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Readings: 7th Sunday of Easter

23 May 2014

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[Ezekiel 36.24-28;] Acts 1.6-14; 1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11; John 17.1-11

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

SOMETIMES, it is easier to gaze into the heavens than to get on with life on earth. Eastertide's readings from 1 Peter remind us that, although Christ is exalted with great triumph to the Kingdom in heaven, here on earth all is not so overtly glorious.

In the words of the Lord's Prayer, God's Kingdom is still coming. The epistle pulls no punches: Christians should not think it strange to face fiery ordeals or a prowling adversary, lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce. In fact, these trials offer an opportunity to rejoice in sharing Christ's sufferings.

This is an unlikely message of resurrection joy; yet both Peter and the collect use the word "exalt". Because God has exalted his Son, we, who are in Christ, can pray with confidence to be exalted, because the Holy Spirit both strengthens and exalts us.

Ezekiel's promise - radical in the historic political manoeuvres involved and the people's change of heart - was that God would gather his people from exile among other nations to be their God, bringing them to their own land as God's people.

Jesus, speaking of the Spirit who would cause living water to flow from believers' hearts (John 7.38-39), drew on Ezekiel's promise of a new heart and spirit that would be responsive to God. Our familiarity with the idea should not breed contempt of its radical nature.

In John's chronology, Jesus's prayer - for the Father to glorify the Son, and for those who follow him - was prayed in the shadow of his betrayal, arrest, and death. God's promise, through Ezekiel, of a new beginning, when people would want to be faithful, was fulfilled less through miraculous signs and wonders than in the day-to-day faithfulness of the vulnerable people who had been left behind after Jesus's violent death.

Acts lists some of the early beneficiaries of this prayer by naming the eleven, some women, Jesus's mother, and his brothers. The fact that men and women prayed together was one new manifestation of God's life among them, while the presence of Jesus's siblings - previously unbelieving (John 7.5) - was another.

The promised new heart and new spirit were given to ordinary people who were facing confusion and threatened with opposition, as they came to terms with the resurrection and ascension. In God's hands, glory and exaltation are not estranged from suffering and trials. They can and do co-exist.

So, while this week's collect describes Jesus's departure as a great, triumphal entry into God's Kingdom in heaven, it promptly prays that we who are left be not comfortless. Exaltation is not inimical to suffering or bereavement. We can forgive the disciples for being confused, since after the potent combination of grief, fear, doubt, and joy involved in coming to terms with the crucifixion and resurrection, they faced the uncertainty of when and where they would see Jesus.

His comings and goings were not under their control, until finally he entered a cloud and disappeared for good. They were stretched to what could feel like breaking point, and we should not simply read back into this their later understanding of Jesus's prayer for them.

Significantly, their response was to devote themselves to prayer. The epistle instructs Christians to humble ourselves, not with Uriah Heap's ingratiating obsequiousness, but in honest recognition that, warts and all, we are under God's mighty hand.

So Jesus's parable of the wedding banquet, with its invitation to "move up higher" ends with: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 14.7-11). Only when we own our dependence on God's power can God exalt us.

As we draw near to the end of Eastertide with celebration of the Ascension of our Lord into the glory that he shared with his Father, the daily news reminds us that, like the disciples and Peter's readers, we live in a troubled world. If we believe that the world is God's, and that he will strengthen us, then we can dare to be quite specific in our prayers to be given a new spirit, to be God's people in the world.

As I write this, headlines include kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, controversial Ukrainian elections, and fantastic insights into the evolution of the world after the Big Bang. Prayer for God's world remains challenging. We pray with confidence.

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