Welcome to the time in-between. It is the time in-between Ascension and Pentecost. The time in-between the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry, extended by bis resurrection appearances, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is the time in-between the disciples having a clear understanding of their work directly from Jesus and the mission that they will be sent out to do in the power of the Spirit – but without a blueprint.
On Ascension Day (and in the Easter station reading at the beginning of this service) we heard the last words in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus says to the Eleven: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
These words are often referred to as the Great Commission – the task Jesus gave his followers, the Church. We are to make disciples of others, to baptize them so that they become part of the household of God, and to teach the things that Jesus taught, and do his works after him.
After Jesus vanished from their sight the Eleven disciples returned to Jerusalem to pray, to gather and stay connected to others who were also following Jesus, and to wait for the Holy Spirit that had been promised them.
During the course of that prayerful waiting, it became clear that the core leadership group needed to be restored to twelve persons. Someone needed to fill the place left empty by Judas’ betrayal and death. Twelve was not an arbitrary number; Jesus had intentionally chosen twelve primary disciples as a reflection of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel; a connection back to God’s original purpose in calling humanity to faithful living, belonging, and believing.
So who now should that twelfth person be? Who should take Judas’ place? This was a question for prayerful discernment. Peter as the leader set out some parameters – it should be one of those who had been with them since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and had spent time and travelled with them. There were two people proposed: Joseph, called Barsabbas or Justus; and Matthias. After praying for God’s guidance and wisdom they cast lots – we might say they drew straws – and Matthias was chosen.
We don’t know anything else from the New Testament or church history about Matthias, but we can assume that he faithfully exercised his ministry in partnership with the others. From that point forward in the Book of Acts the Twelve are not referred to any longer as disciples (learners) but are called apostles (ones who are sent on a mission).
This in-between time, this prayerful waiting time, was not just hanging around at loose ends. It was not empty time. The selection of Matthias to be an apostle was important. It prepared Jesus’ followers for what was to come next. They were poised and ready, as much as one can ever be, to go about God’s work wherever they would be sent.
And the prayer itself during that time was their work. It wasn’t a matter of just saying a few words at the beginning of a meeting, but I imagine that the Twelve apostles and the other 120 disciples gathered for the regular daily liturgical hours of prayer in Judaism – at sunrise, at 3 pm, and at nightfall. And I also imagine that there were times of silent meditation, perhaps the recitation of certain psalms, and maybe even pairs of people taking turns throughout the day and night being in active prayer for the whole group to be ready to receive the Spirit – a prayer watch for the promised Advocate and Guide whenever he might arrive. It was an intense time of preparation and waiting.
In many ways I think our current experience echoes the disciples’. We are in an in-between time. We have been through the trial of the pandemic which has tested our strength, our courage, our fortitude, our resiliency. Some of us have suffered illness; others of us have had family and friends die; all of us have lost aspects of our lives that we knew before.
And now it looks like we are emerging from the pandemic – certainly here in New Jersey, although we know it is still raging elsewhere. But even as the virus cases has dropped so precipitously, we know that there are lingering questions about situations and details that the medical and scientific community still need to address. And it may well be a while before all of us feel ready to fully engage life in person again – face-to-face.
For us as All Saints’ as we get ready to move back into worship in our building and consider what shape and rhythm our parish life and activities will take – particularly as we think about the new program year in September – we need to be full of prayer, and listening, and discernment about the shape of God’s mission in and through us.
How do we do that kind of prayerful listening and discernment? That’s probably not something we have a lot of experience or skill in doing.
We can begin by asking ourselves some questions, and then pondering the answers. What delights us? What gives us joy? What seems life-giving? What is drawing our attention? What gives us hope? What makes us feel close to God?
Sometimes we can have a gut, intuitive answer to these questions; at other times we have to sit with them for a while; talk them through with someone who is a good listener; maybe journal our response to the questions.
And then ask a second round of questions, this time specifically about All Saints’: What was a time you felt most proud of this parish – and why? When was a time in this congregation that you felt most alive, engaged, and motivated – what were you doing, and who were you doing it with? What do you understand as the core values of All Saints’? What is the best from our past, and what would be most important to carry into the future?
These questions, also, should be prayed and pondered and discussed with one another if we are to be able to listen to the direction and the shape of the mission that God has for us now and in the new chapter ahead of us.
One thing I know – God longs to see God’s people alive, renewed, refreshed, revived, and ready to serve the world in Christ’s name and to be a witness to the gracious and life-giving love of God. Just like the apostles and the first church community, this is what we should be praying for: renewal, refreshment, and revival.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in us your servants the covenant you have made with us at our Baptism. Send us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. ~ from the service of Confirmation, Book of Common Prayer.