Down on Valley Road in the commercial section of town there is a center lane that is available to drivers whether they are in the east-bound lane or the west-bound lane. It’s convenient because it allows you to wait to make a left-hand turn without holding up all the other traffic behind you. This center lane can be a bit tricky, though, because you could easily meet someone coming head-on from the other direction who had the same idea you did, and whose destination is one or two more driveways back behind you. Nevertheless, this is a waiting lane, and even though you might have to wait a while for the traffic to pass so that you can make your turn, soon enough all will be clear and you can go ahead.
This time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is a bit like that center lane. The Church celebrated the Ascension on Thursday - the fortieth day of Easter, the time when the Risen Christ withdrew from temporal and earthly contact with the disciples to return to heaven, to take his rightful place with God the Father. In the Book of Acts Luke describes the Ascension in this way: “…as they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’”
The disciples are left there, mouths agape, not quite sure what has just happened, and the angels basically tell them to “Snap out of it.” They have a task ahead of them, and they can’t afford to stand around wondering where Jesus went. Jesus has told them that they are to be his witnesses to the Resurrection – in Judea, and in Samaria and to all the ends of the earth. But first they have to wait for God to send the Holy Spirit – to them, the disciples who are to do this work, and to all who believe and call upon the name of Jesus. And so we are in this period of waiting from the Ascension until Pentecost, until the Spirit blows in with all the power and strength and disruption that God can send. But this is not a time of void, of empty waiting.
Instead, it’s a purposeful waiting, a necessary waiting; a waiting that is active, and filled with prayer. And into this time of waiting we hear Jesus say something very important that he wants us to bear in mind as we go forward in our identity and mission as his followers. He prays for the disciples and says: "I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one… as we are one.” Jesus prays for his followers, those of the Gospel accounts, and those throughout history – including us. Jesus prays for us, that we may all be one, united in our love for God, united in finding our meaning and purpose in Christ.
This unity that Jesus prays for is not a sameness or conformity; we are not meant to be cookie-cutter Christians. In fact, God has made us each in his own image, our diversity reflecting the beauty of God’s glory in so many different ways. And just as in any family or clan or tribe, there will be differences of understanding, differences of opinion, so there will be differences and a variety of viewpoints in the Church. The unity that Jesus prayed for is the unity that God gave us in our baptism, in our celebration of the Eucharist, and in our worship. We are one because God and Jesus are one, and we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and brought into a full and living relationship with God.
So in this waiting time, in this Ascensiontide, Jesus prays for us, for each and every one of us – praying for us to be drawn closer to God and closer to one another, praying that anything that gets in the way of our closeness to God will be removed, dissolved, set aside. And the aim of the prayer is that when the world sees the unity and closeness of Christians, then all will know that God has sent Jesus to show us the path to God. Our behavior toward one another, and our regard for our fellow Christians will have a direct bearing on what people outside of the Church will think about God. This is what Jesus is saying, and this is why we need Jesus’ prayers, because left to our own human devices we Christians can become contentious, indifferent, holding a grudge, fractious, just plain mean toward one another at times – and this most certainly in not what God wants for us or for God’s Church.
There is another way in which our life as Christian people is infused with waiting, and it’s reflected in the reading from Revelation – a short prayer that was part of the worship life of the earliest Church: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.” The first Christians expected and longed for the day when Jesus would return to our human realm and bring to completion and perfection the work he had begun in us through the Resurrection. Our first brothers and sisters in faith knew the joy and power of Jesus’ direct presence; they also knew the promise that he would return and on that day the whole creation would fully and completely be set to rights, according to God’s purposes. But in the meantime, Jesus’ friends were to follow in his footsteps, even as we prayed for his return. We affirm this hope and belief every time we say the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
But our sense of expectancy that Christ’s return is right around the corner has diminished – after all, two thousand years is a long time to be waiting. If you had a date to meet someone and they hadn’t showed by now, you’d probably assume that you’d been stood up! But God’s time (kairos) and human time (chronos) are not the same, they operate very differently; the hymn puts it this way: “A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone.” We know this from literature – from fantasy and science fiction and ghost stories - but more recently we know it from science, as well. It’s what is called time dilation, and it is part of the theory of relativity. Time moves at different speeds as it is measured by different observers. So it’s no surprise that God’s time and human time don’t move in the same way, and not according to the way we would always like it to be. So the promise holds true. Jesus will return; he will set the world to rights; God’s New Creation which was started in the Resurrection will be fully and completely realized.
But in the meantime, we wait – and watch and work and pray. Like being in that center turning lane, we need to keep our wits about us; we can’t fall asleep at the wheel, or allow some other reckless driver to push over the edge into road rage. Life in Christ began with the Resurrection; we were grafted into it at our baptism; and Jesus - the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end - calls us to live this new life every day with joy and hope and purpose, in union with God and one another, even as we wait and pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension
May 12, 2013