The Seventh Sunday of Easter

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Acts 1:[1-5] 6-14

Winston Churchill was on holiday staying with friends in the south of France. It was only months before he would be asked by King George VI to form a government to lead England against the Nazis in May of 1940. He walked into the house one chilly evening, sat down by the fireplace, and stared silently into the flames.

Resin-filled pine logs were crackling and hissing and spitting as they burned. Suddenly, in his bulldog growl, Churchill remarked: “I know why logs spit. I know what it means to be consumed.”

The early disciples, with the physical departure of Jesus, likewise knew what it meant to be consumed—by change and uncertainty. Even though Luke reported that the disciples returned from the Ascension at Bethany “with great joy” (Lk 24:52), they also returned to a potentially hostile situation in Jerusalem – a situation which, just days before had sifted them like wheat.

These disciples had to live, as we find ourselves living so much of the time, “in between.” At this point they occupy that odd “middle ground” between Ascension and Pentecost. They live between the “good old days” of being with Jesus and the “brave new world” of living in the Spirit.

Imagine how they must have felt – what they must have gone through, emotionally – over that several week period: the excitement and electricity of following Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and hosannas and dreams (of grandeur); then the crucifixion (where disappointment and sadness seem inappropriate as descriptive terms. Horrified and broken, maybe); but then Jesus appears to them on several occasions, to their great joy, as the Resurrected Lord; and then, 40 days later, Jesus leaves again – this time to go to heaven – to prepare a place for his friends. But, nevertheless, he’s gone and the disciples are left alone without their master and their friend. It’s scary.

It’s one change after another. Life has put them on the Ferris wheel of change and, like it or not, they are hurled into that cycle which accompanies all change—the movement from “orientation to disorientation to reorientation.”

What will they do, given that their time with Jesus “in the flesh” is over? How will they begin again? First, they must embrace the difficult “Ascension truth.” An ending has taken place—an ending that needs to be acknowledged and embraced, not denied. No longer will they be able to look Jesus in the eye to ask a question, to receive a rebuke, to get an “attaboy” and a pat on the back.

He won’t be there by the campfire to talk of the Kingdom mysteries, and reassure them of Abba’s love and will. He won’t be there to save the wedding celebration or to heal the person that the disciples couldn’t, or to calm the waters or to cast out demons or to pull coins out of the mouths of fish to pay the bills. So how will they live now?

Transitions – holy or unholy – are made up of such “endings.” We face them every day – a death, a divorce, the birth of a child – whatever the significant change is, it inevitably brings about a period of confusion and doubt, of groping along in the dark to find one’s way.

Finally, if things turn out well, the transition takes us to the “other side,” to the place of a new beginning. Nevertheless, the process of change is never pain free, and it most always is consuming (like fire), frequently making you want to spit.

But the only way through transition is to take first things first. And that is what the disciples do. And the first thing they do, maybe the only thing they do – the only thing they can do – is return to basics. They go back to what works. What they do is what they’ve been taught: they rely on prayer.

The Gospel according to Luke says they returned to the temple where they were found continually “blessing God.” And in Acts, Luke tells us that the whole Christian assembly from disciples, to “certain women,” to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the brothers of Jesus returned to Jerusalem, to the upstairs room where they were staying, and that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”

The poet, Francis Thompson speaks of the “connection” that this kind of single-minded prayer brings to the person or the community caught up in the throes of transition. He writes,
O world invisible we view thee
O world intangible we touch thee
O world unknowable we know thee
Inapprehensible we clutch thee.
–The Oxford Book of Christian verse

And so, they pray. They wait. They gather. They take care of each other. Together, they live through the labor pains of Jesus’ death-resurrection-departure to give birth to a new thing. A new way of life. A new truth. A new community – and throughout the delivery, they will rely on two things: their life of prayer and their care for one another. (At this point, all else is commentary.)

Maybe during this period of transition in the Church Year, we, too, would do well to focus on the basics. To deepen our commitment to prayer and to our care for one another. To remember the Jesus of the flesh, as we await the coming of the “Second Jesus” in the Holy Spirit. To see our parish as an “upper room” (or “delivery room”) in which single-minded prayer and commitment and care and love for others become paramount.

A story out of Washington D.C. of all places helps make the point. It concerns Arthur J. Burns, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, ambassador to West Germany, and adviser to Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The time was the late 1970s. An informal prayer gathering had been started at the White House, and Burns, though he was Jewish, attended the predominantly Christian prayer group. No one in the leadership knew quite how to treat Burns, nor how to involve him in the group. While many of the members took turns closing the meeting with prayer, Burns was never asked—one hopes more out of respect than ignorance or prejudice.

But then, one week, a newcomer to the group unknowingly asked Burns to close the meeting with prayer. Many were surprised and wondered what would happen. But Burns, without missing a beat, reached out, and the participants held hands and bowed their heads. And Burns prayed:

“Lord, I pray that you would bring Jews to know Jesus Christ. I pray that you would bring Muslims to know Jesus Christ. Finally, Lord, I pray that you will bring Christians to know Jesus Christ. Amen.”

In this time between times, in this threshold season between Ascension and Pentecost, let us as Christians come to know Jesus Christ, especially through the means of grace known to us as single-minded prayer and wholehearted care for one another. Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds. And let us love one another as Christ loves us. Amen.

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