Sunday, May 24, 2009

Easter 7B

I spent the afternoon in between morning worship in Crystal Springs and evening worship in Jackson looking for pictures or paintings of in between places (you'll understand if you read on)...

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

I mean no disrespect to God’s incarnate Word, but every once in a while... Perhaps it’s the way John told the story, weaving threads of theology through the discourses Jesus delivered.  In this passage from John’s gospel, Jesus seems to use no more than five words, rearranging them from one sentence to the next to create a mind-bending tongue twister rivaling the rhymes of Dr. Seuss.  All mine are yours and yours are mine...and I am no longer in the world but they are in the world...they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the I have sent them into the world.  I don’t know.  It makes about as much sense, don’t you think, as “Here’s a new trick, Mr. Knox: Socks on chicks and chicks on fox.  Fox on clocks and bricks and blocks.  Bricks and blocks on Knox on box...”  

Or what about this: Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places... These words do not belong to the latest posthumous work from Dr. Seuss, although they were inspired by the way Seuss played with rhyme and meter and hope.

Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places... Early in our last semester of seminary, our class went on retreat to reflect on our journey so far and to look ahead at how the road was forking and branching and curving toward the as-yet unseen places we would be serving as newly ordained clergy.  We were divided into small groups and instructed to write a prayer for use during this time of transition, this space very literally between places - between who we were before we came to seminary and who we would be when we left, between where we lived before we came to seminary and where we would live when we graduated, between what we believed when we came to seminary and what we would believe by the time we walked through the gates of the seminary close for the last time.

Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  I don’t remember how my group came up with this prayer.  It took us nearly all of the allotted time to come up with anything at all - there was so much we wanted to say to God, so many things in our hearts and minds, so much anticipation, so much anxiety.  Should our prayer look back in thanksgiving, or should it look forward through petition?  At the last possible moment, as we wrestled with what direction to go, the prayer appeared, and as we prayed it, we understood that our need was simply to know the presence of God right then and there in the time between looking back and moving forward, the time between no longer and not yet.

We are in several spaces between places today, first with the disciples in our reading from Acts.  Just before today’s reading begins, the disciples were with Jesus, one of many times he had appeared to them during the forty days since Easter.  He was speaking to them about the kingdom of God, Luke tells us.  The disciples still thought he meant some sort of political kingdom - surely, now that he had conquered death, he could easily conquer Rome.  Instead, Jesus started talking about the work he intended for them to do.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, he said, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And then, just as suddenly as he had been appearing in locked Upper Rooms, a cloud lifted Jesus up and he disappeared from their sight. 

As he went, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven.  Luke makes this sound so reverent, but I imagine the gazing had more to do with shock than spiritual experience.  In fact, two angels had to come and practically pick the disciples’ jaws up off the floor, saying, Why are you looking up to heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way.  I think it was a gentle way of saying, So, are you going to stand here staring all day?  Don’t you think you should get started on that witnessing thing he asked you to do?  He’s coming back, you know.

And so here we are, in between places with the disciples.  Jesus has ascended - the church celebrated that event on Thursday, forty days after Easter.  But the Holy Spirit has not yet come - we will celebrate that event next Sunday, fifty days after Easter, in Greek, pentekoste.  Things are no longer what they were, but they are not yet what they will be.  There is a calling to follow, a mission to fulfill, but no clear direction of how to go about it all without Jesus, without him walking ahead of his disciples or telling them a story to help them understand or holding their outstretched hands when their faith falters.

The disciples had been in in-between places before.  The heartbeats between when Jesus first said “follow me” and they said “yes”.  Those terrible days between Jesus’ death and his rising to new life.  The hours spent at the dinner table on the night before Jesus died, when he shared one last meal with them, when he stooped to wash their feet and called it an act of love of the sort they should show one another, when he began to speak to them of everything that mattered most, when, as John tells us, he began to pray.  Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Oh God of good graces, look with compassion on their faces as they now stand in this space between... Holy Father, protect them...

For three years, Jesus had cared for them, taught them, protected them, loved them, and prepared (although they did not know it) them for this very moment, this very prayer.  Holy Father, protect them... It was the last prayer the disciples would hear their teacher pray, for they would fall asleep in the garden that night, and soon after they would flee from the cross.  Still, I ask you to protect them, Jesus prayed.  I place my friends, my disciples, my witnesses, in your hands, God.

Perhaps the disciples remembered this moment, this prayer, as they stood in the space between Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus had urged them to tell the story of his love, to take up the work he had done, to carry his message into the world.  And so, with heavy hearts and with a prayer of their own, hoping that they were indeed in God’s hands, they chose someone to round out their number, someone who had seen the extraordinary things that they had seen in the presence of Jesus Christ and who would join them in their witnessing.

I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.  Jesus was praying as much for us as he was praying for those who were sitting at the dinner table with him that night.  In the verses just following our gospel reading, Jesus goes on to pray, I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.  That’s us.  Jesus prayed for us that night.  For all the fear they may have felt in that in-between place of Jesus-has-gone and the-Spirit-is-not-yet-here, the disciples were finally able to tell their story, or else we would not be gathered today in this in-between place, this sanctuary between heaven and the world that goes on outside these doors.

We have never known, in quite the same way those first followers did, what it is like to sit at Jesus’ feet as he speaks, to follow him down a dusty road, to reach for his hand as we sink in waves of doubt and despair.  In between Ascension and Pentecost, in between his first and second coming, in this world that we are somehow in but not of, is Jesus with us?  We pray for direction, as we prayed at the start of the service this morning: O God, do not leave us comfortless...  


For we, too, are called to bear witness.  We, too, have a story to tell of all that we have seen and heard about how God so loved the world.  And yet the world is not at all times and in all places been receptive to that story.  Many women and men have been brought to the very threshold of life and death by their bearing witness.  The good news of Jesus Christ reveals infinite possibilities for love in between the rigid extremes of the world.  In the world one is enemy or ally; we bear witness to mutuality.  In the world power is gained or it is lost; we bear witness to power that is shared.  In the world one strives for glory; we bear witness to the glory of God.

Were the disciples comforted or worried as they listened to Jesus pray?  Did Matthias win or lose when the coin was tossed on that in-between day?  The answer, if we are honest, is yes.  We are happy to be disciples, but there are times we are tempted to hide from the world in the safety of a sanctuary, or to stand motionless, gazing up at heaven, watching for Jesus to return and do the work for us, longing for a someday and a somewhere when everything will be made right.  How would those times be different for us, though, if we remembered that we, like the many generations of disciples before us, are people for whom Jesus himself prays?  That on our behalf, Jesus asks God to strengthen and protect and encourage us?

How would those times be different for us if we remembered, when longing for the flesh and bone body of Jesus Christ to be here, that the flesh and bone body of Jesus Christ is here, right here, right now?  “Christ has no body in the world now but ours,” wrote Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish nun.  “Christ has no body in the world now but ours.  No hands but ours, no feet but ours.  Our are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on the world.  Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good.  Ours are the hands with which he blesses.”  We are the flesh and bone, the living members of Christ’s body. 

As we now stand in this space between places, between Ascension and Pentecost, between Jesus’ first and second coming, between any now and not yet in which we find ourselves in our lives, let us rejoice that God does not leave us comfortless.  Indeed, God does not leave us at all.  We are never apart from the care and protection of God, for Jesus has placed us in God’s hands, has made us living members of his Body, and has sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen us as we go into those places in the world that are most in need of love, the very places that Jesus himself went before us.  Things are no longer what they were, and they are not yet what they will be, but every step we take in-between brings us nearer to the presence of the One who continues to pray for our comfort, our strength, and our joy.  

Let us pray.  Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  Amen.

Artwork: Photo of Nunnery Wall on Iona, by Jennifer; Photo by the Reverend Scott Fischer; "Birch Trees" by; "Places of Light" by Krystyna Sanderson; "High Priestly Prayer" by Corinne Vonaesch.

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