The 7th Sunday of Easter has to be one of the oddest occasions in the whole liturgical year. We’re still in Easter season, but Ascension Day has already happened, and Pentecost is yet to come. And if you’ve somehow missed this, Pentecost next week is going to be an over the top celebration to close out the Centennial, with a procession and a pig roast and our Bishop doing confirmations and baptisms and all of us causing a big holy commotion starting at 9:30 am at the corner of Hill and Randolph.
But we’re not there yet! One commentator has noted that today sort of feels like a semicolon between two exclamation points. The Lord has ascended! … The Spirit has descended! …. But in the meantime, it’s the 7th Sunday of Easter.
In the story of the Ascension, as you may know, Jesus leaves his disciples with the promise of the Spirit’s coming, and then they watch as something like a cloud takes him out of their sight. He was present in his resurrected flesh on earth for 40 days, but that time has come to a close, and he is now being removed, definitively, from this localized, limited way of being. Jesus will continue to make himself known to his followers in all kinds of ways, as he does to us – but his embodied self leaves the earthly scene on Ascension Day to take up residence in, as the NT scholar NT Wright puts it, “The control room for earth.”
This is not the same as saying Jesus simply eventually “went to heaven” like all the faithful departed of every age, nor is it the same as saying that Jesus once had a physical presence in Galilee but now has sort of dissolved into a vague, spiritualized presence everywhere. Jesus ascends in his embodied, resurrected state to take up residence in the control room for earth. Whatever that is, it’s not vague.
So that’s the first exclamation point: The risen Christ has ascended. He has gone before us into the marriage of heaven and earth, and he is in the control room. But there’s another exclamation point coming, because the disciples were also left with a promise: the Holy Spirit will come, and you will receive his power – soon.
I’m not going to talk too much about Pentecost because it’s not here yet. But Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit to indwell and empower us, provides our second big exclamation point, one week from now. An especially big one for us this year, as we take it to the streets and to West Side Park in our celebration of the conclusion of our Centennial Year. And in the meantime, we are held here in a semicolon, a waiting room labeled 7th Sunday of Easter.
So how do you wait, in this kind of semicolon? Luke talks in a few places in the book of Acts, including today’s reading, about how as the hours rolled by from Ascension to Pentecost, the disciples “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They pray, today, for guidance in raising up someone to leadership. It’s amazing how often churches don’t bother praying when they’re looking for leaders, but the New Testament believers sure pray about that kind of thing. We have the chance today to pray for Paul Coey, who became such a part of this congregation last year, and whom Emmanuel supported with funds from the Noel Scholarship as he discerned a call to chaplaincy and went off to Chicago for a year of full time training at Rush University Medical Center. We’ll be commissioning him for his new ministry at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac.
So the disciples are praying for their leadership. They’re also praying, of course, for the coming of the Spirit, which Jesus has told them they need to be his witnesses. They’re praying their own anxieties, surely: Us? Seriously? How will we ever do this? And a lot more, I’ll wager. During these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, they are praying about everything. And interestingly, if we look at the Gospel, so is Jesus. This passage from John actually comes from Jesus’ farewell discourse before his crucifixion, but I think it’s appointed today in part to remind us that the ascended Jesus was praying for his disciples then, just as he is now. That makes waiting a little easier, knowing that you’re supported not just by your own prayers but by Jesus’. We’re praying on earth; he’s praying for us from the control room for earth.
And that’s where we sit, this 7th Sunday of Easter. Active waiting. Praying the wait. With the disciples, liturgically we’re waiting for Pentecost and our great celebration next Sunday. But like everything in the liturgy, that reality connects up with a thousand other realities. You know, liturgical occasions are designed to work so that they connect up with our lives at almost any scale. If we zoom Easter 7 way out in one direction, what we see is active waiting on a cosmic scale: how with every Christian who has ever lived, and in a sense with our ancestral Jewish family as well, we’re looking forward quite literally to God’s consummation of history.
But we can also zoom in the other way, and find Easter 7 shedding light on the way things are, say, this year, in this country and these cities, the active waiting and the prayer that’s needed from Christians in our national life, our cultural life, our parish life. Or zoom it in even further, where we’re waiting personally, on the micro level. Waiting for a birth. For a death. For an answer.
In that kind of active waiting, like the disciples, of course we pray for fulfillment and we pray for the next thing. But we also, if we have grown in Christ at all, pray our anxieties. We set forth our worries and our thought processes and our shortness of breath and our drumming fingers, all of it, with our ascended Lord. We lay it out, and we let him intercede for us from the control room. And we don’t stop trusting him. Or, sometimes, because trusting him isn’t always easy, maybe we kind of do stop trusting him. But we pray anyway.
And in the long run any wait that we manage to pray like that – and this actually is good news – any wait that we manage to pray like that will turn out to be only a semicolon. A pause between one part of the story, and the next. The world’s stories are full of periods. Full Stop. It’s over. Too bad for you. But with God it’s never all over – and it’s also never just dot dot dot, trailing off into nothing at all. When you pray your waiting with God there is always more to come. It may be a long time coming, or it may be as close as the big Pentecost party is to us today. But the promise is true: God’s purpose is coming, and the Spirit is coming, at the macro level and the micro level and every level in between. Happy 7th Sunday of Easter.