultimately, God is neither male nor female but is Spirit and the Negative Way says that in order to encounter God as being beyond our limited imaginations and understandings we need to give up and let go of all our human ways of describing him.

The Ascension and Jesus’ words to Mary seem to say something similar. Jesus seems to be saying to the disciples, “Don’t cling on to me. Let go of me as you know me because, when you do, you will gain a greater experience, less limited experience, of me. Don’t cling on to me. Let me go, because then the Spirit will come.”

To let go of what is safe and familiar and secure in order to be open to encounter what is beyond is both scary and exhilarating. Yet, it has been, in part, a key part of our experience for many of us during lockdown. It is what Jesus calls us to here and it is the way in which we encounter the Spirit in our lives.

The title of a song by the ska band Madness, ‘One Step Beyond,’ became a catchphrase in my previous parish that developed real spiritual meaning by challenging us to go further in living out our Christian faith, to go one step beyond where we are now in the way that we live as Christians. The Ascension seems to challenge us to go at least one step beyond where we are now in our understanding of God. We need to leave the safety, security and familiarity of the past in order to encounter the new thing that God is doing in the present.

The Ascension teaches us that nothing is sacred: not buildings, not books, not actions, not people; not even Jesus as the disciples encountered him! We must always move beyond our understanding of the place, space, people and realisations that we have now because that is how the Spirit comes!

Touch me not.
I am not yours
to have and hold,
in this shape
in this form.
Let go.
Let me go.
Let my Spirit come.
Divine my Spirit,
know me

An absence
that is presence.
A leave-taking
that is arrival.
A loss of God
that is
being found
in God –
being in God,
being one
with God.

Touch me not
as flesh and blood.
Touch me now
in bread.
Consume me.
Let me in,
as wine
Spirit -
I in you,
and you
in me.

I ascend -
human in heaven.
interceding -
at the heart
of Godhead
filling the
in the very heart
of God.

Do also join us later today at 8.00pm on BBC Radio 4 for a celebration for Ascension Day. That service will be led by our Vicar, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, and the Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, The Daily Service Singers and St Martin's Voices.


Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise.

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