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18 May 2018

A hopeful absence

A hopeful absence

Richard Powney is theology and evangelism officer at the Evangelical Alliance.

For the last week or so many of us have been taking part in Thy Kingdom Come, the prayer movement started by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, respectively, in 2016 to encourage Christians to pray between Ascension Day and Pentecost for God's kingdom to come. It's a prayer Jesus taught us to pray, yet it also raises the tension between the desire to see God's kingdom come and the continued awareness that the world is not as it should be. The relationship between the ascension and Pentecost, two elements of Christian theology that are not always held together, helps us to understand the church's role in a world full of pain and conflict.

In his book Space, Time and Resurrection, T.F. Torrance highlights that "in the incarnation we have to think of God the Son becoming man without ceasing to be transcendent God". Consequently, in His ascension we think of Jesus Christ as rising above all space and time without ceasing to be human or without reducing any of His physical, historical existence. In short, Jesus' coming informs how we understand His going. The ascension reminds us that, unlike with the disciples, Jesus is not currently physically present with us in our time and space. The ascension causes us to consider something we don't often mention, the absence of Jesus.

On the other hand, at Pentecost the advocate who Jesus speaks of in John 16 is sent to the disciples and then to the crowd. This ushers in a new form of Jesus' presence: Jesus is present with the church through the Spirit; yet the nature of this presence is one that tantalises us with the real presence of Jesus – it offers glimpses of a time when we will see Him face to face. In Jesus' presence through the Spirit we also come to further acknowledge Jesus' real absence, which in turn, causes us to long for His return.

This relationship between the presence and absence of Jesus then informs the age in which we live, what Karl Barth referred to as 'the time between'.

So, in this time between Pentecost and Jesus' second coming, what is the nature of the church's relation to Jesus and our current age? This question highlights the tension that we feel when we pray 'thy kingdom come' yet turn on the news and hear about wars and rumours of wars. There is a sense in which the church is both aligned and misaligned with the present age: in our continuity with Jesus through the Spirit we find ourselves on a different pathway, which disconnects us from the present age. This means that the church can be understood as the oasis of the Spirit who brings increase and fruitfulness to a barren land and people.

Yet at the same time, the church is aligned with the world because, as Douglas Farrow highlights in Ascension and Ecclesia, our calling is still to choose to commit to the world, supporting the world, living for the sake of the world and travelling alongside the world without joining the world. In this commitment to the world we, the church, are the image of Jesus' commitment to the world, witnessed in His willing death on a cross for the sake of others.

Pentecost is often hailed as the birthday of the church; the Spirit who was poured out on all flesh at Pentecost is the Spirit who enabled Jesus' obedience to His Father's will in laying down His life for the sake of humanity. In the same way, the Spirit is the one who calls us out to love and serve the world around us.

One of the challenges of the ascension and Pentecost is that a life enlivened by the Spirit, flourishing and fruitful, is most expressed in people freely and gratefully laying down their life for the sake of the other. At the same time, the ascension and Pentecost make us aware of the presence and absence of Jesus. It is this awareness of the bodily absence of Jesus that highlights the fact that in this time between we are awaiting His return, when He will renew all things.

As we, enabled by the Spirit, lay down our lives for the sake of the world, may we also join in with the other cry of the church throughout Christian history, "come Lord Jesus, come".

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash