Today we find ourselves in between the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday and Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. What’s it like to be in-between? To be in a place where one thing has ended and whatever comes next has yet to begin? How do we live when we’re in in-between times?
On Thursday we read the story of the ascension of Jesus which is found right at the beginning of the book of Acts. It’s been forty days since Easter. Jesus is back, and the disciples are expecting him to be their leader, to do great things, even to restore the kingdom to Israel! Evidently, Jesus has other plans, and with hardly a moment’s notice, he’s gone, lifted up as they watch, and a cloud takes him out of sight. In her reflection on Thursday, Maria captured something of the surprise and confusion, even the sense of abandonment and grief that the disciples must have felt. This wasn’t what we were expecting, they thought. Jesus is gone, something has ended, and we don’t know what comes next. Jesus did promise that we would receive the Holy Spirit, whatever that means, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen. What are we going to do now?
How do we live when we’re in-between?
Maybe we can relate. I can relate. We’re kind of in-between right now, aren’t we? I’ve got two more Sundays left here, and though I’ve got a better idea than the disciples did of what comes next, there are still lots of unknowns. There’s some grief to get through, and some COVID-complicated goodbyes. As a community, this is an in-between time for us, this change in leadership, and we don’t exactly know what is going to happen next.
How do we live when we’re in-between?
The Psalm we heard this morning offers a beautiful image of how to live in in-between times.
“Those who are happy are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”
In all the seasons of life, but especially in these in-between times, stretch out your roots and ground yourselves.
Whenever I go to the Canadian Shield, if I’m camping in Algonquin Park or along Georgian Bay, I’m always impressed by the trees that grow on all those rocky islands. Some of those trees seem to grow right on top of the rock, in the harshest of conditions. Because the soil is shallow and the rocks are hard, you can often see the roots of those trees running above the ground. If the roots can’t get under the rock, they’ll go around it or over it in their search for the waters of the lake. Sometimes the woody roots of a scraggly tree will find a crack in the rock and work it so hard that the whole rock splits in two.
Now that’s grounding yourself! It’s not a passive activity, it’s an active searching. There’s a strength to it. That’s what the psalmist is talking about. Be like that tree, put down roots, seek what is life-giving, and ground yourself. Then you will not wither, not even in in-between times, and you will bear fruit in due season.
But how do you ground yourself? A tree is grounded in earth and water. What grounds you?
Here too the psalmist suggests a way forward.
‘Take this path: delight in the Torah of the Lord, and meditate on it day and night.’
Now, at first this sounds like study, prayer and contemplation. And it is, these things are important, but there is also more than these. The Hebrew word Torah is indeed the word used for the scriptures, and is usually translated as “the law”, though guidance or instruction are equally good translations. But Torah is really about a way of life. When Jesus was asked to summarize Torah, this is what he said:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.
And then on the night before his death, to make it even more concrete, he gave his disciples a new Torah, a new commandment: “Love one another, the way that I have loved you.”
This is how we are to ground ourselves. Like the tree planted by streams of water, like branches that are connected to the vine, we are to ground ourselves in Christ and in the way of life that he showed us, loving one another the way he loves us.
In in-between times, in all times, in this time, ground yourselves. Be Christ-centred. Love one another.
In the immediate aftermath of the ascension, in the midst of confusion and grief, in response to the question ‘what do we do now?’ Jesus’ response is ‘Ground yourselves. Abide in me. Love one another.’
Of course that’s not the end of the disciples’ questions. Sooner or later, someone’s going to ask,
“And what do we do next?”
There is a clue in the Ascension story itself. After Jesus was lifted up, as the disciples stared up at the sky, as they started to reflect on what had just happened, surely someone would have remembered the story of Elijah and Elisha found in the second book of Kings. Elijah was one of the greatest of the prophets of Israel, and Elisha was his disciple, the one who hoped to be his successor. On that day when they both knew that God was going to take Elijah away, suddenly a chariot of fire separates the two of them, and Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha is in anguish, and he grieves the loss of his mentor, grasping and tearing his clothing into two.
Then, Elisha looks to the ground and sees Elijah’s mantle, his cape, kind of like my stole, which had fallen on the ground. So Elisha takes up Elijah’s mantle, and in so doing, takes on Elijah’s mission as his successor.
There’s another story about a mantle in scripture. It too takes place in an in-between time. It’s just after Jesus baptism and his time in the wilderness, but before his public ministry begins. Jesus, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit returns to Galilee and enters the synagogue in Nazareth. He stands up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to him. Jesus lifts the mantle, the cloth that covers the scroll, and says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me;
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
That was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now Jesus is gone, lifted up, in a cloud, out of sight.
Who will take up his mantle?
Who now will bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free?
I can imagine the disciples looking up, then looking down, looking at one another, looking around to see if there was an Elisha coming, wondering if God would send another as successor to Jesus, someone who would take up his mantle.
After a while, I don’t know how long it took, but after a while they must have realized:
There’s just us.
We’re the ones who have to take up Jesus’ mantle and proclaim good news to the poor and the oppressed. We’re the ones who will be anointed and empowered by Spirit to witness to and continue Jesus’ work. That’s what the church, that’s what this community is for.
But before we can take up that mantle, we have to be grounded. Maybe that’s what the in-between space is for.
As we prepared our parish profile recently there was a reflection that resonated with me. It went something like this: as a community, we are passionate about social justice and we are willing to try new things, but the reason we are able to be who we are and do what we do is that we are grounded. We are a Christ-Centred Church. I think that’s important.
So in these in-between times, ground yourselves. Abide in Christ. Love one another. Be that tree planted by streams of water whose leaves do not wither, which yields its fruit in due season. Stretch out your roots.
Then, take up the mantle, and proclaim the good news.
Ten years ago I was given this stole, this mantle. It has been a symbol of my leadership of this community, this Spirit-Led, Christ-Centred, Contemporary Urban Church, a leadership which I have shared with all of you. While wearing it I have tried to be faithful to Jesus’ mission to proclaim good news, especially to the poor and the oppressed.
In two weeks, I will take off this mantle.
My hope is that you will take it up, and continue to proclaim the good news.
But now, in this in-between time, ground yourselves. Stretch those roots a little deeper. Abide in Christ.
Love one another.
Homily: Yr B Easter 7 May 16 2021
Readings: Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19