Theologian Karl Barth calls the season of the Ascension “a significant pause to wait and pray.” It’s a reminder built right into our church year that there are times and seasons when we, like the disciples, can’t hurry things along, but rather, we need to wait and to turn our hearts and minds to God in prayer.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Memorial Day isn’t the only holiday this weekend; today we observe the Feast of the Ascension. It’s one of the stranger stories about Jesus. When I was looking for images for this morning’s bulletin, I found lots of paintings showing the disciples looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet, like this 15th Century French manuscript illumination, and this 16th Century Italian painting. My favorite is this 16th Century German painting with the pair of bare legs dangling from the top of the picture, but perhaps an even better picture of the Ascension would be to show the disciples alone, Jesus gone. That might capture their feelings of loss, of absence.
Only Luke and Acts describe the Ascension. Luke, who wrote both Luke and Acts, is a preacher, not a reporter. He’s not interested in the who, what, where, or when of a story. He’s interested in its meaning, and why it’s important. The question to ask about the Ascension is not, “Did it really happen just like that?” The question is, “What’s the message?”
According to Acts, the resurrected Jesus has spent time with the disciples, teaching and inspiring them, and now it’s time for them to graduate, so to speak. They ask, “Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” But what they’re really asking is, “What’s going to happen next? Is it going to turn out all right?” Things are uncertain, and disciples want to know the future. I bet we can all relate to that.
Jesus says that while God’s timing is for God alone to know, the disciples will receive the power to be God’s witnesses. Then, suddenly, Jesus is taken up into heaven. To speculate where the journey into outer space ended or whether Jesus would have shown up on radar is to miss the point. This is Luke’s colorful version of the meaning of Easter: Jesus, who has been raised from the dead, is now in the presence of God. We affirm in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, and as Martin Luther said, the right hand of God is everywhere. After the Ascension, Jesus is no longer confined by time, space and history.
The disciples return to Jerusalem as Jesus instructed, and there, they wait. They shelter in place, if you will, in the upper room where they’ve been staying, and they wait for the Holy Spirit Jesus has promised; they wait for Pentecost.
Stuck in a room, waiting. That’s a little too on the nose, isn’t it? Last week we finished our second full month of sheltering in place. There are differences, of course, between the disciples’ waiting and ours, but at least one similarity is that waiting is not the same as doing nothing. I love that the angels say to the disciples, “Why are you standing around, staring up at the sky?” That brings the disciples back to their senses, and they head to Jerusalem, not to do nothing, but to pray. Theologian Karl Barth calls the season of the Ascension “a significant pause to wait and pray.” It’s a reminder built right into our liturgical calendar, our church year, that there are times and seasons when we, like the disciples, need to wait and pray.
Might prayer make this time a significant pause for us, as well? I’m not suggesting we pray away COVID-19. Serious conversations about prayer often turn to how prayer “works” or whether our prayers are “answered.” That’s a subject of deep mystery and I’m not going to pretend I have that all figured out. But I will say that in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” he does not say, “Ask, and exactly what you prayed for will be given to you.”[i] Jesus explains that what you will be given is a good gift. You will be given the presence of the Spirit of God.
That is what we get when we pray. We get God. That is one way, at least, that prayer “works.” The reason we pray is to have a relationship with God, a conversation with God. The purpose of prayer is not to get what we want. It’s to get to know God.[ii] As an old holy man once said, “God looks at me, and I look at God.” That is prayer. Richard Rohr describes this as getting tuned – tuned into God in such a way that, eventually, writes Rohr, “All you know is that you are being led, being guided, being loved, being used, being prayed through.”[iii]
How do we get tuned into God in this way? In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells the congregation there to “pray without ceasing.”[iv] We might think, “Well, that’s fine if you’re some kind of monk.” The thing is, Paul didn’t send his letter to a monastery. Thessalonica was a Greek port city in Macedonia. It was a trade hub on a major Roman highway. The new church community would have been very aware of how their values and priorities stood against those of the surrounding culture, which had been their culture until they became Christians. They probably faced pressures to turn back to that old life. Paul sent his letter to encourage them both to stand firm in their faith and to develop disciplines to help them to do that. Disciplines normal people can do in their normal lives.
What might it mean, then, to pray without ceasing in the context of our real, non-monk-like lives? What Paul had in mind was living our whole life in a state of prayer, and by that I mean in an awareness that we belong to the God who created us, loves us, claims us, and always leads us toward what we’re created to be. This certainly includes bringing everything to God. Everything. The psalms, which are full of pain, fear and anger, including anger at God, model this for us. People tend to put on their best manners when talking with God, but I think God wants it all. I love this short poem by Margaret Mitchell:
Sometimes, when it is all,
finally, too much,
I climb into my car,
roll the windows up,
and somewhere between backing out the driveway
and rounding the next corner,
I let out a yell that would topple Manhattan.
How do you pray?
Mitchell’s poem not only challenges our polite, “Sunday best” approach to prayer but also our notion that prayer has to involve words. The kind of prayer that Paul talks about and the being tuned in that Richard Rohr talks about can be practically anything we do, if we’re paying attention. Some people call this kind of prayer “practicing the presence of God,” a phrase that came from a 17th century Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence found that whether he was scrubbing pots or digging in the garden, he could do it with an awareness and gratitude for God’s presence. It’s both attention and intention. You pay attention to what you’re doing, and you hold the intention of doing it as a prayer, as something done in conversation with God. I know people who pray through journaling, singing, folding laundry, cooking, walking, practicing hospitality, creating art, and much more. They do all these things with the intention of being in relationship with God.
Why, you might ask, would we want a relationship with God; why would we want to “get God” in prayer? The answer, my friends, is that the encounter with God changes us. Prayer is about changing us, not about changing God.[v] It’s about changing us, so we can change the world. Prayer opens our hearts to the needs and struggles of others, and to our own need for God. Prayer opens us to the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us in ways that aren’t necessarily rational or obvious, except maybe we all get it that, whenever you spend lots of time with anyone, it changes you. That is why we pray.
And that’s why the disciples prayed in that upper room. Their prayer not only changed them; it prepared them for what came next. That’s what made their pause significant. They didn’t know what they’d face once Jesus was gone; they only knew Jesus was preparing them for it. Maybe this time of sheltering in place can be a time of prayerful preparation for us, as well, individually, and as the church. I heard last week that you’ll come out of this pandemic one of four ways. You’ll be a monk, a hunk, a chunk, or a drunk. How about if we added a fifth word to that list? What rhymes with “monk” that means prepared, equipped, ready to act? Ready to be the church of Jesus Christ in the context into which we’re headed, even though we don’t quite know what that is. A pastor friend told me he’d heard a saying: “The church should burn down every seven years.” Meaning we shouldn’t get too attached to what the Church is now because the Church will inevitably need to be reinvented for the next age. Maybe this is a good time, a significant pause, to look prayerfully at what that might mean for Calvary, and start getting ready.
So, my friends, I invite you to experiment with prayer during this strange and often frightening but potentially significant pause. Pray with words and without words. Pray by folding clothes, or by screaming in your car with the windows rolled up. Pray by singing or dancing or laughing, by walking through your neighborhood, by doing yoga or by holding someone’s hand. Pray your pain and your joy. Pray your gratitude and your desperate hopes: “Thank you for the sunrise! O, God, I’m afraid. Christ, it hurts. Lord, be with her.” Pray the whole contents of your hearts. Pray, and let that prayer prepare you for what comes next.
As it turned out, of course, the Holy Spirit was with the disciples. Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday, happened. And it is still happening. May it be so for you, and for me.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.