Easter 7 May 24, 2009

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26                                                           

1 John 5:9-13                                                                      

John 17:6-19


Our Christian religion is full of paradoxes. Indeed, we could almost say that the presence of paradox is our best indicator that we are in the presence of God. For instance: Jesus is truly and fully human, but at the same time truly and fully God. God is One, but at the same time Three. You and I are sinners, but also saved. And all that is just the beginning. All through our history, people have tried to rationalize or clarify away these paradoxes. To say that Jesus wasn’t fully human or wasn’t really divine. That God was not Trinity. That we are not really sinners or not surely saved. We call those attempted simplifications heresies. By eliminating the paradoxical element of our faith, they take the life out of it. There is something about the tension in paradox that is necessary, that is the heart of Christianity.


I say all this by way of introduction to the paradox of this day. Jesus has ascended into heaven, there to sit at the right hand of God the Father. He who was on earth as a human being, who suffered death on the cross, is now reigning in glory. The “head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now.” We have moved from immanence—God dwelling with us, close to us, present in our midst—to transcendence: God raised on high, dwelling in eternity, present to all ages. That paradox of immanence/ transcendence is what I want us to focus on today.


It is probably safe to say that for the last generation the focus in Christianity, at least our part of it, has been on immanence. In our worship, we have gone from churches with the altar far away, raised up high, the priest celebrating with back to the people, the service in Latin or Elizabethan English, things intentionally mysterious, to the altar down “in the midst,” the priest all folksy and facing the people, the service in the most popular churches (the new mega-churches) not so different from entertainment in a movie theater or a rock concert. And one of the criticisms of all this—a criticism that has legitimacy—is that we have lost the dimension of transcendence. That our worship just doesn’t feel holy any more.


Well, what about this? A few guiding principles to begin with: First, since immanence and transcendence exist in paradoxical tension with one another; this should not be a win/lose relationship, but rather one in which by successfully heightening one side of the paradox, you also heighten the other. If we have sometimes in recent liturgical reforms sought to increase immanence by trashing transcendence, in past ages we went the other way.


This past week in the news was the release of a report on massive and systemic abuses of children by priests and religious in Ireland—abuses that went on for decades because in Ireland you could never question what the Church said or did. The Church and its clergy and religious were “apart,” “above,” “more holy”—an attempt to simulate transcendence by eliminating immanence. And the result was that transcendence led to secrecy, led to abuse of authority. So, you don’t get true transcendence by eliminating immanence.


Second, and the Irish example is helpful here, transcendence really can’t be manufactured by human beings. By its very nature, it pertains to God. But true immanence can’t be manufactured by human beings either. We all know the false folksiness of the televangelist, the phony warmth of a church where everyone is always smiling at you but nobody can be who they really are.


Reflecting on these two principles—that transcendence and immanence are not trade-offs, and that neither can be manufactured by human efforts—has led me to some thoughts about what makes for good worship. It seems to me what good worship does is make room for God—for us to become aware of God’s presence in our lives. Really good worship, moreover, does this in ways that admit both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, and indeed bring the two together.


One way we do this is by creating order in worship, a structure that has a certain sense and progression, that people feel comfortable with and in which they can open themselves without undue self-consciousness or anxiety. So our worship week by week has a generally consistent shape, generally familiar forms and language. At the same time, order must not become the object of worship—something we can never change. For when we worship the order, not the God behind it, we commit idolatry. When a given order becomes an end in itself, it keeps God out. That is why I think it is important to vary our prayers, the texts we use, the music, the way we arrange the chairs.


Another way we do this is through creating beauty in worship—a beautiful environment in which to worship, beautiful prayers and music. Music is particularly important to beauty in worship, and also to that sense of order. We are so engineered genetically that music taps depths within us that spoken words do not reach. So the Prayer Book gently prioritizes singing things over simply saying them, and we generally go along.


We’re doing something more, though, through this order and beauty, something that goes by the title ritualizing or ceremonializing. Ritualizing has to do with the vestments we wear, with candles and processions, with bowing and crossing ourselves and genuflecting, with careful and graceful movements and gestures. Ritualizing has to do with “blurring the lines” of the ordinary in order to open it to the extraordinary. Think about the differences between coffee hour, or breakfast downstairs before the service Sunday mornings, and the Eucharist. Both are meals. Both involve sharing. Christ is undoubtedly present in both. But the Eucharist is a ritualized meal, opened up to admit a host of meanings that extend backward and forward in time, that bring us together and lift us up and make Christ present in ways that coffee hour or breakfast never can.


Ritualizing and ceremonial can be overdone—can lead to the false transcendence, the abuses, I touched on earlier. They too can become the end, not the means. They must be done with great sensitivity and care. Always they must lead to the opening up of meaning, the opening up to the presence of God—both transcendent and immanent.


I have been talking about liturgy, about worship, and have said nothing about the readings for today or about what this all has to do with the rest of our lives. Let me just end by calling attention to the gospel reading, where Jesus says that we are in the world, but we do not belong to the world—that we are sanctified in the truth. This is another way of speaking about our paradox of transcendence and immanence. We are humans here on earth, but we are also and at the same time children of God and citizens of God’s kingdom. These things are not separate, they exist together in holy paradox. Our worship reminds us of them, renews us in them, lifts us up and sends us out to be paradoxical Christians for the life of the world.





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