Sunday after Ascension, 2019
What is heaven for you? Maybe it is a green wood full of bluebells, or being out in the sea fishing. At this time of Ascension, we mark and commemorate the Resurrected Christ being taken up to heaven. We know of course very little about what heaven is or might be, except that in the Gospels there are significant references to food in heaven – the heavenly banquet etc. I’m quite interested in food, so it was fascinating for me to have been invited recently to a dinner where the starters were provided by a food scientist working on edible insects, partly as a potential future solution in a world without the means to feed itself. I enjoyed the caterpillar puree, and the tiny amuse bouches made from beetles. So, on the Sunday after Ascension, why stand looking up to heaven?
We celebrated Ascension Day with rockets last Thursday. It was good to celebrate it with many guests, with some from the nearby Muslim Cultural Centre, for whom Ascension is a resonant image. This period in the church’s year is called Ascension tide, and we continue to concentrate on what the Ascension of Christ means as we wait for the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – that’s next Sunday. Recently, I have been speaking in this Easter period about the public quality of the Christian faith. I want to continue that theme and develop it a little bit this morning, by speaking of the aspects of Ascension which refer to the public quality of the faith. We are reminded in this period that the most important pre-requisite for any who would wish to identify themselves with the Christian faith, is that they witness to its truth. In other words, I want to speak of the openness and transparency of the Easter and Ascension tide faith.
Begin with the reading from Acts. In it, we heard the story of the liberation of a slave girl and the setting free of Paul and Silas from prison, and the baptisms of the jailer and his family. There was a clear requirement on whoever was going to be baptised. The person baptised needed to know the Lord and be prepared to witness to the resurrection. Nothing else. No Myers Briggs test, no expensive consultancy programme. No Alpha Course. Know the Lord. Witness to the resurrection. Now pray about it and get on with it. In terms of government of the Church, I long for this to be the model, but I suspect we have some way to go in the Church of England before we reach that level of faith. A Bishop was in the national press recently saying that the Church was unhealthily preoccupied with its own churchy stuff, especially the interminable and tedious debates on gender and sexuality – millennials especially feel this.
Similarly, in the Revelation to John, we are reminded of the inescapably public witnessing quality of our faith. Listen to this: “The one who testifies to these things says “Surely I am coming soon.” In other words, the testimony we have is nothing less than life itself. And again, it’s the word Testimony, as the requirement placed on those who believe. The theme is spelled out even more clearly in the Gospel according to John set for today, where Jesus says: “I am in them and you in me.” With the Ascension of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the work of that divine mission is now over to us. That’s a slightly awesome and humbling thought. There is no Plan B.
These three readings all give the context for this time between Ascension Day and Pentecost. The faith has a public quality, and we are called upon to witness to that public quality as an integral part of what it means to belong to this faith community. It’s not an optional extra. The language of Ascension is designed to re-enforce this. The imagery of the ascent of Christ describes the early Christian community’s belief in who and what Jesus Christ was for them. The claim being made by the spatial imagery of ascent into heaven is one about authority and rule. Who, for Christians, is the highest authority? Here the claim is radical and subversive, because the Christian community was making the claim in respect of Jesus Christ that, for them, he is the ultimate authority. This was and is a direct challenge to any who would claim that final allegiance was owed to the family or tribe, or to the party, or to the state. The spatial imagery of ascent is not only a claim about who is the final claim in authority, but also a statement about the public visible quality of the faith. It was no wonder that Christians were thought to be dangerous and subversive, not just in the early period of the Roman Empire, but right down to our own time. When we believe that faith in the ascended Lord has public, open, and transparent consequences, then there will be ways in which we express this.
Take the bigger national context right now, and especially the notorious and scandalous “hostile environment” of the Home Office, especially in respect of refugees and asylum seekers. A church report puts it like this “It is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool for coercion when dealing with refused asylum seekers.” On the growing gap between rich and poor it says this. “The church must challenge the thoughtless accumulation of wealth which ignores the needs of the poor, both globally and locally. Churches must not hold back from confronting selfish lifestyles, either in their own membership or in the wider population.” This is particularly significant here, where we have the UK’s widest gap in life expectancy based on the UK’s widest gap in incomes. Many houses go for over £20 million, and many of them are unoccupied as the owners live elsewhere. As we know, inflated property prices damage healthy society, and the social consequences of these levels of division are obvious. At the same time, many of the families who were made homeless by the tragedy at Grenfell Tower remain homeless. I need to be clear. I am not anti- wealth, nor am I advocating the politics of envy. But we need to make our wealth and our poverty work towards the common good, especially when it is channelled through the church’s work.
So these are just a few of the implications of the openness, the transparency, and the public quality of the faith in this period of Ascension. The model of the Kingdom as heavenly banquet, for me, will address all of these issues. There is a Chinese depiction of this from the period of Syriac Christianity in China, which you can see in the amazing oasis of Tulufa, close to the Taklamakan Desert. In this ninth century wall painting, the diners are given chop sticks so long that they cannot feed themselves, and the only way to eat the food is by using the long chopsticks to feed each other. We should try this one day at one of our dinners. As we pray “Thy Kingdom Come” as we await the sending of the Holy Spirit, these words may help “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Let’s go to it. It’s down to all of us together us, and there is no Plan B.