Address for 24 May 2020
Readings – 1 Peter 4: 12-14; 5: 6 – 11; John 17: 1-11
Four years ago, I bought the summer house in which I filmed the welcome at the beginning of today’s service.
I know it was 4 years ago because I bought when my wife and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary. You may think acquiring a “man shed” is rather an odd way to celebrate a wedding anniversary – but perhaps the personal space it sometimes provides might help secure another 25 years of marriage: not for nothing is there a sign on it which reads “grumpy’s shed!
In the middle of last week, the rather large Rowan tree which stood next to it , succumbed to the strong winds, and a fairly substantial bough of the tree split off – almost covering the summer house roof. And when the tree surgeon arrived to inspect the damage – it became clear that the tree was in fact rotten down the length of the main trunk and had to be removed.
The summer house itself was evidently made of sterner stuff – thank you Wilton House Garden Centre! It is entirely unscathed – but now transformed. It is very much lighter in there; from outside, it looks far more symmetrical and prominent; and the beech hedge which had been overshadowed by the tree, now stands in fresh green relief against it.
And why am I telling you all this?
Simply as an illustration of the thought that, sometimes, the familiar has to be taken away, in order for us to recognise the beauty and the potential that are being set before us.
In this short season of Ascensiontide, I think that same thought applies to Jesus’ disciples – who only truly see the way ahead when Jesus has left the scene.
They had been through a lot at this point – reacting in horror to the pain and loss of Good Friday; in shock and disbelief at Christ’s rising from the tomb; and marvelling at his later appearances to them. Then, perhaps, they begin to get used to having him around again – almost as if they’re finally back to normal.
And, just as they have readjusted to his being with them again, explaining everything for them, he ups and leaves them, for good this time – telling them to wait for another, for the Holy Spirit who will guide them into all truth.
And it’s then, in the power of the Spirit who comes at Pentecost, that they really begin the work for which Christ had called them: that’s the reason that Pentecost is sometimes known as the “birthday of the Church” – the day it all really took off.
And I want to suggest that, this Ascensiontide, we also find ourselves in that in-between state: we’re only too aware of what we’ve missed over Easter, and our hearts and minds are more than ready to adjust again to the familiarity of our normal lives.
And yet we too anticipate the coming of God’s Spirit to us, at Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. Shouldn’t we then, like the disciples, be looking firmly forwards, not back over our shoulders?
Can we then begin to accept these weeks of lockdown not as lost weeks – a period of bleak absence of all that we crave – but as a period of formation, preparing us what lies ahead?
As the disciples sat again at the feet of their master, and learned from him how they must go on, perhaps we can now draw near to him – so that when we are able to worship together again, it will be with our eyes open wise to the needs and blessings of God’s world – and with a readiness to receive all that the Spirit may reveal to us about how we will we be the Church again, in the world that emerges after this pandemic has eased its grip.
Just as the removal of our poor Rowan tree has bathed our summer house with more sunlight, and revealed the vibrant growth that had been hidden under its shade, perhaps the experience, of living without the familiar, can help us see more clearly what needs to be done, in order to proclaim the gospel afresh in our generation and in our communities.
Perhaps there are other things, that seem to have been with us for ever but which will now need to be removed, in order to let the light of God’s goodness be seen; and in order to give us time and energy to minister more fruitfully.
Perhaps it’s not for us to write the script of what comes next, so much as to find our place within the play that is already being enacted around us – to wait for the things that will be revealed to us and to be ready to act in faith.
It can’t have been easy for the disciples to accept that Jesus was gone and that they must forge a new way forward, and it may not be easy for us to accept that the things we find ourselves doing in a few months’ time may look rather different from the things we busied ourselves with a few months back.
But the disciples did not make their way alone, and neither will we: it was in the power of the Spirit that Christ’s Church was formed, and it is in the power of the Spirit that we can hope to be faithful to our calling today. Like them, we must wait and see – in joyful expectation of all that will be.
The first letter of Peter, from which we heard our first reading, was addressed to a church under persecution – to individual Christians who struggled with greater obstacles than we now face. Surely, we can accept the same assurance that is given to them:
that “the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ,
will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish us.
To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”