Today is one of those days in the Church’s year when the dominant theme of the day has to push out another possibility, for it is, on the one hand, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, and on the other, the day on which Mother Julian of Norwich might otherwise be remembered. Julian is, as Ann Loades mentioned last week when she spoke about Catherine of Siena, another one of those who is designated in our calendar as a mystic, and the day on which we remember her, the 8th of May, is not the day of her death, as is usual with saints, but the day on which she received the series of visions for which she is remembered, a harrowing vision of the Passion of Our Lord and of what it meant: Revelations of Divine Love.
I suppose that the most well-remembered phrase from her writings is that wonderfully optimistic sentence: All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. It must have been wonderful for her to believe this, for she received her revelations at a time when she was near to death; but it is not just for herself that she received this reassurance, but for all of us, and, co-incidentally, it is particularly relevant for today, for the place in the story of Christianity at which we have now arrived.
Today is the final Sunday of the Easter season. On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. I often think that must have been an occasion of profound grief for the disciples. After the Resurrection Jesus had appeared and had remained with them for forty days. They must have gotten used to his presence again. Then, in whatever manner it occurred, he ceased to be present. Luke says that as he ascended to heaven two angels appeared and told the disciples not to keep gazing longingly up to the sky. The focus of their ministry, this implies, is to be on the earth. Jesus will be with them but, as they will discover, in an entirely different way. In fact it will be in a better way: he will not just be beside them, he will be within them, in the very heart of their being. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. He had told them that at the Last Supper and immediately before the Ascension, but I don’t suppose for a moment that they had taken it in.
So the focus of their ministry is to be the world. It should be practical. They must preach, and teach and heal and convert — all very practical things.
But today, during that uneasy time in between the Ascension and Pentecost, our Gospel reading suggests that our eyes need to be fixed not only on the world, but also on heaven. It reminds us how important prayer is. It takes us right back to Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ own prayer, for his disciples, and for those who would come after them. We know that, for Jesus, prayer was the indispensable prelude to everything he did, and on this night of all nights, it must have been absolutely vital for him. After this, as we know, he went out and prayed again, that he might know for certain the will of his heavenly Father for him. The task that lay in front of him was not just hard, it was agonizing, and without the strength he gained by knowing that he was in the Father and the Father was in him, he surely never could have done it.
But that was all some weeks ago. So why are we reading it now? The reason, I’m sure, is precisely because we have now arrived in that in-between season: the ten-day period between ascension Day and Pentecost, which is also a time of preparation, preparation for the birth – or perhaps the renewal, of the Church.
We need to be reminded of all that is important in our Christian life, we need to recognise the gifts God has given each one of us and the opportunities for using them. And, like Jesus, for the task that lies before us, we too need to be armed with prayer. We need to know that we are in Jesus and he is in us. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
But we might also be aware, as we listen to this prayer in John, just how different it is from the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which the other Gospels record, but John does not. Neither is it the sort of prayer we might make ourselves in such an extremity. It is not a prayer of uncertainty, but a prayer of confidence.
Jesus knows his relationship with the Father, a relationship John had set up at the very beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Jewish belief, enshrined in the Book Genesis is that the world was created because God spoke the word: “Let there be light…sun, moon, land and sea, plants and creatures. And John tells us that this living, active, Word of God became flesh in the man Jesus Christ. His link with the twelve who shared that supper with him is that he is flesh and blood as they are, yet at the same time he is in total unity with the Father.
It’s a difficult concept to put into words. Sometimes pictures are easier, and a picture in the ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition which was staged at the National Gallery in the Millennium year was very helpful to me. It is by the Spanish painter Murillo and depicts the child Jesus standing on a rock between Mary and Joseph. The three of them are the horizontal line. The vertical line is made up of a depiction of the Father and the Holy Spirit, above Jesus’ head. And the real beauty of it is that it allows us to see that not only are these two relationships, the horizontal and the vertical, both important, but that when they are brought together they form a cross, with Jesus as the focal point, the one who, by his sacrifice on the cross, holds everything together.
On Maundy Thursday evening the disciples would still have been at the stage of relating to Jesus only on the horizontal plane, on the plane of human relationship, human friendship. Yet the reality of the truth was far more than that: “By the fifth century,” Robin Griffith-Jones once wrote, “Cyril of Alexandria speaks of Jesus in John 17 as a high priest making intercession for us. For Jesus speaks here as one already standing before the throne of God. Here is Christ ascended; before the elevation of the cross, when his work shall be ‘perfected’; and not in any bodily ascension, but in his intimacy with the Father in prayer.”
The focus of his prayer is love: Love between himself and the Father; love between himself and the disciples. and love is the focus of the revelations Julian received, too: “He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought, ‘What can this be?’ And answer came, ‘It is all that is made’
I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. and the answer came into my mind, ‘It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.’ And all things have being through the love of God.
And, she suggests, all shall be well because of love: The love of the Father for the Son, the love of the son for his disciples, and for us all, the love of them both for the whole of creation. And that love, if we know it, helps us to love one another. This is the heart of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, that his disciples might be one, that they might love one another as he and the Father love one another and as he loves them. And if they do, and if we do, that love will spill out to the world, and all the disputes that poison so many of our relationships, between individuals, within families and communities, and within and between nations, can be healed.
So, we cannot look only at the world as we seek to discover our ministry; we must also lift our eyes and our hearts to heaven in prayer. And love is the key to it all; love, as Julian said, is his meaning: “For until I am one with him” she writes, “I can never have true rest nor peace. I can never know it until I am held so close to him that there is nothing in between. For he is endless and has made us for his own self only, and has restored us by his blessed Passion and keeps us in his blessed love. And he does all this through his goodness. God, of you goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me.” And so he does, as we shall hear at the end of this ‘in between time’ when we reach the Feast of Pentecost next week.