Onwards and Upwards!

17 May –  The Ascension   It feels slightly odd to be in a post-Election Britain – after weeks of anticipation and all the predictions and jockeying for position in a hypothetical “new-look House of Commons” a rather different reality is kicking in. And those surprise results, a little over a week ago, resulted in a series of “farewell speeches” every bit as intense as Jesus’ words to his disciples – although, in the case of one Party Leader the “second coming” seems to have happened rather quickly! And, while the new government takes its first steps, among those who failed to win power, there has been some very public squabbling over “what went wrong”. Despite surprising many in his party and others by the strength of his presentation in recent weeks, Ed milliband is now accused of misreading the mood music – of taking his party too far to the Left of British politics – and ignoring the aspiring middle classes. And Nick Clegg – the only Liberal leader to bring his party into power for decades – is accused of putting the national interest ahead of his own party. You might think that was a good thing to have done – but the price he paid for it is clearly a high one. And for the Green Party and UKIP – it’s other people who are to blame – or rather the system in which we operate. If only we had Proportional Representation, they can say, the make-up of the House of Commons would look very different. I’m not going to go any further with all of that, you may be relieved to know! It’s just that, with Ascension Day falling a week after the election, I found myself making an analogy between departing leaders and comparing the way that WE in the Church “do business” when things aren’t going so well. There are similarities with the political parties I think. Faced with declining church attendance we may well blame other people – or blame the “system” in which we operate. “If only we had stood firm in the 1980s and resisted pressure to relax Sunday trading rules: there are just too many alternatives to Church on a Sunday morning these days.” The logic of that argument – which I do hear surprisingly often – is that If only life were more boring, more people would be inclined to come to Church.  And yet, I’m not quite convinced of that. There are plenty of people who don’t shop or play sports on Sunday – but who enjoy reading the paper over a leisurely breakfast, or spending time in the garden or just time with their families. It would take more than a change in trading laws to bring them to church. We grumble about the media – the way that Christianity is portrayed, or more often ignored. But actually it’s what the churches do “on the ground” – the face to face contact with real people in our own local communities – that really has an impact on the way that the Church’s message is received. And we DO argue about “strategy” – we DO squabble -just as publicly as the disappointed politicians who’ve filled the news broadcasts this week. We blame ourselves – or perhaps more accurately other church-members – for the fact that people are not buying into our message. And there are a variety of arguments in circulation: “We should never had abandoned the Prayer Book” some say – “that was the beginning of the slippery slope..” “We’re too old fashioned” others say – “we’ve just been left behind. The Church’s teaching is now irrelevant”. And there is of a course a very strong voice – from those who are very modern in style but very conservative in social teaching – who would WANT us to set ourselves apart from everyone else… to see ourselves as “the saved” and anyone who won’t listen as lost and without hope. It’s that same internal wrangling that lies behind the story which has appeared in our local paper recently – of Christ Church, Salisbury – a congregation that calls itself Anglican, but not part of the Church of England, meeting in a local school and completely against the wishes of the local Bishop.  For those Christians, the Church of England has strayed too far from traditional teaching. A different strategy is needed in order to bring people in. To me, this all feels a very long way from the words of Jesus to his disciples as he prepares to leave them behind. Yes there ARE a few broad statements elsewhere that sound like strategy – “Go, make disciples of all nations”, for example. But the words we heard today are very much about unity of purpose and unity with God – not about tactics for effective communication or internal church politics. Jesus prays to the Father that, as he is no longer in the world, the Father will protect his disciples “that they may be one, as we are one” (as Jesus and the Father are one).  I spent much of Ascension Day, last Thursday, in the company of Revd Nadim Nassar – the only Syrian ordained in the Church of England.  And he challenged us very firmly about how we understand authority in the Church – and argued that many of our divisions are caused by too much concentration on the Bible and our differing interpretations of what the texts mean. Christians should not behave as if they are “people of the Book”, he said. That’s for Muslims: for them there is no alternative but to focus on the Koran – Mohammed is a dead prophet – buried and gone, so all they can do is preserve the words he delivered to them and try to be faithful to what they read. But we don’t believe Jesus is just another dead prophet like Mohammed, he said. At the heart of our faith is the belief that Jesus is risen, ascended, glorified – the living Lord. And HE is the ultimate source of authority for us. Yes of course Scripture is there to help us understand – to make sense of who we are and to make sense of what God is like – that’s why we parade the Gospel stories with such ceremony each Sunday! But the Scriptures are words – not God himself. Our leader, Jesus, HAS gone from our sight, but has not left us to struggle alone. At least once on a Sunday I in church and and say “The Lord is here” and the congregation respond ”His Spirit is with us”: It’s that dynamic presence – of Christ here with us –  that can nudge us in the right direction, in our thinking and in the way we live out what we believe. Of course there are dangers in leaving behind the apparent security of clear biblical teaching – how do we KNOW what Christ wants if it’s not written on the page? Faith IS a risky business – we will get it wrong sometimes – but the alternative of stagnation and irrelevance is hardly more attractive. The important thing here is that we rely on each other as well – we help to shape each other’s understanding by sharing our experiences and perhaps also our doubts and confusion. St Paul – speaking of Christian Wisdom (1 Cor. 2) – reminds us that “We have the mind of Christ”: importantly he says not “I have” but “we have” the mind of Christ. It’s when 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name – that Christ promises to be among them. For us then – community is at least as important as what we read and learn by ourselves. Our leader is not just an historical figure from another age, he is present in all of human history and beyond. Our faith is not about withdrawing from the world, to some golden age of the past, it is about transforming the world – sharing in Christ’s ongoing work of salvation. As Jesus ascends to the Father, he leaves his disciples the task of witnessing to the unity of God himself – Father Son and Holy Spirit – and to their own unity in him. Today we are called to that same task, in a world which is anything but united and where many do not know how to recognise Christ. And so, as we commemorate Christ’s ascension, let us pray for all who call themselves Christians that we may be empowered by His Spirit to rise to the challenge –  with open minds and generous hearts.