Sunday, 28 May 2017

Easter 7 : Upheld by grace

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples are standing on a mountainside with Jesus, forty days after his resurrection. They seem to know that this is a significant moment, a moment when everything is going to change, but they don’t know how. The question they ask reveals just how much they haven’t understood, because they get it just about as wrong as they could possibly do.
In fact, there are four big misunderstandings in that one short question, and they are misunderstandings that I think we often share.

 “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The first thing they get wrong is the pronoun. “Is this the time when YOU will restore…?” When Jesus ascends into heaven they’ll discover that this is, in fact, the moment when THEY will have to start doing the work.  “You will be my witnesses…” says Jesus to them.  “What are you doing looking up into heaven?” the angels ask them. There is work to do and they’re going to be the ones to do it. If they don’t do it, no one will.  

The second thing they get wrong is that word “restore”.  “Restore” means put back. They are hoping to reclaim some golden age of the past, but what God is calling them to is something utterly different. They’ll find themselves formed into new communities which cross all the boundaries they’re used to, communities where men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile are equal in status and dignity. All the assumptions and patterns of life they’ve grown up with will be challenged .

Linked to that mistake about restoration is a similar misunderstanding about the word “kingdom”.  Of course, Jesus has talked a lot about the kingdom during his ministry, but it is a very different kingdom from the one they seem to have in mind. The fact that they use the word “restore” shows that.  The high point in Jewish history had been in the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Their kingdoms had been won and sustained by military strength. David and Solomon had been wealthy and politically powerful, respected by other nations around them. But the kingdom Jesus had talked about was one which there would be no earthly glory. He’d sided with the weak and the outcast. He’d said that the least and last would be greatest and first in his kingdom. He’d lived and died as a servant, not a despot. A crown of thorns was the only crown he’d ever worn and a cross had been his only throne. His kingdom wouldn’t be like anything they’d seen or heard of before.

Their fourth and final mistake was the word “Israel”. The new kingdom that they were being called to build wasn’t going to be something just for their nation, for their people, but for the whole world. It would be good news for their enemies as well as  their friends. Even the Romans who’d oppressed them, who’d killed Jesus, would be welcome to be part of it. Just a few chapters later we find a Roman centurion, Cornelius, filled with the Spirit, becoming part of the early church with all his household.  It was a real challenge for these Jewish disciples to get their heads around this, to realise that God wasn’t the property of Israel, but a God who was at home in every nation, every heart.

So, four mistakes in one short question.  That’s quite an achievement! The disciples know that something is coming, that God is on the move, but they’ve misunderstood completely what that will mean. And the true picture will be one that is rather more challenging than the one they’d anticipated.

They knew that this moment mattered, that it was a moment of change, but they thought it would be a military or political change, led by their own Jewish superhero commander-in-chief, Jesus. They thought it would bring back the glory days of  David and Solomon, and that all the world would bow to Israel. What they are actually being called to is a difficult and sometimes dangerous task, which won’t bring them any kind of wealth or power for themselves at all. No wonder they stand staring up into heaven. They must think there’s been some mistake.

I expect we can sympathise with them. Wouldn’t we all like a hero to come along and do all the work for us, to sort out the troubles in the world and in our own lives as if by magic?  We look at the challenges we face , personally or politically - and this week they have been all too obvious – and we long for someone to swoop down from the sky and rescue us. But that’s not how it works. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. It is we who are called to action, we who must respond, but like those first disciples I expect most us don’t feel up to the task.

I’m reminded of a poem about the Ascension by Denise Levertov. I’ve put it on your pew leaflets. It’s called “Suspended” and it’s about that moment when Jesus ascends to heaven. Levertov imagines trying to hold onto “God’s garment”.

I had grasped God's garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister liked to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

“I have not plummeted,” she says. Sometimes it feels as if we are doomed to failure, sure to fall, pulled down by things that are just too heavy for us to cope with, but, she says, somehow we realise that God’s grace is holding us up. He doesn’t do the work for us, but he gives us strength to face the challenge. All our instincts tell us to despair, but by God’s grace we manage to hope, not perfectly, not all the time, but enough for us to realise that something miraculous is happening, something beyond our ability to understand

That’s what I think Levertov means when she says “I have not plummeted.”  We might not always cope elegantly in times of trouble. It might not be comfortable. But I have seen, again and again, people finding the strength to stagger on until they arrive at the borders of the new world, the new kingdom, into which God’s calling us.

I look at the people of Manchester, coming together to sing and to pray and to reassert common values of love and inclusion, in the face of all that has happened to them, and I marvel. I look at the many people who endure unimaginable hardships in Syria and yet keep working for peace and justice there, or those who, in refugee camps, start schools which try, against all the odds, to give children a taste of normal life and I marvel. I look at those who struggle to treat the wounded on the front lines of the world without the drugs and equipment that modern medicine takes for granted, and I marvel.  I look at all those who hang onto hope, who resist evil, who work for a better world in the teeth of opposition and discouragement and I marvel. I look at those who face personal challenges of illness and sorrow that ought to break them and yet don’t, people I come across daily in my work, and I marvel at them too. Faith, hope and love somehow abide, even in the most terrible of circumstances.

At this point, you may, of course, be saying, “that’s all very well, but I’m right in the middle of a crisis now, and I’m not at all sure that there are any everlasting arms holding me up. How can I find that sense of assurance?”

It’s a reasonable question, and perhaps it is the last few verses of our first reading which help us to answer them. What do the disciples do when they realise they are going to have to do this work themselves, in charge of a mission for which they don’t feel at all equipped?

We’re told two things. First, they come together, all together. Not just the eleven named disciples, but the women who’ve followed Jesus and supported him, and Mary and his brothers, the whole motley assortment.  Faithful or doubting, with all their differing opinions, this rather random group of people gathered together. It’s tempting, in times of trouble, to withdraw, perhaps assuming that everyone else has it all sorted out, and it’s just us who is struggling, but it is rarely so. And each of us is God’s gift to all the rest of us. Those “everlasting arms” which uphold us are often known in the flesh and blood arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second thing the disciples do is to devote themselves to prayer, just as we are going to be doing next Friday and Saturday.  They don’t just sit around feeling daunted or worried. They pray. They tell it like it is to God. “We want to build your kingdom, God, but we don’t know what we’re doing. Show us how. Guide us. Give us strength.” And it’s not just a one-off prayer. They devote themselves to it. They keep going. They make it a habit to tell God that they can’t do what he is calling them to. And that means that ten days later, when he sends his Spirit on them, in that same upper room, they’re wide open to receive it. And the wind of the Spirit blows them out across the world. And the love of the Spirit draws them into that community that seemed so unlikely. And the power of the Spirit strengthens them to do what seemed impossible.

Prayer isn’t an optional extra for the super-spiritual. It is a survival strategy for all of us. It doesn’t matter whether our prayers are full of fancy words, or have no words at all. It doesn’t matter whether they are full of faith and hope, or full of doubt and anger. It is the act of opening ourselves up to God that matters. When we do that, we give up the idea that we have to sort ourselves out, and that means God can act in us and through us.

“I have not plummeted,” said Denise Levertov. May we, this week and every week, in prayer together, discover God’s miraculous grace, which holds us up and leads us on until we get to the place we need to be.


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