Last Sunday, being Mother’s Day, a friend and I made reference to our good moms who are, we assume, making merry on the other side of the veil. "Oh," said my friend, "What I would give for one more hour with her."
Now, as much as I trust that Mom and I will eventually be reunited, it had never occurred to me to wish her back for an hour-long visit. I tried to imagine what that would be like; how would those 60 minutes be most fruitfully spend before we had to say a second farewell?
I’m pretty sure our visit would involve my sundeck and a gin and tonic, but that’s about as far as I got. She and I had enough years together that anything we wanted to ask or to tell had already been asked and been told. And I know people can’t always say that when they have lost a loved one, so I know how fortunate I am in that.
But it means that there wouldn’t really be any agenda items to cover. My hopeful assumption is that Mom is managing to keep track of the family comings and goings as they happen, and therefore a big update wouldn’t be needed. And we’ve already heard each other’s jokes at least two or three times, so unless she has some new material from heaven, that would also be a dead end (so to speak).
In short, I’m sure we would have a very pleasant time, but I can’t say that it would be a necessary time.
And that got me thinking about the disciples who said goodbye to Jesus for a second time when Jesus ascended to heaven. Whether the disciples consciously realized it or not, at some point between his resurrection and his Ascension, their time with Jesus was no longer necessary time. (I am 100% positive that Mom would want me to jump in here and clarify that I am not comparing her to Jesus, so for her sake I will do so.)
Jesus knew it wasn’t necessary that he stay with them. In fact, he knew it was necessary that he leave. "I tell you the truth," he says in John 16, "it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." As you know, in life we often have to let go of what was in order to fully embrace what will be.
I find it interesting how relatively little we hear about those 40 days Jesus is said to have walked with the apostles after his resurrection. We are told about his first encounters with them, and their joyful recognition of his risen life, but after that the record is vague. As we heard in the Acts of the Apostles this morning, "He presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God."
One might expect that Jesus would have some new intel to share with his friends by this point; in the resurrection he had, after all, undergone an experience unlike anything ever known before. But it seems he just keeps on speaking about the kingdom of God as he had in the past. Because really, at the heart of it, what was left to say that he hadn’t already told them before? Feed the hungry. Clothe those who need it. Put your trust in God, not in wealth or possessions or earthly power. Be a healing presence for the ailing. Love one another, as I have loved you. What more is there?
There wasn’t much left to say, perhaps; there was, however, much left to do. The next step was for Jesus’s followers to take what they already knew and put it to use. So Jesus’s instructions were clear on that front: stay in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Spirit that will empower you to go out in the world to spread the good news about God’s kingdom.
As you will recall, there are many 40-day (or 40-year) periods in the Bible. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days after his baptism in preparation for assuming his ministry. Moses stayed atop Mt. Sinai for 40 days before returning to the Israelites with the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. At that time, the Israelites were on their 40-year journey through the desert, travelling from Egypt to the promised land.
Just for fun, I checked with Google Maps to find out how long it really takes to walk from the city of Ramses to the city of Jericho, and it turns out that it only takes six days. Even without GPS technology, and in spite of the occasional rebellion he had to deal with, I’m sure Moses and the crew could have made it in a lot fewer than 40 years. So clearly there is something about that number 40 that is symbolic; something that is pregnant with spiritual meaning. In the scriptures, 40 is usually understood to represent a span of time that is sufficient in which to accomplish something; to arrive somewhere in a spiritual sense more than a geographic one.
So in those 40 days between Easter Sunday and Jesus’s Ascension, the apostles appear to have arrived at the place at which they were spiritually ready for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ready to say goodbye to Jesus for a second time and take up their commission to go forth in his name. And it’s important to note that "ready" doesn’t mean "perfect" - as we heard in our first reading, right up until about two minutes before Jesus ascended, they were still asking "Lord, is THIS the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" With them as with us, there were still things they didn’t understand about God’s kingdom. But they were as ready as they would ever be to try to bring it about.
After Jesus’ ascension we don’t see in the disciples the same sense of sorrow and aimlessness that they had demonstrated after the Crucifixion. Despite all the wonders they had witnessed and participated during their years of ministry with Jesus, once he had died and was buried their work with him seemed dead and buried, too. They went back to their fishing boats and tried to pick up where they had left off. But now, 40 days after Easter, the apostles were prepared to carry on without him. And boy, did they ever - next week we will celebrate Pentecost and remember how the Spirit was unleashed in the world, working through people like you and me. That spirit changed the world then, and it is still changing the world now.
Jesus firmly instructed the apostles to remain together in Jerusalem while they awaited the coming of the Spirit. I expect the Holy Spirit could have descended upon each of them individually, wherever they happened to be, but there is something particularly meaningful that happens when we are gathered, isn’t there? If I did have Mom on my patio for an hour, I would surely scramble to get everyone together to celebrate. Yes, we would very likely retell the same old jokes and anecdotes, but whenever the gang’s all together, those tales get strung together in novel ways that lead to new stories and fresh revelations. And when the conversation was at its height, I expect she would slip out the side gate, knowing that it would carry on just fine without her.
So it is with us. Wonderful as it would be, we don’t need Jesus sitting across from us on the patio telling us to love one another. But we do need to keep Jesus alive at the heart of our life together. We do need the Spirit working in us as we recount the stories of our faith, bringing to them fresh perspectives and new life. I see that happening all the time at St. Clement’s. I see the Spirit working when Lynley reaches out to offer English language lessons to Bunyamin and Saera, newcomers from Afghanistan. I see it when Cam creates a splendid Mother’s Day tea in the Upper Room for a family that would have found a restaurant visit a little hard to manage. I see it when John Stowe and his crew bring us together with a "come one, come all" barbecue feast. I see it whenever we individually or collectively seek justice or act with kindness.
Perhaps this week, as we anticipate the Feast of Pentecost, we can be asking ourselves if we are feeling ready to once again accept the gift and the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. If yes, what is helping us? If no, what is hindering us? During their time with the risen Christ, what so reassured and revitalized the apostles that they had the courage to go forward into mission, ministry, and, for some, even martyrdom? May we, too, be graced with that clarity of conviction, and may we, too, strengthen and support each other in our walk of faith. Christ is risen - the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
(Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53)