Church on Fire: Ready Isn’t a Question

Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

A few years ago I had the chance to take a trapeze lesson.  One thing you should know about me is that I’m pretty afraid of heights, so this is not the kind of activity that it would normally ever occur to me to do.  But we happened to be in Puerto Rico on vacation, and my friend Jenny happened to be there at the same time visiting her brother, who happened to be a trapeze instructor in San Juan, and we got the lesson for half price.  I may be afraid of heights, but I’m not going to turn down a half-price trapeze lesson on my friend’s brother’s trapeze.

So there we were at this trapeze place in San Juan, but before we actually got to fly, an instructor told us what was going to happen.  First we would climb up the ladder, where someone else would meet us on the platform.  They would get us hooked in to the safety harness and tell us to move our toes to the edge of the platform.  We would hold on with one hand and reach out for the bar with the other.  Then they would hold us by the back of the harness as we held our hips out over the platform and reached for the bar with the other hand.  They would say “Ready,” and we would bend our knees.  They would say “hep,” and we would jump.

“When we say, ‘Ready,’” the instructor told us, “that isn’t a question.”

The instructor told us that the trapeze was a metaphor for life and if we could jump off that platform we could face any of ours fears, and honestly I really don’t know about all that, but I did think he was right about that one part, that when big stuff is about to happen in life, ready a lot of times isn’t a question.

I’ve often thought of that experience when I think of the disciples here at the very beginning of Acts, on the precipice of something new and big.  Over the next couple months we’re going to be following the plot of Acts and the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, and the early church.  This story we just heard, which we call the Ascension, is the opening scene of Acts, and picks up where its prequel, the Gospel of Luke, ended.

At this point in the story, it’s already been a whirlwind couple weeks for the disciples.  Jesus is executed then rises from the dead and appears to them over the course of forty days.  They’ve gone from the ultimate low to the ultimate high to, as they begin to process it all, probably just a lot of what is going on here and what does it all mean.

And then one day they are eating together and Jesus says to them, don’t leave the city.  Stay here and wait because something big is about to happen.

And the disciples say, oh, it must be the Kingdom of God being established on earth, the culmination of everything, right, Jesus?   Is that now?

And Jesus tells them not to worry so much about that, but to worry about the work that is ahead of them, because in a few days they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go out to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem – right where they are – and Judea and Samaria – a little further afield – and to the ends of the earth.  (If you read Acts you’ll see that it basically follows that geographical plot.)

Anyway, remember that just about forty days ago these guys were locked in a room waiting out the hysteria that had led to Jesus’ crucifixion, and now apparently they are about to sent off on some global mission to tell people about Jesus and to start doing the work of the Kingdom of God right now.

I’m not sure they were ready, but then again, ready wasn’t a question.

With that, Jesus leaves, disappearing into a cloud that lifts him back up into heaven, from which he came.  It’s best that we don’t take this description too literally or else we might really be caught in the mechanics of where exactly Jesus went and how he got there, but the point is that Jesus enters another realm, one where he is not immediately, tangibly accessible to his disciples, though of course his promise is that they will not be left alone.  Jesus, who has died and risen again, is now exalted as Lord and reigns from heaven with God the Father.  The disciples, for their part, are left staring into heaven with their mouths hanging open.

And with that, the opening scene of Acts changes our focus from Jesus and the things he did and taught to the disciples and the adventures they will go on.  They are now the Body of Christ on earth, and the spotlight is on them, ready or not.

Of course, they still have to wait for a couple days for the Holy Spirit to come and give them the power to do all of the things they are about to do.  So in the meantime, there the disciples are, kind of in limbo, suddenly without a leader, suddenly with a lot of risky work ahead of them, suddenly on the precipice of something big that hasn’t quite started yet.

What would you do if it were you?

What do you do when you sense that your whole world is about to be set on fire?

I think I know what the right answer is, and in fact that story will tell us in just a second, but honestly, I don’t know.  I think I might spend a lot of time trying to work out nervous energy, maybe distract myself if I could. If there were such a thing, I might want to read a book, like “How to Be A Witness for Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the Ends of the Earth.”  I might start to pack, or try to put together an itinerary, even though of course I would know I wouldn’t end up following it.  Or maybe if I thought my time in Jerusalem was coming to a close I might want to spend a little time enjoying it.  And probably, in the midst of all of it, I would try to make myself take some deep breaths.

It would seriously drive me crazy not knowing exactly when to expect the Holy Spirit, or what to expect when she got there.

Well, Luke tells us what the disciples did.  Once their reverie is broken by two men in white robes who tell them to stop staring into heaven and get on with it, they return to Jerusalem proper from the nearby Mount of Olives, enter the city, go back to that upper room where they had locked themselves in after the crucifixion, join the others, and are “united in their devotion to prayer.”

What do you do when life is about to send something big your way?

You pray.

It’s the kind of thing that we know is yes, definitely the right answer, and yet I suspect for most of us it’s a lot easier said than done, not only because we might be busy trying to distract ourselves, but because in my experience it’s actually pretty hard to feel very prayerful when you are a bundle of nerves waiting for something big to happen but not knowing exactly what or when.  How do you even pray in that situation?  What does prayer look like in that upper room with all the disciples huddled together?  I imagine that “Dear Jesus help me” uttered over and over again, while a perfectly good prayer if you ask me, is not exactly what Luke means by “they were united in their devotion to prayer.”

How you sit down and meditate when the Holy Spirit might be shooting tongues of fire your way at any moment, I don’t know.

I tried to think of a time in my life when I’ve been waiting for something big to happen and how I responded in the meantime, and what came to mind was last year at the very beginning of maternity leave while I was waiting for Evelyn to be born.  I started maternity leave two days before my due date, and Evelyn ended up coming, with the help of induction, at exactly one week past my due date, so I had just a little over a week at home to do basically nothing but wait for what promised to be probably the biggest overhaul to my life, ever.

I watched a lot of Netflix that week.  I cleaned the house, as much as you can at 40-and-a-half weeks pregnant.  I tried to get together with friends as much as possible, hoping they could help keep my mind off of other things.

Also, I tried to take a long walk every day, and this was partially in hopes of getting labor going, but also just for exercise and for time to be quiet and breathe.  And I tried to use this time as prayer time.  I prayed to God for my safety and my baby’s.  I prayed for patience.  I prayed that Evelyn would grow up strong and good and that God would help Jon and me to love her well.

The truth is, though, that I was distracted and nervous, and I doubt this time really counted as “devoting myself to prayer.”

Still, imperfect though my prayer may have been, I hope that it did something to prepare me spiritually for what was to come, in the midst of all the logistical preparations.  I hope it did me some good to be reminded that what I was about to embark on as a parent was, in fact, a spiritual endeavor, one that would and does and will require me to continually return to God in the midst of it, no matter how chaotic life may be.

What do you do when something new is coming your way and life will never be the same and  you have absolutely no idea what you are doing?  You pray – even if you don’t do it very well.

And yet what would it have looked like to devote myself to prayer during that time?  What must the disciples have done in that upper room?  How did they pray?

I think it’s important, for example, that they were gathered together, and they didn’t do their waiting or their praying alone.  After all, the big new thing that was about to happen in their lives would require them not to be solitary actors, but a community.  They might go off on their own missions, but they would have to make decisions together and support each other along the way.  They were preparing to become the church, and they had to prepare for that together.

What do you think?  Did they read Scripture and discuss it together, allowing it to instruct them for this new time in their lives?  Did they read the words that told them to “Fear not; be bold and courageous” and repeat those words over and over to themselves like a mantra, or a breath prayer?  Did they recite Psalms together, letting those ancient words speak their modern prayers?  Did they talk about Jesus and try to keep everything he had taught them and shown them at the forefront of their minds?  Did they lift their fears and their doubts and the questions they had no answers to up to God and allow God to take those burdens, at least for a little while?  Did they sing songs of praise that recentered them on what was important – not their own poor qualifications for the job, but the power and goodness of God?   Did they spend time in silence and allow God to speak through it, quieting their own thoughts just for a while?  Did they ask for God to keep their eyes and ears and hearts open for this arrival of the Holy Spirit – and then did they do their best to practice those things for which they asked?

Or maybe all of those things?

I don’t how many of you may have something on the horizon that promises to turn your world upside down.    It could be a graduation or a transition at work or a move or a change in your family or personal life.  No doubt you are preparing in a lot of ways.  Is devoting yourself to prayer one of them?

Of course, maybe there isn’t anything, at least that you know of.  In that case I will say two things: 1) This period between the Ascension and Pentecost wasn’t the beginning of disciples’ prayer life. They may well have learned how to pray better or differently because of it, and they may well have felt its urgency in a new way, but it’s been a long time since the point in the Gospel of Luke where the disciples say to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  Prayer is of course not just for times of transition or big things, but it is to imbue our ordinary and mundane days with a sense of the sacred and open our eyes to God’s presence and ask for God’s help in those times, too.   And 2) we don’t always know when our world is going to be set on fire, for better or worse.  The disciples had some warning here, but we don’t always, before everything changes.  Better to be prepared for whatever comes.

I think of Rick Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the two men stabbed to death this weekend on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, trying to protect two young Muslim girls from a white supremacist who was harassing and threatening them.  Did they think they were heading off that morning to do something heroic?  Probably not.  Probably they just thought they were going to work, coming home, wherever they were headed.

I have no idea what the prayer lives of those two men might have looked like, only that something more was demanded of them that day.  And I also know that if I would ever be able to do something similar – and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m not really sure – it would only be because I knew who I was and what God wanted of me in that moment, and I believe that’s the kind of clarity that can come from a life of prayer.

What do you do when life is the same day after day and nothing seems to change?  You pray. Maybe that will change things and maybe it won’t (and maybe you want them to and maybe you don’t) but you do your best, though of course it will be imperfectly, to keep that connection with God going in the ordinary days knowing that that’s what will sustain you in the earth-shattering ones.

The disciples, for their part, are about to leave ordinary days behind.

Prayer’s not all, of course.  When Pentecost comes and for the rest of the book of Acts Peter and Paul and the rest of the disciples will have plenty of time for going places and doing things to make a real and tangible difference in the world – but the journey starts in prayer.  Neither will prayer end when the adventures begin – because throughout it all, the disciples will need to stay attuned to the will and open themselves up to the power of the God who sent them.

Next week is Pentecost, when Holy Spirit comes as promised and sets this nascent church on fire, and the disciples go out to do all the things God has given them to do.  In the meantime, they pray.  And I’d like to invite you to spend some time with me this week “devoting yourselves to prayer.”  Pray in some of the ways we mentioned the disciples might have.  Pray for our world, our country, our community, our church.  Pray for the needs of those around you and pray for yourself, that you would know the work of God’s Holy Spirit when she comes, that you would answer God’s call when it comes.

Who knows, but God could be about to do something big in your life or our lives together.  What if we really believed that?

When God says ready – it isn’t a question.

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