Posted by: owizblog | May 28, 2017

Waiting on the Spirit: Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, UCB, 28 May 2017

I’d like, if you’ll allow me, to start and finish slightly away from the main run of my thoughts in the sermon this morning, with something that’s been at the centre of all our minds.

The last few days have filled all our thoughts with Manchester; what happened there, the horrible wickedness of what was done, the unimaginable pain suffered, pain deliberately inflicted. What can we say? What can we do?

What can we say? Perhaps, for the moment, nothing. Perhaps, beyond the prayers we try to form, to seek to enfold people we don’t know, but who are human beings like us, who have been through experiences we can’t imagine, we have no words, nothing we can say or do. Perhaps all we can do is to sit in silence and solidarity, and present them to God with the scraps of words we do have.

But that’s a terribly difficult discipline. It’s exactly what these few days between Ascension and Pentecost highlight about our life of faith in the world. If only Jesus were here – but he’s not. If only we knew what to do, or say – but we don’t, not yet. Maybe later… maybe we will have words…

Allow me to return to this at the end.

1

Scottish students doing an Arts degree at university used to be made to do the first year course in Philosophy. Most people hated it. It was a compulsory class, so it was huge. There were almost 400 in the one I was made to do, and I remember that some of the more frustrated people, at the back of the gallery in the lecture theatre, started making paper aeroplanes and throwing them down.

One chap – we never found out who – eventually got so scunnered at the stupefying lectures (because the lecturers hated teaching such a disconnected audience) that he actually built one of those balsa-wood model planes with a propeller driven by a rubber band, and threw that down! It temporarily outraged the lecturer, who demanded to know who had done such a thing – as if we’d tell him! – but then punished us all by resuming the lecture and droning on and on about Descartes.

I’d stopped thinking, and yet still, I was – and I was stuck in a lecture that wouldn’t stop…

But we learned some things. We learned syllogisms, for instance, and we learned something about what makes an argument valid.

All mammals are warm-blooded.

All black dogs are mammals.

Therefore, all black dogs are warm-blooded.

 

That’s a valid syllogism.

 

All interesting sermons are delivered by preachers

I am a preacher

Therefore my sermons are interesting…

 

…is apparently an invalid syllogism, though to be honest, I can’t see the flaw in it…

Here’s another very popular syllogism, much loved by people who like to think of themselves as movers and shakers.

We must do something.

This is something.

We must do this…

 

(I hadn’t remembered that that comes from an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister”.)

2

It’s a strange and deeply demanding experience, to be waiting. We’d rather be doing. That’s understandable; that’s how human beings are. But sometimes, we are made to wait. And that can feel not just frustrating, but a useless experience, a pointless waste of time.

To be made to wait is difficult for us. To be made to wait by God is a difficult discipline. But it is a discipline, and it’s neither useless nor pointless.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day, the day the Church remembers Jesus taking his leave of the disciples, and – and this we often forget – the beginning of a ten-day period of waiting. Sometimes, the Church Year, which we aren’t obliged to keep in the Church of Scotland, can seem like an artificial exercise; sometimes, however, it can bring the shape of the Christian faith, and the patterns of experience in which it’s grounded, to life as nothing else can. Put it this way; if we’d been the first disciples, the way Luke tells the story we’d have had the trauma of Good Friday, the world-flipping shock and joy of the Resurrection, forty days of Jesus’ intermittent presence as vivid as his presence before the Crucifixion – more so – and then, last Thursday, he would have gone away, and we’d have known that he was gone, that that experience of his presence, continuous with all our experience of him from the beginning, was now over. That’s how Luke tells the story.

And we’d now be meeting together, waiting and wondering. We’d have no idea how long this waiting would last, or what it would issue in, though we’d know something about the promise that the Spirit would come, whatever that meant.

Sitting here this morning, we know that, for that band of disciples, there would still be a week to go; a week of the hard, hard discipline of waiting. They didn’t, couldn’t, know that.

But there are times, too, when we, the twenty-first century Church, we, the congregation of Jesus’ disciples who make up the United Church of Bute, feel ourselves to be waiting. There will be times when this discipline of waiting impresses itself on us as individuals. We’d rather be doing something, anything…

We must do something.

This is something.

We must do this…

 

But there isn’t anything to do. Sometimes we must just wait.

3

The Church is tied to the Spirit, not the Spirit to the Church. The Spirit, like the wind, “bloweth where it listeth”. There are times we forget this. There are times we forget that we can’t be the Church without the Spirit. There are times we think we are the Church because we’re the Church of Scotland, or we think we’re the Church because we’re the Parish Church, or because we’re the congregation, and there are always things going on in the congregation, and we’re always doing things as a congregation – and that’s good, but it isn’t what makes us the Church, The Church, capital-T, capital-C. Because what makes us the Church, The Church, capital-T, capital-C, is the same as what makes St Andrew’s, or St Paul’s, or the Christian Fellowship, or Ardbeg Baptist Church, or Rothesay Trinity Parish Church the Church, The Church, capital-T, capital-C.

It’s the Spirit. And the Church is always either being drawn along by the Spirit, or waiting on the Spirit. If she isn’t – she isn’t the Church.

Now, you’ll notice I used the expression “waiting on the Spirit,” not “waiting for the Spirit.” We speak of Pentecost, which is, of course, celebrated next Sunday, as “the Birthday of the Church.” It’s certainly Luke’s understanding, in the Book of Acts, that the life of the Church in the world begins with Pentecost.

Before the Spirit falls, before the tongues of fire, there is a frightened, excited, nervous yet full-of-anticipation group of disciples, locked away in an upper room, waiting.

After the Spirit falls, the walls seem to melt away, and Luke doesn’t even bother to explain how the Church got out of the upper room and onto the street. What was gestating in that upper room has now been born into the world, in the Spirit, and that’s the Church.

So this period of waiting, of in-between, between the Ascension and Pentecost, between Jesus’ going-away and the Birthday of the Church, between the Risen Christ and the Spirit’s fall – we can’t really get back to that. We are permanently the other side of Pentecost from the frightened, nervous, excited and wondering group in that room.

4

We aren’t waiting for the Spirit.

But there are times when we are waiting on the Spirit; waiting to be led where we need to go – and perhaps perplexed when we don’t seem to be being led anywhere, when we just seem to be waiting for things to begin, waiting for a direction. We’re the Church, we say. We shouldn’t be just sitting, waiting.

We must do something.

This is something.

We must do this…

 

Waiting is a discipline. Waiting is a hard discipline. Waiting for the Spirit was part of the discipline the risen Jesus, according to Acts, imposed on that little band of nervous, excited disciples. When they asked him for timetables, dates, he told them it wasn’t for them to know that. It was for them to wait:

“He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…”

You are to wait. You are, he said to them, on that side of Pentecost, to wait for the Spirit.

The discipline the Risen Christ lays on us is slightly different, because we are this side of Pentecost. It should be a bit easier to understand, because we have the patterns, we have the story, that the disciples didn’t have, as they sat between Ascension and Pentecost, with Jesus gone away and the Spirit yet to come, and waited.

We have the Spirit. Our discipline isn’t to wait for the Spirit. Our discipline is to wait on the Spirit, to wait for the Spirit to move us, to call, to summon us, to draw us where we must go.

5

We have the Spirit. And we need to be so careful how we say that, and what we mean by it. As we said before, the Church is tied to the Spirit, not the Spirit to the Church. The Spirit, like the wind, “bloweth where it listeth”. We mustn’t forget this.

We can think it’s all down to our plans, our schemes, our dreams and visions, the programmes we have in hand – and these things are precious, and important, but only when they are grounded in the life of the Church, and only when they arise out of our waiting, the Church’s waiting, on the Spirit. Because the work of the Spirit is to make us want what Christ wants, to make us seek what God wills, to lift us out of the life we would live as a group, or a congregation, or an institution, and certainly out of the life we would live as individuals in the world, and to fill us with the life that is our shared life in Christ.

If we don’t do that, if we try to live before all else as an institution that tries to secure its own survival, and to prosper, as groups, or clubs, or movements, human institutions generally, prosper, by increasing their membership, or influence, or appeal, or whatever, to become more stable and successful and viable – we will have missed the point. We will have missed who and what we are.

We are the Church. We are that group of people, waiting on the Spirit, timid, nervous, measuring themselves in their tininess against the hugeness of the world Jesus was sending them out into, in part thinking “How can we make any impression on the task he has set us?” but also, in part – because Jesus has prepared them for what lies ahead, just as he was telling them that they couldn’t possibly imagine what lay ahead – also thinking “Bring it on!”

Because Jesus gives them the promise of the Spirit. The Spirit will lead them into whatever is to come. Bring it on!

And the Church can say “Bring it on!” because the Church waits on the Spirit.

And so do we each one, individually.

6

Let me finish where I started. The last few days have filled all our thoughts with Manchester. What can we say? What can we do?

Perhaps, for the moment, nothing. Perhaps, beyond the prayers we try to form, to seek to enfold people we don’t know, but who are human beings like us, who have been through experiences we can’t imagine, we have no words, nothing we can say or do. Perhaps all we can do is to sit in silence and solidarity, and present them to God with the scraps of words we do have.

Maybe later… maybe we will have words… But for now, in a world like this, sitting and waiting on God, sitting and waiting on the Spirit, is not nothing. For now, we have no answers, only questions. But we also have the promise that the Spirit will lead us into all truth. Waiting on the Spirit is perhaps the most important thing we as the Church can do in and for the world…

It’s who we are, and what we do.

Let’s hear the story of the Ascension again, not from the beginning of Acts, but from the end of the Gospel of Luke. And let’s hear it as a call to wait on the Spirit…

[Gospel Reading: Luke 24]

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