Ascension Day 2017
Readings Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44 –end
May I speak this evening in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am acutely conscious, as we gather here to worship tonight, that in Tonbridge another service is taking place in memory of those killed in the terrible bombing in Manchester earlier this week. I was genuinely in a number of minds about whether we should press ahead with this service or join in with that service.
Well, you can see what decision I made, but in choosing to continue with this service I am neither seeking to ignore the events in Manchester nor be standoffish with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Tonbridge. I chose to carry on with this service as I know that some people wish to worship eucharistically on Ascension Day and not everyone is able to get to Tonbridge easily in the evening.
But we certainly cannot ignore the events in Manchester and those who were here at the service yesterday morning will know that I dedicated that mass to the memory of those who died.
It was, allegedly Karl Barth, the great theologian who said:
“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
This means firstly, that we should never allow our faith to simply become a place of refuge or escapism from the events of the world in which we live. We cannot simply dwell in the stories of either the Old or the New Testament and try to ignore the stories of our present age. Apart from anything else it is clear to me that Jesus never ignored the challenges and demands of the world in which he lived and I believe that he calls us to respond to the needs and challenges of the world in which we live.
And there is no doubt about it that we do live in what feels like an increasingly needy and challenging world. Most of us here grew up and lived our lives in the longest period of peace, stability and prosperity that Europe has ever known. But it feels as though that period is coming rapidly to an end, indeed that it has probably already passed. The world my children’s generation will inherit will be very different from the one most of us have known.
In Manchester thousands of young people were going for a fun night out at a concert and 22 of them, including an 8 year old girl, were horribly killed and dozens of others received life changing injuries. It was a similar story in Bataclan in Paris. In Westminster tourists were walking across the bridge before being ploughed down by a car, and it was a similar story in Nice. It was only in July last year when I preached about Fr Hamal being murdered whilst celebrating mass and in that sermon I listed the many attacks which had happened around the world in just that month. Even though that was only 10 months ago it feels almost like ancient history because so much has happened since. The threat level to the UK has been increased to critical and there have already been pictures of soldiers going into the houses of parliament.
So there can be no doubt that the country and the world feels like a much scarier place than it used to. Even in the days of the IRA at least they usually gave warnings and, even if we didn’t agree with them, we knew and understood what they were fighting for. But what are the current terrorists fighting for? Is it to establish a world-wide caliphate or is it just to bring terror to our daily lives?
It seems entirely unclear to me. But, perhaps the proper question we should be asking ourselves is how do we respond to this new situation?
Well, that brings us to the second part of Barth’s quote. Although we are required to read both the Bible and the Newspapers, Barth suggests that we interpret the Newspapers through the Bible.
What does this mean?
It is about choosing the lens or the method through which we seek to make sense of the world. What values or narrative do we bring to the story?
The newspapers, and the wider media of course including the online media, are of course keen that we don’t only get the news from them but that we also adopt the narrative they seek to impose. Depending upon your newspaper this narrative may be one of encouraging us to panic, to think that the sky is falling in and that we need to clamp down on immigration or perhaps even to clamp down on Islam itself.
I know that it is very easy, even for life long Christians, to become so immersed in the events of the world that they almost forget to take the values of the Bible into the situation. Let me just emphasise that this is entirely different from the escapism that I mentioned a moment ago – this is about seeking to live our lives in the world as we find it but to do so as followers of Christ rather than followers of politicians or media moguls.
So how do we bring the bible to this situation?
Well, in contrast to the fear mongers in the media the Bible tells us again and again “Do not be afraid.” I have been told, although I admit that I have not double checked it for myself, that the phrase “Do not be afraid” is used 365 times in the Bible. That is a ‘do not be afraid’ for every day of the year.
Next we are followers of the prince of peace who healed those who attacked him in the garden of Gethsemane and prayed for his Father’s forgiveness on those who executed them, knowing that they acted out of ignorance. Now there is a counter-cultural but wholly biblical challenge to the times – rather than simply fearing and hating those who have carried out these attacks how about praying for God’s healing and forgiveness on them? I know it is hard to hear, it is even hard to say, but, at the risk of cliché, what would Jesus do?
But it goes even further than healing and forgiveness. God calls us not to just love our friends and families and those who are most like us, but we are also called to love those who hate us.
The world would have us fear and loathe these terrorists and to respond to them with hatred and more death. In many ways that is what the terrorists themselves want because that perpetuates their own narrative of war and struggle. But my reading of the bible tells that that is not a biblical response – rather that we are called not to be afraid and to love and forgive those who fight against us.
Today we remember the day that Jesus departed from his earthly ministry. But not only did he teach us by his word and example whilst he walked on earth but we know that he also sent his Holy Spirit on the Church to lead us into all truth and, as Jesus said in our reading from Acts:
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
We are called to be the witnesses of Jesus – if we hold ourselves out as being Christians then those who look to us expect us not to simply act in our own name, or in the name of the newspaper that we read, but to act in the name of Christ.
So, this evening we remember with love those who have lost their lives in Manchester and in so many other terrorist attacks. But we should also seek to respond in the way that Christ would have us respond – not with fear and hatred and revenge, not to mention racism and Islamophobia, but with seeking to bring peace and healing and forgiveness and love into a world which seems a little short of those commodities. Because we are followers of Christ, we are baptised by his Holy Spirit and we are his witnesses to the ends of the earth.