A TIME TO LEAVE
'Jesus’ leaving of earth could have been a crushing blow to his followers but patient prayer in one place got them ready for a promise.
There are many ways of saying goodbye in life. One of the most popular in the United States is the invitation to ‘have a nice day’, to which an irritable Groucho Marx once responded: ‘I’ll choose what kind of a day to have, thank you’. More recently this has been replaced by: ‘missing you already’, which surely plumbs the depths of human insincerity. Sometimes it is really hard to say goodbye to someone because you know how long it will be before you see them again. You only have to observe an airport or a train station in a major city on a Sunday afternoon to feel this poignancy.
The ascension was the end of the long goodbye of Jesus. We strive hard to imagine how painful it must have been for the disciples to have suffered the anguish of Easter Eve – after the death of Jesus but before his miraculous resurrection – yet it seems we hardly bother to imagine how they felt about Jesus leaving them physically for good at his ascension. I expect this is because our attention is soon focussed on the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Human relationships are tangible, however, and the loss of his powerful physical presence must have cut deeply. It also deprived them of the clinching evidence in the preaching of the Gospel of his resurrection from the dead. Exhibit A was suddenly swiped from the face of the earth. How did his friends feel about this? We don’t know, because Luke the historian considers it an incidental detail in Acts.
Words often feel inadequate at the point of separation, leaving people to mumble clumsy yet soothing clichés about the future. At Jesus’ leaving of this world, the disciples assembled a question about the future: ‘Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ they ask. It has the feel of one of those manic and garbled questions sometimes thrown at the Prime Minister by journalists from across Downing Street as he gets in a car to speed away – a vain effort to squeeze out something newsworthy for the people. And his response: ‘it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set’ has the words: ‘no comment’ written all over it.
They had in fact asked the wrong question of Jesus, which is quite typical of human prayer. His response was to limit their speculation to the simple requirement of waiting for God to give them the Holy Spirit who would then impel them to go out and be witnesses to his resurrection. God would look after the rest. And so they returned to the upper room – their campaign headquarters – awaiting further instructions. In the meantime they prayed. By staying together in one place they deepened the intimate bond between them. When the Holy Spirit came, he moved easily over them, spilling from one to the other because they were so close spiritually and physically. It was what I would term collateral blessing: if you stay near enough to another person who is touched by the presence of God, you are often changed by the experience. The disciples couldn’t control the Spirit’s descent – there was no magic formula to this expression of God’s grace – but they had put themselves in the best position for it: together, in one place, joined by prayer and full of wonder at the majesty of God.
Their status couldn’t be more different to the impoverished prayer life of the modern world. Prayer today tends to be individual, functional and rushed – the product of an atomised society where everything must be done at speed. We have the concept of the arrow prayer, where in a flash we can send up a prayer to God. I think this is a wonderful gift to people under stress – and it was employed on many occasions by the heroes of scripture – but we have become so busy and perfunctory about prayer now that God probably feels like he’s auditioning for a new Robin Hood film, such is the cloud of arrows heading his way each day. And our prayers seem to grow more instrumental too, where God is co-opted to help us solve a problem, thus reducing the status of prayer to a brisk agenda item.
Thankfully God takes even our compromised prayers seriously. We all make mistakes, but such is God’s grace that even under the constraints induced by modern life, prayer remains a fruitful activity and one which makes a genuine difference to human life. And yet the ascension points to a new perspective. The disciples obeyed Jesus by not going their separate ways and thereby making the target harder for God to pour his blessing into. They also remained patient. If they had expressed a latent impatience in their opening question about whether the kingdom would be restored to Israel soon, they found a new spiritual resolve to wait for God rather than fit him round their own plans. If we were bold enough to attempt the same, I expect it would similarly turn life on its head. I think I can often spot the people who pray patiently because there is a poise about them which comes from knowing the presence of God.
And finally, the disciples praised God. They didn’t have another motive, like a child with an eye on the cake tin, trying to flatter God into bestowing his attention. They simply worshipped him for the sake of it, because he is worth it, because worship expresses the deepest instincts of created beings. Scripture speaks of the sacrifice of praise, and the disciples made costly sacrifices of time and effort in those days between Ascension and Pentecost. We are also called to extravagant worship: reckless gestures of joy at who God is and what he has done for us. In a culture of personal grievance and entitlement, it is the most striking witness we could ever make, but it will remain compromised while our prayer is offered on the cheap and on the run.
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