Last week, a party activist could have told you by glancing at their campaign grid what they planned to talk about today, 14 days before the election; and a well-organised preacher could have told you roughly what their Ascension Day sermon would be about. But that was before Monday and the Manchester Arena.
The national election campaign has been largely silent today, and our job here has now become to ask what today has to say to that unspeakable, incomprehensible crime. Before Tuesday morning I had never heard of Ariana Grande, but a few clicks would have revealed to me - as to the murderer - the significance she has in the lives of many young people; so this was a refined kind of evil that seems to have aimed itself at children.
In the light of that, what of the story of Jesus ascending into heaven? Or Ephesians’ image of Jesus seated at the right hand of God, all things at his feet? What substance is there is to the phrase we have repeated in our prayers each morning since Easter:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where O death is your sting?
‘Defiance’ has been a word used often this week, about the vigil in St Helen’s Square, and the thousands of tributes. And we need to be defiant. The Bishop of Salisbury and leaders of Salisbury’s Muslim Association have said:
We commit ourselves to reject absolutely this violence and hatred, and the motivation that lies behind it, and we call upon all people to do the same daily by words and actions of love, compassion and reconciliation.
So you and I have our defiant part to play, but what are our grounds for that defiance? Do we really have anything offer other than our own set of words - Christian words - for what is essentially a human act of will? When the Bishop of Manchester said that love is stronger than hate, what had he got to back that up? Is ‘Jesus is Lord’ just a religious way of saying (to quote one young Mancunian) ‘You can’t let them win’?
We cannot honestly go on using Christian words unless we are persuaded that they describe something real, even in the face of what seems to mock them as fanciful. I have a dog-eared copy of a sermon I heard over thirty years ago about one man’s crisis of faith. When life seemed at one point to mock his faith, he said
I could find no way of holding on to the values of Christianity while denying the account Christianity gave of reality. It wouldn’t do to say that, yes, the world was a bleak place subject to inexorable material forces… and yet that one might as well structure one’s life by values like love and selflessness and compassion, because they were really very attractive.
He didn’t see how you could say ‘Blessed are the meek’, yet ‘assert that in no circumstances whatever would the meek inherit the earth’. So, who will inherit the earth?
An open society, security professionals tell us, can never insulate itself from crimes like this. It will always be vulnerable. And this openness of society is something we have learned - in part, and by an indescribably winding route - from Jesus himself, from the wandering prophet of Galilee who left himself remarkably vulnerable to the forces of his day. His disciples were no defence at all, and in the end violence was free to do its worst to him – and it was not enough.
This is how God does defiance. Pontius Pilate is not prevented from executing Jesus and he’s not killed afterwards; he just - fades, eventually forgotten except for one line in the creed. By contrast, Jesus’ death seems to be what sets him finally free in the world.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, though, it was a private affair. No-one saw the resurrection itself, and the risen Jesus did not make a splash by appearing to the masses in the Temple at Jerusalem, nor did he make a point by appearing in the Roman Governor’s residence. Easter began in an intimate way, as the risen Jesus appeared to his friends. At some point, though, those experiences stopped, and today’s story marks that moment. It does not describe private experiences ebbing away; rather, it depicts a moment when what have been private experiences are now revealed as signs of what is true for the whole world: the one whom Mary mistook for a gardener is the one, as Charles Wesley has just combatively put it, who sits at God’s right hand till all his foes submit.
None of this - of course - is demonstrably true, and we certainly don’t yet see a world that looks as it should do if Jesus is Lord. And all this that I’m speaking is still just words. Not very satisfactory. But Jesus tonight calls his friends not to offer proofs but to be witnesses: to bear witness in ‘words and actions of love, compassion and reconciliation’; to bear witness to our conviction that this is where the future lies for our world; and to bear witness to all this not just in defiance but in obedience, giving ear to a voice that is not our own. We are invited to speak and act as we do not because we have decided that all this is true but because we have been shown that it is true.
To see this, with what Ephesians calls ‘the eyes of your heart’, is a matter not of words but of receiving ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation’. Jesus tells his friends tonight, ‘Stay here, until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ For that part of the story they must wait. And so must we.