Sunday after Ascension, 1 June 2014, St Mary, evening

Reading Ephesians 1.15–end

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Spring, according to the Second Book of Samuel, is the time when kings go out to battle (2 Samuel 11.1). Spring is also the season when politicians often go out to fight elections and, since UK elections happen on Thursdays, that means we sometimes go to the polls on Ascension Day, which always falls on a Thursday in Spring. This year we missed it by a week, but by Ascension Day last Thursday we were still digesting the march UKIP and of other, rightist and leftist groups across the continent in its rage against the European machine. Now is a good tome to do this, because the Ascension of Jesus is a very political festival.

The Ascension story, as told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus was put to death but raised to new life; he appeared to his disciples for forty days, and taught them about the kingdom of God. Then told them, ‘You will be my witnesses, not just throughout Israel but to the ends of the earth,’ and then he was lifted up, and a cloud took him into heaven (Acts 1.1-11).

What would a modern historian say about all this? That Jesus was executed by the political authorities, who saw him as a threat (his talk of the ‘kingdom’ – or ‘empire’ – of God may have been part of it); that his followers were convinced that they saw him after he had died; that reports of his appearances stopped after a while, but this did not lead to the movement fading away, but rather began a period of rapid expansion. Acts tells the story from the inside, tries to say what this is really about, in a story that political commentators would call a coded message. The code-words are ‘up’, ‘heaven’ and ‘cloud’.

Why is Jesus taken up? Because ‘up’ is the direction of heaven, seen in those days as a specific place, above the blue vault of the sky, where the throne of God is. Jesus is taken up to heaven by a cloud and, according to two mysterious commentators at the scene, he will come back in the same way. Now the book of Daniel had spoken of ‘one like a son of man’ coming on a cloud at the end of the age to rule the nations (Daniel 7.13-14). Put it all together, and here is a sign that Jesus is not just the one who is to direct the lives of his followers, not even the one who will just save Israel, but the one who will exercise God’s authority over the whole world.

The book of Acts and its prequel, the gospel of Luke, tell a story that shows this about Jesus. Other books in the New Testament just say it. Tonight’s reading, from the letter to the Ephesians, says that God has put ‘all things under his feet’ and made him ‘the head of all things’. Others put it more boldly, in what may be the earliest Christian statement of belief, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Romans 10.9, 1 Corinthians 12.3). Jesus is Lord – his concern for the least and the lost, his way of living and dying, these are what must direct your energies, your choices, your life. And if Jesus is Lord then no-one else is. It’s that kind of job.

There are, naturally, other contenders. Think of Stalin, or his pale shadow (pale but potent), Mr Putin. Think of Presidents Assad or Mugabe. What would it cost under such regimes to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and act on it? Some do, of course, in every age. Hans Erhenberg, a pastor in Germany in the 1930s, recalled a church summer camp, and a service in a room dominated by a large picture of Hitler. A recently-confirmed Lutheran girl grabbed the picture and threw it against the wall, saying, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’. What happened to her, I wonder, and to her family? And your Sunday paper will have stories of people who as we sit her now are finding how much it costs to bear the name of Christian.

So, the ascended Jesus is our defence against false gods. But in British politics false gods like that are not really the problem, are they? In the recent elections, barely a third of those eligible to vote across the country did so. Shameful. Imagine a church service where just one in three of the congregation sang the hymns or said the Lord’s prayer. The idea that any British political leader could be elevated to godlike status is hilarious. The business of politics is discredited here. Politicians are kept up late to be belittled by Jeremy Paxman, or are likened by a superannuated footballer to four ugly girls in nightclub, a remark that manages to be offensive on a number of levels in a very few words. Easy targets for cheap shots.

Our problem is not that we idolise politicians – too much bad stuff has happened for that – but that we virtually demonise them, and that we turn away, not just from voting, but from the whole public sphere of which politics are a part. I was talking to someone this lunchtime and he said that what was in my mind, that people of our parents’ generation died for this (or in my dad’s case, endured years of captivity) to preserve our ability to choose our government. This should make us pause before we smile at the glib dismissiveness of Russell Brand and his kind that it’s cool not to vote.

So, in times like these, what will it mean for you and me to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and mean it? It will mean seeing in the image of the ascended Jesus a reminder that he died for the world, not just each individual human heart. It will mean admitting that God is calling some of us to work in that public world: in party politics, perhaps, or in those other tasks – school governor, local campaigner, voluntary worker, Scout or Guide leader – that are concerned with the life we shape for one another and so are in a deep sense political. It will mean praying for people in that public world, because God’s work is to be done out there as much as in here.

It will mean seeing ‘in here’ a place that gives glory to God, and then equips men and women to give glory to God in all the rest of what they do. And to do that, we can’t afford to use up all our energies maintaining the inner life of the Team. Avoiding that is partly a frame-of-mind question: ‘Am I more interested in the Church, or in the Kingdom of God the church proclaims?’ It’s also a matter of money, paying for important work to be done in here, and so leaving more of our energies free for God out there. Our Mission Action Plan wants to see our churches as centres of the community. That is in the first place about flesh and blood people, but it’s also buildings. And because giving is going backwards in real terms we are having to dip into historic assets to pay the everyday bills – money we had hoped to spend on our buildings. What’s to be done? Are you in the planned giving scheme? If so, when did you last review your giving?

Gosh! – all this sounds so exhausting. Where will we find the energy for all that? Yet more stuff to feel guilty about. There is a principle of Christian faith that God never calls us to anything without giving us the means to do it. At the end of the Ascension story, Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. Where will they find the energy for that? They needn’t worry: the energy will find them. ‘You will receive power, says Jesus, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you (Acts 1.8).’ But that’s next Sunday’s story.

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