Sunday after Ascension
Readings: Acts 1: 1-11, Ps 47, Eph 1: 15-23, Luke 24: 44-53
Hymns: Hail the day, Come Lord to our souls come down, O worship the King, Strengthen for service Lord those hands
To be honest, this sermon could be done in thirty seconds: read Acts or Luke, prepare ourselves with a dash of wisdom and knowledge from Ephesians, and wait mindfully for Pentecost. But as this should be an incredibly significant time in the church year, structurally similar to that gap, that absence, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I’ll say a little more.
Think back! On Good Friday Jesus was condemned and for three days he was harrowing hell, beckoning the godly departed to him. God as Source and God as Presence continued and continues in that interim, that liminal time: but God as Redeemer seemed violently elsewhere, as our darkened churches signify. Then came Easter! All is well as we patiently plod through what is often seen as the post-Easter let-down to reach the green of Trinity. Yet these few weeks leads to the culmination of the story of God in the creation of God’s church at Pentecost, so unless you enjoy thrillers without the last chapter, listen on!
There are forty days from Easter to Ascension Day, of which this Sunday is still part, and forty is not a chance number. Significant numbers interacted with specific letters of the Hebrew alphabet, shaping and being shaped by Jewish thought. The 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, mem, is imaged as water, source of wisdom from the past and pointer towards the unknown future. It is also linked to forty –three plus one equally four- which marks the times for various natural and human events to come to fruition in their respective kairos, an opening or loosening in due time: forty weeks to make a child, forty days for the flood, forty days for Solomon’s fast before his wisdom flowed, forty for Jesus in the wilderness, and a mother’s purification after the birth of a male child; forty years of tramping the desert for Moses. So Jesus remained these forty days after Easter to complete the necessary time fruitfully to prepare his followers and disciples, female and male, for his inevitable and for us necessary return to the Source, seated by and inseparably and eternally part of our God Parent. This gap-time after Christ’s Ascension will be completed with the sending of the third facet of God the Spirit at Pentecost, fifty days after Easter.
Between each status-change there is or should be a pause, pregnant with anticipation: Good Friday to Easter Sunday, Ascension to Pentecost. Each symbolises a return or arrival, the first of God-Redeemer, the second of God-Spirit, just as the time before Christmas recognises the waiting for, and symbolic absence of, God-Child. We mark each week of the Advent gap and each single day of the Resurrection gap, but few recognise this third period as the Pentecost gap. Perhaps we prefer to focus on the figure of Jesus whose story, redeeming and enabling our personal forgiveness, is told in a unfolding unending tale. Yet if we do that, we sideline the equally challenging enlivening Holy Spirit, as inextricably and eternally God in us, and God for us, as is Christ.
I’m an anthropologist, and thus fascinated by gaps in a sequence of rituals. Any such ‘betwixt and between’ time is a liminal time, of neither-nor, to be negotiated carefully to enable the transition to the next state to be successfully and safely achieved. Think of the careful rituals of childbirth, of marriage, of death, to cite just three symbolically-charged ritual processes divided into legion stages of before, during and after of which this ‘liminal or during’ stage is one. The day of a death, for example, marks the ritual start of the liminal time until the funeral, which completes the dying process. Yet that process, of failing, dying, and burying, is betwixt and between the subsequent time of remembering in the ongoing lives of the bereaved, and the time of full life before the dying began. It is thus an important time, to be negotiated carefully and thoughtfully.
What does Luke in Acts and Luke in Luke, and Paul writing to the Ephesians, tell us about using such time between? In Acts, we hear of Christ’s teaching about the Holy Spirit and then his reincorporation with the Source: in Luke, the writer merges the appearance of Jesus, intently teaching, with his departure and the promise of the empowering Spirit, which they are to wait for intently. As indeed they did, back in Jerusalem in that upper room, where all the men and women, including Mary the mother of God – the first woman named in Acts – got on with what they could, choosing chose a new disciple in Judas’ place and prayerfully organising themselves in readiness for whatever, in due time, the future would bring. In Ephesians, Paul also links back obliquely to that image of water and wisdom in mem as he prays that Christians be given a ‘spirit of wisdom and understanding.’
When we are given the Holy Spirit, we need to be alert and organised enough to contribute our widow’s mite to receiving that life-filling gift. We do not know exactly what we shall need, or when but, as with Jesus’ followers, we need to be prepared. There is always something to be done in a waiting period, from slowly sorting out the detritus of years if we expect to move house, to preparing for exams with an eye to a hope-filled future, to dealing with old letters to spare our inheritors’ blushes if we expect to die.
It would be a wise use of these remaining days of waiting to clear some clutter, actual or metaphorical, opening our ears, our eyes and even our minds, so that when the time is ripe and the Spirit calls, we are ready, clothed or at least touched with wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and respect, able and willing to hear.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, May 2015