Easter 7: Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
Many moons ago, when I was very little at primary school, one of my early memories is sat at my desk, staring out the window. I could utterly lose myself gazing up into the sky, day dreaming and not concentrating one bit on what the teacher was saying. A loud bang with a book across the desk or chalk flying across the room would bring me back to earth with a bump and the realisation that there was work to be done. Maybe some of you were like that too….
In our reading from Acts today, we don’t have any chalk flying but we do have two angels asking “Men of Galilee why do you stand there looking up at the sky?”
Now the answer to the angels’ question is obvious, the disciples were not daydreaming as such, they were looking at the sky because that was the place from which Jesus had left them. They had witnessed him leaving their sight and returning to God the Father. Although Jesus had explained that he wouldn’t abandon them, that he would be present to them in the Holy Spirit, the loss must have hit them. They understood that from this point forward they would not be able to see him as they did during his ministry and after his resurrection. No more fishing together, eating together, laughing and crying together, things had changed. Jesus would no longer be physically present to them. So they stood looking… looking up into the sky, looking after what they had lost.
As long as we live, our lives will change, and in those changes we will lose things that are valuable to us, we will lose people and things that we love.
At this time we may feel the loss of so very many things, from sharing communion together in church to the sound of the choir singing. A coffee with friends to a hug from a parent or child. Apart from our present situation, we face loss and change throughout our lives. The loss of a job, the loss of our health, the loss of a person that we love.
And when something that is dear to us is taken away, then we like the disciples often focus on what we once had, we often cannot move forward. It is for this reason that the next words of the angels are important, not only to the disciples but to us. The angels say, “This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return again in the same way that you saw him go.”
The angels acknowledge the fact that Jesus has left, but they also promise the disciples that he will come to them again in a new way. The disciples must lose the bodily Christ if they are to receive the Spirit. They must exhale, breathe out if you like,in order to breathe in the gift that is coming. The angels’ message to us is this: When one good thing is taken away, another good thing will be given. We often need the space, the waiting to breathe out in order to breathe in life anew.
That is all very well, but what do we do in the meantime? Waiting in the limbo between loss and the promise of better things… Waiting for life to open up again.
It is very easy in a void, in emptiness to fill it with distractions….sometimes its food, drink, social media, shopping whatever. And sometimes that’s ok because we are human and life is very tough at times. But remember too that God dwells deep down in our emptiness. In the emptiness of Mary’s womb Jesus came, outside the city walls, abandoned Jesus died and through the emptiness between that Friday and Easter morning an empty tomb gave forth new life. God is the only one who will truly fill the void. And while this is true we may not be feeling it and this breathing out, this emptiness,this waiting is still hard at times…
I think each of the scriptures we heard today can help us in different ways.
First of all the disciples in the reading from Acts don’t just tail off their separate ways, they stick together and pray. Luke, the writer of acts, is careful to mention other women including Mary gathering with the disciples, Jesus’ brothers too…all together in a closed room praying, praying for the promise Jesus gave them to be fulfilled and most probably praying they would be strong enough to go out again when the time was right.
In this time of waiting, closed in our homes a little like the disciples. We too can pray… pray for the Holy Spirit to be with us. Pray for courage to reach out to those in need. Pray for strength to go out when the time is right. Pray for new life out of loss. And as others gather with us, new folk join us, we stick together though apart and we pray, we are doing it already…..
In our second reading from Peter, we are urged to place all our worries, our fears onto God because God cares, God loves us and wants to help with whatever burdens we carry. In our waiting we know that our fellow brothers and sisters throughout the world, are going through the same struggles too. Could Peter have written any better not only for the early church, but for these times we are living in now?
Stay alert! Not the catchphrase of Boris Johnson, but what Peter warns us of the distractions there are that can shake our trust in God. Stay awake, keep faith, keep solidarity with our fellow human beings and lean on God. Suffering won’t be eliminated, but we are given strength to get through it, holding to the hope that God gives us that healing and renewal will come again. It is already happening in many ways around us. We only need look around us.
Finally, our Gospel tells us that Jesus prayed for the disciples, he prayed for their protection and unity. It reminds us that Jesus continues to pray for us and also in us. Jesus isn’t just an invisible friend outside of us in some far off dimension, but he lives on in us, in the very centre of our lives and our being. All our needs, desires, complaints, our thanks are prayed through Jesus to God our Father. If anything in this waiting we know we are not alone, we are all one in Christ and Jesus is in every breath praying in us and for us.
Next Sunday we will hear again that glorious story of Pentecost. The receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. The commissioning of the disciples which is our commissioning also, to go out and tell the good news, to reflect the Kingdom of love in the world…..but for now we sit with that promise, together though apart ,we watch and we wait and we pray.
There is nothing wrong with staring upwards, or even backwards. Reflection, sitting with our memories , glancing over what has passed are fundamental to our spiritual growth . But, if our eyes are always out the window, if we are always staring skywards or backwards, we will not be able to see the new gifts that God is bringing us. If our gaze remains elsewhere we will not be ready to be disciples in the world, to be the hands and feet of love and compassion. If we remain rooted to the ground and to the past, we will never rise to the future.
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? said the angels,
For all that is lost is held in Christ who will breathe new life again…Amen