A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 16 May 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
It is the Sunday in between Ascension Day and Pentecost. Ascension Day is when the church celebrates the account in the book of Acts where Jesus says his final remarks to the disciples, promising to send the Holy Spirit to them and asking them to stay together in Jerusalem and wait for this and then he ascends to a cloud. And just like that, this person they had based their entire life around, the person they hoped would save the world, is gone.
We know the end of the story. But just like at Easter perhaps we find it too easy to jump to the sunrise, we find it too easy to wave goodbye to Jesus without any anxiety, we get on with our lives until a week and a half later we bounce into the jubilant celebration of Pentecost.
This year however, I would like to invite us to be present to this in between time. I would like to invite us to hold the space for reflection on what it feels like to be neither in the dramatic departure or the joyful reunion. Just as at Easter we walk with our friend Jesus through his Good Friday, Holy Saturday before Easter Sunday, I would like to invite us to walk through this similar path with the disciples. Our New Testament reading gives us a tiny snapshot into their lives in those days but we can expand it out with what we know about life before and after this to give us a more complete picture.
Have you ever wondered how the disciples would have felt over this time? They had experienced the drama of Jesus’s death, the relief of his resurrection and now HE is alive and well and gone back to his Father but THEY are left alone with their feet very much on the ground.
The ground they were standing on was very grounded. On the one hand they have Easter joy. It was all true! Their friend, Jesus, has risen from the dead and is their Messiah: Almighty God, come to save them from their oppressors. On the other hand Jesus isn’t here anymore, thanks to him the political and religious authorities are trying to kill them, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them were suffering from psychological trauma of what they have witnessed over the past few weeks.
They respond to this juxtaposition in a few ways – some good some bad.
Firstly they rush to sort things out. Jesus did not set up a clear hierarchy so when he left it must have left something of a power vacuum. They respond in a very understandable way when people are left in stress for the first time. They assume that they are the centre of the universe and they try to fix things too quickly.
They make the assumption that they are personally the new 12 tribes of Israel who will reach out to the wider Jewish people and call them back to God. With Judas gone they feel an anxiety to replace him and get back to 12 as quickly as possible. If we read ahead in the New Testament it seems this was not God’s priority. Matthias, the person who is appointed to replace Judas, is never heard of again, neither are 9 of the 11 other apostles. John and Peter are the only people who we hear any reference to after this point in scripture. There are some references to Thomas and others in specific parts of the world where they founded churches but the movers and shakers of the church as it emerges are not the people they expect.
This leads us to another point. In my mind everything they do at this point is forgivable, they’re doing their best and they’ve just been through a trauma that would stop anyone thinking straight. It is also understandable that they are quite hard on Judas at this point. But the language they use to talk about Judas is quite cold. They are very quick to see him as dispensable, replaceable.
The other thing is that they assume that the replacement apostle would have to be a man. Men were considered the only valid witnesses of an event in a legal case in Jewish law. Acts is the follow on book to Luke’s Gospel – written to the same benefactor (Theophilos) and probably by the same person). For a piece of literature from that time, Luke’s Gospel bends over backwards to highlight that women were with Jesus from the beginning. Jesus called Mary of Bethany to sit at his feet in the place of a disciple in Luke 10, a woman was the first person to talk about the incarnation in Luke 1 and a group of women were the first people to tell about the resurrection in Luke 24.
But here they assume that only men are valid witnesses and apostles. Bear in mind this also isn’t lived out, by the time the letter to the Romans was written, in his closing remarks Paul greets Junia (a woman’s name) who he says is “outstanding among the apostles”. The office of apostle isn’t just for the 12 of them, and it seems to include women, even a woman we haven’t heard of before.
I think this is evidence of a common response that we do too. When people are afraid our natural inclination is to shrink the circle we include. “Yes, they were there but they don’t really understand.” “Yes, they speak of Jesus but they wouldn’t have the impact we need so let’s not make them official.” The scared disciples shrink what Jesus expanded.
So what did they do right – and what can we do when we are experiencing the absence of God?
They followed the Christian practices they heard from Jesus when he was present.
In this case they go back to Jerusalem. This was counter intuitive – before the resurrection, they had run as far as possible from the capital.
This sounds sensible. It’s probably what I would advise. They are being hunted down. But now, Jesus asked them to stay together and in Jerusalem so they carry on doing that.
Many people have looked back on times of spiritual silence and been glad that they carried on with the old, well worn practices of their faith – saying the liturgy whether they feel it or not, serving on rotas, giving money to the church and to the poor. People talk about “going through the motions” as a negative thing but it’s very underrated.
Before there were GPS and satellite navigation, before there were maps and compasses, sailors navigated by the stars. We now know that stars can be up to 10000 light years away, which means that if a star disappeared it would take us 10,000 years to see its absence. So, it is perfectly possible for a sailor to navigate by the light of stars that are no longer there. It is possible for us to be carried by the light of faith practices we have decided to live by earlier in our lives and for those to carry us through to the dawn.
Jesus also asks them to stay together, again not the safest thing to do. But there is a secret about faith, you can borrow it from someone else. If you don’t have faith, by hanging out with those who do you can ride off the light of theirs. And this is perfectly legitimate Christian practice.
Interestingly when John eventually got around to writing his Gospel, he remembered an extra piece of info that may have got him through. John writes about Jesus, at the Last Supper, before the cross, breathing on them and giving them the Holy Spirit. John’s experience was that God was already with them through the Spirit. Presumably, John, who was a teenager at this point and may not have spoken up about this, still found comfort in Jesus’s spirit still being with him. Sometimes by being with other people, even if we feel the absence of God, we can borrow their faith that God seems present to them.
There is also the basic fact that you don’t go into Christianity if you want self-preservation. Christianity is about a grim acknowledgement that because of our baptism, our lives are bound to a set of other people, people who we haven’t chosen. Rather than having an authentic self that needs to be protected from the pollution of other selves, in being baptised we were baptised into a group of people, the church and that means we are committed to spending time with them that moulds us into an evolving self as we discover our unique part in the body of Christ. So, Sam is becoming a bit more like Carol and Beryl who joins us for Morning Prayer is becoming a bit more like Michael and as we do this we are all becoming a bit more like Jesus. But to do this we need to not give up meeting with them. If you’re a baptised Christian, you’ve committed to being present to the church.
Jesus invites them to carry on practices and Jesus invites them to carry on meeting together. But ultimately Jesus asks them to wait. And Jesus makes a personal request of all of us, in times when we don’t feel the presence of God to wait. Waiting does something to us and our idea of God. It reveals something we couldn’t find anywhere else. So this week in between the Ascension and Pentecost I invite us to consciously wait. Hold in your hearts those who feel God is absent, sit in silence with them and wait for God.
The theologian NT Wright puts it writing about the mystery of the Trinity but we could swap that word for the word Waiting. A little warning that he uses language that we might find ableist.
The events of the Christian year function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity [the God who asks us to wait], is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’…if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted…
On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity, [like Jesus asking the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit] is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’ Or, perhaps better, a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: ‘Come, and I will make you children of light.’ [N.T. Wright, in For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), p. 24.]