The readings for this coming Sunday are interesting and difficult ones. I do not envy my clergy friends their task of preaching on these lections. See, this coming Sunday, April 27, is the sixth Sunday of Easter – it is the last Sunday before we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven (May 1 this year) and then the next week celebrate the Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Christian Church. As such, the readings are not so much focusing on something in themselves, but are pointing forward, toward the momentous events that are about to happen. And, let’s face it. How many people really come to church to celebrate the Ascension, on a Thursday? My parish has a choral evensong for Ascension, but the attendance is a fraction of that for regular Sunday worship. So the preacher really has to think about this for the sixth Sunday of Easter, and factor the Ascension into the mix, and point forward to Ascension and Pentecost.
There are a few things I notice in these readings. First, I see in the reading from Acts that Paul is preaching in Greece. Last week we glimpsed Saul at the stoning of Stephen, before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus. Last week, Saul was a devoted Jew, persecuting this dangerous sect, the followers of The Way. This week, Paul is a devoted follower of The Way, Apostle to the Gentiles. We did not get to see his conversion in between – at this point in the year – but many of us in the pews know the story that falls between. It is a nice little “in story” (what’s the word for an “in joke” that isn’t a joke?), and it can be amazing to see Saul one week and Paul the next and reflect on how God turned this one man’s heart so thoroughly. If God can effect such an amazing transformation upon Saul, then how might God work in my life?
In the psalm and the epistle this week, I notice the theme of coming through a hard time, a struggle, supported by God – and emerging into God’s blessing, into the place of refreshment. Holy Week is definitely one of these times of suffering. And though we don’t generally tend to honour Holy Saturday with a liturgy, I try to use this day to reflect on the struggle. One year I wrote in my journal:
Here we are on the loneliest day of the year, Holy Saturday. Jesus has died, is gone, is walled up in the tomb. The apostles are holed up, hiding, afraid. The women did what they could for Jesus’ dead body, but didn’t have the time to do the body proper honor before sunset and the beginning of Sabbath. Now it is Saturday, and they cannot work, only sit and be and listen in the terrible loneliness.
There are many stories in the bible about suffering and struggling, then emerging into the Light. Last week’s epistle had the wonderful image about being called out of darkness into [God’s] marvelous light. This is the story of God’s people – of every last one of God’s children, everywhere – that we struggle and labour, and then find refreshment in God.
The days after the Ascension are similar, and I imagine felt even lonelier than Holy Saturday to the apostles. After all, Jesus had come back to them, had returned to them, had eaten with them and walked with them and taught them and loved them. And then, Jesus left them. Again. We know that before he died, Jesus had promised them that he would return. Of course the apostles didn’t believe this – who returns from the dead? – assuming they were even capable of hearing those words. But this time, Jesus promises them that they won’t be alone, that he abides in them always. He also promises to send the Holy Spirit. Of course, I’m sure they don’t really listen to this again. “No, you can’t leave us – you just came back!” But after Jesus enters heaven, perhaps they remember those words and wonder. Perhaps some of them remain lonely and despondent until the Holy Spirit comes on Pentecost. These men struggle and suffer again, until they can be refreshed and comforted by the Spirit.
And through all of this, we are given comforting words.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
Those who love me will be loved by my Father.
Baptism saves you, as an appeal to God for a good conscience.
Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.
We are God’s offspring.
Like Jesus, like the apostles, like the prophets, like so many of God’s people in the bible – we will have times of suffering and struggle. We will have times of hard work, of fire and water, of heavy burdens, of strife, of enemies riding over our heads. But God is with us in and through those times, holding our souls and not allowing our feet to slip.
So we keep on walking our path, bearing our burdens, slogging through the swamp and over the mountains and across the desert and between the trees. There are obstacles in front of us, threats along the way, and much work to be done. And in all of that, God is there, abiding in us, shining through us and through everyone we encounter.
Let us pray.
O God, you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as surpass our understanding.
Pour into our hearts such love toward you, that we,
loving you in all things
and above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.