Waiting upon God

Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 2nd June 2019 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
Acts 16.16–34; Revelation 22.12–14,16–17,20–end; John 17.20–end

We might wonder why the Lord’s disciples were commanded firmly by him to wait in Jerusalem after his leave-taking, until they were ‘clothed with power from on high’, as Luke puts it. Jesus is deliberately putting them into a place of vulnerability and emptiness; a place of waiting rather than action; a place of waiting upon God, rather than following their own enthusiasms and dreams about how they might go about bringing in the kingdom of God.

And that is what Christ’s disciples are called to do. Former Archbishop, Rowan Williams, spells out the apparently immense task that the risen Jesus lays on his followers as he leaves them to return to his Father. He says, “The incarnation is not an isolated fact about Jesus, but the ground for the renewing of the entire human race; and our sharing in the Eucharist is not so much the transformation of bread and wine, but our transformation, by our receiving of the sacrament.”

We wait upon God, hunger for the strength, ability and discernment that only God can give us. Bishop Rowan reminds us that at each Mass we too gather in a place of waiting; here because we need to acknowledge our neediness, our brokenness, and ask for guidance. We need to be aware of our own limitations and how best we might use our personal gifts and strengths for the renewing of the world.

We also need to be realistic about the sort of world we are sent to renew. Williams describes the “human world” (into which we are sent) as “a place of loss, a place where men and women strive not to be trapped in that loss.” The ‘converted’ apostle preaches to “a world that is… restless, struggling for truth and a home, for justice, restoration, fulfilment.” The apostles, the holy women, the Christian community, wherever it is, needs to be grounded, resilient enough to know that there will be no quick or smart conclusions and solutions to the restoration of God’s kingdom. We ‘wait to be clothed with power from on high’.

Another Archbishop, William Temple, who led the church through the dark years of the Second World War, had worked tirelessly throughout his ministry to break down the real divisions and inequalities he saw in British society, in education, healthcare and social justice. When the persecution of Jewish communities within the Nazi territories became known he joined with the Chief Rabbi to speak out, and to establish the Council of Christians and Jews, which still today works for unity and reconciliation. (Another grounded man of God, working within the limits and realities he saw around him.) I turned to his readings in John’s Gospel when I returned from my own holiday in Germany yesterday. Written in 1939, he sees this 17th chapter of the fourth Gospel as “perhaps the most sacred passage in the four Gospels – the record of the Lord’s prayer of self-dedication, as it lived in the memory and imagination of his most intimate friend”, John.  He looks at the prayer Jesus offers in this morning’s Gospel that his friends may be as one in heart and spirit and he and the Father are. He underlines the ‘given-ness’ of our life in Jesus. He says that this is a sharing in the divine life of the Trinity itself, and cannot be reached by “any spontaneous or laborious ascent of our own spirits”. We can only wait upon God, pray in silence and emptiness for the coming of the Spirit: open our tired hands and scruffy lives to accept the risen and glorified life of the risen Lord.

We need grounding. I was hesitant about my visit to Berlin, born just after the War, my mind full of past images of horror and destruction. But at each place where awful things had been directed or planned I found that there were now art works and spaces for reflection; a silent garden and water feature, with a single slate triangle at its centre, standing before the former offices of the Third Reich. A screen that remembered all those who lost their lives, wearing a triangle or star that condemned them as sub-human, simply for being different. At the centre of the processional way that once rang out with shouts of aggression and hate, a bare hall, empty save for a statue of a mother embracing her dead son.

We need grounding in the realities of ourselves, grounding in our own time and space – looking for opportunities to serve God where he has placed us. On the last afternoon we walked to the English Tea Garden, and sitting there began to talk to two women who had remained friends since childhood. Both determined to make things different as they grew up in post-war Germany. One studied Russian and went to Belgrade to work in a peace commission working for European unity, and the other became a doctor and psychotherapist. Time raced past as we shared our visions for peace and renewal. (All of us are alarmed at the rise of far right groups across Europe, and the slow but steady erosion of care and funding for mental health care, in both our countries, preferring cheap options of short-term impersonal interventions.) We need to reflect on the realities God asks us to confront and change, in ourselves, and in our community.

In these nine days of waiting and prayer which we share with Our Lady and the disciples God ‘grounds’ us, asks us to look inwardly at our needs, reflect on the world around us, and discern where and when we might offer ourselves to make a difference with the help of God.

We could deny, or try to avoid this radical truth that God is already bringing in his Kingdom, and that he has called us to be part of that activity, but in truth we are the New Temple of God, the place where God now meets his world. He has made his home with us, continues what he began in Christ in this community and all its activity, your acts of compassion and love, but also by your prayer.

Fr Ken Leech, one of the great prophetic voices of the church recently reminds us of the vital place which worship plays in the connection that we must make between God and his world. He quotes Archbishop William Temple, who says, in a time of great uncertainty and darkness:

“The world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing only, and that is worship” (The Sky is Red, DLT p. 163)

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