Co-Producing the Kingdom

Sunday 20th May 2012
Year B, Ascension Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 1:1-11
John 17:11-19

Perhaps the most startling piece of data to emerge from the Greek financial and political crisis is that 70% of the people want to remain in the European Union and retain the Euro but 70% want to tear up the austerity package the previous government signed up to; that means that at least 40% of the population want two things which are absolutely contradictory. And the same attitude is prevalent to a less acute degree here: ever since the late 1960s when we stopped voting for governments which promised to raise taxes we have still insisted on better public services to keep pace with educational aspirations, new medicines and surgical procedures, and with our increased life expectancy. What were politicians to do, in Greece and here? They borrowed and borrowed until the markets, seeing the proportion of debt against GDP rise steadily, raised the price of money to a degree that the Greeks could not afford and to a degree which forced our Government to take a hard look at our finances. One striking feature of the Greek situation is the unwillingness of people, particularly the rich, to pay taxes at all; and here we have had heated discussions about tax levels but one thing is clear enough: we are all in favour of higher taxes for public services as long as other people pay them!

The challenge facing the Apostles in our first reading, at the beginning of Acts, was very similar; they were expected to prepare to carry out the commands of Jesus but he was about to leave them. They faced undertaking the most difficult thing in their lives without their beloved teacher and leader. They had to 'dig deep' as football managers are wont to say and 'show character' like Chelsea last night. And, like the economic situation we find ourselves in, it is not as if they had not been warned. They had witnessed the whole of the public life of Jesus and had received extensive instruction, represented in the Great Discourse in the Gospel of John of which our Gospel today from Chapter 17 is the magnificent climax of the most under-rated chapter in the whole of the New Testament.

When we boil down the message of the two readings it comes to this: the Apostles were given the materials, their instructions and the promise of support and there was no way out, just as we in the United Kingdom have wealth, talent and free will. I wouldn't go so far as to extend this analogy to compare David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg with the Holy Trinity but in spite of our apparently endemic cynicism, we do have a robust and relatively transparent political system. And, again, without wishing to take the parallels too far, there is a critical sense in which we reserve the right to criticise while doing little or nothing ourselves.

But while that might be a regrettable political stance, to be cynical or apathetic about Christ's mission is totally unacceptable because when Jesus delivered his great message to his followers both before he died and before he ascended into heaven, the instructions were not optional and neither were they intended solely for the Pope and his Cardinals, the Patriarchs of the Christian churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Synod; they were not even solely, or even primarily, for those among Christians who were called to the noble vocation of Priesthood. Those instructions were for us.

I have, I admit, been rather harsh on us but I think it's fair to say that much of our inertia rests on two related ideas: the first is that we are somehow not worthy of carrying out Christ's mission, seeing ourselves simply as poor sinners and forgetting that we were created to aspire to the divine through building the Kingdom here on earth; and the  second is that we don't see how we can make a difference in this complex world where the best we can hope for is indifference.

As to the first, the narrative of false humility denies our purpose in creation of worshipping and serving God through the means made available to us in Word, sacrament, solidarity and love. As to the second, it's impossible to know the good we do through God's grace. A couple of years ago while on a mission to Japan, a colleague and I visited Panasonic in Osaka and had a rather low-key, rather disappointing meeting where it seemed that we didn't get our message across; we were much more warmly and lavishly received in other places; but, two years on, Panasonic implemented the developments in television manufacture that we had asked for while our more effusive hosts have not yet delivered. Life is too full of wonders resulting from our casting our bread on the waters to sustain the argument that we are incapable, even with God’s grace, of bearing witness to Jesus.

The burden of what Jesus has to say to us in John is that just as he is bound to the Father we in the Spirit, are bound to him and through him to the Father. He came to us in human form to spell out the Good News that all of us will be translated from imperfect Kingdom builders here on earth into the divine presence and when he had performed his mission he said, unequivocally, that he was handing God's torch on to us so that we might carry it into all the dark corners of creation, bringing the warmth and light of the Spirit.

It is our work to do, not only because we were created for it but because there is - in a famous old phrase - no alternative. In the words of Saint Theresa of Avilla, God has no body now but ours; our bodies are the means by which the Gospel is preached and by which love is made real to all our sisters and brothers. The meaning of the Ascension, underlined by the Reading from John, is that the torch has been passed on from the Creator to the Redeemer, and from the Redeemer to the Sanctifier and to us; the building of the Kingdom is, to use contemporary jargon, not a top/down phenomenon, it is a co-production.