Saturday, May 23, 2015


Earlier this week, I gathered the representatives of our congregation and asked them to be ready to share three things:

how they had come to be at the Minster;

their experience of coming into the Minster on any given Sunday;

and what had most helped them grow in their faith over Lent and Easter-tide.

It was a privilege to listen to one another. And it was an incredibly helpful exercise for me, to listen and to learn.

Of the thirteen people in the room, a few were able to talk in terms of their faith having grown over the last few months. Interestingly, the most common thing that they had found helpful was walking the journey of suffering with friends or family members living with irreversible physical deterioration or terminal illness. This, of course, was also deeply challenging, stretching faith in a most uncomfortable way. But most of those present were not able to perceive any growth in their faith over that timescale.

These were people of mature faith, seeking to live faithful lives rooted in God and God’s people. And I have been thinking about this ever since.

I have been thinking about a healthy tree. The growth from seed, through shoot and sapling, to growing to maturity is both incredible and at times imperceptible. In the early stages, we can see growth on a weekly basis; later, a thin ring is laid down in the trunk year on year.

But a mature tree does not continue to grow in the same way. It continues to live, an incredible array of processes going on as it utilises water, light, and nutrients. It responds to the seasons, at times leafy and at times dormant. But it is, for the overwhelming majority of its life, a stable system. And even its slow dying is used to bring life to other organisms...

The answers to the first question - how they had come to be at the Minster – spoke of having healthy roots. The answers to the second question - their experience of coming into the Minster on any given Sunday – spoke of those roots reaching water, whatever the season.

Perhaps questions of growth are concerned with the early stages of faith.

Perhaps the sign of maturity is that we no longer need to concern ourselves with growth, but can simply be; and in being, provide shelter for others.

If so, the questions of growth that we need to address with those in the early stages are those communal practices which will nurture them for a lifetime.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Day

Once there was a father who had two sons. The first-born son was dutiful, took the burden of responsibility that he felt upon his shoulders most seriously. As is so often the way with eldest children, he was not much given to celebrating life, and, truth-be-told, struggled with those who did. Working alongside him, his father would from time to time speak words of affirmation; but they felt more like a wound, because he could never live up to his own expectations. At the end of the day, his father would encourage him in to the circle sat around the fire, telling stories in the darkness; but he preferred his own company, or told himself as much.

The younger son was wild and free. From childhood, he had filled the estate with laughter and the slap of running feet. Both sons, in different ways, felt constrained by the boundary wall that marked their home – and they were meant to. Home is where we start out from, and return to; it is not the wideness of the world. But while the older brother conformed himself to that constraint, the younger son kicked against the walls until they broke and he burst free. Out, out he went, having secured his share of their father’s fortune, seed-money to seek a fortune of his own. He travelled to a far country, where he fell in with a crowd of other run-aways, and there he squandered his father’s wealth with revellers and gamblers, with prostitutes and conspirators. What his older brother would say, if he could see him now! And what would knowing do to his dear father?

The money – as I’m sure you can imagine – soon ran out, as money has a want to do; and with it, most of his new-found friends ran out on him too, except those so lost they had nowhere else to run. And then, of course, he took an inevitable beating, from those who prey over the weak, who refused to believe that there was nothing else to take from him, if he was who he claimed to be.

Then he set out for home. There was quite literally nowhere else to go. The journey took him forty days. Along the way, he had several adventures. He met several old friends who no longer even recognised him, at least not a first. With each encounter, each revelation, he came to himself – not the young man who had left home, but the man prepared to come home, his true self exposed.

At last, he arrived – his father running beyond the boundary to meet him. His brother, on the other hand, refused to recognise him at all. He could not, for he had never really recognised his own surroundings – his father, his home, his own self.

Why did the father embrace his lost son, I ask? Because he loved him, you reply. Yes, he did; but that is not the reason: after all, he loved his elder son just as much. No, the father embraced his younger son because he himself had gone on a similar journey long before. He had descended from heaven onto Mount Sinai, to befriend a broken rabble of outcasts; had descended even further, to tabernacle in their rebellious midst; and had then ascended Mount Zion, from where he established a wounded-but-healed people to bless all the surrounding wounded peoples from one horizon to the other, to the ends of the earth. The way home is down, down, up. Earth, hell, heaven.

The ascension is Jesus’ homecoming. It marks the end of a first journey, which takes us away from home in order to return home recognising home for the first time. Seeing home as we were never able to see it before. Those who have never left home can never see home in this way. And it is the beginning of a second journey – still unfolding – which sees Jesus widen the family to include all of humanity.

This is a journey we are called to walk too, as we follow after Jesus, as he does what the Father has done. We are called to return home; having first travelled far from home. That is why Adam and Eve always had to leave the Garden (and they had to be tricked into it, because few of us want to leave the security and comfort and provision of home – though in this we see another deep truth: that God transforms what was done with evil intent for good, includes the fall from grace in the triumph of grace). That is why scientists tell us that all matter is expanding outwards from a moment, to which all matter will eventually contract back: for all things come from God and will return to God.

I experienced something of this Eastertide, when we went up to Scotland to see my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, nephew and niece, and my brother. I left Scotland twenty-four years ago, and have never missed it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but that is not quite the same thing. This visit, it felt like coming home. Not that I want, or need, to move to live in Scotland – I know that we are called to England – but that I had come home. That I am free to leave again, because it will always be there, in a way I had never known it before. A twenty-four year journey.

Our home is in God. This is where we start out from, and where we return to. Ascension-tide – from now until Pentecost – is a gift, an annual opportunity, to practice coming home. To learn how to return home, together. A time to tell stories of home, to awaken dreams, to stir up hope. A time to stumble towards love, and a time to be transformed more fully into our true selves as we live in the tension between Jesus’ departing and his return.

Cloudy, With Reign

Today is Ascension Day. Today we remember the day when Jesus’ disciples saw him for the last time, when, having blessed them, he turned and walked into the cloud. Anyone who has walked in the mountains may be familiar with such a phenomenon. While Christians affirm that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, from where he will return, ‘how?’ questions – which cannot be answered – are a distraction from the more important question, ‘so?’

This event is so important to the understanding of the early Church that it is recounted in the last chapter of the first volume of (the Gospel according to) Luke-Acts (of the Apostles) and again in the first chapter of the second volume: Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11. It is, in other words, a hinge-point in history. Why?

Some six hundred years before Jesus, the nobility of Jerusalem was living in exile, having been deposed and carried away in humiliation by the Babylonian Empire. Some of this ruling class had been re-trained and appointed to administrative posts within the Babylonian Empire; one such man being Daniel. On one occasion, Daniel had a dream (recorded in Daniel 7:1-28) of a succession of ‘beasts’ coming out of the ‘sea’ – the ‘sea’ symbolising chaos, and the fantastical ‘beasts’ symbolising empires (think the lion and unicorn symbolising the British Empire). The dream relates to a series of empires rising up and ruling over the people of Judah. But the dream continues, with a ‘son of man’ – that is, human being – presented before God in the clouds, to whom God gives dominion over all empires, for all time. After suffering, God’s people will be restored, and return under a king who will establish them for ever.

Jesus’ departure, then, is presented as the fulfilment of Daniel’s dream: Jesus is the human being presented before God on the clouds, and made king to reign over all the peoples as the king of God’s chosen people – God’s chosen people not being the Jewish nation by natural descent, but, now, the faithful community of the Church, soon to expand to include the Gentiles.

But we haven’t yet addressed the ‘so?’ question.

In the first account of the ascension, Luke records Jesus ‘opening their minds to understand the scriptures’, that understanding culminating ‘that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [Jesus, the king in the clouds] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ [emphasis mine]

In other words, the judgement that the exalted human passes on all human empire-building is this:

‘Come home; all is forgiven.’

That is staggering. Not least because the ruling Empire of the day had put this human being to death in a display of their power, just forty-two days before.

Today is Ascension Day.


What is the implication of this day for those who look to Jesus in a highly politicised world of empire-building?

What are the implications for us when we see our government make decisions that – intentionally or otherwise - oppress the weakest people in our society?

To declare to power, ‘Come home; all is forgiven’ does not equate to saying, what you are doing doesn’t matter; does not equate to saying that empire is good and not evil. To embrace and forgive is not the same as to condone.

But it is far harder than to shake the fist.

Harder, and perhaps, ultimately, more transformative.

Whether we see such transformation or not, Ascension Day is the Church’s political model.