Archives for posts with tag: ascension

(An edited version of this paper has been published at https://anglicanism.org/at-whitsuntide-trinity-sunday-encounters-with-god)

By Hugh Bryant

Archbishop John Sentamu retired on Trinity Sunday. There is a lovely tribute to him in the Church Times, which ends like this.

AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whether that could be true for them, too.

How well do you know Jesus? At Whitsuntide, Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, as Ruach, πνευμα, a rushing wind (with tongues of fire). Ruach and πνεύμα are Hebrew and Greek words which mean a wind, which by metonymy come to mean ‘Spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit. A divine wind.

As Christians we understand God as the Trinity. God the Creator: God as human: God the Spirit, replacing the human God when He has gone back to ‘heaven’, back into the Godhead. ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’. 

It’s a way of understanding the third act of the drama. Act one. God created the world. Act two. God was born in human form, as Jesus, lived and died. Act three. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but then eventually he left to join the Godhead, or more familiarly, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven,’ and was replaced by the Holy Spirit.

To explain the mystery of ‘God in three persons’ is a rite of passage for every preacher in training assigned to preach the parish sermon on Trinity Sunday. But perhaps a greater challenge arises in connection with Ascension and Pentecost. 

There may be many faithful people who are content to hold ‘in tension’ apparently contradictory ideas about ‘heaven’: that it is in some sense ‘up there’, but at the same time that God is not delimited in time and space, so there is nowhere, up or down, where God is particularly at home. 

I used the term ‘Godhead’ deliberately. If God is in ‘heaven’, it begs the question where exactly He is. So an alternative way of thinking on the Ascension would be that Jesus was somehow subsumed into the ‘godness’, the heart of being, the Godhead (cf. the ideas of Paul Tillich in John A T Robinson, Honest to God (1961)).

It is said that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported back that he had ‘looked and looked, but I couldn’t see God up there’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of his seeming to confirm Marxist atheistic dogma. Gagarin was a Christian. He believed in God: it was just that he hadn’t found him in space.

We make a rather easy move, I think, to dismiss the very long tradition that high places, being ‘on high’, say, on Mount Olympus, or above the clouds, are somewhere reserved to the divine. In the Old Testament, the Deuteronomist is concerned, in identifying divinity with the One True God, that the former places of worship, worship of idols such as Baal or Asherah, described as ‘high places’, should be eradicated. But Yahweh lived in heaven, and he was worshipped on the Temple mount, a high place in itself.

If what we are looking towards in God is ultimate power, truth and authority, again this is most simply imagined spatially: God reigns over the earth. The Enlightenment challenge is almost the same as Yuri Gagarin’s. If God is, if heaven is, ‘up there’, then why is He not observable and susceptible of scientific analysis? Because, indeed, He isn’t. Wittgenstein put this propositionally, that metaphysical statements could not be verified in the same way as ordinary empirical ones. 

So whereas we can agree about what it is for something to be a chair, or a nut cutlet (the humour of which, in concept, has not lasted so well since it convulsed the lecture theatres in the 1960s), we cannot say what would verify the truth of a statement about what it is for something to be good, or for someone to be the Son of God. 

‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein wrote at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He meant that his theory of meaning could not cover metaphysical concepts, and therefore he had nothing to say about them. But again, like Gagarin, Wittgenstein was a believer. He went to church throughout his life.

So we can infer that Wittgenstein, and presumably Gagarin, did not take the fact that their chosen means of verification had drawn a blank as proof that there was no God. Just because in earth orbit in VOSTOK 1, Gagarin did not perceive God with his senses, and just because Wittgenstein could not identify a way to verify metaphysical statements, neither of them took those failures as evidence of falsehood. 

Obviously by the time that the early twentieth-century Vienna School of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath and its founder, Schlick, had been written up by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), the doctrine of ‘logical positivism’ had assumed an atheistic face, or at least an anti-metaphysical one. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge, was militantly atheistic, as was Ayer.

Logical positivism is heavily influenced by mathematics. It distinguishes between ‘first order’, logical truths, such as that the same number cannot be both positive and negative at the same time, and ‘second order’, contingent truths that can be inferred or observed from first order truths – that something is a red cow, for instance. This has no room for the Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of metaphysics – μετά τα φυσικά, things after, or on top of, physical things. So there is the Platonic concept of Ideas, essences. Not just that something is a table, but that it has the qualities which make it a table, the essence of tablehood. 

Plato understood a dualism of body and soul. The soul of a person was that person’s essence, what it is for someone to be that particular person. So it was a short step to a concept of immortality, based on a transmigration of souls, a nether world, Hades, where the souls of the dead go across the river Acheron, and from which the blessed emerge into Heaven above, into the Elysian Fields.

The logical positivists had nothing to bring to this understanding. In a binary world or any other world conceived mathematically, it was impossible to find room for souls.

But more recently, Oxford philosophers of religion, most notably Richard Swinburne, have looked again at the apparent conflict between logic and metaphysics. Quantum theory has produced mathematics described as ‘fuzzy logic’. 2 + 2 does not necessarily equal 4. Logical proofs can be constructed so as to demonstrate that a soul could exist independently of a body.

But even if one allows that metaphysical entities can exist, how do they ‘work’? What are we to make of the concepts of ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’, in a sense of reunion with God? If sin is άμαρτια, literally, ‘missing the mark’, salvation lies in being recovered into the divine safe haven where the Godhead is.

Except it isn’t a ‘haven’, in most Christian understanding. It is ‘heaven’. But first let us go back to sin. The ingredients include, of course, not just sin, but

sins, bad acts. It seems to me that this might also lead to an examination of theodicy. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?

It is argued that, for instance in the Book of Job, when Job rails against the injustice of God, we are almost led into concluding that God is not in fact all-good. But suppose one brings in the traditional answer to this ‘problem of evil’, which is that humans have free will: we can choose freely to do what is bad, evil, as well as what is good.

In so doing, we are opposing the good God. If what we do goes against the goodness of God, it is taking away from, missing, the love of God – and it is therefore sinful. But it doesn’t make God into a bad God – indeed, just as Jesus wept, at the death of Lazarus, it may even sadden God.

But consider St Paul’s discussion in Romans 7, which arguably muddies the waters by positing limits to free will. Paul sins not because he has chosen the bad over against the good, but because he ‘couldn’t help it’. In other words, he feels himself not to be a free agent. So perhaps free will isn’t an explanation for apparent divine cruelties.

Traditionally, theologians have argued that sin and bad conduct are not the same. To follow the Ten Commandments will make one morally good, but one could still be sinful, it is argued. I am not sure, however, that Pelagius was entirely wrong. It may be that one cannot earn one’s way into heaven by good deeds; but to the extent that one’s good deeds draw one back into God’s entrance yard, they may bring one closer to salvation.

But what about the cross, and Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice (ίλασμον)’? It seems cogent that, again, a good God would not want his own son to be offered as a human sacrifice. 

We are back to the question of knowing God. How do you know that God loves you? By being aware of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. ‘Greater love hath no man …’ There are examples of sacrifice – people standing in front of a gun pointed at someone else; standing in for someone else who is going to be harmed. The stories of a Maximilian Kolbe or a Jack Cornwell. 

But specifically, taking upon oneself the burden of someone else’s sin? Being punished for someone else’s transgressions? What is really happening? A suggested model is the Jewish idea of a ‘scapegoat’. 

Sacramentally or symbolically, the sins of the congregation are laden on to a goat (or a sheep or any other docile domestic animal to hand): the poor animal is then cut loose to fend for itself, and probably starve, in the desert outside. How exactly are the sins ‘loaded’ on the poor animal?

We are in the realm of classical drama. Achieving catharsis (‘cleaning out’ your soul) comes through pity and fear, according to Aristotle. Watching someone suffer, to some extent you suffer ‘with’ them. What does that ‘with’ mean? The difficulty is that I cannot know what it feels like to be you, or to experience what you do, and you can’t feel what I feel either.

Maybe this ‘atoning sacrifice’ is not a transaction – an eye for an eye, say, buying off, placating, a wrathful deity – but rather more akin to complementary medicine; healing, by way of a sort of inoculation. If we take in some minor badness or do it, it can protect us, vaccinate us, against being overwhelmed by total badness. In doing this sacramentally, in entering into someone else’s sacramental sacrifice, as the priest perfects the sacrifice, so we the congregation are blessed by an approving God, or, even, ‘saved’.

This kind of salvation does not, though, imply intimacy. It does not lead one to say one ‘knows’ God, or more particularly that one ‘knows’ Jesus, in the same way in which one would know one’s Aunt Florrie. The revelation experiences in the Old and New Testaments – the burning bush, the dove coming down from heaven, the ‘gardener’ at the empty tomb – none of these are at all comfortable. People who ask how well one knows Jesus cannot really be referring to those examples.

On the other hand there is the Pauline idea of Christians being ‘in Christ’, or ‘in the Spirit’. Among others John A. T. Robinson has, in his ‘The Body’ (John A. T. Robinson 1952, The Body – a Study in Pauline Theology, London, SCM Press) argued on the basis that ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the body of Christ’, i.e. in the Church. I do not think this sits particularly well with those passages where e.g. John, in Revelation (1:10) says that he did something when he was ‘in the spirit’.The NEB is stretching the Greek too much by translating έγενομην έν πνεύματι as ‘I was caught up by the Spirit.’ It clearly does not mean, ‘as a member of the church I… [did something].’ Another way to make sense of this is to invert the meaning, so to be in Christ means, to have Christ in you: and in that Christ has gone, has ascended, it is the Holy Spirit that will fill the believer in Jesus’ place. The Spirit is the Comforter, the spirit of truth, the Paraclete or advocate, the barrister at the court of life.

At the first Pentecost the Spirit manifested itself miraculously, burning – or not burning – the disciples’ hair as the burning bush similarly burned without being consumed, for Moses. The men of all the provinces listed in the Book of Genesis, from Parthia and Cappadocia and all, found themselves able to speak each other’s language.

We don’t have such astonishing experiences, however. What would it mean for one of us today to be ‘in the spirit’? 

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1st May 2016 Zephaniah 3:14-20
‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.’ (Zephaniah 3:14-15)
Zephaniah, in his short book – it has only three chapters – gives a snapshot of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. The people of God having turned away from the Lord and worshipped the Baals, God would punish them. The description of the punishment takes two and a half chapters out of the three chapters in the book! Then the ‘remnant of Judah’, the ones who were spared, suddenly find that God looks kindly on them and they are saved.
What a strange idea the people of the Old Testament seem to have had about God! As they saw things, God took sides. They were the chosen people: therefore they expected God to favour them and help them to overcome their enemies. In the weeks after Easter, at Morning Prayer during the week, Common Worship offers as a canticle ‘The Song of Moses and Miriam’, taken from Exodus chapter 15.
Here is some of it.
‘I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song

and has become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will praise,

the God of my forebears whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior,

the Lord is his name.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power:

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
At the blast of your nostrils, the sea covered them;

they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
In your unfailing love, O Lord,

you lead the people whom you have redeemed.’
And so on. ‘The Lord is a warrior’: ‘your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy’.
Quite apart from the divine sneeze – ‘At the blast of your nostrils’, this sounds very strange – quite unlike how we think of God. What about God’s love for all mankind? Surely we were, we are told, all made in the image of God. How can He favour one lot over against another?
God, in the Old Testament, does seem to be a kind of superhero, a sort of almighty trump card. If you have God on your side, you will prevail, you will succeed. Clearly this God, the one who comes down in a cloud or in a fiery pillar and speaks to Moses, is a sort of superman, who has a direct relationship with His chosen people, through his prophets. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, is being God’s mouthpiece.
But we really don’t believe in that kind of God any more. The God who blows people away with a ‘blast of his nostrils’ is of a piece with the image of heavenly king, sitting on some kind of magic carpet throne above the clouds. He didn’t really survive the Age of the Enlightenment. A God like that is limited in time and place. He is ‘up there’, or ‘out there’. That’s not consistent with being all-powerful, the creator from nothing, ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only wise’.
The thought is that Jesus has changed our outlook on God. God has come to us, our interface with God isn’t in a burning bush or through a prophet, but by His being a man like us, human as well as divine. Easy to say, but really difficult fully to understand.
Now this week, on Thursday evening we will remember and celebrate Christ’s Ascension. ‘While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9). Up – He goes up, He ascends. He went up, He ascended. And then ‘two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ (Acts 1:10-11)
In one way, it looked as though Jesus had gone up, gone up to a heaven above the clouds. But then these angelic figures contradict it. The ‘heaven’, where Jesus has gone, isn’t up above the clouds. Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’
Indeed, the lifting up on Ascension Day is not the same as lifting up was generally understood to be, something shameful, being lifted up on a cross. In the Jewish tradition, to be lifted up was a sign of shame.
Today is Rogation Sunday, so called because the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘calling’ or ‘asking for something’. In anticipation of Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we call on God, we anticipate Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. For the farmers, the call to God is in the context of springtime, a call for God to bless their crops and make their flocks thrive.
Going to heaven is at the heart of our faith. What did happen to Jesus? Indeed, what does happen to anyone who dies? In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 4:14-17], and in the beginning of Acts, we read this rather enigmatic reference to Jesus returning to us from the same direction as he went off to. ‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn puts it.
He’s not ‘up there’ in a conventional sense. God, Jesus, transcends space and time. He is ‘at the ground of our being’, as Paul Tillich put it. It’s something of absolutely central importance. Think of all the things which we confront today. There are elections on Thursday as well as Ascension Day – and a referendum, the outcome of which could radically change our country’s place in the world. There is the most catastrophic war going on in Syria. Our doctors feel so strongly that they are going on strike. What difference does it make, where Jesus ascended to, or whether there is a heaven?
Think of all those Bible lessons that you have at funerals, when people have to confront this ultimate question. Is there life after death? Think of St Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians, in particular chapter 15. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and our faith is in vain. But He was raised: Paul lists all the people who saw him, who met him, in that amazing time. They were witnesses, witnesses just as serious, just as certain, as in a court of law.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate incarnation. Because He entered into our human life, and because He was resurrected, so we will be resurrected. There is life after death. But Paul is properly cautious about exactly how it will happen.
He says, ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor 15:42-44)
Now frankly that is hugely, hugely important. God is involved in our world: God cares for us. There is life beyond death. And Jesus, as he met again his faithful followers, after He rose from the dead, tells them – tells us – not to skip over it, but to
‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:18-20). It was the Great Commission, the great challenge. Our faith isn’t a quirky weird little secret society. It can give hope to all people, and that hope is the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life.
So on this May Day, Rogation Sunday, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’ Among all the challenges, there is hope. Just don’t keep it to yourself.

Sermon for Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.