Ascension Day – over to us

ascension

Today, across the world, many churches will be celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which the Resurrection appearances of Christ ended and he was taken back into heaven.

However we understand that to have taken place, what the Ascension signals to us is a transition. It was the point at which the earthly ministry of Jesus and his post-Resurrection appearances to the disciples came to an end. And yet, paradoxically, it marked the point from which the presence of Christ would no longer be confined to a specific time or place. They would never again be separated from him.

Christ would be taken into every corner of the world by those who knew him, and who would come to know him, through the eyes of faith. No doubt it was a scary moment for the disciples. They had already experienced what it felt like to lose their Lord at the crucifixion. Having had their grief turned to joy through the resurrection appearances the prospect of losing Jesus again would have been a source of fear and apprehension.

We can almost feel the sense of paralysis when we hear the words of the two men in white robes who spoke to the disciples as they gazed up to heaven and tried to take in what had happened.

‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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’ (Acts 1.11)

Inadequate though they must have felt, in the days to come the disciples would begin to realise the implications that the call of Jesus would have on their lives. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – which we commemorate in ten days time – those first disciples would become the vanguard of the Christian movement that would take the good news of Jesus Christ into every corner of the world.

The Ascension of Christ means that he is not bound by time or space and that his love and peace can be known by all people. He is present with his people in every age and place and through them – through us – he is made known to others. We are his ‘Plan A’ and there is no ‘Plan B’.

In a very real sense, the Feast of the Ascension reminds us that the responsibility to make Christ known in the world was handed over to us. But let us not feel daunted. In the strength of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in Jesus’ name, we can do this through the kindness and compassion that we show to others through our words and deeds.

Happy Feast of the Ascension!

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Hatred will not win

And so it was on the city of Manchester that that evil descended last night. An act driven by sick and twisted ideology transformed a concert being enjoyed by thousands – many of them children and young people – into a place of carnage, death and suffering.

There can be no justification, no excuse, no legitimisation for this act of barbarity. It was a wicked crime perpetrated by those who diminish their own humanity and insult the religion in whose name they claim to act.

Such people as last night’s suicide bombers are not true believers. Instead, they are murderers acting not in the name of God – despite their rhetoric – but at the bidding of men who hide in the shadows and infect the minds of others through their web of hatred and lies.

Through such atrocities as happened at the Manchester Arena, they seek to challenge all that is decent in our society by sowing seeds of hatred and vengeance. But they will not succeed.

This is evident the response of the people of Manchester, just as it has been in the response from the people of Paris, London, Madrid, Istanbul, and so many other places where the lives of ordinary people have been devastated by acts of terror.

People opened their homes to provide solace and comfort for strangers; they ferried people away from the scene; and this morning they were queuing up to donate blood for transfusion to the wounded. The people of Manchester today, while shocked by what has happened, will go about their daily business unbowed.

The terrorists’ desire to disrupt everyday life and make people live in fear will not succeed and carries within the seeds of its own destruction. Every act of terror strengthens the resolve of good people not to give in but to demonstrate all that is good about humanity – and that is why hatred will not win.

Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are for those who lost their lives last night: for all who were injured and are traumatised and whose lives are forever changed; for the emergency services who faced the horror at the scene with their usual courage and fortitude; and for ourselves, that we do not allow this evil to fill our hearts with hate.

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Profound simplicity

Christ-the-True-Vine

In the gospel reading appointed for today, just three short verses from John 15 (9-11), we find the profound simplicity of what Christian faith is all about. The verses are part of a longer section of Jesus’ teaching known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’.

The context in which Jesus is speaking is the night of his betrayal. Having washed his disciples’ feet and broken bread with them Jesus is, in effect, talking with them about the challenge that is to come – both for himself and for them as they follow afterwards in his footsteps.

Having spoken to the disciples using a gardening metaphor in which he, Jesus, is the true vine, his Father is the vine-grower, and his followers the branches – he reminds them of the importance of abiding in the vine. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so must the disciples be one with Jesus – that means his disciples in every age.

Then, just in case the disciples were wondering exactly how they were meant to do that, in the very next verses Jesus spells it out:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if I do what I command you. (John 15.12-14).

This is profound simplicity. We abide in Jesus by following in his footsteps – namely by loving one another as he has loved us. Following Jesus is not primarily about doctrines or beliefs or rituals. They have their place and purpose but can only ever be a means to an end: they should never be an end in themselves.

The end is always about loving others as Jesus has loved us, and in so doing, we show our love for God. We cannot love God in the abstract, any more than God can love us in the abstract – the concrete reality of God’s love for us is made evident in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

There is nothing complicated about what lies at the heart of Christian faith – it is, in fact, profound simplicity, requiring only one thing, summed up in those words of Jesus:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

That is the call and challenge for all who would be disciples of Jesus.

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Future shock

Dominating the news in recent days has been the story of the disruption caused in the NHS and elsewhere around the world – by hackers infecting computer systems with malicious software.

Apparently financially motivated, the actions of those who carried out this attack have had a profound impact on a number of hospitals and GP surgeries, delaying the treatment of many people and potentially putting some at risk.

It is a despicable act, whether carried out by a criminal gang or by an individual using his/her formidable computer skills for the wrong ends, and whoever is responsible needs to be brought to justice.

Cyber attacks are not new. Governments around the world have been working for years to protect their countries from harm, as well as attempting to breach the cyber defences of others! Real world military and political posturing have their parallels in the cyber world. But it is the immediate and widespread impact of an attack on the infrastructure of a vital service such as the NHS which has raised public concern.

What about such things as air-traffic control, city centre traffic management, energy supplies, water management systems, and so on? The current crisis might be motivated by greed rather than by a political agenda, but what of the future? The events of recent days will no doubt up the ante for all who are responsible for cyber security – from governments and large corporations down to local IT managers and individual PC users.

Reflecting on this, I can’t help thinking how increasingly dependent we are upon information technology. The transformation has taken place at a phenomenal rate, with the world changing beyond recognition in less than a generation. The impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt over centuries; the computer revolution has changed the world in just a few decades.

In many respects we have not had enough time to come to terms with what the speed of change has brought about. It feels similar to what the American author Alvin Toffler wrote about in his 1970 book Future Shock.

The title refers to how Toffler believed that the pace of technological advance had outstripped our human capacity to weigh the moral and ethical implications of those advances, and left us living in a state of shock – the future having arrived before we were ready for it. As Toffler put it:

The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.

He also coined the phrase information overload – an accurate description of how life felt back then in the 1970s. Arguably, that feeling is even more acute for us today. The volume and speed of information that surrounds us in almost every aspect of life is manageable when IT systems are working well (because we forget about the complexity), but threatens to overwhelm us when things go wrong.

Clearly this cyber attack is a wake-up call about the urgent need for us to keep one step ahead of those who would use information technology, amoral in itself, for immoral ends.

But perhaps more than that, it is an encouragement for us to reflect more deeply on what it means to live as human beings in relation with each other, in order to ensure that while our lives are supported and enhanced by technology, we never become wholly dependent upon it.

 

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It’s not rocket science

Jesus footwashing

Today’s gospel reading from John (13.16-20) comes immediately after the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. It was a profound action, consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus, but which turned on its head the expectations of what the Messiah would be.

Among the disciples, as you might recall, there had been arguments about which one of them would be the greatest. They reflected and echoed very much the values of the world and not the values of the kingdom which Jesus had ushered in. So Jesus, as he so often did, used actions as well as words to get his point across.

In washing the disciples’ feet Jesus took upon himself the task of the servant. This was not how teachers and leaders were meant to behave, and no doubt part of the reason why Peter was initially reluctant to let Jesus wash his feet.

Then, after the action of washing their feet, Jesus explained clearly to them just what that meant. In other places in the gospels we read how the disciples did not always get the point of what Jesus was doing so it is perhaps not surprising that Jesus made doubly sure that they had indeed grasped the implications of what life in the kingdom meant.

In the 2000 years since, Christians have sought to follow that example of Jesus, doing to others as Jesus did to us. In other words, reaching out to others in acts of loving service – not to earn favour or status, or to be praised and rewarded – but so that others might learn of the love, grace and mercy of God through us.

And the amazing thing is that any of us can do that. Serving others is not rocket science. It does not have to be through great heroic gestures but in the ordinary everyday moments of life. For all of us there will be no shortage of opportunities.

For example, it might be through sharing the burden of a friend or neighbour who is going through a hard time; a practical act such as taking a meal round for a sick neighbour; checking in on that person down the street who lives alone and whom you have not seen for a while. The list is endless and, of course, we cannot be every need for every person we meet along the way.

But it is important to keep in mind this fundamental truth that to follow Jesus means taking him seriously and sometimes putting ourselves out for others: If he washed his disciples’ feet, we like them should wash one another’s.

A good way to keep on track with this call upon our lives is to spend a few minutes at the end of each day reflecting on where we might have put this teaching of Jesus into practice and also where we have received that serving love of Jesus from others. If we have missed opportunities acknowledge that but don’t linger with guilt – simply remind yourself there is always tomorrow and new opportunities to serve.

It is not rocket science, but the small everyday acts of service carried out by people like you and me that make a difference to the people we meet along the way.

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Not in God’s name

Reformation martyrs

On this day, May 4th, the Church of England remembers the English saints and martyrs of the Reformation era – a period which lasted from the 14th-17th centuries and was most intense during the 16th century.

During that turbulent time, many holy Christian men and women suffered for holding fast to what they believed to be the truth of the gospel. Protestants and Catholics alike were martyred for their faith, with those inflicting the violence doing so in the belief that they were the keepers of truth and their victims were heretical.

That is, of course, an over-simplification of the complex political, religious, and social factors of that time of persecution. But it does remind us of how religious belief can be warped and twisted to such an extent that the most appalling acts of cruelty and violence can be conducted ‘in God’s name’.

History is littered with such examples. While Christians were killing each other during the Reformation, today it is Muslims who are killing each other in various parts of the world. No religion is immune from the danger of convincing itself that it alone is the arbiter of God’s truth, which can lead to the slippery slope that moves from exclusivism, though authoritarianism, and eventually to persecuting those who do not comply.

The fact of the matter is that the persecution and killing of anyone for holding different beliefs can never be authenticated by claiming that it is in God’s name – whoever makes that claim – and such actions are always an affront to the God whom the perpetrators claim to serve.

At such terrible times the nature of God is visible not in the the persecutors but in those who bear witness to their faith and trust in God by facing their suffering with courage and dignity, revealing the moral and religious bankruptcy of their oppressors. In one of the readings appointed for today, St Paul puts it this way when speaking about the persecution of the early followers of Jesus at Corinth:

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4.8-12)

So on this day when we remember the Reformation martyrs, it is important to remind ourselves of two things.

  • Firstly, with sorrowful hearts, we recall how easily religion can be distorted into a platform from which violence is perpetrated – allegedly in God’s name but, which in fact flies in the face of all that God is. Killing ‘in God’s name’ is nothing more than evil disguised.
  • Secondly, the martyrs remind us that in every age there are godly men and women who are prepared to stand firm in the face of evil because they know the love of God in their lives and that it transcends the misguided actions of those who would do them evil. Death, for them, is not the worst thing that can happen.

May their example encourage us in our own lives to live with God’s love, compassion and mercy as our guiding principles in the face of whatever comes our way.

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Yes or no? Just answer the question!

yes-no

Maybe like me you become exasperated at Prime Minister’s question time when, over and over again, questions are avoided, fudged or diverted. For example, one of the questions asked today could have been answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘know’.

The question in point was whether or not a Conservative government would, if re-elected, keep the ‘triple-lock’ on pensions. Mrs May went all around the houses to evade giving a response. Commenting on what the Conservatives have already done made no reference to the specific question being posed.

Now course, it’s not just the PM or MPs generally, who are expert in sidestepping challenging questions by sitting on the fence or using diversionary tactics. Anyone in the public eye – including church leaders – is rightly open to scrutiny, and also vulnerable to attack from their critics, with the media waiting like vultures to home in on any definitive statement and sensationalise it.

Bearing that in mind, it is understandable why public figures are sometimes reluctant to make unequivocal statements. Equally, there are not always simple answers to what might be deemed a straightforward question. Life is often more grey than black or white. There are, however, times when it is not right to circumvent a legitimate question simply to sustain a particular ideology.

I think this is why people switch off from political debate and why many choose not to exercise their vote. They are fed up of seeing our politicians dodging and weaving, and either not answering the questions put to them or answering a different question to distract attention.

So what is the answer? Firstly, we must keep calling to account any person in public office, pushing for answers to real questions with a refusal to be fobbed off with platitudes or waffle; secondly, with regard to the forthcoming General Election, we must avoid the temptation not to use our vote – to do so is to throw in the towel and miss the chance for our voices to be heard. If politicians refuse to answer questions that they should be answering, in my opinion they do not deserve my vote.

Not always, but sometimes, the answer to a question is in fact ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

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Another sad day in Paris

Police secure the Champs Elysees Avenue after one policeman was killed and another wounded in a shooting incident in Paris

Yesterday saw death and injury brought once again to the heart of Paris – a city that has known its fair share of atrocities in recent years. This time it was police officers who were the target of terrorism though, of course, anyone could have been caught in the crossfire on the busy thoroughfare of the Champs-Élysées.

It is difficult to know what else could be done by the French authorities – and, indeed, by any country – to prevent such attacks from taking place. No doubt far more terrorist attacks are thwarted than succeed but, inevitably, some will get through regardless of even the best security measures.

Whether it is a lone gunman, or a man driving a hijacked vehicle the total prevention of such attacks is impossible. Sometimes they will get through and succeed in their perverse aim to bring death and destruction to the heart of society and those responsible have their moment in the spotlight.

However, the people of Paris are resilient and we see time and time again, there and in other cities around the world, how decent people mourn their dead, share their grief, and then move on – determined not to let the agenda of terrorism to disrupt normality to achieve its goal.

The Champs-Élysées will soon be thronged once again with people going about their business – residents, workers, tourists – just as London got on with life the day after the recent Westminster attacks. It is that indomitable spirit and everyday courage of ordinary people which is the guarantee that the perpetrators of terror will never win.

Those of use who are Christians are currently celebrating the season of Easter and the event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That is, for us, the supreme example of how the power of hatred and death does not have the last word. It is love and life that prevails.

In these dark times as we think and pray for the people of France after another sad day in Paris, that is the hope which keeps us strong.

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Look beyond

 

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PM Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election on June 8 has, not surprisingly, stirred a media feeding frenzy. Already, the right wing Press are predicting (announcing?) a landslide Conservative victory and the destruction of the Labour party.

Without doubt, and soon to follow, will be a persistent and personal attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn from the Daily Mail, et al. The danger, of course, is that the froth of the sensationalist headline and derogatory soundbite are given more credence than the substance of the policies from which they deliberately distract.

The result of this General Election, set within the broader context of Brexit and the Scottish independence debate, will have a profound effect on the direction of the UK for the next five years and beyond. That is why I hope and pray that over the next seven weeks, every citizen who has a vote – including all our university students – will reflect upon how they vote – and be sure to use it!

Having a vote is a great privilege and something none of us should take for granted. It is also too precious to be based on the agendas of the popular press. We need to look beyond the hype and consider casting our votes in relation to the things that really matter in a society where freedom and equality are held dear.

My personal view about the things that should determine a person’s vote are as follows:

  • Who will best look after our public services?
  • Who will care most for the poorest and weakest members of society?
  • Who will look after the needs of the majority and not the privileged few?
  • Who will give serious attention to the environmental crisis that threatens our world?

The answer to those questions will not be found on the front page of the tabloids or in the comments and tweets of social media. Only if we look beyond to the substance of the policies that will emerge in the coming weeks will any of us be able to make wise use of the gift that is in our hands – to determine how we will be governed in the years to come and have a say in what kind of society to which we wish to belong.

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In a world gone mad

thisisholyweek

It seems that there is no end to the flow of appalling acts of cruelty inflicted on people by violent men. Vehicle attacks in London and Stockholm; suicide bombings in Egypt aimed at Christian worshippers; a state-sponsored poison gas attack in Syria followed by a unilateral cruise missile attack from the United States; these are just some of the grim news items from recent weeks.

There is increased tension between the United States and Russia as they engage in their war of words and continued sabre-rattling, each with a leader who does not inspire confidence in their ability to exercise statesmanship and diplomacy. Meanwhile, a US Navy strike group heads towards the Korean peninsula with who knows what response that will provoke in the unstable mind of Kim Jong Un.

In the midst of a world gone mad is the annual commemoration of Holy Week. For Christians this a time to recall the events of the final week in the life of Jesus. The world in which he lived was not so different from our own, the evil potential of the human heart was no more or less than in our own day. All that has changed is scale: we can kill and maim far more efficiently.

Jesus lived in a society that was under occupation by a foreign army that was brutal and ruthless in stamping out any opposition, with religious and political authority in the land subservient to their Roman masters. Any challenge to the power of the Emperor was crushed with overwhelming force, the ‘guilty’ punished mercilessly.

The Roman Empire has, however, long since passed away – as is the way of earthly powers. In contrast, the Christian community lives on and has survived every attempt to stamp it out even to the present day. Consider, for example, the atrocities of so-called Islamic State – most recently in their attack on Christians celebrating Palm Sunday in Egypt.

To understand why this is so, we must look to the one on whom Christian faith is founded. Jesus Christ met the full force of human cruelty and evil not with hatred and violence but with the power of love.

In that final week of his earthly life he was betrayed and deserted by his closest friends; he was falsely accused and put on trial for the sake of political and religious expediency; he was tortured and executed as a common criminal using one of the most fiendish methods imaginable.

Through it all Jesus showed what it means to be truly human, refusing to be drawn into the cycle of hatred and bitterness that only begets the same; instead facing down the slander, the hatred and the violence that were inflicted upon him with words of love and compassion.

They thought they had killed him and put an end to his message, and Holy Week reminds us of the cost that he bore. But his death on Good Friday was not the end as the first Easter Sunday proved. In the very moment when it seemed that all hope had gone the shackles of death were broken by the Risen Christ and the power of love and life shown to be stronger than the power of hatred and death. The tomb could not hold him.

And that is why, in a world gone mad, we should not give in to the climate of fear and despondency that permeates our world but put our trust in the one who has promised:

I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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