In case you missed Ascension Day on Thursday, you get a second chance to read Luke’s telling of the event from the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles; it marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry as the disciples and Jesus’ contemporaries had experienced it, but by no means the end of the story; rather it is a new beginning. In our reading today three more verses are added at the end, describing the disciples return to the room upstairs, to wait and pray. And so, began the first novena – or special period of prayer for the nine days between the day after Ascension and Pentecost, where we too are asked to wait and pray attentively.
‘6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk[c] from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’ Acts 1:6-14
But what are we waiting and praying for? The disciples were waiting for the coming of the Spirit, which, in the spirit of telling the story afresh to each generation, is our task too. Right now, we are praying for those suffering in all sorts of ways through this pandemic; for those caring for the ill and the vulnerable, for our families and communities and for those having to make difficult decisions. And we are waiting too. For a time when things can return to a familiar pattern – we can meet in Church, children can go to school safely, short mat bowls starts again, and the WI can meet once more. I wonder too though if we are waiting and praying for something new to emerge? I certainly hope that we will all remember how we discovered who were the key workers in our society; of how interconnected we are all as we have learnt about supply chains and how quickly things can change when we want them too. This maybe a real time of change and transformation; pray for wisdom, pray for guidance, pray for hearts to be opened that we too can reveal the glory of God in the world.
What about today’s Gospel? We are still with Jesus in his last hours with the disciples; there in the upper room, where they had eaten together, where Jesus had washed their feet and from where Judas had slipped out into the night.
Now, a little later, Jesus is praying; the language is striking; the words glory / glorify / glorified pepper the passage from beginning to end as Jesus prays for himself and for his disciples that they reveal God’s glory. But what is this glory? Here are some thoughts from this week.
When I was a young teenager I remember going to see a film called Patton Lust for Glory which made a big impact on me. Patton was an American 2nd World War General; he was brilliant as a military leader, defeating Rommel in North Africa, but flawed in so many other ways as a leader; brutal, demanding and without much in the way of compassion. Self-centred and self-righteous, winning in every sense of the word was what drove him – that was his lust for glory. Glory here means success, power, a place in the stars. Not quite what Jesus was praying for.
On Friday we had the funeral in Haselbury of John Bryant, and we sang a song that had first been sung at the baptism of one of his grandchildren, Daniel. The words were written by Matthew Bryant and it is a good hymn, sung to the tune of Danny Boy / Londonderry Air) I mention it here because glory features twice and it made me think.
O Lord, since first we learnt about your story, From stable to a cross upon a hill, Then have we sung to your praise and glory
And then a little later
You learned to tell the world about your story – And how to help the poor and sick and old. And yet you frowned on this world’s golden glories
The first speaks of how in coming to know Jesus, the life he lived, as we learn about his story it becomes possible for us to discover just who is the Father – I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do – and as we grow in our understanding, so we respond in praise and glory. Not self-aggrandisement, but rather an expanding of our compassion and understanding. A greater unity with God and with each other. Contrast this with the second verse – yet you frowned on this world’s golden glories. There are many things that can distract us or seduce us and offer false promise, but do not necessarily bring us the fulfilment we crave.
Back to the Gospel passage. In this prayer of Jesus, we hear him praying for his disciples, praying that they understand and be protected; praying that we be given eternal life, – and this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. The knowledge that Jesus speaks of is better characterised an ever-deepening relationship with God so that we too can be bearers of the light and love of Christ, revealing God’s glory in the world, through our words, our gestures, our lives together. Remember the words from Matthew’s Gospel that we hear in the service of the Book of Common Prayer: Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (matt 5.16). Is that our prayer for ourselves during this time – that our light may shine and we too reveal the glory of God in the world.
Revd Jonathan Morris