The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      28th May 2017
He has put all things under his feet
Jeremy Fletcher

A small liturgical feud ignited itself in the parish office this week. The question was about when you should extinguish the Paschal Candle. Should it be on Ascension Day (because the Risen Christ has now left this earth), or at Pentecost (when the wind of the Spirit transfers the flame of resurrection life to all the people of God)? It’s quite an anorakish question, and answering it will not usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness, but my money would be on keeping the candle alight until Pentecost. We are in the great 50 days of our celebration of Easter, and we do that not in the absence of the Spirit but in the Spirit’s power. I do get the point of the other argument: there can be Spiritual value in living ‘as if’ we are waiting for the Spirit, and imagining what it would be like to obey Christ’s command to ‘wait’. What would those ten days between Ascension and Pentecost have been like?

On Ascension Day we reflected on the ‘coronation’ of Christ, ascended into heaven. Christ’s command to his disciples was to wait in the City until they were clothed with power from on high, and in these days until Pentecost the Church prays for the outpouring of the Spirit, just as the disciples did. A special set of readings concentrates on the Spirit’s work, winding up our expectation, and all the material in Morning and Evening Prayer asks for the Spirit to come. This season has been adopted in recent years by the Church of England, and now other denominations too, to pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, and to cry out for the growth of the church across the nation. Such prayer is a feature of the collect for today: “leave us not comfortless, but send thine Holy Ghost to comfort us…” (and remember that ‘comfort’ here is the same sense as that bit of the Bayeux Tapestry where King Odo ‘comforts’ his troops by waving a club at them and telling them to get on with it. 

It one sense it is good to pretend that the Spirit has not come yet, and add urgency to our prayers for the gift of the Spirit, for the power which can cause earthquakes, which can release prisoners, which can drive hardened jailers to beg for forgiveness and cry for salvation. It is good to be driven to ask for the presence of God to draw us into the unity of the Trinity, just as Jesus prayed that we might know the power of the Comforter who would sustain us even when people try to kill us because we follow Christ. It is good to know, with the Ephesians, that we can receive wisdom, revelation, and the knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. These are prayers we need to pray. 

And yet in another sense it is absolutely ridiculous to pretend that we don’t have this gift already, strange to act as if we have to wait for Pentecost so that we can get on with the job, as if the Spirit will only come then, like a new Vicar or a new Curate, to make everything better. “The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us” we say. It is a free translation of “dominus vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo” which goes to the heart of the Christian reality of the presence of the incarnate God in us and with us and for us by the power of the Spirit of unity. The Lord be with you is about God being with us and in us by the power of his Spirit. No waiting needed, no pretending that next week it will all be fine. We should be challenged now to ensure that we are open to the empowering of the Spirit of God.

In my previous parish there was a Holy Spirit window. There the Spirit is depicted as small ‘bombs’ of flame. Some rest on the heads of the apostles; others are ‘in transit’.  We are people on whom the Spirit already rests, and who cry out for the Spirit to come with all the more power. If blowing out the candle and waiting for the Spirit works for you then fine. If keeping the candle alight and rejoicing in the presence of Christ in the power of the Spirit works for you, then fine as well. 

What this is about is how we are today.  Today is the day to rejoice in Christ the King: enthroned in heaven, ‘seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places’ as Ephesians puts it, bringing our humanity into the Trinity (there is a human at the heart of God), proclaiming the triumph of the cross and the Lamb who was slain, rejoicing that Jesus has blazed the trail so that we will go where he has gone. Today is the day to proclaim that God has put all things at the feet of Christ. In the face of further evidence that human beings can act with unimaginable  cruelty, perhaps today is a day to proclaim all the more that we believe that Christ on the throne is the one who carries the scars of his suffering, and who will bring all the sufferings of the world into himself when all is revealed. 

Today is the day to seek the power of the Spirit of God. Today is the day to act as if we were already in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, to be a part of the body which is the fullness of him who fills all in all. Today is the day to be incorporated into the unity of the Godhead. Today is the day, in the power of the spirit, to join our diverse gifts together to be as one body and sing with one voice. And today is the day for the world to see the glory of God in a church fully alive. This world needs to hear that more than ever. We asl for the Spirit’s power to make it so. 

The alternative collect for today:

Risen, ascended Lord,

As we rejoice at your triumph,

Fill your church on earth with power and compassion,

That all who are estranged by sin

May find forgiveness and know your peace,

To the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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