The book of Acts is a story that records what the disciples did next. Jesus had walked alongside them and taught them. He had been captured, tortured, put to death and then risen from the grave. What happens next? What happens to Jesus? And, what will the disciples do?
The story that Luke tells is full of stories of miracles and mission and even martyrdom. But here at the beginning of this book of the Acts of the Apostles Luke opens with the story of Jesus ascending into heaven. Jesus disappears into the crowd and the disciples are left staring into the heavens… rubbernecking.
Now if you don’t know what rubber necking means turning one’s neck to stare at something in a foolish manner. For me it implies being stuck in a moment or maybe trying to get a glimpse of something that is not our business. The most common way I hear it used is in reference with traffic accidents when people cause a traffic jam but slowing down and rubbernecking as they drive past.
The disciples are rubbernecking. Jesus has just gone up into heaven and the disciples are standing possibly with mouths agape, amazed and astonished – not really knowing what to do next. Maybe they were craning their necks to see where Jesus had gone. Maybe wondering if he is about to return straight away. And it is only a moment of divine intervention that snaps the disciples out of the moment.
An angel turns up and asks them what might be seen as an obvious or even silly question. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” If the disciples thoughts had been articulated at that point I can imagine them saying something like, “Well because that’s where Jesus just disappeared.” Or “We just saw something amazing.” or “We don’t know what to do next.” There are a multitude of thoughts and emotions the disciples were trying to process.
As strange as the angel’s question might have been it does indicate that the disciples were stuck and they needed to be moved along. It reminds me of films in which the police after an incident occurs wander around saying to people, “Move along, there is nothing to see here anymore.”
The disciples were also reassured by the angels of Jesus’ return and so they discover that they are now living in the unusual time between Jesus ascension into his heavenly ministry and the promise of his return. It is already and not yet of the new creation saved and redeemed by God’s love. This is the time in which the disciples found themselves and that we also live. We live between the time of Jesus ascension and the promise of the time of Jesus return when the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness.
As an aside Jesus ascension does not leave us without his presence. We remember that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that we might know his presence is still with us. We remember that Jesus promised that when two or three gathered in his name he would be present. So we have gathered here in faith and hope that the miracle of Jesus’ transforming presence comes to us now. That as we say our prayers, as we sing our songs, as we listen to the scriptures read and the preaching the living presence of the eternal Word of God will come to us: a wondrous miracle in this moment when God can and does transform us and transform our lives.
So the disciples are rubbernecking and the disciples are told to move long, to go to their homes. The disciples travel back to Jerusalem form My Olivet and they gather together in a room. Luke names the disciples and I never underestimate the significance of the naming of people because in being named our identity is known and affirmed. And then Luke tells us that disciples devoted themselves to prayer.
The rest of the book of Acts is going to be all about what the disciples do next but at this moment, at the beginning of this task of living between Jesus’ ascension and his return, the disciples engage in prayer. They seek to connect with God. Their response is prayer. They give time over to God and open themselves to the possibility that God might show them what to do next, to give them the insight and courage that they might need.
As a I was reflecting about this moment in Acts both Jesus ascension and the disciples’ decision for prayer in response to all that they had seen and heard two things stood out for me as we contemplate our own faith.
The first is that just as the disciples lived in that in between time so too do we. We live between the time that Jesus lived, died, rose again and ascended and the time of Jesus’ return, the promise of the coming of the kingdom, or the reign of God, in all its glory. Now in John’s gospel today we were reminded that eternal life is knowing Jesus and the one who sent him and Jesus declared again and again that the kingdom of God had come close. We can glimpse God’s kingdom now, in this life. We can encounter the divine and transcendent in our existence. But its full glory is still beyond us.
We know the fullness of God’s glory is not yet with us because we know that as we look at history and we look within our own experiences there is still suffering and pain and dislocation and desolation that we experience and encounter. Despite all our faith and prayers these things occur for us and others who hold our faith. Thinking back to the disciples we know that they encountered rejection and suffering and ultimately martyrdom for their faith. There are saints and martyrs in every age including our own.
So we should now be naïve about our taking time to pray, of taking time with the disciples in that upper room. It does not mean that we will be immune to suffering or that it will be kept from our lives. Rather, that time with God gives us strength and courage to face life to live as Jesus and the disciples lived sharing the good news of God’s love, even when it is not received well and even when we are encountering suffering.
So else this is the heart of my message today, and I am paraphrasing a bit of T shirt trend here, “Keep Calm and Keep Praying”. Keep calm and keep praying. Stop rubbernecking looking back at could have been or looking at something that is no longer your business. Stop staring up into heaven and start praying. This is what prepares us all for what will happen next.
As we live in the in between times of our own existence – pray. Between the time of Jesus ascension and his return – pray. In the moments when we find ourselves in times of difficulty – pray.
This week I was struck about the importance of this approach to devout prayer as a way of preparation as I watched a video about two Coptic monks and their approach to prayer. I shared the video on Facebook. In this video the monks speak about the importance of being silent before God and their use of the Jesus prayer. The short version of the Jesus prayer goes like this, “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
As they spoke one of the monks shared that he had to come to the monastery because his journey into faith was a long one. He had been an atheist so he felt he needed time to connect with God’s love. He did not think that he had the gift of unconditional love, of agape, and so he need to sit at Jesus’ feet just as Mary had done. This was his preparation for life with God serving others and in community with others. It was a beautiful expression and example of a person sitting between the time of the ascension and the coming of the kingdom – the encounter of the transcendent in our life now.
Keep calm and keep on praying.
The video I watched and shared was quite a number of years old and a couple of days after sharing the video news came out of Egypt that 28 Christians were killed on their way to visit a Coptic monastery in central Egypt. This ancient community of faith has been a particular target for terrorists in recent years and the article I read suggested it he trend continued this expression of the Christian faith might disappear altogether.
It is hard to fathom how the prayer of the monks may be helping them face the current persecution but the witness of the disciples in the book of Acts is that their prayers prepared them to maintain their faith in the face of rejection and even death. It is difficult for us to comprehend some of the atrocities that we keep hearing about as we contemplate the challenges of our own faith but the importance of prayer whatever struggles we are facing cannot be understated.
Prayer is a discipline. It requires us to look at the business of our lives and then set aside time for us to engage with God. To enter into that relationship. To speak, yes, but more so to listen. We enter into the prayer and we share in that prayer knowing that whatever the outcomes might be we might have a sense of God with us in life.
Keep calm and keep on praying.
We pray your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We return to Jesus’ prayer that he taught his disciples. We seek the solitude of the inner room that Jesus’ suggested to his disciples. And, we gather as God’s people to join our prayers in unison to God. We pray as we live in the tension of the already and not yet of salvation in hope that we will know and encounter God with us.
The disciples prayed to prepared themselves for what would come next and so we join their prayer. We pray that we might be prepared for what comes next when we are not sure what it will be. We pray with the disciples, we pray with the Copts in the Middle East, we pray for each other, we pray for our family and friends. We pray as people who live between ascension and return but who believe that eternal life begins as we know Jesus and the one who sent him.
It is this which gives us hope to carry on in the life that we live in the world as we live between the time of what is and what could be and what is promise dot be. A time that we are used to living in. It is a time filled with adversity and overshadowed be our mistakes but it is a time in which we believe God accompanies us.
The time between our birth and our death.
The time between a medical testing and the diagnosis.
The time between the exam and the results.
The time between making a decision and it coming to reality.
Life is full of the time in between and it is in those moments we pray because this is the long game of God, this is the vision of life that transcends seconds and minutes and hours and rolls on into generations and centuries and millennia. God’s grace and action transpire in moments, yes, but in moments that span lifetimes.
Keep calm and keep on praying.
The disciples were rubbernecking, looking for something that was no longer there, no longer any of their business. They were told to move on, to go home. And they did. And they prayed. They knew where to look for hope and help. They had been there when Jesus had looked to the heavens and prayed. Their journey had taken them into the depths of despair into the exultation of resurrection and into the mystery of the in between time. What did they do when they were not sure came next? They prayed. The prayed just as Jesus prays for us now. The prayed and they sought God’s presence and guidance.
This is my encouragement to you this day. Jesus who came to forgive our sins, to make us right with God and each other, who ascended into heaven and lives to pray for us forever, invites and guides us by his Spirit into his risen, ascended life of prayer.
Keep calm and keep on praying.