Between Ascension and Pentecost

052420 Easter 7 and Ascension Sunday Service of Morning Prayer

Posted by St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Echo Park on Sunday, May 24, 2020

052420 Easter 7 

Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11


So, we’re in that moment of major transition from lock-down to partial and gradual openings. More and more places are opening as the number of virus cases climbs higher and higher. How do we feel about that? Frustrated? Impatient? Worried? Angry? As we gather for another week of internet worship, we have to ask, what do people of faith say to each other in times of major transition from one reality to another?

In the Book of Acts, the final words of the risen Christ as he ascended promised power to his disciples and called them to be witnesses. In the Gospel of John, the final words of Jesus to his disciples before he went to the cross were a prayer for unity – that they may be one, as we are one. On this 7th Sunday of Easter we stand between Ascension and Pentecost – the day when Jesus ascended and the day when the Spirit descended. The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the center of life; namely, that we all reach a point in life in which we can give our presence deeply only by going away, so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits. In his prayer before he went to his death, Jesus said to God, I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So, he prayed I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 

I’ve noticed in my own life this paradox of Ascension: that only by leaving do we give the full blessing of our spirits. Tomorrow marks 20 years since my mom’s death. In the months following her death, I engaged in a process of spiritual and emotional healing that prepared me for the second half of life. I wasn’t aware of doing it because my mom had died. In fact, I didn’t make that connection until a couple of years later. But her leaving was definitely connected to my healing. 

What did the disciples receive from Jesus’ leaving? We get a clue from what they did after he left. The two men in white robes said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. What did they mean by, in the same way? Many think it means that Jesus would come again in the clouds and that we would meet him there. But what if it means “living in the same way Jesus did”? Of course, Jesus’ life was full of many things – healing, preaching, teaching, feeding the poor, casting out demons and blessing. But of all the ways that Jesus lived, the first habit they imitated was prayer: All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. 

They still didn’t understand many things about Jesus, but they knew what they saw: before and after doing important things, Jesus went to pray. Even if they didn’t understand his message, they could do one thing he always did: pray. The last thing he did with them before his death was to pray. He prayed the prayer we read in today’s Gospel, and he prayed at Gethsemane. 

If you’re confused about how we’re going to move from stay-at-home to the new normal, you can at least pray. If you’re worried about what’s going on in the world with the pandemic and all the news swirling around it, you can listen to the Voice that speaks wisdom. The days between Ascension and Pentecost offer a metaphor for this time when the world is gradually reopening after lock-down. In a New York Times editorial, Mark Lilla reflected on our impatience with not knowing what the future will be like: The last word on our capacity to predict the future [is] we can’t. But it is a truth that humans have never been able to accept. People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice [tell them] what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. He goes on to remind us that in the Book of Job… God makes it clear that he is not a vending machine. He shows his face and reveals his plans when the time is ripe, not when the mood strikes us. Finally, Mr. Lilla concludes that the pandemic has brought home just how great a responsibility we bear toward the future, and how inadequate our knowledge is for making wise decisions and anticipating consequences.

That’s important for us to hear at this time. The people of this nation need a humility that seems to evade so many. Nevertheless, the article was less hopeful than I am about the relevance of God’s holding the future. Between the preachers and churches who claim that God will heal them of the virus and demand that God act NOW, and the cynics who say we will never know abundance again, lies this Ascension-to-Pentecost metaphor of prayerful waiting. I’m not talking about magical thinking that wants to avoid the consequences of refusing to do what scientists and doctors tell us to do. Nor am I agreeing with the cynicism that says the future is only dark, or with lifeboat ethics that says everyone for themselves. Rather, I’m saying we can listen to God and expect to hear something. That’s prayer. 

Jesus didn’t enter the world with a fully known agenda for saving the world. He listened and acted. Then He listened again and acted again. He didn’t insist on knowing how it was going to turn out. He didn’t claim to know how a person would respond to his message. He listened; then he acted and spoke. Maybe the disciples didn’t understand prayer. But they knew it had something to do with listening to God before they acted. So, they did that. It turned out that God was the one who acted. God sent the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Then they knew what to do. 

Maybe that’s what we need to do. As we face confusing messages about when to go back to work; back to church; back to school; back to the stores, we need to listen and wait, expecting a word. We won’t get a blueprint, or stadium lights to illumine the entire field. We’ll get a flashlight. But if we accept the small space it shows us, and act accordingly, we might keep seeing new spaces. We may not all see the same spaces at the same time. And that is challenging, because people don’t only infect themselves; they infect others too. So how do we fulfill Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, when we are hurting each other?

It starts with understanding, which doesn’t come easy. I’ve been upset with people protesting the lock-down. But as I read about bouncy house guy in the LA Times, I saw something new. Jim Edmonds never saw himself as a protester. He started a bounce house business almost two decades ago. After almost two decades struggling to make it, last year his business grew 300%. Then, 3 months ago, things completely dried up. He was devastated. So, on April 30 he drove to the Capitol to see what was happening. He saw a protest. He wasn’t part of the protest but was arrested anyway. In a holding cell with 32 other protesters, he wondered if this was how authoritarianism begins. Conspiracies began to play in his head. Now he believes the protests are helping to get things open faster. He’s becoming a conservative protester.

What does Jesus’ prayer say about my oneness with Jim Edmonds? Is he as much my sibling as those I like better because they stay home, even when they don’t know how they will pay their rent? If I’m going to allow Jesus’ prayer to be true, must I see Jim as my sibling? Will prayer transform me so we can see what each of us can contribute to this moment? As I pray in this Ascension to Pentecost moment, I wonder if I really believe Jesus’ prayer: Father, protect them in your name, so that they may be one, as we are one. I wonder what I will hear as I listen.