What is religion? Religion, says a former boss of mine, is what we do with our longings (Bishop Peter Selby in Belonging). I shall return to that.
On Ascension Day, last Thursday, I described the atrocity in Manchester as ‘incomprehensible’. Afterwards, one of the congregation emailed me. He agreed with ‘incomprehensible’ at one level; and yet, he said, ‘if we don't struggle, almost despite ourselves, to understand what is going on in the minds of the suicide bombers we shall not be able to defeat them.’ Such actions, he thought, offered a young man
who may be conscious of lack of success or status, the bait [of being] transformed in an instant from zero to hero…How do I escape from being the unsuccessful creature that I am? By sacrificing myself for the good of Islam and my fellow Muslims [he added that this is a perversion of true Islam]…Getting rid of all the burdens of one's existence in an instant, and becoming a hero at the same time, [that] is for some an attraction.
He ended by saying that he’d become more aware recently of how ‘temptation is often fundamentally the temptation to take “a short cut” to what one wants.’
This is someone who has ‘been close to quite a lot of Middle East violence’, so these words carry weight. So, then - longings. Might they provide a flimsy bridge across this abyss of incomprehension?
Run through your mental list of the best and the worst figures in history. Is a common factor among them that many had longings? The things that they longed for were worlds apart, perhaps, but did they share a hunger and thirst for some visionary future? But does ‘longing’ sound too romantic to be a trigger for atrocities? James Dingley, an authority on the IRA, says that it was their very romanticism about nationhood that allowed them to conduct their campaign as they did, unbridled by rational, earth-bound constructs such as rules of war.
Today’s passage from Acts has real longing about it. Jesus, who died, has been restored to this friends. But this is not enough for them. Easter has brought them personal joy but they still have longings that go beyond themselves to the destiny of their humiliated nation. So they ask, ‘Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
They are about to receive a coded answer to their question, when Jesus is lifted up by a cloud into heaven. The code words are ‘up’, ‘heaven’ and ‘cloud’. Why up? Because ‘up’ is the direction of heaven, seen in those days as a specific place, above the blue vault of the sky, where the throne of God is. And why a cloud? Because, according to two mysterious commentators at the scene, he will come back in the same way, and the book of Daniel had spoken of ‘one like a son of man’ coming on a cloud at the end of the age to rule the nations (Daniel 7.13-14). Put it all together, and here is a sign to the friends of Jesus that he is not just the one who is to direct their lives, not even just the one who will save Israel, but the one who will exercise God’s authority over the whole world.
Yes but when? True longing does have an impatience about it. ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods,’ says Jesus - in other words, no short cuts - but he does say that, before long, they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Meanwhile, we hear, the friends of Jesus will constantly devote themselves to prayer.
That ‘meanwhile’ - the space between the taking up of Jesus and the coming down of the Spirit, between Ascension and Pentecost, is where we find ourselves this morning. In these eleven days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, Archbishop Justin is encouraging us all to be part of Thy Kingdom Come.
This is a worldwide initiative to pledge to pray, on each of these days, for God’s will to be done - in our world, in the lives of those we care about, in our own lives; to pray for others (as the gospel reading puts it) to know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent; and to have on our hearts as we do this those three words of longing from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘thy kingdom come’.
If you want to know what longing looks like, take your coffee at the end of the service over to the south transept and spend a minute looking at the faces of some of Ana Maria Pacheco’s sculpted group of ‘wanderers’ - What are they longing to be free from? What futures are they reaching for? - and then go to our Thy Kingdom Come installation. Tie a luggage label on the prayer tree if you like, with a word or two on it about what your longings are.
Without longings we are spiritually dead. But a person can long for the wrong things, the very worst things. ‘Religion without reflection,’ says my email correspondent, ‘the ultimate nightmare’. That is why the Lord’s Prayer, the gift of Jesus of those who ask him to help them to pray, is so important. Each time we pray it, its phrases kindle our longings - and constrain them:
‘thy Kingdom come, thy will be done’ - I want things to be different, but it’s not my vision, it’s yours
‘forgive us our trespasses’ - we sometimes get things badly wrong
‘lead us not into temptation’ - especially the temptation of the short cut
‘deliver us from evil’ - don’t let us be destroyed by the wickedness in our world; and don’t let us add to it
‘for thine is the kingdom’ - in the end, it’s not about us.
Today, on the fourth of these days of prayer, let the definitive word be Archbishop Justin’s as he describes this prayer of obedient longing:
‘Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.’ It’s impossible to overstate…the life-transforming power of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying, and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It’s famous enough to be spoken each day by billions in thousands of languages, and yet it’s intimate enough to draw us ever closer into friendship with Jesus Christ. It’s simple enough to be memorized by small children, and yet profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray this prayer…there is no exaggerating, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.
May it be so for us, as we engage in this, the most important conversation of the day.