Sunday, April 27, 2008

Standing firm in the faith

Acts 1.6-14
1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11
John 17.1-11

Luke's rather sterile account of the ascension of Jesus, which creates an artificial divide between Jesus' earthly ministry and the new age of the Holy Spirit, is given a different kind of treatment in today's passage from 1 Peter. The writer doesn't think in terms of Jesus ascending to heaven, to leave the field clear for the Holy Spirit to manifest itself through the words and actions of Jesus' followers. Instead he thinks in terms of Jesus being vindicated or glorified.

He has already said that Christians shouldn't be made to suffer for their faith, so long as we are doing what is right. Now he acknowledges that, for whatever reason, believers are going through a fiery ordeal. However, if we are suffering for the sake of Jesus then - just as Jesus was vindicated by God through his resurrection, after he had suffered and died on the Cross - so we can expect to be vindicated if we remain steadfast in the faith.

The language that 1 Peter uses is 'ascension' language. The writer talks about being exalted or lifted up. But he isn't thinking about being lifted up like a rocket lifting off from a launch pad, or even like Jesus ascending through the clouds in the Acts of the Apostles. Nor is he just thinking about something that is going to happen in another time or dimension, such as heaven or eternity, although that is certainly part of what he means by being exalted or glorified. However, he also expects God to vindicate or exalt us right here and right now, by restoring, strengthening supporting and encouraging us in our mission.

Sometimes that sort of affirmation seems in short supply. In our post-modern Western society the Church is being assailed on all sides and over-arching narratives which seek to explain our existence, the universe and everything in it are out of fashion, but if we take 1 Peter at face value we shall continue to believe that - in God - we can overcome our trials and anxieties.

I work in the voluntary sector and these are lean times for voluntary, community and faith organisations which rely on external funding from grants and contracts in order to survive. The law of the jungle applies. Only the fittest will make it into the next funding round. But fitness for the future is not just about strength and good fortune. It is also a question of resilience to misfortune, of hope that is able to triumph over anxiety and of faith in your own organisation's vision and mission. If the staff or trustees of an organisation falter on any of these levels then there are plenty of other, stronger, meaner or fiercer organisations prowling around looking for someone to devour in order to strengthen their own chances of survival.

This is a very close parallel to the situation which faced the churches to whom 1 Peter is addressed. And the remedy is the same. If we believe that God cares for us, and for what we are doing, we must be humble enough to put all of our trust in him, keeping alert for danger, resisting the pressures to give in and remaining steadfast.

John's position on the ascension or glorification of Jesus falls somewhere between that of Luke and 1 Peter. With Luke he shares the view that Jesus is no longer in the world except in Spirit, but for John this Spirit is not just a gift which God bestows on Jesus' followers, it is very much Jesus' own gift to them. And for John, the glorification or vindication which God gives to Jesus and his followers is very much a here and now phenomenon, beginning with the vindication of Jesus himself in true kingly glory on the Cross.

In part, the vindication or glorification of Jesus has an eternal quality. He has been vindicated in God's presence because he has identified himself completely with God's will. But another part of his vindication lies in the fact that he has been vindicated in the wholehearted response of those who believe in his mission and know - through faith - that it is true. Finally, Jesus and his mission are vindicated when his followers demonstrate their unity - not only with him but with one another. In so far as we let him down by our disunity or lack of wholeheartedness, his vindication is still incomplete.

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