Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Manchester


Any attack on innocents is reprehensible, a sudden shattering of lives and homes spitting fear and distrust like shrapnel. There’s a reason attacks like yesterday’s bombing of the Manchester Arena are called ‘terror’.

But to target this place at this time is a warped and twisted ritual, demanding the sacrifice of children on the altar of whatever toxic beliefs drove someone to walk into a concert and take their own life and those of others. We gather together to celebrate and sing and listen to music, just as we have from the dawn of civilisation, then suddenly all of that is torn away, leaving broken-hearted families and traumatised communities and further brokenness arising from the ashes – division and rage, media replaying the final moments of teenagers on a 24/7 cycle with no thought to empathy. Explosions reverberate.

But other echoes can be louder. Last night, Twitter was filled with offers of sanctuary, free taxi rides, cups of tea. Emergency services waded into Hell and saved lives. “Look for the helpers”, the saying goes; it’s the helpers who hold things together, who do whatever they can do, who become beacons in the night. “Our doors are open,” the helpers say, “We’ll keep you safe.”

Teacups vs nail bombs seems an unfair fight. But when fighting terror, cups of tea, friendship, hospitality can be formidable, shields against division and violence and hatred of all stripes. We win by deploying kindness and compassion; we give our homes for shelter, we give our cars for lifts, we plug phones into chargers, they ring and bring relief. We give our blood and donate it to hospitals. In isolation these don’t sound all that powerful, not compared to a suicide vest, but together these are the things with which we build and rebuild. Together we hold the line. And though right now all the songs are sad, together we keep on singing.

Breakfast (John 21:1-19)

Waves lap the beach and the sun sneaks over the horizon as a band of fishermen finish an unsuccessful night shift. With the benefit of hindsight we know they’re disembarking into a moment of redemption, the story of Peter being forgiven and reinstated echoing through a million and one sermons. We’ve heard all about the different Greek words for love, we know the symbolism of sailors and shepherds, we smile as Jesus reruns a miracle to reawaken the memories and the faith of his disciples. But we miss one thing.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Because the disciples were hungry.

These aren’t rich men, and they’ve just pulled an all-nighter. Much as we’do love them to be spiritual sponges, soaking in the presence of Jesus, remember that they go into this story tired and confused, bad tempered and guilt-ridden and gagging for a decent meal.

Let’s be honest here, quite often that describes Sunday morning. We put on our nice clothes, and cajole and threaten the kids into the car, and smile as the steward hands us a newsletter, but what we really want is a fry-up and an extra hour in bed.

For others among us, that’s a luxury. We’ve had to choose between breakfast and turning on the central heating. Something went wrong with the car and now the overdraft’s starting to creak. The ink on that redundancy letter is just about dry.

Here on the beach there’s a reason that, before he’s a prophet, before he’s a liberator, before he’s the good shepherd, Jesus is a cook. He sits by a fire cooking fish for his friends. Yes, he’s about to give Peter forgiveness, but first he gives him breakfast.

We try so hard to separate the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘practical’, but that’s such a false dichotomy. We can can have all the right doctrine and all the right theology, but sometimes, before all that, people are desperate for a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast because they’re stressed and exhausted. We can have rockin’ worship and a 45 minute sermon, but that’s going to be hard work for anyone who hasn’t eaten that morning.

And why is coffee always served after a service rather than before?

All needs are practical, all needs are spiritual. What does that mean in a world of alt-truth and food banks? What does that mean for how we plan our services, our worship?
Jesus cooking breakfast was an act of love, maybe one of the easiest acts of love to emulate. All you need is a toaster.

Running Down The Road From Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

This post was inspired by a recent edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

A man called Cleopas walks towards his home. It’s been a difficult few days; death and violence, rumours and confusion, blood and whispers. The day is drawing to a close, and Cleopas just wants to sleep, if he can, just wants to cover the last few miles to Emmaus.
He turns and sees someone approaching, a Stranger on the road. They strike up a conversation, small talk at first, pleasantries about Passover. To be honest, Cleopas doesn’t much want to talk; the Messiah’s been crucified, maybe the disciples are next. That thought, and the look on his face, seem to beg a question; the Stranger asks what’s been happening. That’s all the excuse he needs; Cleopas gets the events of the weekend off his chest: Jesus is dead, and a messianic dream with him, despite disjointed whispers of an empty tomb.

The Stranger reacts strangely; instead of nodding and taking in this news, he instead launches into a free-former exegesis, ancient scriptures and the words of the prophets dancing with this very weekend. The group walks through the dusk as their shadows lengthen, Cleopas listening with rapt curiousity as the jigsaw of his faith is reassembled with the help of a different picture.

As the sun sinks, and everyone pulls their cloak around them, the laws of hospitality kick in and Cleopas invites the Stranger into his home. They continue talking as they throw wood on the fire, as the table is laid, as the Stranger takes bread and breaks it, as the eyes of Cleopas are opened and he suddenly recognises the face and the scars of Jesus himself. And suddenly Jesus is gone and all Cleopas can think of is finding the other disciples and singing of what he’s seen. He needs to go back to Jerusalem.

But here’s the thing: this is all taking place at night, centuries before street lighting, before night buses. Bandits lurk beyond the threshold, prowling the streets between Emmaus and the city. Under normal circumstances, most people would stay safe behind closed doors; this, however, is Easter Sunday, a day that takes those normal circumstances and transforms them, illuminates them, raises them from the dead.

So Cleopas runs out into the night, no thought for the bandits, stumbling along the way in the moonlight, abandoning safety in favour of proclamation. He runs into Jerusalem, ignoring the looks from all those people who hang out on city streets at night. He finds the disciples and tells them what he saw as the Stranger broke the bread. That’s where we leave him, in the Upper Room, celebrating and singing as the chains of guilt and abandonment quietly fall to the floor.

Today the journey feels dark. We walk through life knowing that our leaders are in love with nuclear missiles, knowing that our theologies can sometimes become weapons, knowing that economic and social gears creak and grind as the innocent are caught in their teeth. It would be easier to stay home, safer, easier to stay in our pews and sing and mingle and wait for the dawn to come.

But it’s not that simple, is it? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The resurrection has come, and even though it’s dark outside we need to tell of what we’ve seen by its glory. We run through the night unafraid of its shadows and holding the hands of those we find there as we wait for daybreak.

May we encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but never let this be the end of the journey; let us always be found on the road from Emmaus, dancing through the dark because the resurrection breaks the power of the shadows, because freedom is found in broken bread, because even though the night feels long, a beacon shines as we sing of the dawn that’s come.

What you’d’ve done is what you’re doing

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember six million Jews butchered by nationalism, extremism, an insanity of industrial scapegoating that also took people with disabilities, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who didn’t fit Hitler’s jigsaw of crazed mythmaking.

And so the Holocaust now lives in our collective psyche, totemic names like Frank and Schindler and Auschwitz representing years of horror, a time in which the world broke, language spasmed, birthing showers that weren’t showers and humans made non-human by the stroke of a pen. We see it as a black and white world in more ways than one, maybe because the horror is too much to take otherwise. “It can’t happen here,” we say, a mantra to cast it all into the abyss, a relic of a unique historical breakdown. Maybe that’s why so many people are keen to say it never happened, maybe erasure makes the demons and the victims and the survivors of the past look a little less like us.

We’ve all asked ourselves what we’d do under those circumstances, whether we’d run or fight, whether we’d collaborate or resist, whether we’d hide someone in the basement or simply call the secret police. Some of us even have the privilege to pretend we could mind our own business.

But while the Holocaust was a long time ago now, we’re not divorced from it; what we would have done then is what we’re doing now. It’s how we respond to antisemitism. It’s how we talk about Muslims or immigrants. It’s how we react to gay men in Chechnya being rounded up by the government.

These things happen now. Those people in the pictures aren’t us, but their soundtrack rhymes with ours. You could end up in a camp. You could be an informer. You can join in a whole new Krystallnacht, you can resist.

Or, if you’re lucky, you can pretend it’s none of your business. That’s an option for some of us. No-one’s knocking on our door yet.

But there’s always someone knocking somewhere. “Never Again” can be a mantra, a prayer, a lie, but most of all, above everything else, Never Again is a duty.