SJF • Easter 7c • Tobias Haller BSGAs you know, many Sundays of the year have nicknames: Stir-Up Sunday (because the collect for the day begins, “Stir up, O Lord”), or Mothering Sunday (because on that day we remember, as the hymn says, “Jerusalem our mother dear”). Today is a Sunday without an official nickname, so I would like to suggest an appropriate one: In-Between Sunday. And I do that because, as our collect for the day suggests, this is the Sunday that falls in between our observance of the Ascension of our Lord this past Thursday, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. So this Sunday is a commemoration of that in-between time of long-ago: between the Ascension of Jesus, when he was taken away from the Apostles, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit.
This was a difficult time for the Apostles, a week and a half without a sensible presence of God, a presence they could feel and know: Jesus was gone, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come. Waiting can be a difficult experience, especially when what you’re waiting for is something you desire with all your heart and soul. I can remember as a child learning the strange relativity of time — how some time could pass so quickly, and other time could seem to go so slowly. Am I the only one here who as a child experienced the night before Christmas as the longest night in the year? — and not just because it was literally dark longer than most nights, but because of the anticipation of Christmas morning, when I knew that the red wagon I wanted so much would be there waiting for me — waiting for me much more patiently than I waited for it! Oh, for a child, the night before Christmas can be a long dark night of the soul!
And part of what makes this kind of expectant waiting so powerful, for a child waiting for Christmas morning or for the Apostles waiting for the Holy Spirit, is the heightened awareness and sensitivity — the alertness that makes you feel every second ticking by. There is a heightened awareness of the passage of time because we know something is coming, and we want it very badly. We are not simply waiting; we are waiting for.
Let me give you an example of this from the world of music. All of us here are familiar with the major scale — made perhaps more famous through that song from The Sound of Music. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” It is a series of notes elegant in its predictability. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” But what if I don’t follow through on the prediction; at least not immediately? What kind of tension does this produce? “Do re mi fa so la ti...” Do you feel it? You want that final note to resolve the tension that the series has created. You know how the scale is supposed to end and you want to round it out, to balance it off with that final note.
There is a story about a famous composer who lived downstairs from a family whose young son was taking piano lessons. One day the child was practicing scales as the composer was sitting in his study reading. The child was playing the scale over and over again. Then, for whatever reason, the child was interrupted before completing the scale — just as I did before. The composer, sitting downstairs, jerked his head, listening for that note. It didn’t come. He started fretting, not so much wondering what happened to the child, but what had happened to the note! As minutes passed, he became more and more irritated by this missing note. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he jumped up, went out into the hall, ran up the stairs, pounded on the door of the apartment, and when he was finally let in by the startled mother, rushed over to the piano and without a word played the final note!
Is that something like how the apostles felt? Earnestly desiring the coming of the Holy Spirit? Certainly so, though more so as the Spirit is so much more important than the simple resolution of the musical scale. And so our collect today says, “You have exalted your only son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless but send us your Holy Spirit.”
But wait a minute. Hasn’t the Holy Spirit already been sent? Didn’t the Holy Spirit come on Pentecost some 1,970 years ago? Have the authors of this collect gotten so caught up with our annual re-enactment of the events of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost that they are suggesting we pray for something that has already happened?
For we believe that the Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen us — even if we have not yet been exalted to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. But the Spirit has come to us, and blessed us, and revealed signs of his presence among us: in the preaching of the Gospel, in the joy of the knowledge of the love of God, and the powerful comfort that we feel in our hearts as we gather here to worship our Lord and our God and in our work in service to the world beyond these doors.
Sometimes the Church forgets this, forgets the presence of the Holy Spirit — when it begins to doubt and becomes obsessed with the busyness of life. We look at the divisions in the church — and between the churches — and wonder if we ever will be one as Jesus prayed that we would be. We look at conflicts and disagreements among Christians and wonder what has become of the spirit of unity, and the unity of spirit that should bind us all up in one.
At times, it seems, we are a bit like the jailer in the reading from Acts. He’s got the apostles in jail, securely locked up in the pokey after probably the strangest example of exorcism in all of Scripture: when Paul drove a spirit out of a young woman who kept following the apostles around shouting that they were servants of God proclaiming salvation. Sounds like free advertising to me! But as I said last week, these pagans could get on Saint Paul’s nerves! As the Scripture today says, “he was much annoyed”! So he drove out the spirit, and the slave girl lost her skill as a fortune teller, much to her owners’ distress; and Paul and Silas got thrown in jail.
Suddenly, there was an earthquake, and all the chains fell from the prisoners, and the jail doors flew open. And the poor jailer, thinking the prisoners must have all run off, was ready to kill himself when Paul called out, “We’re still here.” And he believed and was saved, and was baptized, along with his whole household.
Is the church forgetful like that sometimes — startled by the earthquakes of life, thinking our world has fallen apart — but forgetting that the apostles and their successors are still there; that the Spirit is still there; that Christ himself has promised to be with us wherever two or three are gathered together, and comes to us to be with us as our guest, in bread and wine each week?
We will celebrate Pentecost next Sunday. But this is a celebration of a remembrance — a commemoration of something that has happened. God’s Holy Spirit has come down, and is with us still. If we are at all living in the in-between, is not in between Christ’s departure and the Spirit’s arrival; but in between the Spirit’s coming and Christ’s return. And return he will, in power and great glory. We are not the only ones waiting, we the Bride of Christ awaiting the bridegroom at the altar rail, the Spirit standing close at hand and ready to give us away to our spouse when he comes.
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears it say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”+