I have just finished writing a small popular-level commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. And I was struck right from the start by the fact that Acts, which of course begins with the story of the Ascension, never once speaks in the way those Collects – and the whole tradition which they embody – so easily does. At no point in the whole book does anyone ever speak, or even sound as though they’re going to speak, of those who follow Jesus following him to heaven. Nobody says, ‘well, he’s gone on before and we’ll go and join him’. And for a very good reason. When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered.
Paradoxically, of course, because we have been used to seeing ‘heaven’ as a place separated from earth, somewhere far away, way beyond the blue. But that’s not how the Bible sees it, not at all. Heaven is God’s space, and earth is our space. ‘The heavens belong to YHWH,’ declares the Psalmist, ‘and the earth he has given to the human race.’ But the point of God’s split-level good creation, heaven and earth, is not that earth is a kind of training ground for heaven, but that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock (which is, by the way, the foundation of all sacramental theology, with the sacraments as one of the places where this overlap actually happens), and that one day – as the book of Revelation makes very clear – one day they will do so fully and for ever, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.
And that is why, in the Acts of the Apostles, the point of the coming of the Spirit, which we shall celebrate next week, isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven. That is why Acts is what it is. And in case you think that might lead us into some kind of triumphalism, with the church striding through the world imposing a theocracy on it – lots of people today do indeed think that’s what it would look like to have the Christian faith impinge at all on public life, and tell scare stories about the wickedness of theocracies in order to bolster their own secular vision – in case you imagine that God’s kingdom will be forced on an unwilling world by an all-powerful church, Acts makes it quite clear that the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest.
…I hope it is fairly obvious that we need to learn this lesson today, and need to learn it as a matter of urgency. We live at something of a crisis point in contemporary politics, with a new Prime Minister waiting in the wings but with a country, and a parliament, that has almost forgotten what public debate, not to mention parliamentary debate, actually is, and is drifting this way and that on currents of politically correct opinion, manipulated all too easily by the media and those who control it. And of course, as with the crowds in Philippi, there is a constant desire to accuse the church of being out of step, whether it’s on assisted suicide or marriage and family or campaigning to end global debt or working for proper treatment of prisoners in our jails. And the church has for so long forgotten that it’s normal to be out of step, has for so long supposed that as long as it was getting people ready for a distant destination called ‘heaven’ it really shouldn’t be worrying about what went on on earth, that we have forgotten the real message of Acts, the real message of the Ascension, which is that of course the church, in the power of the Spirit, will be called to bear witness to Jesus Christ precisely at the pressure points, the places where society and governments are drifting away from the good order which God wills for his world and for all his human creatures. (NT Wright – read the whole thing)