As you no doubt remember, last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and just to let you know what kind of a prince of a guy I am, I took advantage of an e-mail special offer for a free Mother’s Day dish from a national chain Chinese restaurant with an outlet here in Royal Oak. Kathy loves Chinese food, so what better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a Chinese takeout meal for mom and a bargain for dad? The only problem was that the coupon had to be presented by “mothers only”, so that meant that Kathy herself would have to go into the restaurant to claim this particular bargain. As I pitched this idea to her, Kathy’s response wasn’t entirely enthusiastic (“Oh, great. Why don’t you just have me cook the food myself?”), but we decided to make an occasion of it by bundling up the two dogs, putting them in their luxurious lambskin car seats, and driving off, coupon and credit card in hand, to Pei Wei Asian Diner.
I’ll spare you the chaos Kathy encountered once inside the restaurant. Let’s just say that an eatery filled with screaming children, grumpy mothers, and cheap dads is not a pretty picture. Because what I want to tell you about happened in the car as I stayed in it with the dogs so Kathy could go in and pick up our bargain dinner. As soon as Kathy began to walk away from the car toward the restaurant, our two dogs went nuts. They got out of their car seats and scrabbled at the windows. They whined. They issued pathetic little howls. Even though I, magnanimous dad of the year, was still in the car with them, my august presence was not enough. Kathy had departed, to their dog way of thinking forever, and they longed eagerly and anxiously for her return and expressed that longing in ways that made me wish, frankly, that we had called instead for a pizza.
I tell that story because it replicates, as closely as anything I can describe, the mood on this Seventh Sunday of Easter. The anxiety, longing, and panic felt by our two terriers at Kathy’s departure is something like the mix of feelings described by the New Testament writers who tell us of the way Jesus’s companions felt after his Ascension. (I always get extra points at home when I compare Jesus to Kathy, so perhaps this analogy will make up for the skimpy Mother’s Day spread.) Jesus’s departure was traumatic, an occasion both for rejoicing and for grieving.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, a day we don’t celebrate much any more, the 40th day of Easter, and on this day the book of Acts tells us that Jesus was taken by a cloud out of the apostles’ sight. Think for a minute about what screenwriters would call the arc of the Jesus story. Jesus was with his companions in Galilee and Jerusalem for between one and three years. Then he was arrested, tried, and put to death. So he is gone. Then at Easter he is given back to his followers and friends in the resurrection, and for 40 days more he stays with them. It is almost as if they have him back for good. But then on Ascension Day, the 40th day, he is taken away again. That is both good news and bad news. It is good news in that Jesus’s exaltation vindicates his life and ministry and purpose. It is bad news in that his ascension to God’s right hand means his absence from us.
And so we have this ten-day period—a stretch of time between Ascension and Pentecost (which itself means “50th day”)--when Jesus’s companions wait to see what God will do. Jesus is gone. He has promised us, in the words of last week’s Gospel, that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14.26] The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth called this ten day period between Ascension and Pentecost “the significant pause”. God has promised to act, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled. We live life in the pause between promise and fulfillment. It is a time of watching and waiting, a mixture of anxiety and hope. This ten-day pause is an epitome of the life of faith—indeed of all life--itself.
One way to understand what God is up to in the Christian drama is to see the whole biblical story as a parable of God’s desire to be connected to us. You could understand the Old Testament as a story of God’s search for us. God made us in God’s own image, but we pulled or fell away. God called us perpetually to return, but we would not. So then the New Testament details for us God’s radical plan for re-connecting. God becomes one of us in Jesus. The coming of God into human flesh is God’s ultimate act of being with us. We celebrate Christmas not because it is Jesus’s birthday but because it proclaims God’s taking on our life, and with it our joys and failures, our hopes and losses, our sorrows and our sufferings.
One way to understand Ascension is to see it as the other side of Christmas. Jesus’s birth proclaims God’s coming down to us. Ascension proclaims our rising up to God. As Rowan Willaims says, “The ascension of Jesus . . . [is] a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life.” [Rowan Williams, “A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist”, May 21, 2009] If Christmas celebrates the divine significance of all things human, Ascension Day proclaims the abiding human aspects of the divine.
Therefore, Ascension time is not just a triumphal “shout out”, a cosmic “I told you so!” regarding the celestial enthronement of Jesus. Ascension time is an expression of the way God is transforming us here, now, to be agents of blessing and hope ourselves. Jesus speaks to God with a human voice. The incomparable variety of human speech—sung and shouted and whispered from the broken streets of Detroit to the shady lanes of Birmingham and all places in between—has now been spoken in and through us and so in and to the heart of the divine. Or, as Williams says, “the humanity that we all know to be stained, wounded, imprisoned in various ways; this humanity—yours and mine—is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God's glory, received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself.”
Now that is a wonderful thing, and when we drop Ascension Day out of our consciousness we lose sight of what I call this other side of Christmas. God is in us. We are in God. That is good news. But it coexists with a loss. Just as dogs whine for their mistresses, just as children yearn for their parents, so the friends and followers of Jesus grieve at his departure. Pentecost, the fiftieth day, one of the three major feast days of the church, makes no sense absent the events of Ascension, the fortieth day. If this whole drama is ultimately about God’s presence with us, then we need to face into the implications of God’s absence. It is good news that Jesus is speaking to God with a human voice. But he does that during this “significant pause” between promise and fulfillment. Pentecost is joyous not only because God gives the Spirit, but also because God’s giving of that Spirit means that we are not alone, we are finally reconnected once and for all. The coming of God’s Spirit is the answer to our grief. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. To be human is to stand between the already and the not yet. Our lives will always take place in what theologians call “the mean time,” what the poet W. H. Auden called “the time being”.
So how do we get through the mean time, the time being? God has exalted Jesus, but Jesus is gone. What do we do while we wait? Do we sit passively in hope that God will act? Do we take action ourselves? Or is there a third way—a way of prayerful action—that will bide us through these days? I believe there is, and it’s an opportunity expressed yet almost hidden away in our first reading this morning.
In today’s reading from Acts, we heard what happened to Paul and Silas in Philippi—the first proclamation of the Gospel in Europe. The have been arrested, and flogged, and put in prison. (Welcome to the Western world!) An earthquake loosens their chains and breaks open the prison doors. The jailer believes that Paul and Silas will have escaped and so prepares to kill himself because he knows the consequences for his losing these prisoners will be brutal. To his surprise, Paul and Silas stay where they are. In astonishment and gratitude, the jailer asks them, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
Paul and Silas prepare the jailer for Baptism by telling him and his household about Jesus. And then we hear this remarkable detail, so small that it’s almost lost in the spectacle of the larger events: “At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” [Acts 16. 33-34]
The first thing the jailer does upon hearing the story of Jesus is to wash the wounds of the ones who told him. The next thing he does is to set food before them. Like us, the jailer dwelt in a mean time, in a significant pause, in the gap between promise and fulfillment. He lived in a brutal, cynical age, yet he hoped and longed for something better. When told about the life and ministry of Jesus, he responds by saying, “Yes”. And as he waits for that “Yes” to be made a reality, he does the only thing that now makes any sense: he washes and feeds Paul and Silas. The way to get through life in the mean time is to act with compassion.
And that, of course, is the way you and I can get through this ten-day gap too. Because the “significant pause” between Ascension and Pentecost is an image of any time we are asked to face into grief or anxiety or both. In ascending to the Father, Jesus has taken our hopes and pains with him directly into the divine life of God. While he does that, we wait for the ultimate connection, to be enacted at Pentecost, which will fulfill our promises and repair our griefs. What do we do in this mean time, this time of loss and expectation, this time being? The answer is simple: we act like the jailer. We wash each other’s wounds. We invite each other to our tables. We open our hearts in compassion.
Human life, our life, will always be lived in the gap, the mean time, the time being, the significant pause. Jesus is gone, but he has not left us comfortless. God will act, and all will be well. But still we wait. And if we hear what our Bible readings say to us today, the way we get through life in this significant pause, this gap, is to do what the jailer did. Wash another’s wounds. Invite a hungry person to your table. These simple acts are God’s strategy for times of alienation, loss, struggle, and even despair: let us wash and feed each other. Let us fill our days with acts of love, forgiveness, blessing, and mercy, so that as God’s love spreads through us, we may give voice to the needs and hopes of all God’s children. Hearing them, Jesus will take them directly to the center of reality where they will be heard, and redeemed, by God. And standing together in this significant pause, we can wash and feed each other and the world, as we wait together for what God will do next. Amen.