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Are We There Yet? And What to Do While We’re Not: The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 24, 2020:
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

“Are we there yet.” We’ve all heard, and we’ve all said that, at one time or another. Usually it’s coming from the mouths of children. I’m trying to recall saying it myself, and I have an image of me, in the backseat of the car, repeating “are you there yet,” trying to connect eyes with my dad in the rearview mirror. It makes sense that this refrain most often comes from children, because young kids often don’t have as much of an understanding of the route: the cities and landmarks along the way, and the distance between all of these things. There’s just the start of the trip, and the destination. Home and then Disney World. Who cares about Toledo and Cincinnati?

Sometimes you get the impression that the apostles were like that. When Jesus opens up about his impending torture and execution, a couple of them respond to this with (basically): ‘Hey, when you get to Disney World, save us a good spot in line for Space Mountain.’ When Jesus, edging closer to his fate, asks his friends to stay up and pray with him in the garden, they fall fast asleep, again and again.
“Are we there yet.”
“Wake us when it’s over.”
“Fast forward to the good part.”

So it shouldn’t surprise us to hear the reaction of the apostles in the first reading for the day. It’s from the Acts of the Apostles, which is a continuation of the Gospel According to Luke. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Are we there yet, in other words. And it’s not a bad question at all. I mean, Jesus did his thing, even if they didn’t comprehend it as it was happening, they’re starting to get it now. He died, but God wouldn’t let death stop him. And here he is in front of them. He won. And by extension, they won, being on his side and all. They’re a group of ordinary Jews, with their land occupied by outsider forces with armour, and weapons, and a pretty much unlimited military, and they’re thinking — as they were on what we call Palm Sunday — that achieving a victory results in something. It gets marked on a scoreboard. It attracts admiration. It moves you into the playoffs and eventually brings you the prize. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

To them, their picture of restoration was the rule of King David, Jesus’s ancestor. In our day restoration takes different forms to different people. “Make America Great Again” appeals to some, and hearkens back to the days of Leave It to Beaver. In the Roman Church of the last decade or so there has been a growing movement to get back to the ethos of the pre-Vatican II Church. And these days it’s often connected to an opposition to the unpredictable rule of Pope Francis, whose compassionate pastoral responses get in the way of certain hard certainties and unbending rules. And closer to our own experience is probably the cries of “are we there yet” related to the frustration at, and concerns around, the current lockdown related to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday we just celebrated Ascension Day, where, as one famous theologian (Karl Rahner, someone those traditionalists Catholic probably don’t like much!) put it, Jesus returns — and takes his human nature — into the “unfathomability” of God. (Think about how the reading describes Jesus taken up into a cloud, just like God appeared to Moses, and travelled with the Hebrews, in a cloud.) We, as “are we there yet” people, want certainties. We want Jesus there with us. I imagine the post-Easter apostles were overjoyed to be back with their friend and leader. But what does Jesus do? What can we glean of God in these situations? Well, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” So good luck grasping on to Jesus in that situation. It’s a long fall down.

The apostles don’t get to bask in Jesus’s victory. As a matter of fact, what’s the other thing that happens? He gives them more work. “It’s not for you to know the times or periods… but you will receive power… and you will be my witnesses.”

The gospel reading from John comes from before he ascends, but Jesus speaks, at times, as if he’s already gone. He says, “This is eternal life, that they [his followers] may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Again, it’s not so much a matter of ‘getting somewhere.’ Because, in the fourth gospel, eternal life, or salvation, is something that we begin to experience now. “This is eternal life, that they may know you.” In a sense, the journey is the destination.

And the epistle, as we come to the end of the First Letter of Peter, the writer seems to know what it’s like to live as “are we there yet people.” The “there” that the audience wants to get to is out of their troubles, which sound like they could have been quite acute. But the writer says, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you…” And while they, and we, are going through this, the guidance is: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you…. [and] will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” We will ‘get there,’ out of the net we’re caught in and to where God wants us, though, again, it’s not for us to know “the times or periods.”

So as we think about and take in this message in the days following the Church’s celebration of the Ascension, we do so conscious that our prayers are heard, and our human needs are empathized with, by the Jesus who is there in the “unfathomability” of God. Jesus gets our prayers. And he ‘GETS’ our prayers.

And speaking of prayer, it’s worth noting that the words of Jesus in the gospel reading are from a prayer. It’s often called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus. Elsewhere, in the Letter to the Hebrews, that’ll speak of Jesus as our great High Priest, intercessing on our behalf to God. Looking at the Old Testament we get an idea about priests, that they connect heaven and earth, God and humanity. They’re appointed to make the people’s sacrifices and offerings to God on everyone’s behalf. Jesus is our priest, but remember, in that first reading, Jesus gives work the apostles, to us. In both the Old and New Testaments there’s a calling for God’s people to be a “kingdom of priests.” A similar idea is the more popular Reformation saying, the “priesthood of all believers.” But I like “kingdom of priests” better. Priesthood of all believers is flat. A kingdom, to me, speaks more of diversity within that priestly role, more faithful to St. Paul’s analogy of the Church as a body made up of different parts. And part of our Anglican tradition, along with some others, is to have people raised up within the Church to be priests, serving the assembly, and helping to shape them for their priestly vocation out in the world. A world that needs to hear the Good News of our proclamation, hugely.

But that’s a side point. My main point is that we’re called to be a kingdom — an assembly, a city on a hill, a missionary outpost — keeping alive this connection that exists between heaven and earth. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus says in Acts chapter 1.

I remember in my confirmation classes way back, with Canon David Morris, the main message, over and over was “the purpose of our life is to be friends with God.” I think he was trying to make more relatable that message in John: ‘eternal life is to know God.’ So our purpose is to be mindful of this calling as a kingdom of priests, living in this connection between heaven and earth. And as priests, we are called to pray, ‘casting our anxieties on God.’ And not ours only, but the anxieties, the needs and the hurts of the world.

And confident that our prayers are heard and understood by Jesus (again, having lived as one of us, he ‘gets’ them), we don’t have to rattle on and on (and on and on…). But think again about that priest image. We don’t have to rattle on and on, but as priests, we’re called to offer worship, and offer intercession. Think of it less about bending or pulling God’s ear DOWN to us, and more like offering our world, and its needs, UP to God.

So in this in-between, ‘are we there yet’ time that exists somewhere in the middle, with Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit on one end, and the second coming of Jesus (whenever that is and whatever exactly that means) on the other end, we’re tasked with living as witnesses, priests, pray-ers, and friends of God, keeping alive the good news that the distance between heaven and earth isn’t as far as we had originally thought. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter