Coming in Glory

Chapter 3

The Eternal Presence and the Future Hope

When Christ walked among the people of his time, he divested them of the protection of illusion. In his presence they saw themselves in their true nature and from thenceforth they needed no external embellishment to add to their attractiveness or worth. We are acceptable because God made us; it is the love of God that ensures our future both in this world and the one we shall know when we die. There is, in fact, only one world and our relationship with it depends on our state of consciousness. When Christ was with the people of his time, his very presence heightened the awareness of all who were open to him. From the usual earthbound preoccupation with its undertones of selfish isolation, his contemporaries were raised to a world-embracing response that included all created things. When Adam and Eve fell, they sacrificed their unique knowledge of God for a limited, circumscribed, specialised understanding of the world around them. This world was one of finite forms that cast lengthening shadows over the landscape in front of it, so that the originally freely-ranging human awareness was gradually closed in and diminished. The fruit of selfish acquisitiveness gradually assumed the character of a shrinking prison.

Whatever we appropriate for ourselves, thereby excluding our fellows from participating in its enjoyment, becomes our own place of limitation, our prison, and eventually our grave. Whatever our heart is especially attached to so that it becomes a focus of coveting, becomes our point of dissolution. This is because every earthly attainment has its end, and once it has passed away like a phantom in a silent night all that remains is a dark void. It becomes the repository of vain memory, the object of pathos, but its substance cannot be brought back.

The self-giving of the Father brought into being the entire cosmos. What should have been an oasis of unobstructed, unending bliss, a fellowship of souls without barrier, became an enclosed world of personal striving that deteriorated into a place of rivalry and covetousness whose end was death. The menacing evil that underlies the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis, and the course of moral evolution traced in this account of human assertiveness devoid of commitment to God or service to the world, culminate in the account of the tower of Babel. This depicts human pride at its most insolent, and the end is strife and discord so that the people can no longer communicate effectively among themselves. In the end they are deprived of the united will necessary to carry out the great enterprise of building the tower. Instead they find themselves scattered over the face of the earth, where they can no longer converse effectively as the thread of the common language has been broken. This thread is love; in its presence alone can a universal language be born in which all sounds become intelligible to the soul.

This account of thwarted spiritual growth defines with great precision the fate of human aspirations when they are not fertilized by a higher wisdom that comes from God. This wisdom brings a concern for the entire creation with it, and ends in raising up all life to the realm of meaning and radiance. What starts with deep aspirations of service, if it is not centred in God by the power of the Holy Spirit, soon loses its way. It becomes fragmented and malaligned as the factions contained within it war against each other instead of working together for the common good. The sacred history of the Israelites as recorded in the Old Testament is an ongoing account of an incompletely aware people seeking in vain for a power that will direct and integrate them. The power is around them, but they are not able to work with it because they are not capable of losing themselves in its service. This power of God leads them into dramatic encounters with an intelligence that far outstrips the comprehension of the human mind, but although they can accept its majesty, they cannot let it work within them. The reason for this failure is the domination of personal assertiveness that lies at the core of human personality. Only when the assertive element is surrendered can the power of the Most High find its shelter within the soul; in the words of the Magnificat, "the hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away". Were the people able to have accommodated the humble power of God, love would have entered their hearts at the same time. As the loving community developed, so would the new dispensation have drawn closer.

The self-giving of the Son did bring those who accepted his authority closer together, for, as St Paul puts it, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). He did this great work of self-dedication in his assumption of human nature, in his experience of the depths of suffering and the stigma of humiliation no less than in the splendour of a charismatic presence. In his own life the agony and the glory of human existence were brought together and united in death. And in that death both agony and glory were resurrected to spiritual radiance so that all conditions of human life were embraced and none rejected. The miracles worked by the incarnate Lord were produced primarily neither to confirm Jesus' power nor even assuage human pain. Important as both these considerations are, they were nevertheless the effects of something far greater even than their sum. The essential revelation was the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Even the most unprepossessing sufferer was a child of God, and when he had accepted the full implications of healing, he underwent a subtle inner change that released him from all dependence on mortal things. He was now infused with the strength from on high. Once the Kingdom of God was present among mankind, there was an inner transformation that brought people closer to the Father. As St Paul was to write, "When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world; the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

It is interesting to study the change in perspective that the life of Jesus wrought on his disciples. They were summoned from their earthly trades to follow him; their call was to be fishers of men, but first they had to be cleansed of all mundane dross and freed from materialistic illusion. How wonderful it must have been to claim membership in that exclusive, yet unobtrusive, fellowship, to be the constant companion of the lord of life from whom emanated in a pure fountain of radiance the Spirit of God! In his presence all the answers to life's problems seemed to be available, while failure was not so much as to be envisaged. They were a fellowship that was integrated by the power of God and focused around the personality of Jesus. How highly the ignorant disciples thought of themselves, what honours in the life of the world to come they imagined for themselves and openly coveted! They believed they had attained spiritual mastery. And then the centre of their hopes, the focus of their lives and the meaning of existence itself suddenly appeared to fail. Jesus was led into the hands of sinners who had him condemned to death. The sinners were men strong in traditional religious practice who could not bear the light of God's truth to illumine the darkness of their own souls. How often conventional religion is used as a ritual to divert our attention away from our own shortcomings! God in Christ came as the authoritative Word to cut away the inessential trappings of religion and lay the soul of the believer bare to the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

He came in his own apparent failure to strip the glamour of his presence, the aura of his manifest omnipotence and infallibility from the obstructed vision of his groping yet self assured followers. They had ultimately to be guided, indeed united, by a power more durable and constant than his physical presence among them. Even more important, they had to learn the paradoxes of spiritual living, that failure is the glorious crown of worldly success, that pain lies at the heart of the healing ministry, that death puts an end to earthly life in order to set in motion a true resurrection of the personality. None of the spiritual truths is to be understood by the unaided intellect; each is approached and made intelligible by experience in which the lesser certainty is sacrificed in faith for the greater hope dimly displayed before us but beyond rational conception.

The end of the Son's self-giving was the birth into spiritual reality of the disciples. The pain of Christ as he confronted the unspeakable terror of psychical darkness was transformed into the pain of meaninglessness that assailed the bereft disciples, a meaninglessness that was transcribed into a terrible loneliness as their master departed from their midst. With the departure of Jesus went all their expansive hopes for the future. They became once more as little children - indeed they behaved as such when Jesus was among them, but they were clothed in the trappings of mature men, as we all are when we stamp our way confidently in the world's forum. But when their centre was ravaged, the grandeur of a fertile imagination collapsed inwards, and they saw for the first time that they were nothing. This is always a key experience in the spiritual life; for most people it comes at the time of death when all earthly appurtenances are being shed, and then it is too late, at least in terms of this life. But when we know we are nothing, we enter into the uncomplicated world of the young child once more and can accept the unconditional love of God, who too is best known as No-Thing, available to the poor in spirit while strangely inaccessible to the worldly wise. Thus the shattered disciples began to know the world of Adam and Eve before these two yielded to the temptation of self-assertiveness without reference to God. The disciples agony was one of complete self-disclosure, but at the end of the trial, when all seemed to be consummated in futility, there came an experience of the resurrected Lord.

The resurrection is, in fact, the first part of Christ's coming in glory. He came not so much to show that he was still alive, that death had no dominion over him, as to assure his vacillating disciples that the bond of fellowship was not broken, that forgiveness lay at the heart of their relationship, that God's most immediate quality is love. He did not come to his persecutors in his resurrected form because they would not have been able to receive him; his appearance might have terrified them into submission, shocked them into belief, but his way was not one of force or coercion. He came to his own and at last they were able to receive him, at least to their limited capacity. When Christ rose from the dead he took his whole earthly personality with him; he showed us a completely resurrected person, but the physical body was transformed into spiritual essence, since flesh and blood can never possess immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50). This resurrection of the body is our assurance that all aspects of mortal existence are in the providence of God, that nothing is too mean or insignificant for his attention, that everything is worthy of new life in the power of the divine love. This free offering of love lies at the heart of healing, but it requires the free will of the creature no less than the unreserved self-giving of the Creator. When the disciples, to their unutterable amazement and speechless joy, were confronted with the risen Christ, they had attained a knowledge of the Kingdom of God, for at last they had moved beyond the isolation of personal acquisitiveness to the sharing of individual bliss in a transformed community. In this way the world of Adam and Eve before the Fall, prepared-for during the period of dereliction before Christ showed himself again, was also made manifest: they had attained that experience of union by pure grace. Their behaviour would have appeared to merit their total rejection by their risen Lord, but instead he came to them as pure, embracing love. The spirit had been willing even though the flesh was weak. Now had come the time for the strengthening of the flesh also as a preparation for the resurrection of the body ahead of all of us. Furthermore, survival of death can be known in our life only through the power of love. He who loves can never be finally separated from the beloved, and to love requires one to know oneself in truth, for one's love is a reflection of the divine love that illuminates all on which its rays impinge. Our existence is a by-product of the divine love, and our immortality is a manifestation of that caring which will never cease to provide for us no matter how much we may reject it. The two immediate practical qualities of love are acceptance and respect for the beloved; the end of that love is transfiguration to the divine nature, but this can alone be achieved according to the consent of the beloved. Threats and coercion can never lead the creature to his destined perfection, since the journey to the Kingdom of God is energized by the power of a free, vibrant will working in fruitful collaboration with the will of God.

The power of God that shone through Jesus brought all the disciples together in a renewed body, the Body of Christ. Whether in his physical or resurrected form, Jesus was the centre of life and purpose. It is moving to recall the words of Peter when many of Jesus' followers withdrew from his company because of his unacceptably strong teaching. Jesus asked the Twelve whether they too wanted to leave him, and Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life" (John 6:66-88). It is in this context that the statement, "I am the way; I am the truth and I am life; no one comes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6), is the truth about the Kingdom of God. Only in the personal presence of the Word is the truth of God's nature as Father of all revealed; only in the life of that Word among us is the way to the Kingdom shown. Only in the presence of the Word is life, the life of abundance in God. During the forty days in which Jesus appeared in his disciples in his resurrection body, the body of believers was being fashioned. At that time their amazement must have blossomed into the bliss of recognition, the relief of purpose ending a grey period of disillusionment, of waning hope after so great a promise of glory. They were still limited in their spiritual perspective; they wondered whether Christ intended to establish again the sovereignty of Israel.

And then came the glorious ascension, followed ten days later by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the assembled body of believers. The circumscribed Christ had now departed from their midst to be followed by the assurance of his eternal presence with them from his seat of majesty with the Father. He was no longer available as a person but was universally present as the Lord of life. In the doctrine of the last things, the eschatology in which the terrible advent of God shows itself in a final judgement of the world, there are two strands. One looks to the future, the last day, for the final coming of Christ. This future eschatology has been a glorious, though often terrible, theme running through Holy Scripture since the prophecy of Amos. At that time the children of Israel looked forward to that day as one of final triumph. Amos was the first of many prophets to disabuse the Israelites of their comforting misconception: the day of the Lord was to be one of cosmic darkness, of terror and destruction for them, not one of glorious victory. But with the Christian advent there is another strand, the realized eschatology, which modifies the prophecy of a final judgement without in any way demolishing it.

The theme of this realized cosmic advent of God is proclaimed especially by St Paul in his last letters, believed to have been written in captivity, to the Christians of Colossae and Ephesus. Christ at his resurrection is finally established as the master, not only of the earth, but of the entire universe, as such being in control of the intermediate psychic forces that influence the workings of the world, both externally and internally. His dominion, in one way, was established before the creation of the cosmos - he is the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world. This does not only mean that the incarnation and all that followed from it were ordained from the very beginning of the creative act of God, but also that the word, by whom all things are made, is sacrificing himself perpetually in the fecund flowing-forth of life, beauty and love in an essentially indifferent universe. This indifference stems from the selfish attitude of the creature, whether human in our little world or angelic in the vast intermediate realms that energize, and possibly populate, the cosmic spheres. Some of these are tractable to scientific astronomical research, but there are, in addition, in all probability extensive psychic, or astral, realms which the soul explores in its adventures after death until the final coming of the Lord in the future judgement and redemption.

In the wonder of the realized eschatology Christ is with us now, and all who are converted to him in spirit and truth (something rather different from a mere denominational allegiance or a sectarian loyalty) are already living the risen life with him in heaven. This exalted communion with our Lord in heaven is attained during the Eucharist, where in company with the angelic hierarchy and all the host of heaven, we praise God and acknowledge his supreme holiness and his sanctification of the entire universe. In this way we rehearse the awe-inspiring vision that Isaiah had at the beginning of his ministry some seven and a half centuries before Christ (Isaiah 6:1-9). And at that moment the real presence of Christ is available to us as it was to the disciples at the time of the Last Supper. He is always there, but only when we are lifted up to the contemplation of heavenly things can we be available to his constant knocking on the door of our soul. In the same way it is promised that whenever two or three have met together in his name, he is there among them (Matthew 18:20). This is no mere consoling promise but a literal statement of fact: those who are truly gathered in the spirit of Christ enter a dimension of reality that far transcends mere earthly consciousness with its constant interruptions of fear, irritation and disharmony. Those who call on the name of Christ in fervour and dedication are by that very devotion lifted to his presence, and a new world opens for them. Thus they have attained a knowledge of the Kingdom of God at that moment, which is the point of intersection of time and eternity. But, alas, that supreme awareness is evanescent, and almost at once we relapse into the divisive atmosphere of our mundane environment and become imprisoned in a mass of destructive thoughts and attitudes. These impinge on us from the indifferent surroundings where we perform our daily work, but also from the unplumbed depths of our own unconscious lives where cesspits of hatred, resentment and lust lie exposed to the general atmosphere of doubt, selfishness and purposelessness that surrounds the world.

All this is very evident from the lives of the early Christian community, as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. After the Pentecostal experience, the band of rather faint-hearted apostles was cemented into a fellowship that faced constant danger and death with impunity; they knew that even if the body were destroyed, their life in the risen Christ was assured. As St Paul was later to write, "For to me life is Christ, and death gain; but what if my living on in the body may serve some good purpose? Which then am I to choose? I cannot tell. I am torn two ways: what I should like is to depart and be with Christ; that is better by far; but for your sake there is greater need for me to stay on in the body. This indeed I know for certain: I shall stay, and stand by you all to help you forward and to add joy to your faith, so that when I am with you again, your pride in me may be unbounded in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:21-26). Later in the same letter he writes, "I count everything sheer loss, because all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I did in fact lose everything. I count it so much garbage, for the sake of gaining Christ and finding myself incorporate in him, with no righteousness of my own, no legal rectitude, but the righteousness which comes from faith in Christ, given by God in response to faith. All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, in growing conformity with his death, if only I may finally arrive at the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:8-11).

Thus the disciples lived the risen life with Christ in heaven: they shared and they possessed with a common will; they kept nothing back, so that no one had a store of private means that was unavailable to the fellowship. They were so open to God in prayer and to each other in love (the two are complementary, indeed almost synonymous, in terms of the two great commandments of loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbour as ourself) that the Holy Spirit not only infused them with new life but also poured out from them in tumultuous healing power. The gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12 were no mere enthusiastic outpouring of emotional fervour; they were fully-realized phenomena of God's grace constantly renewing a gathering community. The heaven that Adam and Eve had known, albeit without mature cognizance, before they fell into the hell of divisive acquisitiveness was now restored by the resurrection of the Word made flesh and the descent of the Holy Spirit among the earliest disciples. When the power of God infuses the cleansed person - now free from personal striving and an enclosed attitude towards his fellows and indeed towards life itself - the remaking of the entire universe becomes not merely possible but finally inevitable. This later effect is wrought by the transforming power of contemplative prayer that glorifies all it illuminates.

But unfortunately this state of bliss did not persist. The terrible story of Ananias and Sapphira that occurs early in the Acts of the Apostles (5:1-12) tells how soon the germ of private acquisitiveness came to the surface once more. As Adam and Eve could not bear a world of union with God without personal aggrandizement, so the later disciples looked for increasing private gain as a reward for their religious faith. The compromise of service to both God and Mammon soon began to contaminate their devotion. They could see heaven only in terms of acquiring things for themselves. These things included not only money and material possessions but also influence and power. That heaven is its own reward, a doctrine known to all, the world's mystics of whatever tradition, was beyond the vision of the later disciples. As the earliest communities became the nuclei of the future churches, as they assumed greater influence in the disintegrating Roman Empire, so did political power align itself more definitively to spiritual power. This alliance has always been the bane of spirituality because the lord of this world, identified especially by St John as the devil, seeks to corrupt the faithful. This was, after all, the third temptation presented to Jesus by the devil at the close of his forty-day privation in the wilderness. Jesus resisted because he was filled with the power of God. The later disciples fell, as did Adam and Eve, because they became less aware of the crucified Christ in the face of the attractions of the busy world around them. How to reconcile these opposing forces is the problem of all spiritual life. It is the coming advent of the Lord that alone can effect this healing by the power of his Spirit among us.

Chapter 4
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