Seventh Sunday after Easter, Yr A, 28/5/17. Iffley
It’s been a hard, long week after Monday’s terrible events in Manchester. And a week of extraordinary contrasts. There was the horror of the event and the agony of the families and the tension of just waiting for news. But also that extraordinary coming together of the city of Manchester, with an outpouring of generosity and a remarkable resilience and calm as they stood together, people of all faiths and none, sharing the grief.
And so far, thankfully only a small amount of recrimination and hate crime. But spare a thought and a prayer for our Muslim sisters and brothers in faith as they carry the burden of this atrocity, done in the name of their beliefs. At times like this I always remind myself that Christianity too has had a violent past, even if it is one we are not eager to remember.
Just one piece of Christian/Muslim History. When the first Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, doing so in the name of Christ, almost everybody in the city was slaughtered – Muslims, Jews but also Christians from the Orthodox churches of the East, who had lived there under Muslim rule for nearly five hundred years. They too were slaughtered. Contemporary accounts tell us of streets mired in blood. It was appalling. When Saladin reconquered Jerusalem for Islam a hundred or so years later, no blood was shed. Saladin told his soldiers to respect everyone because it was a sacred city. So, we should not forget that Christians have perpetrated violent acts. The question raised by that and by the Manchester suicide bomber is not “What is it about Islam/Christianity that causes this to happen?” or even “Where is God?” but “What is it about our humanity that we can think to plan and do such a thing?” The flaw lies in all our human natures. From a faith point of view our first response – whatever else might follow – has to be humility and penitence, and a recognition of our human need for healing.
And that lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians, the whole purpose of the coming of Christ, and at the heart of the Feast of the Ascension we celebrated last Thursday and remember again today.
But what is the Ascension? That first reading describes it. (Acts 1:6-14) Luke tells us that Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives. And while he talked with them he and they were caught up into a breathtaking vision of the love and glory of God. If that account is brief, then it’s simply because they and Luke had no words to describe such love and immensity. Language fails before such an experience. What they could say was that at that moment Jesus was gathered up into God. And as the days and weeks passed they began to understand more of what that meant. The breathtaking thing here is that the Jesus wrapped into God’s love, wore on this hands and feet and side the marks of the cross. They are a reminder of the injustice of that trial, the pain of the cross and the darkness of death. The cross is the symbol of all the cruelty we perpetrate on each other, and all the darkness human life faces. And, before the disciples wondering eyes, that, all that, is gathered into the love and the compassion of God.
The Ascension means two things. First that the love and the presence that the disciples felt in Jesus during his lifetime really did, as they had dimly sensed, come from God. He was – though they could in no way define this – someone who was always making clear who God is. But the startling revelation here is that the disfunction and cruelty that the cross represents, was not the final word. There, on the Mt of Olives all of that is met by and overwhelmed in the immensity of God’s compassion.
There was a memorable moment in Albert Square in Manchester, when the Bishop shouted “Love is stronger than hate” and the crowds cheered and clapped. That’s right, of course. But put like that it can easily be taken as a statement of hope and aspiration. The Ascension is more: it says that Love is a reality, not a hope. What’s more it’s the reality that underpins everything, ready to gather everything into itself. There is no place from which such a love is absent. And what is more, when God embraces the darkness of the cross, God does so with a forgiveness that heals and restores and makes a wholly new future possible.
So you can see why Ascension was, for the early church, the pivotal vision for understanding what it was to be a Christian in an uncertain world. It underpins the whole NT. Take that Letter to Peter, our second reading. (1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11) It puts together the two things the Ascension proclaims which you might not otherwise expect to go together: Suffering and glory. And for the people for whom that was written, always on the brink of persecution by the authorities, that was of daily significance. When I went to Pakistan to visit churches there, there was no question but that that was their experience too. Many Christians in Pakistan live in fear of arrest. They know of people who have been falsely accused of insulting Islam, imprisoned and brutally treated. The fear was palpable and everywhere spoken of. But Christian worship was profoundly moving, deep, as were the lives of many of those I met. They drew strength from their faith, knew what glory was. Do we suffer? Well, in comparison with that, we don’t suffer at all. But these are our fellow Christians. They walk side by side with us. If we remember them we share their suffering.
But notice something here. We stand by the Muslim community in this country, at the same time as our fellow Christians are ill treated in some Islamic states! And we do that because the vision of the Ascension takes us deeper than surface comparisons. God’s forgiveness lies at the heart of everything, no matter what.
And perhaps we have to get used to oddities and paradoxes like that. Because rather suddenly we find ourselves waking up in a troubled world, and a more troubled and divided society here than we have known for a while. To be a Christian is increasingly to find ourselves to be cross grained, out of step, simply because we listen to a deeper music. In a world where our politics is bound up with power and force, to preach forgiveness, and to believe the crucified Jesus is Lord of all, is truly to be out of step. And where wealth and pleasure seem to be the goals of so many people, to live by the simplicity of the gospel is going to seem foolish. To watch levels of inequality and poverty grow, while a few accumulate such great wealth, and then to hear Jesus words in the sermon on the mount, is deeply troubling. All of this I suspect we have to get used to. There is perhaps an unquantifiable form of suffering there.
What then should we do? We need to do what the angels told the disciples to do: go back to Jerusalem. Devote ourselves to prayer, ponder the vision, and wait on God. We need constantly to reevaluate; to cherish our times of worship, to support and forgive one another, and to learn from one another. We need to share in these great sacraments – which give more than words can describe. But look, always look, at the wonder and the glory of God, which is always gathering up the darkness and transforming it. Our eyes must always be open for that groundswell of God’s love. And remember that the Ascension unfolds into the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that God given ability to live and speak in a troubled world. We pray for that.