The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually brief, because for once our attention must be elsewhere, firmly focussed on the reading from Acts. This recounts the powerful experience Christ’s disciples underwent on Shavuot, a Jewish festival that occurs in late spring and commemorates God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.
The Christian festival which arose from that remarkable first-century Shavout is celebrated fifty days after Easter, hence the name ‘Pentecost’. Nowadays it is widely referred to as ‘the Birthday of the Church’. This is not quite right, however. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus founds the Church when he gives Simon the new name of ‘Peter’. Peter, he declares, is ‘the rock on which I will build my Church’. To understand the Day of Pentecost properly, therefore, we have to see it, not as the beginning, but as the development of the Church that Christ had founded in the course of his ministry. Pentecost is a point of transformation. A faithful group of believers was so powerfully inspired by the Holy Spirit, that they became something ‘mystical’, the Body of Christ on earth.
Unhappily, this has often been the reality. Christians have been so divided, so at odds with each other, that the Body of Christ seems fractured with dispute, recrimination, persecution and even slaughter. At many points, both past and present, the glorious commission given to the Apostles has been hidden behind a screen of intolerance, bigotry and narrow mindedness. And yet, the great mystery is, it is to this often fractured Church that God continues to entrust the Gospel. Pentecost, accordingly, should be embraced as an annual opportunity for real spiritual renewal. The image of wind invites us to spread our sails to a Holy Spirit that will blow us out of our spiritual doldrums, and the Pentecostal fire is an invitation to burn away the idols of our past.
The familiarity of this expression can hinder us in appreciating what an extraordinary status this bestows on the Church. It makes it sacred, and thus an institution like no other. When baptized Christians celebrate Pentecost they are claiming an astonishing privilege – to continue God’s incarnation in the world, and be the embodiment and enduring presence of Christ for human kind. By the same token, of course, this sacred status brings an awesome responsibility. When Christians exercise their privilege well, they can indeed be Christ in the world as a focus of hope and veneration. When they exercise it badly, then Jesus Christ becomes an object of the world’s contempt, or loathing or indifference.
How is this renewal to be accomplished? There is guidance in the reading from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. It begins by telling us, ‘No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit’. What this means is that, however much we may disagree with other Christians, their sincerity and faithfulness to the Lordship of Christ is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit within them. Certainly, there are important differences, but then, Paul says, that is what we should expect. He writes: ‘There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.’ The lesson he is driving home is not to seek uniformity in belief, or practice or opinion, but to search for and acknowledge the spiritual unity that underlies these differences. Just as a sports team or an orchestra must prize a variety of gifts while being bound by a single underlying spirit, so the Church at Pentecost must rejoice in the single Spirit manifested in all its astonishing variety.
In the very brief Gospel from John, Jesus quotes the prophet Ezekiel ‘Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water’. The celebration of Pentecost is threefold. First it means recognizing that all those who are able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ are led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Second, it means having a mind sufficiently open to see the living water that has flowed from their lives. Third, it means praying sincerely that such water will continue to flow. When churches are allowed to resume their proper work and worship, this Pentecostal prayer will matter even more.
Modern liturgical practice considers the Sunday following Ascension Day as the last Sunday in the Season of Easter. Accordingly, the Lectionary chooses Bible readings that link the beginning of the season with its close. So the first reading repeats the passage from the opening chapter of Acts that recounts Jesus’ final Resurrection appearance to his disciples before his Ascension.
The Gospel -- from John – takes us back to Holy Week, however. It occurs just after the long ‘Farewell Discourses’ that Jesus addresses to the eleven left in the upper room once Judas Iscariot has fled their celebration of the Passover. He turns his thoughts to God and says, “I am coming to you, Holy Father”, a prayer appropriate to ascension, but uttered when he has the long and arduous path of trial, condemnation and death still to tread. It is striking, though, that it is at this moment, and not the moment of ascension recorded by Luke, 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 ‘the world’ have to wait for Ascension?
At one level it does. The eternal unity of Father and Son is renewed with the Ascension when Jesus visibly ascends from earth to heaven. At another level, however, the mystery that underlies this unity relies upon a proper understanding of the relation between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. It is a fact of human experience that ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’, the earthly and the heavenly, are often at war within us. Contrary to what people commonly suppose, this does not mean that the spiritual or heavenly realm is radically divorced from the material or earthly one. Rather, as this week’s Gospel makes it plain, we are not to think of heaven as another world purged of all its imperfections of this one, a place we travel to when we die. On the contrary, as this week’s lesson tells us, Jesus did not come to promise bliss in the future, but “to give eternal life” now. Importantly, the Gospel then adds: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In other words, eternal life begins not at death, but when we first truly know God in Christ. At that point, the human spirit is offered a new way of living an earthly life that transcends mortality, regardless of when that may come.
We are free, of course, to turn down the offer, and continue in our ordinary ways. What difference does accepting it make?? Part of the answer lies in our own conduct. This week’s Epistle from the First Letter of Peter says “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”. Such advice, however, can only be part of the answer. A lot of the time, as we know very well, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, so that self-centred anxieties continue to dog us. It is precisely at these moments, however, that Peter’s words speak most powerfully to us: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you”.
The real Good News is that ultimately we are not at the mercy of our own efforts which are often misguided and feeble. Jesus is properly called Saviour because, even when we beset by fear, weakness, and ignorance, he loves us in just the way that God loves us. Given the anxieties about public health that currently dominate our lives, this is welcome news. Faith is a two-way relationship. We hold out our hands, but it is God who reaches down to us. We open our hearts, but it is Christ’s saving spirit that enters them. We lose the ability to pray, but the Spirit prays for us, in ‘sighs too deep for words’. And this reassurance, fittingly is the promise of Pentecost, the liturgical season that is just about to come.
Ascension Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked on a par with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Yet, while this is the ‘official’ position, Ascension has rarely been accorded the same sort of prominence as the other major feasts, either in the life of the Church or in the practice of individual Christians.
Why has there been this benign neglect? Perhaps it is in part because the event Ascension commemorates -- the heavenly departure of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though he does tell the story twice, first in his Gospel and then in Acts. Perhaps it is because over the centuries, unlike Christmas and Easter, Ascension’s 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.
This is reflected in our modern calendar. Previously, Ascension had a season all to itself – the ten days of Ascensiontide with special ceremonies by which it was marked. Now Ascension Day has been swept into the Easter season. Is this a gain, or a loss?
It is a loss if it leads us to miss the theological significance of the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. These few days are important because they unite us in a rather special way with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. For three years, they were able to walk and talk with him. They watched and listened as he taught and healed and prophesied and challenged his listeners in the course of his ministry. Then, just as his mission was attracting more and more interest, it ground to a halt in apparent failure. The teacher and preacher to whom they had given their lives, was arrested, condemned and executed. To their astonishment, however, they were granted a second opportunity, to be physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, and so to enter again the privileged company of one they now knew to be the Son of God.
No Christians ever since have had the experience that blessed the lives of the Apostles. While they drew on their own experience, we have to rely on their testimony. In the pursuit of our discipleship we must live by faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. They were there, they saw, they heard.
Ascension marks the point at which Jesus finally left them. Having led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany, in the very act of blessing them, Luke tells us, he withdrew and was taken ‘out of their sight’. This must have been a critical moment. His departure "from their sight" meant that for the first time, they had to stand firm in their discipleship, without his unique presence to sustain them. It was his Ascension, not his Resurrection, that asked something new of them. Now for the first time they stood on level ground with the rest of us, and were required to prepare themselves for what all Christians must rely upon – the advent of a Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that ‘third person’ of the Trinity who leads us into the eternal life of the Father, whom we do not see, and of the Son, whom we never met.
In the passage from Acts for the sixth Sunday in Easter Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus, a rocky platform beside the Acropolis in Athens. This is a key moment in the history of Christianity, and of the world. Here, 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. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could avoid falling for individual fads and passing fashions, and how best they might be lived in harmony with the whole creation.
When Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers, posed his famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he was giving voice to a doubt about how easily these two ways of thinking could be combined. For the Greeks, the pursuit of wisdom meant gaining knowledge of the way the cosmos was structured and functioned. Their hope, and their faith, was pinned on what we would today call science. For the Jews, by contrast, reality was ultimately personal, a reflection of the will of its divine creator and ruler, and their faith consequently, lay in knowing and following God’s purpose.
The Epistle for this Sunday reveals something about this difference. Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But the kind of reason he is referring to is not founded in evidence or experiment. Rather, it springs from something more basic, that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.
In his speech to the Greeks, 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 scientific knowledge, valuable though this is. At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ to which Jesus refers in the Gospel, is not something impersonal – scientific knowledge -- but something personal -- love for God through Christ. 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 have to live) can be fully reconciled.
The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical and biological system. There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But the Christian religion holds that inquiries of this kind cannot sound reality's depths or tell us how best to live. Rather, the world is a cosmic expression of divine love, animated by that love, and inviting a personal response from us.
In the current crisis, our lives have been drastically altered in the name of ‘following the science’. The Church has gone along with that, and laid its public worship aside. But now we are confronted by this question: the impersonal science we are following gives us predictions and death counts. But does it give us reason for the hope that we have? Actually, does it give us hope at all? Might it be that Jesus is calling us to proclaim afresh “the Spirit of truth, whom the world (especially in its current state of anxiety) cannot receive”?
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, a person 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 marvellous 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”.
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. The Gospel asks the disciples this question, and asks it of us also: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" Living in the world that we live in, how are we to respond ?
We know what membership of the Church meant to Stephen. What does it mean to us? Is it a matter of belonging to a welcoming group whose social life we enjoy, and whose 'good causes' we endorse? In that case, we will commit a few Sundays a month to it, and join in its community activities at other times as well. Or is 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? If it is the second, this will be shown in our willingness to sacrifice a very great deal for it -- time and money, certainly, but also popularity, social approval and conventional wisdom, if that's what witnessing requires,. This falls far short of what was required of Stephen, and yet, surrounded as we are by a secular society, sacrifices like these often prove too difficult, a test, in fact, that we are quite likely to fail.
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