Thursday, May 08, 2008

While We're Waiting

Acts 1: 6-14; John 17: 1-11
First Congregational Church of ******, CT
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Waiting: it’s not something any of us are particularly good at nor do we really wish to increase our expertise at waiting—because that would mean we would have to wait even longer.

Our experience with waiting is varied and wide-ranging. Most of our waiting is mundane, like waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the post office, the coffee shop, the red light, the traffic jam or commute home, to buy concert or movie tickets, to exit a crowded sports event.

Some waiting can cause anxiety or anticipation: waiting for a birthday—for some that’s anticipation and for some that’s anxiety-producing, waiting to hear back after a job interview, waiting for a baby to be born or for an adoption to come through, waiting for a letter of acceptance from a college or university, waiting for a letter from a family member in the military serving overseas, waiting on, like the song says, the world to change.

Some of our waiting can be more excruciating: waiting for surgery or for a loved one who is in surgery, waiting through a long recovery, waiting to hear back about a test result, waiting for a phone call to hear that someone has arrived safely, waiting for a loved one’s pain to end from cancer or some other fatal illness, waiting for an answer to prayer.

In this morning’s readings from the lectionary the early church, both in its infancy and approximately seventy years later, is in the sacred act of waiting. In the Acts of the Apostles Jesus instructs the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to empower them to be witnesses of the Good News. The gospel of John, written about 100 CE, addresses a community of followers who never knew Jesus in his lifetime, who have been waiting for his return—for the kingdom of God, waiting under the brutal stress of persecution and division within the faith community, struggling to remain faithful to Christ’s teachings.

Both readings attend to the great anticipation and tremendous anxiety in the early church: anticipation of the Holy Spirit, anxiety attendant to Jesus’ death and his ascension—his apparent absence. As with most things in the church, not much has changed, really. We too are often filled with great anticipation and tremendous anxiety, both our lives in the church and outside the church. Sometimes it seems much of our living and loving is made up of waiting: waiting for others, waiting for God, waiting for action, for empowerment, for healing, for resources, for peace.

Yet at the same time, we do have God, God working in the world: we have power from the Holy Spirit, we have healing, we have resources; we have peace because we have Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. We have new life. Yet we also live in a fractured world of violence, greed, injustice, oppression, war, and death.

In theological parlance this contradiction is called ‘the now and the now yet’. We live in an interim time, between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. And throughout the life of the church there has been significant tension in the faith community because of this ‘now and not yet’. However, the tension is not God’s but ours. Much of our suffering and frustration comes from this tension, this tension of being the Body of Christ but not yet whole; the tension of that kingdom seemingly just beyond the grasp of our fingertips.

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

And in our tension we fight and grouse, complain and bicker; we murmur against God and one another, much like the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, waiting for that promised land to appear on the horizon. The tension can manifest itself in our life together as heated debates, pointing fingers, burned-out leaders, frustrated followers, tentative giving or withholding altogether. Some of us, wanting to end the tension, leave the church or find another, taking our frustration with us wherever we go. Some of us stay, simmering just beneath the surface.

We see some of this being played out in our nation’s protracted presidential primary season. We are waiting for the party nominations to take place, to end these seemingly endless debates, pandering for votes, and pointing of fingers. We are deep into the ‘now and not yet’ of who will lead this country, and much is riding on what this nation decides. We feel the anxiety and the anticipation in a palpable way, each time we listen to the news, we read the newspaper, discuss our viewpoints with family, friends, co-workers, and our sisters and brothers in faith. The tension is manifesting itself, in the anticipated fracture of the Democratic Party, in the pressure to set one party up against another, once again dividing our nation into red and blue, in the divisive feelings over the controversy of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Sen. Obama, creating frustration, anticipation and much anxiety in our beloved United Church of Christ.

We are not the first to feel this anxiety and anticipation, nor will we be the last. It seems to be part of human nature to despise waiting, to be restless, to release the tension in some way so that we can continue what our lives require of us. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote that the whole creation groans in labor pains, that we groan inwardly while we wait for God to reveal the glory to come.

Jesus knew this, and so we hear him praying for the church, for this burgeoning band of followers, declaring in their hearing that they belong to God and that they are one, just as Jesus and God are one. Jesus’ farewell prayer is the Lord’s Prayer of John’s gospel. He names God ‘Father’ no less than six times. Jesus speaks of glory and eternal life, that kingdom of God that begins with our living of these days in the fullness of God. His prayer is replete with themes of ‘thy will be done’ and faith that it will be done. He moves his disciples from themselves to each other, from each other to the world.

Listen to this paraphrase of the gospel reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

Jesus said these things. Then, raising his eyes in prayer he said:

Father, it’s time.
Display the bright splendor of your Son
So the Son in turn may show your bright splendor.
You put him in charge of everything human
So he might give real and eternal life to all in his charge.
And this is the real and eternal life:
That they know you,
The one and only true God,
And Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
I glorified you on earth
By completing down to the last detail
What you assigned me to do.
And now, Father, glorify me with your very own splendor,
The very splendor I had in your presence
Before there was a world.

Acts 1: 10-11

I spelled out your character in detail
To the men and women you gave me.
They were yours in the first place;
Then you gave them to me,
And they have now done what you said.
They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt,
That everything you gave me is firsthand from you,
For the message you gave me, I gave them;
And they took it, and were convinced
That I came from you.
They believed that you sent me.
I pray for them.
I’m not praying for the God-rejecting world
But for those you gave me,
For they are yours by right.
Everything mine is yours, and yours mine,
And my life is on display in them.
For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world;
They’ll continue in the world
While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life
That you conferred as a gift through me,
So they can be one heart and mind
As we are one heart and mind.

We are not to hear these words as directives for action on our part but as a pastoral prayer of Jesus on the behalf of the early church, thus a pastoral prayer for us, the church in this time and place. Jesus is asking God to accomplish great things through us, not for us to produce anything. Author Gail O’Day wrote that “[we] are a community for whom Jesus prays.” How does such a vision of the church affect the way we see ourselves, our mission, our strengths, the possibilities of our life together?

Not only do we hear Jesus praying for his disciples and for the church in John; in Acts the disciples spend their time waiting for the Holy Spirit by devoting themselves to prayer. While we are waiting prayer can often feel passive and idle, as though we aren’t achieving anything while we’re waiting. Yet Jesus describes eternal life as knowing God: that is, having a relationship with God and a high quality one at that. The quality of our prayer life is often a reflection of the quality of our relationship with God. And much of our frustration and suffering from all this waiting would be eased by a healthy prayer life.

A healthy prayer life is one that consists not only of our petitions and requests for loved ones and acquaintances, but also for those who suffer from injustice, for broken human relationships—our enemies near and far, for the church in all its contentiousness, honest confession of sin, a heart-felt acceptance of forgiveness, thanksgiving for all that is good in this world, and an equal amount of silence to quiet the voices of dissension and restlessness in order that we might hear the voice of God.

The health our relationship with God, as individuals and as a church, is the nourishment that feeds our ability to be in union with one another. When we are fractured and contentious, our witness to the Good News appears shallow. How can anyone declare “See how they love one another!” when we the church divide ourselves every time there is controversy.

When was the last time you had a heart-to-heart in a small group or one-on-one with church folk? A heart-to-heart with God? How is your relationship with God and with each other? For what does this faith community need the prayers of Jesus? What are you waiting for as a family of faith? Is the waiting difficult or peaceable or both? Is there any tension that needs to be released? When there has been tension in the congregation in the past, how did you cope with it? What do you require of the Holy Spirit for the witness of the Good News in this church?

The unity of the Body of Christ is not incidental to our salvation. Our solidarity grows out of our relationship with God and with each other through the silence and words of prayer, prayer that also leads us out into the world. Though we may be terrible at waiting we do not have to let it wreak havoc. Waiting is our opportunity to listen to the still-speaking God, to listen to one another, to let go of our frustration and suffering, to ease the tension of living in ‘the now and the not yet’. Jesus has ascended yet he has left us in the care of God as we anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, it will come but will we be ready? Let us fervently pray it will be so. Amen.

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