Being Prepared

Richard Hollingdale
Sunday 01st June, 2014

Easter 7A Acts 1: 6-14 / Jn 17: 1-11

Seek and you shall find. Jesus’ words relate to finding faith, though they could just as well apply to almost every aspect of modern life. Nowadays we are encouraged, expected even, to be proactive, to take responsibility for so much. It is much easier of course to search for things when you have Google and the like at your disposal and when information is more freely available than it probably ever has been before. And on the whole we are less respectful and trusting of professionals, who have often let us down with poor advice and service in the past, so we spend hours researching things. I couldn’t believe how long I spent earlier in the year finding a plant nursery that could supply me with tall red and yellow cactus dahlias for my Dad! We develop a ‘Let’s get on with it’ mentality. ‘I’m in charge, and I want to sort this out now.’ A very active, controlled, directive approach. I’ll return to this point later.

Have you ever been involved in a conversation about which church festival is most important? A sort of Christian Top Trumps. It usually starts when someone, often not a practising Christian, tells you how lovely Christmas is and then adds that it must be even more special for you as the high point of the Christian year (and you get extra points if you’re a vicar and they ask you if you’re busy!). And you try to explain that Easter is pretty important too, but it doesn’t always get through. Yes, clearly Christmas is hugely significant because we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all if Jesus had not been born into our world, but if he had not risen from the dead we would not be here either, but perhaps part of some reformed Jewish congregation instead.

Last Thursday we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord. The Ascension is really important too. We don’t make much of it here, but just across the Channel it’s a public holiday in France, as well as in various other countries around the world, including, rather surprisingly, Indonesia. The Ascension is important because it marks the end of Christ’s life on earth. He had accomplished all he had been sent to do and now could return home in glory to the Father. It releases God to be present among us in a different way, not restricted by the limitations of a human body, and it allows us to respond confidently to Jesus’ invitation to continue his work.

Actually I don’t think it is really possible to tease out the individual festivals and say that one is more important – the Christian faith draws on the interplay within the whole package, as it were; the inter-relationship between Christmas and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. We can often see these links in the background in John’s Gospel, where the separate events of incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension are regarded as one complete work of salvation. Just think about today’s reading – the nearest we get to an Ascension reading in John – where all those different ideas are packed together in just a few verses, whose richness and complexity I think repays repeated reading. I particularly like the idea that we are embedded in Christ as Christ is in the Father.

There’s much that we could say about the Ascension, but there’s one particular aspect of what it signifies for us that I want to focus on today. Let’s return to that uncertain but highly-charged period after the Resurrection.

Jesus had been back for several weeks. What must it have been like for the disciples in those weeks following his resurrection? Now that he was back, were they expecting things to carry on as before? Or were they expecting him to oust the Jewish leaders that he had denounced as corrupt and hypocritical? Or even were they expecting him to overthrow their Roman occupiers? Their question in our reading from Acts suggests possibly so. And did they realise that he was only back temporarily and would be leaving them again soon?

When it was time for him to leave them, this time for good, Jesus told the disciples to go back to the upper room and stay in Jerusalem. He told them that they would receive power from on high, though I doubt whether they would really have understood what that meant. And when he told them that, having first been baptised with water, now they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit – well, goodness knows what they made of that!

But they dutifully went back, and waited. I imagine they did so with mixed feelings: excitement and keen anticipation for something which sounded wonderful and where they would again feel the presence of their friend Jesus, in the form of his spirit, to give them confidence; mixed with feelings of anxiety and apprehensiveness over something strange and new. They probably wanted this to happen soon, to resolve all the uncertainty there had been since Jesus’ crucifixion, and to get the final chapter under way, to gain some stability – but they had to wait. Admittedly only for 10 days, but they didn’t know that. It could have been for weeks or months. They lived in a sort of limbo, waiting for this great thing to happen.

Then suddenly, without warning, it did, at Pentecost, the ancient Jewish festival of the Feast of Weeks. And life was never the same for them again.

No matter how keenly we want something to happen, no matter how right we believe that thing is, the Spirit comes when the Spirit wants. We cannot hurry the Spirit. That’s why I’m always a little suspicious of those Pentecostalist or Revivalist meetings, which seem to be able to conjure up the Spirit at will.

Like the disciples, we have to wait. The classic season for waiting is of course Advent, where we wait to celebrate God coming as a human infant, but this short period between Ascension and Pentecost is a time of waiting too, waiting until we can celebrate God coming as Spirit, and this time remaining with us for ever and empowering us to build the Kingdom. Jesus is relying on us. He has gone on ahead and left us to carry on his work, until we can follow where he has gone. We don’t know what we will be asked to do, and it may well take us out of our comfort zone, as I’m sure some of us have already found. Like the disciples, our life may never be the same again.

This short period then should remind us of the significance of waiting in the Christian life, of being ready to encounter God whenever God considers the moment to be right.

So to return to what I said at the beginning, maybe instead of saying Seek and you shall find, we should turn it around and rephrase it as Prepare and you will be found.

The question for us today is: are we prepared?

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