Saturday, 15 May 2021

What next ? Homily for the 7th Sunday of Easter

(Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5.9-13; Luke 24.44-53)

40 days after he rises from the dead - 40 days after Easter - Jesus leads the disciples out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany,

and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

That’s how today’s Gospel reading ends. When St. Luke picks up the story again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles he tells it in a slightly different way. Jesus is “lifted up” and “a cloud took him out of their sight.” And two men in white robes ask the disciples, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

The Gospel of Luke ends with the joy of the disciples - it’s Luke’s way of tying things up neatly, ending on a positive note. But it can’t simply be left there. He picks up the story in the Acts of the Apostles and there’s more to it than that. There’s a note of confusion and uncertainty. What are the disciples going to do next? And what are they going to do without Jesus? What do you do when you know there’s a job to do, but the person who’s been giving you direction is no longer with you?

How do we feel this Sunday? - the day before stage 3 of the Government’s Roadmap. From tomorrow we can have people in our homes. People can once more hug their loved ones - but perhaps with some degree of caution… You can go out to eat in a restaurant. You can have people to stay. How strange is that? I have two people coming to stay while they take part in a pilgrimage led by the bishops later this week, and went to make a booking at Sale Pepe - I can tell you that tables are booking fast!

But there’s the other side of what we might feel. These last 15 months when we’ve not been able to be close to other people. People who still can't visit a parent or a partner in hospital or in a care home. Lives led without each other. People who have lost loved ones and haven’t had the goodbyes they would have wanted. Uncertainties still about new variants of the Coronavirus and the threat that may bring to future freedoms and hopes.

So how do the disciples really feel when Jesus at his Ascension is taken from them? Confusion and loss must be a part of it. What can they do next when Jesus tells them to wait? - but it’s not really clear what they should wait for… How do we go on in the midst of our waiting and separation?

I found these words of Henri Nouwen helpful:

Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply. You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause. When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain that comes from deep love makes your love even more fruitful. It is like a plough that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant. Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.

I wonder if before we can return to something which will pass for normality, we need first to take stock of where we have been? To recognise the losses we have suffered - those obvious ones of loved ones who might have died or prolonged separation from members of our family or friends. But also those not so obvious losses through the new ways we’ve simply had to live - perhaps locking the door for the night at four o’clock in the afternoon; not being able to nip in to have a chat with a neighbour; planning how we really need to stock the fridge for the next fortnight instead of just being able to buy things as and when we need them; all the places we haven’t been able to go whether it’s the shops, the cinema, bingo, a football match, an art gallery or concert - or on a bus; holidays - and wondering when we can risk booking one; spiritual deprivation - “Church” might have gone online, but it’s not the same. Though that last one begs the question, so what does our faith hold in store for us in the future? - what does being a Christian mean for us now and how will we work it out?

It's the same faith - but I suspect we’ll need to move on. And as we rebuild our relationships, I think we’ll find we have to do so in new ways.

That’s what the first disciples begin to discover after the Resurrection. Someone made the point the other day that when we speak of the Glorious Ascension of Jesus and his exaltation into the heavens to sit at the right hand of God, that language is so much coloured by the ways that Christians have come to celebrate the Ascension as a liturgical feast rather than as an actual event on a hill-top overlooking Jerusalem - and much of it from the use of texts like Psalm 47: “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the ram’s horn… God reigns over the nations, he sits upon his holy throne…” But how was it really for those disciples Jesus left behind, wondering what was happening - and now leaderless? Jesus was the one who had made all the difference to their lives, Jesus had called them to be his followers. They’d left their jobs and he’d given them a purpose - so what should they do next?

The answer in the short term is that they have an election. Or at least they decide that if Jesus had called Twelve of them to be his followers and now Judas Iscariot had gone, then they’d better find a replacement. The criterion for the new apostle is to have been a companion of Jesus from the earliest days of his ministry right through to the time of his Ascension. And it seems there were two of Jesus’ followers who fitted the requirements: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. With nothing to choose between them, they decide to leave it to God. So they pray – and then they cast lots... perhaps they draw straws. I thought of that last week when we followed the Annual Parochial Church Meeting at St. Cuthbert’s by drawing the numbers for the last five months of the 100 Club. Are the disciples doing the right thing? They choose Matthias, and in the event we don’t hear of either of the candidates ever again.

So... what’s the point of all this? I don’t think it’s about ideal ways of discerning God’s will, and we never again find any further indications that it was felt necessary to maintain a leadership of twelve apostles. But what we do have is an account of the first Christians struggling to find a way forward – to sense the direction in which they were being called.

We need to feel our way forward now. How do we live out our Christian faith? That is the basic question. We can have any number of conferences, committees and councils. We can drown in oceans of paper. And all of these seem to be necessary. But we can only make our response if first we recognise our basic calling to be God’s people – and to work out what that means.

I could say that we need to be a holy people. But actually I think it’s enough to say that we need to be simply people - to recognise what we have been through, to recognise the uncertainties ahead, but all the time, as Henri Nouwen says, not to give up on love. And hopefully we can know that we are loved.

The disciples don’t really know what to do when Jesus leaves them. Ten days later the Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost - but they had no idea what that would mean, and when it happens it’s an unexpected action of God. Just remember that we can’t determine what God will do for us, but we can trust in his love. That’s what the great spiritual director, Jean Pierre de Caussade is saying in these words:

To avoid the anxieties which may be caused by either regret for the past or fear of the future, here in a few words is the rule to follow: the past must be left to God’s measureless mercy, the future to his loving providence; and the present must be given wholly to his love through fidelity to his grace.

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