Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19
Sunday after Ascension
St Barbara’s 17.05.15
Do you know that feeling of being in an in-between time, a time of waiting for something to happen, of uncertainty, of not being quite sure what to do?
For at least two of our political parties (and maybe a third, though, to be honest I can’t quite work out what is going on with UKIP), they are certainly in that in-between time. Without a leader, wondering what direction to go in next, they are in limbo. Life has changed, but where do they go from here?
We may feel in limbo ourselves. Maybe we are out of work, wondering if and where the next job will come from. Maybe we are in work but one major project or contract has ended and we are not sure what the next one will be. Or maybe our company or employer is making sweeping changes and we are not sure where that leaves us.
Nor does it have to be work where we feel that sense of limbo, that sense of waiting for the next thing, that unsettling uncertainty. We may have retired and now are wondering “what next?” Or we may be on a waiting list for an operation or awaiting results, and life seems to be on hold, or we are waiting for a return to health when we can “start doing things again”.
Sometimes life can feel like its “full steam ahead”, and the challenge is to catch up with the direction we’re heading. But there are other times, when life feels a little bit in limbo – we’re not sure what to do and when to do it.
Well, our epistle reading this morning touches on the early Christian believers in their limbo land. Jesus has ascended to heaven (as the church celebrated on Thursday, or as Prayers and Bears did a day early on Wednesday). He has gone from them, but promising them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them.
So here they are, waiting. They can still talk about the wonder and the joy of the risen Jesus in their midst, but it is not quite the same as him actually being there. And what did he mean by the Holy Spirit coming upon them? When would that happen? And would they recognise it when it did happen? Here they are waiting, stuck in limbo land, uncertain, unsure of the future.
So it is instructive to all of us what they do in this in-between time.
For what they do is pray. Not just a one-off prayer. Luke tells us they “joined together constantly in prayer.”
Unsure of what was going to happen next, they prayed. Unsure of what they should do next, they prayed. Unsure of how long the time of waiting would last, they prayed.
It seems very simple, the kind of thing you would expect the Bible to tell us Christians did, but I wonder, if a biography was being written of my life, is that what they would write? “At a time of uncertainty, he gathered together with others and spent considerable time in prayer.” Possibly they would be more likely to write: “He spent his time worrying, drawing up lists of possible scenarios, or looking rather lost or vacant.”
Prayer is something we all know we should do. Here was a community that did it.
The Christian writer Ronald Rolheiser stated the importance of prayer in this way: “Virtually all classical spiritual writers, from every tradition, say that in order to sustain yourself in faith you must regularly (most would say daily) spend an extended time in prayer. Failure to do so , they warn, results in a certain dissipation of the soul, even when our sincerity remains intact. There is no other way to remain in touch with the soul.” Sincerity is not enough. It is prayer that keeps us in touch with the soul.
When we are unsure of what else to do, when we may feel paralysed by the decisions that face us or by the uncertainty of the road ahead, the least we can do is pray. Pray by oneself and pray with one another.
That’s why I would warmly encourage you to make the most of the prayer ministry after next week’s service, or to ask for prayer on the prayer chain, or to ask me or someone to come and pray with you,
Let’s make prayer the heart of our community, especially in those in-between times.
It would be wrong to suggest they only prayed. They did other things too.
For one thing, they read the Scriptures, trying to understand what it meant for them to be followers of God in this new context of uncertainty and waiting.
In doing so, they found help in understanding some of the difficult things about the last few weeks – particularly, why it was that Judas, their good friend and fellow-disciple, had so betrayed Jesus.
And in reading the Scriptures they also found things they could act upon, and could do, even if the future remained uncertain.
They realised that Judas needed to be replaced, that symbolically it was important to have twelve apostles, twelve witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Christ was the fulfilment of God’s work amongst his people, not a rejection of it.
I was pleased to see that David Cameron had appointed more women to his cabinet this week. Not only because I hope they will do a good job, but because symbolically it matters. We can’t have 50% of the population feeling excluded from positions of power. Appointing 12 apostles was a statement of inclusion too. God was not rejecting the people of Israel but embracing them.
So the disciples set some criteria. They need to be people who have journeyed with Christ since the beginning of his ministry and who are people that are willing now to stand up and witness to his resurrection. They are good criteria for all forms of leadership within the church – whether it is being on the PCC, serving on our various committees, leading our children’s or young people’s work, or our home groups or choir. Journeying with Christ, and being willing to witness for him: they are good qualities for all of us who are involved in leadership to measure our lives by.
There are two stand-out candidates – Joseph and Matthias. So how do they decide between them.
Again, they turn to prayer. They seek God’s leading and guidance.
Twenty odd years ago at university, I was asked to serve on a committee to do things that I had dreamed of doing. Not only that, but some of my best friends were also going to be on that committee. It seemed a dream opportunity, an obvious decision. Yet as I prayed I found myself surprised to sense that this was not the right thing. I turned down the opportunity. A couple of months later I discovered why God had been leading me that way. Out of the blue my studies imploded and I needed all my available time just to stay afloat and to stay at university. That committee would have left me with no reserves of time or energy to cope. God guided me.
I’m sure many of us here have similar stories of God leading us, guiding us.
When we pray God can inspire us and lead us.
The disciples, having prayed then do something somewhat random. They draw lots to see who should be appointed. I think is a bit of a historical quirk. Drawing lots was an ancient way of reaching decisions, and the disciples were following the culture of the day in doing so.
But, remember, they have not yet received the Holy Spirit, God’s counsellor. After the coming of the Holy Spirit there is no record of decisions being made in this way again. With the Holy Spirit within us and guiding us, there is no longer the need for the randomness of drawing lots or rolling dice. He guides us and directs our path.
So, whether you feel in a limbo time or not, a time of uncertainty, or feel you are waiting for the next thing, remember the early believers before Pentecost and:
• Do what things you can do
• And pray some more.
When prayer is central to our lives, remarkable things can happen, as the events of Pentecost next week will show!