Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 28 May 2017, Easter 7 with Ascension Celebration, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 28 May 2017, Easter 7 with Ascension Celebration, United Benefice of Holland Park

Imagine what is might have been like to have been a follower of Jesus in the few weeks after Jesus has ascended. He’s no longer physically present. Next week we will celebrate the dynamic power of the Spirit who transforms the disciples. The church grows. Its moves beyond Jerusalem and Judea. Other leaders are set apart for the work. Something dramatic happens after a few years – the Jewish followers of Jesus are expelled from the Synagogues. This would have ripped apart families. Yet the church continues to grow, beyond the Jewish community to Gentiles, to pagans. And the early church faced questions about its relationship with the Jewish establishment, the Roman Empire, as well as the pagan world who were confused about this new religious group.
In John’s Gospel, probably written sixty years or so after Jesus’s earthly ministry, the church is called ‘out of the world’, even while being very much ‘in the world’. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer, he tells his followers that the world would hate them… that they are not of this world… and Jesus is sending them into the world. It's a deeply ambiguous prayer.
Jesus’s followers are called to love the world, which means that separatism and withdrawal aren’t options. On the other hand, because of that very proximity with the world, assimilation and conformity will always be temptations.  So, how do we love the world without becoming worldly people?
In last Sunday’s Times Cultural section there was a fascinating book review. The book was entitled In the Days of Rain: A Daughter. A Father. A Cult by Rebecca Stott. It's the story of the author’s experience in a radically separatist form of Christian faith: the Exclusive Brethren. It’s a devastating memoir in which Stott sets out to untangle that thicket that engulfed her father and her childhood. She was raised in a context where meals, domestic routines and bedtimes were arranged around the times of their church services. The Children’s Encyclopedia was censored with a razor blade so there was no entry on Darwin. Her father hid a radio in his car boot because radios, along with television, was considered ‘of the world’ and were thus banned.  This was a religion with a long list of prohibitions: no fashionable clothes, no cinemas or theatre, no tabloid newspapers, no mixing with non-believers.
I was particularly interested reading about this because my own background in many ways mirrored her experience. Within our worldview growing up was a deep suspicion of ‘the world’. ‘The world’ was opposed to God and it needed saving. For our theological justification, we would point to John’s Gospel. 2 Corinthians 6.17 is even more explicit: ‘Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.’
The relationship between the God, the world, culture and the church has been much reflected upon. Perhaps the most significant book being Richard Niebuhr’s, Christ and Culture (1951).  
More recently, David Brooks, a New York Times journalist and author, simplifies the relationship between religious and secular communities. He observes that religion often comes in one of two forms: the purist and the ironist. Purist commends a strategy of “[seceding] culturally from the mainstream."  We should turn off our smartphones and watch only films and television that are consistent with Christian values. Christians should ‘pull their children from state school, put down roots in separate communities.’ Purist religious faith throughout history have include the Spanish inquisitors to the modern Islamic radicals. Like the Exclusive Brethren, they believe in a single true way of living. 
Brooks favours the ironist mode that appreciates the many ambiguities of existence.  Purist ideals are for the next world, not this world.  He writes, ‘By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures…most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith." In its most extreme forms, such groups justify the most abhorrent acts. It’s something we’ve seen this week in Manchester. The warped view that thinks that they are creating a better world by killing people, including children. But if you’re in a hermetically sealed ideological world, such things can be justified, and justified theologically. It’s utterly tragic.
I don’t know how best we can create a society where these sorts of atrocities become unthinkable. The historian Tom Holland has made a fascinating Channel 4 TV documentary called - Isis: The Origins of Violence. Its worth seeing.
But surely the answer is not to withdraw and to cut off any association with the world. That is a sure way to foster narrowness and prejudice. We are very much embedded in the world and there is much in the world that is good and to be affirmed and enjoyed. And yet, we also need prophetic voices when we have lost the ability to critique, to challenge authority.
Later this year (15 August 2017) marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Romero (1917–1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador.  Romero was murdered while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived. He preached a prophetic gospel, denouncing the injustices in his country, like torture. He became the voice of the Salvadoran people when all other channels of expression had been crushed by the repression. But his life was cut short, with a better future still far off.
One way to process the many ambiguities of our gospel witness is to remind ourselves that we work and pray for "a future not our own."
Here is a poem-prayer connected with Romero called, A Future Not Our Own
It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

In the Days of Rain: A Daughter. A Father. A Cult by Rebecca Stott, The Sunday Times, May 21 2017
Dan Clendenin,, May 28, 2017