Mission that ends ends: preaching from Ascension to Pentecost

This is a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leamington for Easter 7(A), the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. (I am hoping it will be the first in a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts.)

The text is Acts 1:6-14.

When we were finding our way round, when we moved to Leamington nearly two years ago, people kept telling us, “you don’t want to go to Coventry”. 

Apologies to those of you who live in Coventry. Never mind. People will be flocking to Coventry if they beat Luton in the play off final next Saturday, possibly taking the place of my team in the Premier League.

It was a punishment to be “sent to Coventry*. Being sent to Coventry meant people turned their back on you, refused to talk to you, shunned you. 

The origin of the sentence probably dates back to the 1640’s to the English Civil War. Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry which was a parliamentarian stronghold. They were not received warmly by the locals. That’s what happened when they were sent to Coventry.

Samaria from this morning’s reading is the Coventry of its day. “You don’t want to go to Samaria” would have been the equivalent for the Jewish people who found a way round Samaria rather than going through it. Part of the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the hero is a Samaritan and that there was a Samaritan that could be called good.

But Jesus puts Samaria on the mission map, along with everywhere else that was considered off limits.

According to Luke, these are the last words of Jesus before his ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Yes – to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!

Before this, the disciples ask Jesus this question: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus refuses to give a direct answer. It was an old question, reflecting the old troubles of nationalism brought on by too narrow a view of God’s love. 

Instead of a direct answer to their question, Jesus gives them his last word: a promise of power as witnesses, not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but even in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

These last words of Jesus are the first words in the beginning of the church’s missionary journey, a journey which takes us further that we could ever imagine, and a journey which undermines any boundaries which prevent God’s love reaching where God desires, to the ends of the earth.

To the ends of the earth – that is beyond the boundaries, the borders and margins of our current imaginations, undermining any attachment to nationalism, undermining the certainties and conservatism of our belief systems. Guy Garvey of Elbow sings (in Come On, Blue), love transcends anything that ever ends. Love transcends anything that ever ends, including the ends, limits, boundaries set by our imaginations and culture. 

Jesus’s words, to the ends of the earth, would be far too one-dimensional if we were only to think geographically about the extent of God’s mission, as if the first disciples had a map of the world at their disposal.

To the ends of the earth is about love’s reach. Think sociologically, think psychologically, not just geographically, think musically, think any way you can – to the ends of the earth, as far as your eye can see, and further – that is where the love of God goes, that is where the love of God comes again and again.

Think psychologically about the ends of the earth, those who are on the very edge, those in the darkest places, those in self harm’s way, those bombarded with cruel internal voices – this is where God’s love goes.

Think as peacemakers – or, better, live as peacemakers. Who have we made enemies? This is where God’s love takes us.

Think socio-economically about the ends of the earth. Who are in the margins? Who’s all at sea unable to make safety on land? To the ends of the earth – encompassing all ages, including children and young people (and it was good to hear about our partnership with Thrive from Ryan last Sunday), including those in their dying days. To the ends of the earth – encompassing enemies, strangers and those we’ve thought beyond the pale. Think the extent from cradle to grave, from prison cell to hospice bed, from palace to hovel, this is where God’s love goes.

To the ends of the earth is the scope of God’s love and the measure of God’s desire. Love isn’t just for Israel but for everyone in God’s creation. Love reaches far beyond our borders and boundaries, undermining those borders and boundaries, challenging wherever we draw the line between who’s ruled in and who’s ruled out, who’s right and who’s wrong.

The Book of Acts is often described as a book of beginnings. Our reading comes from the beginning of this book of beginnings. They are Jesus’ last words which become the first words of mission. To the ends of the earth – anything less doesn’t do justice to the desire and power of God. These are Jesus’ last words which last till the end of time, to the ends of the earth.

Acts reports the early days of mission, on the troubles Jesus’ followers got into on this journey. In the beginnings of this mission Luke shows us all the old certainties being cast to the wind, to the violent wind of Pentecost. He excitedly shows us people of all sorts being joined by the Holy Spirit, their differences and disputes being resolved by the wisdom and love which constitute God’s mission. 

He shows us what these first words of mission means as he spotlights the boundaries undermined by God’s mission and those affected by them. These include boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and religion.

Love still struggles against the same borders and boundaries we see beginning to be undermined in Acts, which is why I suggest these days of our lives are still the first days of mission. 

This is the beginning where we have to cast our old certainties to the wind, one of the old certainties being that we aren’t fit for such a tall order of mission. Who am I for such a thing? We are bound by the voices which say we’re not good enough, we’re not clever enough and we know we’re not confident enough.

BUT. Luke tells the story of two men in white who ask the disciples, “why do you stand here looking at the sky”. The disciples had seen Jesus ascend, they’d seen him go. But they kept on looking where he’d gone, where he was no more. The two men in white redirect the gaze of the church. They’re saying, don’t look where he’s disappeared, look for where he comes again.

It’s seeing where he comes again which encourages us and heartens us. 

It is when we see him coming again as we break bread together, as we listen for his word in preaching, teaching and prayer, as we see the wonderful work of reconciliation that we become inspired for the joy of mission, and joined by

the Spirit who makes herself known as the strengthener, the encourager and the comforter, empowering us to reach beyond our comfort zone.

We never know how we are going to be turned out. There isn’t one way of joining mission. There’s no stereotype. 

Paraphrasing Paul, there’s a whole variety of gifts, there’s a whole variety of services, there’s a whole range of activities in the mission of God so some of us will turn out to be wise counsellors, others will become healers, others will have gifts for administration, some will become great encouragers, some will become teachers, or nurses, or the sort of heartening person we are always delighted to meet on our streets, or the shy person who thinks deeply and critically about the way things are. 

When praying in God’s mission none of us ever knows who we are going to turn out to be.

Going back to Coventry. The night of November 14th/15th 1940 must have seemed like the end of the world as 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Coventry, destroying 43,000 homes, 71 factories, the city centre, 2 hospitals, 2 churches, killing 560 people and injuring over 1000 more. 

The Provost of the ruined cathedral, Richard Howard, witnessed Jesus’ words as he chalked his words Father, forgive them on the Cathedral’s sanctuary walls. 

He can’t have known how that would turn out to open up a whole ministry of reconciliation with what happened in Coventry as its capital. Nor could he have known that his words, (Jesus’ words) would be the first words of a missionary journey that has taken the Coventry Cross of Nails to the ends of the earth, to so many situations of conflict.

In those days, the days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, the men and women gathered together, didn’t know how they were going to be turned out, and how their mission would turn out. Neither did Provost Howard. Neither do we as we wait and pray, with our eyes trained not on where Jesus has disappeared, but on where he comes again in the triumphs of love as well as our falls from grace.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Note: Acts 1:1-11 is read in churches on Ascension Day and Acts 1:6-14 is read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Some thoughts on Exile and the Dislocated Bones of Ezekiel’s Imagination

Ezekiel is ecstatic in his prophecy. His visions are psychadelic. I wonder if it is this that brings his prophecy home to his fellow exiles – themselves ecstatic in the sense that they are far from home, removed from their stasis. His colourful language in response to God’s call and the suffering of their exile even resonates with us. For example, Ezekiel gives us the image of wheels within wheels which is the phrase often used to describe the powers that be. And, of course, it is Ezekiel who has given us the singalong Dry Bones as he explored the exile experience of dislocation and displacement and their eventual revival and replacement through the image of those dry bones.

(Here’s the Delta Rhythm Boys singing Dry Bones.)

Ezekiel sees the hand of God in exile. According to Ezekiel, it is God who drove Ezekiel and his fellow exiles out, for the sake of their safety. He sees the glory of God moving with them, abandoning the old place and travelling with them to their many places. Far and wide they are scattered and dispersed, becoming a diaspora. God is the scatterer rather than the perpetrators of violence and occupation and he scatters them to save them from the violence and occupation.

Ezekiel’s message would have created a very different horizon for the exiles. Maybe they thought that they were exiled because of their enemies or because of their shame and guilt. But here, Ezekiel is reframing their experience. For those who would listen there is the message of hope – that love is the reason for their exile, a concern for their safety, that God’s glory remains with them, and that that glory will give them fresh heart which will lead to their return.

“Those [the exiles] of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said ‘They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.’ Say to them: Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them [the exiles] far away mong the nations, ad though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone. Therefore say [to the exiles]: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered … I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them.”

Ezekiel 11

I wonder how many exiles see God as the cause of their exile, and how many see the glory of God travelling with them. Certainly xenophobic communities don’t see exiled refugees in that light as they tighten their borders against them. But let’s imagine what happens when, in the words of Warsan Shire’s poem Home, “home is the mouth of a shark”, when home is a place that is too dangerous, too dangerous to be called home, when home is no place for our gods, when they become god forsaken. The God of Exodus never settles – always ready to move in with us and move out with us. Have we got the theological imagination of Ezekiel to imagine God leading the abused, the tortured from one place of extreme danger to places of sanctuary? Have we got the imagination to see the light of God’s love in our coastal waters guiding exiles to safe havens?

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Warsan Shire

According to Ezekiel’s ecstatic imagination the diaspora is God’s doing. It is his dislocation and dispersal. This dispersal is reenacted in our liturgy. At God’s word we go, “in peace to love and serve the world”. We are scattered far and wide like seed. We are made exiles because, in other imaginations of scripture, we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:6), sheep amongst wolves (Matthew 10:16), living in cities while calling another city home (Hebrews 11:10), praying for a kingdom like nothing on earth (Matthew 6:9-13).

Here’s Jamila Lyiscott reading Warsan Shire’s Home.

70 or 72? Do numbers count in Luke 10?

Is is 70 or 72, that is the question? I’m quite fascinated by numbers. Chapter’ 10 in Luke’s Gospel recounts the number Jesus sent out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” with “no purse, bag or sandals” with the greeting “peace to this house”.

Were there 70 or 72? I am just asking for a friend.

Of course, the answer begins with 7. Anything beginning with 7 is the right answer because 7 marks all our time. We have 7 days in a week – as God took 7 days for creation, 6 days work, then a day’s rest. 7 carries with it the meaning of perfection and completion.

According to some texts the answer is 70 – and there is good reason that there should be 70 because there were thought to be 70 nations – the descendants of Noah’s children who settled the earth after the flood. Is then the sending of the 70 the Godsend to all people who on earth do dwell? (And Jesus did send out the “70” two by two, didn’t he?)

According to other ancient texts the answer is 72. And there seems to be good reason for that as well. If there were 72 Luke 10 would read “after this the Lord appointed 72 others”. What is the “after this” referring to, and who are the others? The previous chapter (Luke 9:1-6) recounts Jesus calling “the twelve” together and sending them out with no staff, bag, bread, money. I am putting 2 and 2 together here and thinking that Luke might have intended “72”, because 72 plus the others (12 of them) makes 84.

84=7×12. There is the 7 again, that number signifying completion and satisfaction. But there is also 12, the number of the apostles, the number of the tribes of Israel (because of the number of Jacob’s sons). 84 is mentioned elsewhere by Luke – as the age of Anna the prophetess, who prayed in the temple night and day and who spoke about the child Jesus “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. (Luke 2:36-40). Anna’s age adds further significance to the number 84. It becomes a number of wisdom and proclamation.

If 72+12 = all the people of God, this becomes a passage not just about the sending out of 72, but the sending out of the whole people of God, you and me, sent out two by two.

If the answer is 70 then this become a passage about the destiny of peace’s greeting. “Peace to this house” then becomes a greeting for the whole world.

Is it 70 or 72? I’m just asking for a friend (to whom it matters).

Or do we treasure the happy ambiguity presuming that Jesus and Luke meant both: that the good news of the coming of peace should and would be carried to all nations, and that all God’s people are commissioned to be bearers of peace, even as lambs amongst wolves, even eschewing all the usual self defences?

Preparing for responsible companionship

Theological perspectives have changed. Tonight I am meeting with our “Readers’ Council” to hear their concerns about their “Continuing Ministerial (Professional) Development”.These changes in theological perspective will be very much on my mind.

Reader ministry in the Church of England was “revived” in 1561 and in 1866 to minister in poorer parishes “destitute of an incumbent” and to cope with the population explosion in cities in the early 19th century. They had a different point of view from the clergy. The Bishop of Bangor (in 1894) saw the advantage of “Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society” – And the Dean of Manchester  recognised that most Readers were “more in unison with the masses with whom they mixed”. Although the Diocesan Readers came from the professions, the Parochial Readers were described as ‘the better educated from among the uneducated’. Nowadays Readers and clergy train together both before and after licensing and ordination. I have been ordained long enough to remember that this was not always so, and to remember that the idea that Readers and clergy could train together seemed preposterous. Now we take it for granted and appreciate the advantages of learning together.

This movement of theology is reflected in many of our traditions. From a Roman Catholic perspective, Ilia Delio traces the development of theology from the preserve of the priest in his academic study to a vast lay, creative and inter-disciplinary movement. This huge paradigm shift is dated back as recently as the 1970’s when only 5% of theologians were non-priests. That figure has grown to over 60%. Theological education is now well beyond the control of the institutional church. Diarmuid O’Murchu lists features of this shift in his book Adult Faith:

  1. Theology is no longer reserved to the academic domain.
  2. Theology has gone global, even beyond the boundaries acknowledged in multi-faith dialogue.
  3. Theology has become quite multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary. “The contemporary lay theologian seeks to address the here-and-now of evolutionary creation … [casting] a wide net within a contextual landscape … [seeking] dialogue with partners in various fields of learning, transcending wherever possible the dualistic distinction between the sacred and the secular” (O’Murchu, p66f).
  4. Lay theologians do theology in a vastly different way from their clerical counterparts, who “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations” (O’Murchu, p119)
  5. Christian theology has become radicalised as theologians “sought to realign Christian faith with one pervasive theme of the Christian Gospels: the New Reign of God”. (O’Murchu). Christian life is increasingly seen as “empowerment” and “called to be a counterculture to all forms of destructive power … facilitated not by some new benign form of hierarchical mediation, but by dynamic creative communities.” (O’Murchu).

For O’Murchu the “Kingdom of God” is “the companionship of empowerment” with theology being the “servant wisdom” of that companionship, so that “theology once more becomes a subversive dangerous memory, unambiguously committed to liberty from all oppressions and to empowerment for that fullness of life to which all creatures are called.” (O’Murchu, p65).

Theology has changed. In many traditions theology was thought to have been the preserve of the clergy. Readers and other lay ministers helped to open those boundaries, but their tendency remains to “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations.” Now we increasingly realise that theology goes beyond the church (why has that taken so long?). Our shared “ministerial development” is to realise this, to overcome the tendency to prioritise the church and to engage with the “companionship of empowerment” wherever that is found.

On death and mission

All that our society has to say suggests that death is the great enemy who will finally get the better of us against our will and desire. But thus perceived, life is little more than a losing battle, a hopeless struggle, a journey of despair. ……. Even though I often give in to the many fears and warnings of my world, I still believe deeply that our few years on this earth are part of a much larger event that stretches out far beyond the boundaries of our birth and death. I think of it as a mission into time, a mission that is very exhilirating and even exciting, mostly because the One who sent me on the mission is waiting for me to come home and tell the story of what I have learned.

Am I afraid to die? I am every time I let myself ber seduced by the noisy voices of my world telling me that ‘my little life’is all I have and advising me to cling to it with all my might. But when I let these voices move to the background of my life and listen to that still small voice calling me the beloved, I know that there is nothing to fear and that dying is the greatest act of love, the act that leads me into the eternal embrace of my God whose love is everlasting.

Henri Nouwen – Life of the Beloved

The world is evil only when you become its slave.

Think of yourself as having been sent into the world.

As long as you live in the world, yielding to its enormous pressures to prove to yourslelf and to others that you are somebody and knowing from the beginning that you will lose in the end, your life can be scarecely more than along struggle for survival.

Henri Nouwen – Life of the Beloved