Sunday after Ascension Day


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O God the king of glory…
1 Peter 4:7-11
John 15:26-16:4a

Our involvement in the Church’s year makes it very difficult for us to be existential and so the Collect has us both looking back to the Ascension and forwards to Pentecost with the unifying prayer that the Holy Spirit may help us to follow where Jesus has ascended in his triumph; and although a certain degree of anticipation is unavoidable, occasions such as this enable us to try to put ourselves into the place of the Disciples who had, in spite of warnings from Jesus (probably much less precise than those in the Gospels), undergone the shocks of his death, Resurrection and Ascension. This is not a call to empathise with the Disciples or undertake a spot of role playing; but we have the opportunity for a little reflection, for gathering our thoughts after the hectic pace of events.

If we find existentialism difficult because of what we know, there are three major reasons why this was even more difficult for Peter and John’s early readers. First, life was precarious, even for the moderately well off, and although most people knew where their next meal was coming from, few had savings to counter the immense uncertainties of famine, disease, lawlessness and simple bad fortune. The other two factors are specific to early Christianity and are both referred to in today’s Readings: Peter reminds his readers that the end of time is near at hand; John writes about the persecution of the church. Both of these factors would have sharpened the purpose of newly converted Christians both to the perils of believing and the rewards for resisting.

It is only fair to concede that in many ways it is much easier to be charitable, as Peter urges, if the prospect of eschatological closure is imminent. It is also true that the prospect of martyrdom, with all its fears and heightened consciousness, would have sharpened the moral sense. On the other hand, some would say that our lives are much easier: we have insurance, savings, wealth and the ability to plan; even with recent ecological shock waves, we are still accustomed to seeing the end of time as too distant to engage us; and instead of martyrdom, the worst we can expect is a little crude insult and mild intellectual baiting almost submerged in a sea of indifference.

And yet I would argue that the spiritual quest is much more difficult for us without these three major injectors of moral sharpness. Although we believe that we must show charity regardless of whether it will be reciprocated and in the knowledge that it will not affect whether or not we will be saved, the latter misapprehension is a sharp spur to altruism. Emergency generates an extreme form of altruism; and even though the theology of charity was not so precisely fixed as it might be in Peter’s audience, one imagines there was a sense of living in a state of emergency which led people to perform all kinds of supererogatory acts it would not have crossed their minds to perform in normal circumstances.

It is therefore appropriate for us to reflect at this point how far our moral behaviour is a form of diluted Pelagianism; how far do we, at some level, “Go the extra mile” not for its own sake but because we somehow feel it will enhance our chances of salvation or, even worse, because it may raise our reputation in the eyes of the recipient or the observer? To what extent is generosity a form of peer competition? Of course the dichotomy between faith and good works is exaggerated—such dichotomies always are (cf Fifth Sunday after Easter)—and it would be naive to believe that salvation is attainable without both; and although it is certainly true that the relationship between the two is important, it is by no means as fundamental as theological controversy might indicate. In our personal relationships with God Our Parent and with Jesus Our Brother it would simply be a betrayal not to behave as well as we possibly can because that is what the relationship requires, as it also requires faith. When we think about what we do the first question should always be put in the context of our relationship with God. The mechanics are always subsidiary.

If we can to a certain extent clear our minds of some of this historical/theological baggage we will be in a much better position to leave ourselves open to the counsel of the Holy Spirit whose empowering of the new church we will celebrate next week. Jesus describes the Spirit’s role as that of giving strength and in the context of our lives that strength will be of a different sort from that required by martyrs. Our enemy is weakness and our need is not for a high degree of physical courage but for stamina. In spiritual terms we are hardly likely to be sent into the arena to face murderous beasts but we need to go to the gym every day and watch what we eat. Prayer, like going to the gym, can often be unrewarding but it builds us up in ways we do not always immediately recognise and, as for the spiritual diet, we need to be careful that what we think of as orthodoxy is not contaminated by our lazily relativist, morally indifferent, theologically cynical world. We will re-discover next week that to hide from this hostile prospect is not the proper response for a Christian. In the meantime, we have time to get ready.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How does food storage change ideas about selfishness and justice?
  2. Compare the moral challenges of martyrdom and indifference
  3. Has the ecological debate altered your sense of time?
  4. Explain the mutuality of faith and good works in the economy of salvation
  5. Compare the requirements for a healthy body and a holy life.

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