Suffering and Ascension
Today’s epistle has some very relevant things to say to us, if in rather dramatic language, about the state of our world at the moment.
I don’t need to remind you of the totally sad and tragic events of the last week. I don’t think I need to enumerate them in any detail, as there has been blanket coverage in the media of the Manchester bombing and its aftermath all week.
The following verse leapt out at me as I was reading the Epistle:
‘Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.’
Peter is writing to the early Christians, preoccupied with their suffering, the suffering of the faithful and its prototype in the suffering of Christ. Although the exact nature of the suffering remains hidden from modern readers, it clearly includes verbal abuse and harassment. Peter is working to draw a community together that can withstand suffering inflicted by external forces. He talks about ‘the fiery ordeal’ that can test the faithful and the evil that emerges as the enemy, actively and intentionally seeking those who belong to God, but, he places Christian confidence in God.
‘Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you………..the God of all grace will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.’
God’s strength is accompanied by a compassion that enables Him to take on the cares and concerns of His people.
The second kind of response to make to evil is to resist it.
‘ Discipline yourselves………keep alert. Resist him…………….’ – here personalising ‘evil’ as the ‘devil’.
We have heard and seen just how powerful the ‘togetherness’ of the people of Manchester and all those involved has been – the desire to show that love and courage and support is the way to cope with such a trauma as well as a recognition of the terrible hurt and suffering this deliberate act has caused. We saw the selflessness of the medical services, the taxi drivers, those who came with candles and flowers and bottles of water. Christians recognise the reality of evil through Christ’s suffering on the cross and, somewhere down the road, it’s ultimate defeat, in the Resurrection of Easter Sunday.
We have also seen the ways in which the police, military and intelligence services are leaving no stone unturned to find the perpetrators of this plot and to close down all those associated with its network. By moving the security alert to critical, the intention is to assure us that we are as safe as it is possible to be. We give thanks to all those involved in these huge operations, for the time and effort being expended and for the determination to succeed.
From today’s epistle, we see both the importance of togetherness and the importance of being alert and resisting evil – advice to the early Christians which we can see being followed today in reactions to this terror.
There are powerful pictures in the Church Times this week of Muslims saying prayers together in a mosque in Manchester for the victims of the bombing and a headline :
‘Priests and Imams united in Oldham’ – a statement made by the interfaith group expressed ‘sadness and outrage’ at what had happened and said that ‘ the action of those whose purpose is to destroy lives are not representative of any faith.’
It is however sad that now it is being reported, inevitably perhaps, that the number of hate crimes is up following the bombing. It was said that as the whole male white population was not held responsible for the murder of the MP Jo Cox, neither of course should the whole Muslim community be held responsible for this atrocity. Education and changing attitudes are very important here, standing up for Christ’s teaching on compassion and all standing together against evil and against the innocent being wrongly victimised.
It was interesting to read that several Church buildings were closed for a period due to a lack of security, including Manchester Cathedral itself and Birmingham Cathedral, but that it was felt that it was entirely appropriate to bring the services and prayers out onto the streets. The Dean said:
‘ It is a visible sign that our faith is strong and endures. The Church is not just a building but the people. We are doing everything we can for business as usual, as far as our worship and witness is concerned.’
Peter’s letter is also an immediate preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we ceIebrate next Sunday, joining with the national church in a Quiet Day, entitled, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ We will have our 10.00am service, with The Net doing ‘Messy Pentecost’ in the Hall, followed by coffee, a talk on the prayer stations, a talk in the early afternoon and final service at 4pm. Do come and join us for all or part of the day. There will not be an 8.00am service next week.
This letter from Peter, and others from Paul, are a reminder that life will not always be easy for Christians and, as we know, the persecutions were not confined to the catacombs and the Roman Empire. There were the martyrs at the Reformation, those in Russia, Germany, China in the 20thC and the current suffering of Christians in the Middle East.
Yet, as Christ has ascended into heaven, to go back to the Father, so the Holy Spirit will come to provide the support and help that Christians need here on earth.
We hear from the reading from Acts, Jesus saying to the gathered disciples:
‘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.’
Imagine that following the momentous events of Easter Day, the disciples had had 40 days of witnessing Jesus appearing to them in different places, all the while knowing that He must leave them soon to return to the Father. They returned to Jerusalem, after witnessing the Ascension as described by Luke, to the same upper room where they had gathered so often to wait and to pray. They are each described by name and were together with ‘certain women,’ including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as His brothers. They were soon to have to take on the world rather than flee from it. In the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost , ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ would become the focus of their prayer.
We have to remember that this is a story of a fearful, waiting community, anxious and bewildered, which has no power of its own. It possesses none and cannot generate any for itself and yet power is given that causes this fragile little community to have energy, courage, imagination and resources completely disproportionate to its size. In this way, Ascension points to Pentecost and to all the marvellous ways of the Holy Spirit of God.
Since it separates Him from His followers, the Ascension of Jesus might have been recalled by the Church as a time of grief and confusion. How would the straggly group of Jesus’ followers continue in His absence? Wouldn’t they have felt isolated and aimless?
Luke however, alone among the gospels, describes it as a time of empowerment, a time when the Church becomes the body of Christ itself. The Church may act with confidence because it knows itself now to be Christ’s own body, the body of the one whose exaltation derives directly from God’s power.
Worship and witness belong together. The singing of hymns, the prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, the reading and exposition of scripture and the breaking of bread keep the church in touch with what Living Faith called ‘the sacred centre’. Yet worship divorced from witness can turn in on itself and become ‘empty’.
On Ascension Day, David quoted from the well known prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Avila that now Christ has no hands on earth but ours, no arms and feet but ours, no eyes with which to look with compassion on the world, but ours. We are shown clearly that Christians, as the Church, are not only here to worship, but to engage with the world, wherever there is need to bring help, comfort and understanding. So many young people and their families were affected by Monday’s events that counselling and listening will be very important as well as the medical needs of those affected. Sometimes we need to step up more in areas in which we can help and step ‘outside the box’ to see our world in different ways.
‘Risen and Ascended Lord,
You have promised to be with us always:
Teach us to be aware of your presence,
And to abide in your love,
That we may walk in the way that leads to glory,
Where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
One God, world without end. Amen
Gillian Gyenes LLM