One of the limitations of celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus is that for so many people in the church, they still operate with a tri-part understanding of creation, even though they know that this is not the case in the physical universe or according to the laws of science and nature. So we still think that the world is divided into heaven above, the earth here and the underworld below, and then dutifully assign the various characters into their realms which are rarely breached. So we allow God to be safely locked away in the heavens where he can go about his business without disturbing us too greatly. But a fundamental problem with this understanding, which has allowed the church to function as an elevator – is that it is so deeply unbiblical. It is not just the role of the holy ones, or the designated ministers to ascend into the heavenly places to receive lots of information and experiences which are then imparted upon the uninitiated (and in this worldview that is most people). The whole power of the incarnation is undone and the effects of the redemption that Jesus won for us are belittled. Thankfully this is not the witness of scripture.
Even if we insist on relegating God to the heavens and we insist on situating the heavens to being up in the sky, one of the lovely insights that Diana Butler Bass shares (in Grounded) is that the sky in fact begins under our feet and is as close as the air that we breathe – which is pretty close indeed!
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9am
Easter Sunday, Year A.
On this feast of the Ascension, we ponder the event of Jesus ascending into heaven as told in the Lukan literature – the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The other synoptic Gospels do not record the event at all, and John only hints at it by telling Mary of Magdala that he has not yet ascended, and in Paul he again speaks of Jesus ascending to the right hand of the Father, but without any details. No doubt, when we were children, we were very clear as to where heaven was located. If you ask any child to point to where heaven is, they instinctively point upwards. But as clever and sophisticated adults who have moved past the simplicity and naïvety of childhood, we are able to provide a much more nuanced answer. If we are asked to point to where heaven is located, we at least shrug our shoulders before pointing to the sky. This is probably not helped by the images that may come to mind when we think about a man rocketing upwards from earth up through the clouds.
Which leads us to ponder a little more clearly what it is that we understand heaven to be. We begin to realise that it is not a geographic reality, but a dimensional reality within our experience of time and space. For heaven is simply that place where the will and purpose of the Lord is always done – and everything unfolds as God intends and desires for it to happen. Here on earth our reality is much more mixed – sometimes we might manage to do the will of God, but so often it is simply our own will that is fulfilled, no matter how much we dress it up in religious finery.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (15 mins)
Ascension Sunday, Year C.
Watch reflection video: Dan Stevers, Ascension.
Look at the Slides. Read the background notes.
- Since this was Mother’s Day, we also watched an intro video (Floodgate Productions) and reflection video (Igniter Media) before the final blessing.
When Jesus is described by the scriptures as ascending into heaven and clouds cover him to hide him from the eyes of the apostles who are standing and watching this spectacle dumbfounded, we are left clinging to a whole series of unhelpful categories to try to deal with this. So much of this is as a result of our attempts to fit the Christian faith within the categories of Greek philosophy rather than in the much more helpful world of Jewish / Hebrew spirituality. It is only when you clearly understand what heaven is really like and how it relates to the earth and the church that you can begin to have any sense of the gift of this feast of the Ascension.
Recorded at St Col’s (10 mins)
When discussion turns to the last things – heaven, hell and purgatory – I am amazed how much of the discussion of such crucial questions in church circles is so muddy. We are talking about the destination for eternity – which most people know means a rather long time. In fact, we are more likely to be influenced by the images about such things that are presented by popular culture then the much richer descriptions present within the pages of the scriptures. So as we embark upon the month of November which begins with the dual celebration (or commemoration) of All Saints and All Souls, leading into the month of holy souls when most Masses during the month will be offered for the beloved dead of parishioners. So what is all of this about? How do we make sense of a concept like purgatory and where should it fit within our wider understanding and interpretation of the bible?
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (13m 21s)
When we come to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus all manner of things can tend to get in the way. For a start, many people can overstate the literal details in the first reading today, from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, what with all the information of Jesus being lifted up into the clouds and the disciples lost in wonder as they look up into the sky. But it is in the Gospel today, the final verses from the end of the Gospel of Matthew that provides the best context to understand the Ascension.
It is only in understanding the Trinity that we understand the place of the Ascension. It is only there that the declaration of Jesus on yet another mountain that all authority in both created realms – heaven and earth – have been given to him. It is the Ascension that demonstrates the unity that Jesus has with the Father as the unseen source of all life and the Holy Spirit as the breath of life that sustains us now and always. The mission is the centre of all of this – the God that Jesus reveals is the missionary God who sent his healing love into the world in the person of Jesus and now because of the Ascension, his followers are sent out into the world with the same healing love. Baptism is then the sign and seal of this mission.
Although the instruction to baptise people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit quickly became a liturgical formula in the life of the church, it probably is here a powerful description of what kind of life disciples are being incorporated into. This life is nothing less than the very life of God. This life is offered to any person who is willing to repent and believe in Jesus as the fulfilled Messiah, now reigning in the realm of heaven, but whose spirit is now available to all believers. And that is very good news indeed.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9’55”)
Ascension Sunday, Year A.
Acts 1.1-11; Ephesians 1.17-23; and Matthew 28.16-20
Also available: Evening Mass recording and Journey Radio Program (text above)
Finally in the season of Easter we arrive at the end of the story with the final two chapters of the book of Revelation being the centrepiece of the liturgy this week and next (the second reading is in the middle/centre of the liturgy of the word). The vision that St John receives in Revelation 21 is absolutely stunning with the transformation of the existing order of things – in the Jewish worldview all of heaven and earth come together in the city of Jerusalem. The previous 15 chapters have dealt with the necessary cleansing of the world (chapters 6 – 20), so now we can say that with the birth of the new heaven and the new earth the old order of creation has passed away – including the waters of chaos (Gen 1:2). In this beautifully described celebration of this ultimate wedding feast, John sees a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth.
Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington (6’11”)
Sunday Easter 5C: Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35
After these things I looked, and behold, a great crowd that no one was able to number, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes and with palm branches in their hands. Rev 7:9 [LEB]
Two weeks ago I mentioned that our companions during the season of Easter this year are the Book of Acts, Revelation and the Gospel of John. Although Revelation can at times be a very confusing book, this week provides a powerful interlude in the narrative of the book. After setting the scene in chapter 1, Revelation 2-3 provides a series of seven letters to seven churches in the region of Asia Minor – representing thereby all churches across all time. Then, in chapter 4 and 5 we have the beginning of the Revelation per se that John received, as he is transported into the throne-room of heaven as it is now. In chapter 6 through 20 there is broadly a description of the great cleansing that has to take place to prepare the world for the final consummation, when heaven comes crashing into earth – described in the final two chapters of the book and the whole bible, 21 and 22.
In chapter 5 we are introduced to the scroll that the one who sits on the throne is holding – written on the front and back. But no one is worthy to open the scroll, except the lion of the tribe of Judah. Then in chapter six we watch as one-by-one the seals are opened by the Lamb and great calamities are released. So, when chapter 7 opens, the early church community would have expected that John would have moved straight onto the end times and the opening of the final seal, since that was so much a part of their own expectations. Yet he doesn’t. Instead there is an interlude when we are told of two ‘visions’ where John first hears then sees this great multitude of all those who have been sealed by the Lord because they are the slaves/servants of the Lord. This is the vision of the church – coming from every nation and tribe and people and tongue – which John understands is the way that God is beginning to clean up the world and prepare all creation for the final revelation of God’s glory.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’45”)
Heaven, Hell and God’s love
Presented over a two-day seminar, these workshops open up the theme of the place of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of Christians, considering what society teaches and understands about death and what happens after death. The seminar looks at the teaching of scripture and the church on such ideas as eternal life, paradise, heaven, hell, purgatory and new creation. It is based on the writings of contemporary authors including Pope Benedict, Bishop Tom Wright and Rob Bell.
Given at Summer School of Evangelisation, Bathurst – January 2013
The notes from the seminar are also available: Notes – PDF
The Prezi presentation is also available: Prezi.com
In Hebrews 12 we arrive at what can be argued as the climax of the letter/document with a description of two mountains. The first, although unnamed, clearly refers to Mount Sinai and the place of the reception of the great covenant by Moses. The frightening scene is related powerfully – complete with a blazing fire, darkness, gloom and whirlwind. By way of contrast, the readers are told that no – you have come to Mount Sion/Zion – to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. We discover here a vision of heaven that is strikingly similar to the vision that the pages of scripture closes with, in Revelation 21 and 22.
Recorded at St Mary’s Leppington, 7pm Mass (Thursday, week 4)
This week we have commemorated the tenth anniversary of the tragic Bali bombings which commentators at the time and since have called Australia’s experience of 11 September 2001. Certainly those events that ushered in the so-called ‘age of terror’ have changed the way that we travel and our sense of security. In the universal church, we have also begun the Year of Faith, which Pope Benedict called to commemorate a much more joyous occasion – the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. This event had such a huge impact on the catholic world, that many people divide more contemporary church history around it – so you get events that were before the council, and then life / liturgy / theology / music / church after the council.
At the time of Jesus, all Jewish people would have thought about time in a similarly epic way. There were two time periods: life in the present age [in Hebrew: Ha-olam hazeh] and life in the ‘Age to Come’ [in Hebrew: Ha-olam ha-ba]. In the present age people suffered and experienced lots of things – good and bad. In the age to come, which was spoken about by the prophets as the Day of the Lord, then God would act to restore everything and make all things the way that God intended them to be. In the age to come, the will of God would finally be done (as we pray in the Lord’s prayer: Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven).
When a certain man runs up to Jesus (which hints at the fact he is young; older people would not have been so undignified) and kneels down before him, this is his question: Good Teacher/Master, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come? When Jesus questions him, he first questions why he calls him good when he is not in a relationship that recognises his true goodness – namely his relationship with God the Father. Then he states what is at one level the bleeding obvious – with a litany of six commandments. He begins with the fifth commandment (using the numbering of the Greek translation of scripture, which the early church adopted) which Jesus would have known as the sixth commandment (using the Hebrew numbering, which split the commandments into four concerning our relation with God and six for relations with others) – you shall not kill, going through to the eighth (or ninth) commandment before adding a commandment not found in Exodus 20 / Deut 5 – ‘do not defraud’ – and then finishing with the fourth (or fifth) commandment – ‘honour your parents’. The commandment that Jesus does not list is the last commandment – do not covet. All the other commandments have clear evidence that something has happened: if you kill, there is a dead body; if you commit adultery, there is a dead relationship; if you steal, there is something missing; if you bear false witness, then someone’s reputation is shattered. But I cannot tell if you are coveting anything right now. Perhaps all you are coveting is that the homily will be short? So why does Jesus do this?
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (11’19”)
Sunday 28B. Mark 10:17-24.