Sunday, May 20, 2012
Post-Ascension, Pre-Pentecost Waiting
On Thursday, we celebrated one of the major feasts of the Church, the Ascension. It’s sandwiched in between the 50 days of the Easter Resurrection season and the Pentecost feast, followed by a long season after Pentecost. Since Ascension Day falls each year on a weekday, unfortunately, few Episcopalians in our society have the opportunity to reflect on its Scriptures and its powerful message.
Did you ever wonder why doctors’ clients are called “patients”?? If you’ve ever sat in a waiting room you catch on pretty quickly that patience is a virtue.
We often wait for something extraordinary or significant: a birthday, graduation, wedding, discharge from the military, retirement. We mark the time, we wait for the “big day”. Whether it comes in the mail or by telephone, we wait for news of winning the lottery, a letter from a loved one, acceptance into college, news about a new job, results of a medical test, or a refund from the IRS. It involves a mixture of excitement and dread: Will they call? Will the letter arrive? Will the news be good? And if the expected news doesn’t come, we wait another 24 hours, wondering: Will it come tomorrow?
People’s lives interconnect in hospital waiting rooms or rooms near intensive care units, as we wait with our own or others’ family and friends for a loved one to come out of surgery or to hear news about them. If they could speak, these rooms would tell us the stories attached to our waiting: joyous and hopeful ones; anguished and sad ones.
Often in waiting a sort of community develops. Perfect strangers become comrades, if not friends, supporting and praying for one another, cheering each other on, and performing random acts of kindness. We share stories about our lives, our struggles, our hopes, our fears. Once the personal crisis is resolved, we go separate ways, most never to see one another again. Yet in the waiting we’ve been awakened to the possibility of how we might touch others’ lives.
The rag-tag band called the Apostles had followed Jesus and observed him as he spoke profound words and did astonishing things. Catching a hint of his greatness, they began to believe that the waiting would surely end in glory: except that the glory came in the form of a cross, outside Jerusalem’s walls, and what kind of glory is that!? As Jesus talked about the suffering he was to face, he prayed that they would be one. But, in the end, instead of being one they one-by-one abandoned Jesus. They never really understood.
Three days afterward, the cross of shame and defeat became a symbol of victory. Jesus, risen from death, appeared to them even as they waited in near-despair. It began to look again as though the waiting would, after all, end in glory. Then, after a short post-Resurrection time together, Jesus did a strange thing. When they asked him about restoring the kingdom, Jesus told them that it wasn’t for them to know. And before they knew it, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight...” Not literally, of course, not as a sort of divine “elevator” trick, but rather as an image powerfully conveying the true meaning of Jesus’ return to the Father, traditionally called “the Ascension”.
Interestingly, the Scriptural focus on the Ascension isn’t heavenward, but earthward: “...Men of Galilee,” ask the men in white robes in the opening verses of today’s first reading from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (1:15-17; 21-26), “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Jesus had recently ordered his disciples to hang tight in Jerusalem, to wait there for the Father’s promise, assuring them that the Spirit would come and empower them to be witnesses, not only in Jerusalem, but even “to the ends of the earth.”
Post-Ascension...Pre-Pentecost...waiting. Uncertainty as to what’s going on; powerlessness; questioning.
Once Jesus left, this fragmented group now held onto only some impossibly dark (from Good Friday) and impossibly ecstatic (from Easter and the Ascension) memories. That and Jesus’ promise of the Spirit to empower them, even in the midst of an unbelieving world. In today’s Gospel (John 17:6-19) Jesus says, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost...” Jesus had given them his word when he was with them, and asks the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth...” What do you do, though, during the waiting time in between his leaving and the appearance of the Spirit?
Luke says the disciples acted in two ways: 1) “they devoted themselves to prayer...”; and 2) they did so “with one accord...”, “together”, “with one mind”. We really don’t know what characterized their prayer. But in light of their restoring wholeness to the group by choosing Matthias to replace Judas, as today’s first reading from Acts records, and of their later dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, their prayer likely consisted of several things: a frank and honest admission of their inadequacy and brokenness; an appeal for guidance as to what steps they should take in faith, given who they were and the available human resources they had; and, finally, a plea that the gift of God’s Spirit be given not for their own comfort, or for going forth to preach having all the answers, but that they might humbly learn how to reach out to others who have endlessly diverse needs, to “know” these people even as they have been known by the Father and the Risen Jesus.
Any of us, individuals or parishes, can fall victim to post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost waiting, feeling paralyzed and trapped between two realities: on one hand, the overwhelming reality of the Resurrection and Ascension, and of the Risen Lord’s invitation to us to bear witness to these events; on the other, a sort of global inertia in the face of the realities challenging the world and us, who are the Church.
Two questions suggest themselves in our post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost mood: 1) What kind of witnesses are we? 2) What is it, exactly, to which we’re to bear witness? O. Wesley Allen, Jr. observes that “The church, like the rest of society, can hardly agree on anything. We argue about the nature of sin and salvation, economic justice, who God is, military policy, worship styles, sex, inclusive language, and so forth...But by God, or better, through Christ, we ought to be able to pray together...”
Throughout history God has answered such prayer by raising up faithful witnesses, folks inconspicuous either by their numbers or by their successes, even faithful witnesses not exempt from their own blind spots and stupidities. The only remarkable thing about them is their openness to be guided by the saving grace of the Risen One whom they strive to know intimately, and to Whom they willingly bear witness in their daily lives and actions.