The Power of Heaven Let Loose on Earth

Acts 2.1–21; John 15.26—16.15
a sermon at the Eucharist and Baptism (of Isabel Johanna Sheen) in Durham Cathedral
on the feast of Pentecost, 31 May 2009

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

What are we praying for when we pray for the Holy Spirit?

‘Send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us,’ we have prayed over this last week, ‘and exalt us to the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before’. If you’ve been using the modern prayer book, the only significant change there is that instead of ‘comfort’ we have said ‘strengthen’: ‘send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to the plae where our Saviour Christ is gone before.’ We do retain the notion of ‘comfort’, though, in this new version, since we still pray ‘leave us not comfortless’. This of course echoes the language of the Farewell Discourses in the Gospel of St John, where Jesus promises that he will not leave his followers ‘comfortless’ but will himself ‘come to them’, will send them his own Spirit.

But what exactly are we praying for when we pray that prayer? Comfort and heavenly exaltation; put those notions into the traditional Western picture of what Christianity is all about and you get one picture, but put them in their first-century context and you get quite a different one. And I suggest that it’s the first-century one that we need to recapture in the twenty-first century.

Our natural assumption when we think of comfort and heavenly exaltation is that we are praying for the Holy Spirit to cheer us up when we’re sad, on the one hand, and to transport us away from this present world of darkness and gloom and suffering to the pure spiritual realm of ‘heaven’ where we can enjoy the presence of God without being troubled by the cares of the world. No doubt there are many times when Jesus’ followers need to hear these words in exactly those senses. Comfort and rescue are badly needed today in many parts of the world; imagine being a follower of Jesus today in Darfur, or in parts of Sri Lanka, or indeed Jesus’ own native Palestine. But the first-century meanings open up quite a different vista, and it’s one we who follow Jesus in this country, at this moment in our peculiar history, need to grab on to with both hands.

The key, as so often, is in the meaning and resonance of the word ‘heaven’. When you go back to the Old Testament, you find that not only are heaven and earth much closer to one another, and much more mysteriously interconnected, than we in the modern west usually imagine, but more important still that ‘heaven’ is the control room, the CEO’s office, if you like, for what happens here on earth. In the book of Daniel, the pagan kings come and go but are confronted with the fact that there is a God in heaven who is calling them to account. The fact that this God is in heaven doesn’t mean he’s remote, but on the contrary that he’s in charge, he is calling the shots, though not in the way human kings do. In Psalm 2, to which the early Christians looked back as they pondered the mystery of who Jesus really was, the nations and their rulers make a great rage and fuss, but ‘he who dwells in heaven laughs; the Lord has them in derision.’ Then there comes the enthronement of God’s anointed: ‘Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.’ ‘You are my son’, says God to his anointed and enthroned king, ‘this day I have begotten you; ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance; the uttermost parts of the earth as your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ And the Psalm ends with a call to the rulers of the earth to be wise, to submit to the rule of God’s anointed king. We cannot ponder this too deeply. The one who is enthroned in heaven is the one who is ruling over the earth, to whom all earthly rulers must give account. That is the meaning of the Ascension, and with it the meaning, also, of Pentecost.

Pause on Ascension for a moment. The Ascension, frustratingly, is often radically misunderstood. The Ascension is not about Jesus going away and encouraging his followers to look forward to the time when they, too, will leave this sad old earth and follow him to heaven. The angels do not say to the watching disciples, ‘This same Jesus, whom you have seen going into heaven, will look forward to welcoming you when you go to join him there,’ but ‘this same Jesus, whom you have seen going into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’. And the point of that so-called ‘second coming’, or ‘reappearance’ as several New Testament writers put it, is not that he will then scoop us up and take us away from earth to heaven, but that he will celebrate the great party, the great banquet, the marriage of  heaven and earth, establishing once and for all his rescuing, ransoming, restoring sovereignty over the whole creation. ‘The kingdom of this world,’ says John the Seer, ‘has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ Amen, we say at the Ascension. This is the real Feast of Christ the King, and the sooner we abolish the fake one that has recently been inserted into our calendar in late November the more likely we shall be to get our political theology sorted out. And, boy, do we need to sort it out right now. If at a time like this we cannot think and speak and act Christianly and wisely and clearly and sharply into the mess and muddle of the rulers of the world we really should be ashamed of ourselves. Jesus is already reigning, is already in charge of this world. ‘All authority,’ he says at the end of Matthew’s gospel, ‘has been given to me in heaven and on earth.’ When he returns he will complete that work of transformative, restorative justice; but it has already begun, despite the sneers of the sceptics and the scorn of the powerful, and we celebrate it with every Eucharist but especially today at Pentecost.

Why especially today? Because at Pentecost we discover, as in last week’s Collect, that the Holy Spirit comes to strengthen or comfort us and exalt us to the same place where our saviour Christ has gone before. In other words, the Spirit is the power of heaven come to earth, or to put it the other way the Spirit is the power that enables surprised earthlings to share in the life of heaven. And, to say it once more, the point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. The claim of Pentecost, from Acts 2 and Ephesians 4 and Romans 8 and all those other great Spirit-texts in the New Testament, especially John 13—16, is precisely that the rule which the ascended Lord Jesus exercises on earth is exercised through his Spirit-filled people. No doubt we do need ‘comforting’ in the modern sense of that word, cheering up when we’re sad. But we need, far more do we need, ‘comforting’ in the older sense of ‘strengthening’, strengthening-by-coming-alongside. Just as, in human ‘comfort’, a strange thing happens, that the sheer presence, even the silent presence, alongside us of a friend gives us fresh courage and hope, how much more will the presence alongside us and within us of the Spirit of Jesus himself give us courage and hope not simply to cheer up in ourselves but to be strong to witness to his Lordship, his sovereign rule, over the world where human rulers mess it up and ignorant armies clash by night.

So being ‘exalted to the place where Jesus has gone before’ is precisely not about being snatched away from this wicked world and its concerns. On the contrary, it is to be taken in the power of the Spirit to the place from which the world is run. ‘God raised us up with him,’ declares St Paul, ‘and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’. And only when you continually remind yourself what this means will you understand why he goes on to say that God’s plan is to unveil his many-splendoured wisdomthrough the church before the surprised and alarmed eyes of the principalities and powers. The whole letter to the Ephesians is all about this, and in case you think it sounds a bit easy, a bit cheaply triumphalistic, read the letter through to the end and you’ll find that it commits us to unceasing and vigilant spiritual warfare, taking the whole armour of God and being prepared to suffer for our cheerful witness to his kingdom.

So where does this leave us in this year of grace 2009 as we pray that God will, by his Spirit, exalt us to the place where our Saviour has gone before?

It leaves us, I suggest, with a mission, but a mission reconceived and rethought to meet the urgent needs of our day. Never before in my lifetime has there been such political turmoil as we now have in this country, and I suspect that if the Daily Telegraph could get hold of similar papers from the European Parliament there would be a substantial explosion there too. But the revelations we’ve heard, carefully leaked and milked bit by bit for maximum financial and political advantage as the Fourth Estate plays its own cynical games, are merely the newest symptom of a much deeper malaise in our public and political life, and we who in the power of the Spirit invoke the name of Jesus the ascended Lord have no choice but to read Psalm 2 again and confront the rulers of the world with the message: Now therefore, O kings, learn wisdom; come in fear and trembling before God’s Son. He has ways of calling people, especially rulers, to account, not always as soon or as obviously as we might like, but always effectively, allowing them slowly but surely to reap what they sow and sometimes bringing them down with a sudden crash. And our task is to embody and proclaim what the Spirit is saying to the world and its rulers, by way of critique, calling the world and its rulers to account, fresh wisdom, clear proposals. What I have often said about culture in general – that the church has the chance right now to lead the way through the postmodern morass and out the other side – I say equally strongly and more urgently about politics. We who believe in Jesus Christ as the world’s true Lord, calling all rulers to account, cannot keep silent at such a time.

But, you say, that’s all very well for you people who have a microphone, a seat in Parliament, and access to the media. Most of us don’t have that. What can we do? Well, of course, there are many forums where you can make a voice of wisdom heard, and you must use those as best you can. But actually the witness of the church does not consist mainly in big statements and loud trumpetings. The witness of the church consists, as it has always done, in living within the present world according to the new rule of the ascended Lord, living in faith, hope and love, putting into practice the generous self-giving love which is at the core of Jesus’ own message, living out the Beatitudes day by day, demonstrating to the world that there is a different way to be human, a way of charity and chastity, a way of patience and prudence, a way of joy and justice, that it works, that it is life-giving, that it is creative and cheerful and colourful and bubbles up, like the Spirit itself, all over the place and all of the time. Without the church constantly living like this, there is no point in a few of us leaders talking about Jesus as Lord. The whole life of the church, particularly in its outward-facing works of mercy and generosity, of justice and compassion, is the setting within which a few of us can speak with conviction about the rule of the crucified and resurrected Saviour.

This is actually the truth underneath those quite dark and dense sayings in today’s Gospel, where Jesus declares that when the Spirit comes he will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment. The world is getting it wrong; our rulers are getting it wrong; and the Spirit will call them to account. But how will the Spirit do that? Not independently of those to whom the Spirit is given. It would be all too easy to read that passage as if the Spirit would just go ahead and do it and we would sit on the sidelines watching passively. No: the Spirit will call the world to account through us, through our speaking, yes, but just as much – read the Acts of the Apostles and you’ll see how it works – through our common life, our witnessing life, our own struggles for holiness and unity, our refusal to obey rulers when they tell us to disobey God, coupled with our peacemaking and health-giving lives which demonstrate that the gospel doesn’t make us cross-grained and awkward for the sake of it but rather community-builders, joy-bringers, culture-makers, homemakers, wisdom-bringers.

And so as we pray that the Spirit will exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ has gone before we discover that this is a vocation for everyone, yes, including little Isabel whom we’re now going to baptise. I was praying this morning for a child yet to be born, a baby boy due in October in a family I know. And I found myself praying that that little child, from his earliest days, will not only receive the love of God through the eyes of his parents, but will be a witness to them in return of that generous, life-transforming, community-building love. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb and celebrated the coming of Jesus while still in vitro. How much more can we now pray, in the light of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that Isabel and all who are baptised into the family of God’s people will bring into God’s world, in their own unique ways, the message and reality of his love which is the message and reality of his kingdom, his strange sovereign rule which transforms and judges and heals. What we do here today, in Baptism and Eucharist, is to invoke once again the Spirit who comforts and strengthens us so that we can indeed share the rule of Jesus Christ on earth as in heaven; and as we are ourselves judged and remade in the memory of our own Baptism into Christ and in sharing his body and blood so we go out to live and speak and breathe and pray his Kingdom in the world where the nations are in tumult and imagining a vain thing, but over which he has been enthroned for ever and now lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit.

Has it ever occurred to you to ask what it means that the Spirit shares the reign of the Father and the Son? Ask it today, ask it in prayer as you come to this Eucharist. And allow that same Spirit to comfort and strengthen you to live out here on earth whatever answer you receive from heaven.