Acts 16.16–34; John 17.20–end
a sermon at the Eucharist on the Sunday after Ascension Day
York Minster, 20 May 2007
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
I love the weekly Collects in the Book of Common Prayer (and, in principle, their updated versions). Again and again they outshine, in their elegant but profound synthesis, more recent attempts to capture Christian truth and turn it into prayer. In particular, stride for stride they completely outdo the strange and stilted offerings we find in the liturgy of our great sister across the Tiber. They are unsurpassed, a national and international treasure.
But (you could probably feel there was a ‘but’ coming, couldn’t you?) just occasionally they let you down with a bump; and today’s collect, the (updated) Prayer Book offering for the Sunday after Ascension Day, is one of them. Though actually letting you down with a bump may be the wrong metaphor, because what this collect does, in company with the Collect for Ascension Day itself, is to lift us up off the surface of the earth. The Collect for Ascension Day speaks of Jesus being ascended into heaven, and of us ‘in heart and mind thither ascending, and with him continually dwelling’. Today’s Collect speaks of Jesus having been exalted with great triumph to God’s kingdom in heaven, and of the Holy Spirit being sent to comfort us and exalt us to the place where he is gone before. And this image is so familiar, so obvious, so deeply rooted in the whole tradition of western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant, that unless we have our wits about us we may fail to realise that it is profoundly unbiblical.
I have just finished writing a small popular-level commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. And I was struck right from the start by the fact that Acts, which of course begins with the story of the Ascension, never once speaks in the way those Collects – and the whole tradition which they embody – so easily does. At no point in the whole book does anyone ever speak, or even sound as though they’re going to speak, of those who follow Jesus following him to heaven. Nobody says, ‘well, he’s gone on before and we’ll go and join him’. And for a very good reason. When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered.
Paradoxically, of course, because we have been used to seeing ‘heaven’ as a place separated from earth, somewhere far away, way beyond the blue. But that’s not how the Bible sees it, not at all. Heaven is God’s space, and earth is our space. ‘The heavens belong to YHWH,’ declares the Psalmist, ‘and the earth he has given to the human race.’ But the point of God’s split-level good creation, heaven and earth, is not that earth is a kind of training ground for heaven, but that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock (which is, by the way, the foundation of all sacramental theology, with the sacraments as one of the places where this overlap actually happens), and that one day – as the book of Revelation makes very clear – one day they will do so fully and for ever, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.
And that is why, in the Acts of the Apostles, the point of the coming of the Spirit, which we shall celebrate next week, isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven. That is why Acts is what it is. And in case you think that might lead us into some kind of triumphalism, with the church striding through the world imposing a theocracy on it – lots of people today do indeed think that’s what it would look like to have the Christian faith impinge at all on public life, and tell scare stories about the wickedness of theocracies in order to bolster their own secular vision – in case you imagine that God’s kingdom will be forced on an unwilling world by an all-powerful church, Acts makes it quite clear that the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest.
And it is one of the most spectacular stories about Paul that we heard just now in the reading from Acts 16. Here we see what it looks like when the gospel impacts a new community. Paul has been praying with a small group of Jews and proselytes by the river in Philippi in Northern Greece, a town which prided itself on its Roman connections. And one day Paul heals a slave-girl whose strange prophetic gift had been used by her owners as a source of wealth. As elsewhere in Acts, once the gospel touches local spiritual powers on the one hand and local economic interests on the other, you can expect fireworks, and we get them. Paul and Silas are dragged off, accused of anti-Roman behaviour and teaching, thoroughly beaten and imprisoned. Not much triumphalism there. But the gospel is not imprisoned, and as they are singing hymns later that night – goodness knows what the other prisoners made of that – there is an earthquake, the prison doors fly open, the jailer is about to commit suicide, and Paul and Silas rush in and stop him, convert him, baptise his household and sit down to an extraordinary midnight feast. (I am reminded that Bishop Stephen Neill, who died over twenty years ago, once insisted to me that when the Philippian jailer said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ what he really meant was, ‘Gentlemen, will you please tell me how to get out of this mess?’ That is a very important Lukan point, because for Luke ‘salvation’ is never, as we say, ‘purely spiritual’, but is always about a rescue which is both earthly and heavenly.)
Actually, it’s a shame the reading stopped where it did, because there’s an important point in the sequel. In the morning the magistrates send the order to have them released and sent away. But Paul knows what’s what, and he points out that they are Roman citizens and have been beaten and imprisoned without trial. That’s a very serious offence on the part of the magistrates; he knows it, they know it, and so when he asks for a public apology he gets it. And the point of the whole thing is this. This is what the kingdom of God looks like when it’s on the road, arriving on earth as in heaven. Prayer and testimony bring healing and hope to people, but this will often result in a challenge to an economic or political power structure at one level or another. This may well bring resistance against the message, and perhaps suffering for the church. But the church is not in the business of simply saying ‘a plague on all your houses’ to all local magistrates and governments. Rather, the church must remind them of their God-given duty, must hold them to account.
Here is the paradox of Christian political theology, a paradox which the western church has all but ignored for many years, assuming that the main object of the game was to forget earth and concentrate on heaven instead. Precisely because we believe that Jesus Christ has been exalted to heaven, into God’s space, so that he can be present to the whole earth simultaneously (not so that he can be absent from it – heaven forbid!), and so that he can be its rightful Lord, we believe that the church has a responsibility, not to usurp the proper and God-given functions of governments and authorities, of magistrates and officers, but to support them in prayer and to remind them of what they are there for – and to point out when they’re getting it wrong. God has established authorities in the world, as part of the goodness of creation, because without them the bullies and the malevolent would always get away with it. But the problem of evil includes the problem that the people who are supposed to be keeping evil in check may themselves become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
That’s why, in early Christianity and Judaism, those who believe in God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven are not particularly concerned with how rulers get to be rulers. They are not going around campaigning for an early form of parliamentary democracy. They are extremely concerned with what rulers do once they become rulers, knowing that a bad ruler is worse than an ordinary bad person, because their evil is becoming part of the system. And so the church, at its most characteristic from that day to this, in hailing Jesus as the ascended Lord, doesn’t declare a plague on all other lords in the sense of advocating a kind of holy anarchy, or a straightforward theocracy. But the church claims the right, in invoking Jesus as Lord, to challenge the systems of corruption that dehumanize people and enslave them, and to remind the powers that be of what their duty actually is.
I hope it is fairly obvious that we need to learn this lesson today, and need to learn it as a matter of urgency. We live at something of a crisis point in contemporary politics, with a new Prime Minister waiting in the wings but with a country, and a parliament, that has almost forgotten what public debate, not to mention parliamentary debate, actually is, and is drifting this way and that on currents of politically correct opinion, manipulated all too easily by the media and those who control it. And of course, as with the crowds in Philippi, there is a constant desire to accuse the church of being out of step, whether it’s on assisted suicide or marriage and family or campaigning to end global debt or working for proper treatment of prisoners in our jails. And the church has for so long forgotten that it’s normal to be out of step, has for so long supposed that as long as it was getting people ready for a distant destination called ‘heaven’ it really shouldn’t be worrying about what went on on earth, that we have forgotten the real message of Acts, the real message of the Ascension, which is that of course the church, in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures.
And the vision we find in John’s gospel, in our Gospel reading, is not in fact any different – though again some have read John as though it was so heavenly minded as to lift us beyond the life of earth altogether. John 17, the majestic High-Priestly prayer whose conclusion we heard, is not about the disciples being caught up into the life of heaven, but about the Father and the Son being with them as they go out into the world to live for God’s glory and to bear witness to Jesus’ victory. And when we turn over the page to John 18 and 19 we find Jesus himself standing before Caesar’s representative, speaking of a kingdom which is not from this world but which is decidedly for this world, speaking of a truth which will blow Caesar’s kingdom right out of the water, speaking of power which comes from God and because of which the earthly wielders of power are to be called to account.
My friends, in this Ascension season we have a chance to re-learn these lessons, which the church has been in severe danger of forgetting. May our praying, our living, our thinking, our debating, our campaigning, our common life in Christ, not least our sacramental life as here at this Eucharist, our fearless witness before the world, be upheld in the prayer of Jesus himself for his church, be inspired by the Spirit who comes at Pentecost, and be focussed in a fresh and much-needed way on the urgent issues that face us in this new moment, this new generation; that we may not be fearful or muddled, but may bear clear and uncompromised witness to Jesus Christ, risen, ascended, glorified and highly disturbing, in this world over which he rules by right and in love.