Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Ascension -- Mafa

In older calendars the period following Ascension Day was a distinct liturgical season. Nowadays, though the theme of Ascension is still prominent, this Sunday is demarcated as the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Appropriately the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that will link the beginning of the season with its close. The passage from the first chapter of Acts recounts the final Resurrection appearance that Jesus made to his disciples – the occasion of his ascension to the Father. The Gospel passage – from John – is linked to this event by having a similar theme. Jesus expressly says “I am coming to you, Holy Father”. A key difference between the two passages, though, is that in the Gospel, he says this before his trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection, a time at which he still has a long and arduous path to tread. Yet it is at just this point, and not the Ascension in Acts, that Jesus declares “Now I am no longer in the world”. What can he mean? Even when he has risen from the dead, he appears in Galilee. Doesn’t his departure from ‘this world’ have to wait for Ascension?

Chagall -- Easter
The answer to this question, and the key to the mystery that underlies it, requires a proper understanding of the relation between heaven and earth. Though ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ are often at war within us, contrary to what people commonly suppose, this does not mean that the spiritual, heavenly realm is radically divorced from the material, earthly one. This week’s Gospel makes it plain that Heaven is not somewhere we travel to at death, a place just like Earth only purged of all its imperfections. Jesus came “to give eternal life”, it tells us, but it adds: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  In other words, we need not wait until we die to know God. Rather, in Christ the human spirit is offered a way of living now that will continue, indifferent to death when it comes. 

How are we truly to know God in Christ? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”. This advice can only be part of the answer. The real Good News, thankfully, is that we are not at the mercy of our own, often feeble, efforts. When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, which is a lot of the time, then “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”. Jesus is properly called Savior because he loves us in precisely the way that God does. We hold out our hands, but he it is who reaches down to us; we open our hearts, but it is his saving spirit that enters them. That is the promise of Pentecost, the season just about to come.  


Ascension Remedios Varo (1908-63)

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. Yet, while this means it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost, it has rarely been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Perhaps this is in part because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke (though that is also true of the Epiphany). Perhaps it is because over the centuries its precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

One way of identifying this significance, however, is to note the special way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileeans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.

Monday, May 19, 2014


St Paul Preaching at Athens -- Raphael

In the passage from Acts for this Sunday Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus in Athens. It is a key moment in the history of Christianity and the world. Two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.

Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin – philosophy, theology, history, the arts, the sciences and technology. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could transcend individual fads and passing fashions, and be lived in harmony with the whole creation. When the Epistle for this Sunday says “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” it could be taken to be stating one of Socrates’ most fundamental ideas. This shows that in some ways Jew and Greek were not so far apart. But while the Greeks looked to philosophy to learn this lesson (today it is science to which people turn), Peter adds that what is required is that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.

God Loves You -- Howard Finster (1989)
Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . .will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than science or philosophy, valuable though these are.  At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ is not something impersonal – knowledge -- but something personal -- love. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we find ourselves) can be fully reconciled. The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical system governed by causal laws of matter in motion. There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But this is not its fundamental basis. Rather it is a cosmic expression of Divine love, and animated by that love.

In the Gospel, Jesus identifies the Spirit of Truth as a Holy Spirit and promises a truly remarkable kind of intimacy with this love. We are not orphans in an alien cosmos because, he says, ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


St Thomas -- Jusepe de Ribera 

In this week’s Gospel, the disciple Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" The reply he receives is famous: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. The other readings show how, thanks to the Apostles’ preaching, this message could also speak powerfully to people who had not themselves followed Jesus of Nazareth, or witnessed his mysterious post-Resurrection appearances.

The passage from Acts is especially compelling in this respect. It is a very truncated version of the story of Stephen, a man held in such high regard by the early Christians that he was elected to the new office of deacon, and so entrusted with special responsibilities for the welfare of the fledgling Church. One day, as the price of this trust, Stephen faced a much greater and far more difficult call – to be the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.

‘Martyr’ does not mean ‘victim’, as it is often taken to mean in modern English. It means ‘witness’. Stephen had found his salvation in Christ. Jesus was for him THE way, THE truth and THE life. Accordingly, his pre-eminent task was to witness to this fact, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”, as the Epistle for this week puts it. Christian witness of this kind was not merely a duty, but a sacred privilege that could transcend even martyrdom. In death, Stephen remained what through Christ’s Cross he had become in life, one of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people”.

Stoning of Stephen -- Lorenzo Lotto
Nowadays, we find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between martyrs and fanatics, and the ideology of multiculturalism pressures us to say that Jesus is just one way, not the way. This is certainly a more comfortable message for contemporary Christians to affirm, but it is not what these Bible readings actually say. So how should we respond to them?

We know what membership of the Church meant to Stephen. What does it mean to contemporary Christians? Often it a matter of belonging to a welcoming group whose social life they enjoy, and whose 'good causes' they endorse. When that is case, it seems more than enough commit two or three Sunday mornings a month, and few other times for ‘outreach’. But if it something much deeper than this – the privilege of belonging to a ‘royal priesthood’ called 'out of darkness into light' by the saving work of God in Christ -- then we will be willing to sacrifice a very great deal for it -- perhaps even life itself, if (God forbid) the occasion should ever arise when this is demanded of us.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Van Gogh -- Shepherd with a flock of sheep (1884)

The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday, so called because the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. In many churches, appropriate “shepherd” hymns (often versions of Psalm 23, in fact) are sung on this Sunday to underline the theme.
In successive years the Gospel passage – always from John’s Gospel – differs slightly, but it never fails to include Jesus’ application of the metaphor of the shepherd to himself. This year we are told that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”. How much harder must it be for us to understand it, since we live in a world that – even in rural areas – is very far removed from the ancient world where the biblical shepherd was a common sight.
Rembrandt Head of Christ (1650)
Thanks to the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm, the language of sheep and shepherd is still familiar and comforting to many church people. Yet, this very familiarity can prevent us from grasping its essential feature. Shepherds in biblical times had two key tasks – to lead the sheep to sources of water that they were unlikely to find themselves, and to protect them from wild animals against which they were powerless. It was the superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd that made this possible, and without which the sheep could be expected to “go astray, each to his own way” (Isaiah 56:3).
    The message is not an entirely easy one for a modern audience. The contemporary spiritual climate emphasizes seeking, searching, questing and questioning. It is deemed enough to have set out on a spiritual journey of our own. The image of the Good Shepherd runs counter to this. It is God who finds us, not we who find God. Our task is to be able to recognize His call, and then to follow the divine Word as it uniquely comes to us through Christ. The attempt to establish a spiritual path through life of our own devising will only lead to dangerous wandering.
    In this year of the Lectionary, the brief passage from Acts gives us a sense of the excitement and urgency with which the first converts heard this call. Two thousand years on there cannot be that same urgency. But the passage also gives us a clear indication of what has lain at the heart of Christian practice, even from the earliest times -- “teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers”.