This week on Thursday 21st May the church has remembered and celebrated the ascension of Jesus, this takes place 40 days after Easter. We recall how Jesus finally left the disciples to join his father in heaven. But he gave a promise - the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were to pause, to stay where they were in Jerusalem and wait for the gift.
They did not know what to expect or when to expect it.
In the church we wait for another 10 days after Ascension to celebrate Pentecost, so next Sunday as a church we will remember and celebrate Pentecost – when the gift of the Holy Spirit rested on the people who were gathered, waiting.
As a church in St. Helens we had planned to meet to worship in the square. Undaunted by current circumstances, we have put together a programme for the week from Monday 25th May of prayer, worship, teaching – do check our website for details. Next Sunday 31st May we will gather at 11am for a United service, details will be found on our Facebook page. Do join in next Sunday, you'll find details on our website.
I was reminded by the reading of an image from one of van Gogh's paintings. You might know it? It is of an empty chair with a woven seat set on a brown tiled floor. The yellow tones of the wooden chair are contrasted by the blue walls. A few personal effects left on the seat tell us something about who was perhaps sat on the chair, or maybe whose chair it is. At a time when many of us have empty chairs in our homes and we can’t invite family or friends into our houses, there is a sense of where folk have sat in the past and a hope of where they will be in the future.
Thinking about chairs has reminded me of the Passover and the tradition for Jews to leave an empty seat, a seat of honour at the head of the table for for Elijah. A place is set with bread and wine for the prophet Elijah who they expect to appear in times of trouble to bring promise of relief, to lift downcast spirits, and to plant hope in the hearts of the downtrodden.
At the last Passover when Jesus revealed himself to be that hope, our belief as Christians is that it is Jesus who has come to fill that chair – that Jesus is our hope – with us in times of trouble, bringing relief, lifting our spirits and giving hope in our hearts.
Now in this time of COVID-19, when we are facing challenges that we have not expected, we need that reassurance, that presence of Jesus, that hope. I wonder if you can imagine what it would be like to have Jesus with you, sitting with you in one of your empty chairs?
It is interesting in this time of COVID-19 when we are not able to go out very much, when some are at home on furlough, that we are rediscovering old hobbies and activities.
One of the things that’s been popular has been baking bread, in fact the shops have been running out of flour! Bread making is usually something that we don’t always make time for – weighing, mixing, kneading, waiting for the dough to rise, kneading again, waiting whilst the bread cooks. Once its cooked – I don't know what its like for you – but it doesn't last long!
Many of us now do have time to wait.
We are not distracted by going out.
We wait in queues whilst shopping, we wait for rising, we wait for baking.
Our attitude to our pace of life is changing.
So many of our bible stories are also about waiting.
During advent we wait for the birth of Jesus – anticipating, preparing.
In lent we spend time reflecting on the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ - anticipating and preparing.
And what happens in the waiting?
We are hopeful and we have time to prepare.
Time to let the yeast make the bread rise ready for the oven!
Time to review ourselves.
Time to change and to be prepared for a new way of being.
This is today's reading from Ezekiel 36:24-28
I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
That's powerful. God can cleanse, he can give a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I wonder what that means to you?
As we come towards Pentecost, we have time to think and reflect on what that might mean to us, to have a new heart and to have a new spirit.
This is today's reading from Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.
I wonder what struck you today from that reading?
Thinking about ascension day I have been really prompted about what it meant to the disciples.
I wonder what it felt like for the disciples to see Jesus leave?
Maybe they felt bereft? But they had already lost Jesus once on the cross – or at least they thought they’d lost him. Maybe this time they were a bit better prepared? Maybe they understood a little more?
I started to wonder how different it would have been if Jesus has stayed and not left at all. We wouldn’t have those stories of the disciples trying to work out what being a Christian meant. We would be looking back now saying – ah well it was different for the early disciples because Jesus was with them in body and in spirit.
But the disciples only had Jesus for a couple of years and then they were on their own. They had to work out what following Jesus meant, in the same way that each generation has had to work out what following Christ means. In the same way that we in this time of COVID-19 and lockdown need to work out what following Jesus means. In each situation we meet - whether it is going to work or being in lockdown, whether we are with people or whether we are alone - we too can ask that same question: what does following Jesus mean to me?
We don’t know the answer, we need to work that out, but we do know how Jesus behaved, we have stories about him and the stories he told.
So as we think about our empty chairs, as we think about missing the people we love and care about, we can also think about the gap that Jesus can fill in our lives.
From Sunday 24th May we have the next seven days as we countdown to Pentecost. I wonder if we can trust God to give us what we need? Can we use that time to wait, anticipate and prepare?
Do we want the gift of the Holy Spirit? I wonder what that means to you?
Maybe we want the gift of a new heart?
I invite you this week to join United2020 - a series of events each day to prepare us for Pentecost, morning prayer, thought for the day, sessions for youth and kids, evening prayer. You’ll see some familiar faces from St. Andrews, from our Anglican churches and friends from a wide variety of churches from across St. Helens.
Why not use this week to prepare for Pentecost?
Next week we won’t be gathering at 10:30am on Sunday, but instead joining with our sisters and brothers from across St. Helens to worship together. Please join in from your home.
And this week whist we wait and continue the next countdown to Pentecost:
What are you waiting for?
Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit for the disciples - they did not know what to expect.
Do you know what you expect?
I wonder what your prayer is?
What are you hoping for?
What does the gift of the Holy Spirit mean to you?
What difference would it make?
I’d like to encourage you to take some time to prepare this week. Work out what that means for you. Do you have some time that you can set aside? How would it be helpful to spend the time?
Thank you for the gift of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
As we take time this week to pause and wait
We invite you to speak to us,
Help us to prepare,
and be open to what you have to say to us.
Show us the spaces in our lives, the empty chairs,
Help us with the emptiness,
show us where to keep the space
and where to fill it.
Loving God, create in us a new heart and put a new spirit within us.