Summary: A sermon for the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost
In many ways the period between the Ascension Day and Pentecost is a period of waiting for the church. I liken it to being in the third trimester of the pregnancy out of which the church is birthed.
The first trimester is the period between the birth of Jesus and his death. The period during which we learn more about Jesus’ life and purpose and during which time he calls the disciples and begins to teach them of what is to come. The second trimester is the period between the resurrection of Christ and his ascension. It’s a time of both renewal and transformation for the disciples. After the initial despair of the crucifixion there comes joy when they see the resurrected Christ, and Christ continues to teach them and to prepare them for their future.
The third and final trimester therefore, is this period we are now in liturgically, between the ascension of Christ when he is no longer physically with his disciples, and the day of Pentecost, the traditional birth of the church, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the spread of the gospel and the birth of evangelism.
Of course, analogies like this are never perfect because spiritual analogies are always imperfect ways of describing the work and will of God, the trimesters are of unequal length, and I personally have always preferred to think of the birth of the church as being the time of the calling of the first disciples.
However, this analogy is hopefully a good way of us thinking about where we are now and what is coming ahead. We are still in the period of Easter, at least for another week. This means that some churches will keep the paschal candle burning, the candle that signifies the light of Christ until Pentecost, while there are some churches who blow the candle out at the end of Ascension Day to recognise this period of waiting and of expectation before we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.
It could potentially have been quite a difficult or at least an uncertain time for the disciples. Having spent so long with Jesus before his death and having had the emotional roller coaster ride of his death and resurrection, to see him gone from them again might have left them facing an uncertain future. However, there is nothing in our reading from the book of Acts which would suggest this. We know from what we see written there that already there were a significant number of Christian believers, around 10 times as many as there were disciples.
Peter speaks to the gathered crowd of believers and reminds them that as the numbers of disciples must equal 12, that one more needs to be added to that number. I’ve always felt sorry for Justus that he wasn’t the one chosen out of the two candidates, but what we see here as Matthias is elected to join the apostolic Ministry of the disciples is the leadership of the church preparing itself for what was to come.
It is interesting to compare where the church is at this point in time, waiting for the Holy Spirit, with the words and the prayer of Jesus as he prays before his death for his disciples.
It is hard to read this prayer of Jesus and not be touched by his concern for his disciples at a time when it would be much more understandable if he was focused on his death. But here Jesus is praying for those who must carry on the work of the gospel. Jesus prays for their protection recognising that while he was with them he was able to protect them but that once he goes away he will be unable to do so. Of course, although it is not explicit here, part of that prayer of protection includes the prayer of the coming of the Holy Spirit, or at least the protection that comes from the Holy Spirit to be with the disciples. That is why I think we have this reading as our gospel reading today. Jesus prays to the disciples not to be taken out of the world but to be given the resources that they need in order to be ambassadors of the gospel within the world.
And of course everything here that relates to the disciples also relates to us. Everything their Jesus prays for them he also prays for us. The help that is given to the disciples to fulfil the task is also given to us. The promise of the Holy Spirit is not solely for those 120 or so Christian believers to whom Peter spoke, that is the reality of God’s promise to each one of us each and every day. The challenge before us is whether or not to accept the gift of Christ that God has given us, to recognise his loving provision for us, and to respond to what he has done for us in Christ.