We do it all the time: waiting. Waiting is perhaps one of the cruelest experiences of life. Waiting for the test results that will tell us whether or not we have cancer. Waiting for a call back after interviewing for our dream job. Waiting all summer long after graduating high school before we can start new life in college. The trouble with waiting is that we can feel lost – we are between two realities – the one we know and the one that is to come. In some ways, simply by finding out we need the test, by applying for the job, or by making the deposit at college, life can never be the same. Something is changed in our lives by stepping into the unknown. And yet, we do not have the answer, we have not started the job, and school has not begun. We are not the new person we know we will be. We are in-between, in limbo, in no-man’s land.
Scholars call this in-between time liminal time.[i] Liminal time is the time in which we are in the middle of a transition. Native cultures experienced liminal time most famously in the journey to adulthood. When young men or young women reached a certain age and maturity, they were sent away from their families and out into the wilderness for a time. When their time in the wilderness was done, they returned with full adult status, respect, and responsibility. They leave a child and return a man or a woman. Liminal time is that time in the wilderness – where they are no longer children, and not yet adults. Their identity is in flux, their purpose is ambiguous, and their life is on pause. Liminal time is a time fraught with anxiety, frustration, and confusion. Liminal time is a time when things are happening to you, and you have no agency. Moments of liminality are some of the hardest moments in life. The comfort of what has been and promise of what is to come is rarely soothing. All that is left is ambiguity.
That kind of transition is where we find our disciples today. They have spent forty glorious days feeling the victory of Christ’s resurrection, being blessed with further teachings, and being comforted by Christ’s presence. They are ready. They confidently ask Jesus today, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” This has to finally be the time! Jesus’ answer is anything but satisfying. Jesus makes a promise – that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be empowered to do their work of witnessing. But for now, at this moment of climax, confidence, and courage, Jesus says, quite simply, “Wait.”
The trouble is that when the disciples ask that final question to Jesus, expecting to hear when Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel, and effectively assume his place on the earthly throne, initiating the reign of the kingdom of God, the answer they get is a bit different. As N.T. Wright explains, they are asking when “Israel will be exalted as the top nation, with the nations of the world being subject to God through his vindicated people.” In one sense, that vindication already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In another sense, we are still waiting for the “time when the whole world is visibly and clearly living under God’s just and healing rule.” Jesus is not a future king, but the one who has already been appointed and enthroned. What the disciples are waiting for now is the empowering of the Spirit to go witness this reality.[ii] The disciples find they are going to have to wait, but what they are waiting for has shifted dramatically. Their waiting will be fraught with even more ambiguity than expected.
That’s the funny thing about waiting. Not only do you find all the discomfort that comes from liminal time – the stripping of identity which leaves you naked for a time before you don your new armor. But also, we all know that in waiting unexpected things happen. Like the disciples who may have expected one thing to come at the end of their waiting, only to realize something quite different is coming, we too learn that reality shifts while waiting. Things we thought would matter when we were done waiting stop mattering. Truths we held to be unshakeable get shaken up while waiting. Once unappreciated certainties and clarity become longed for realities when we wait.
So what are we to do? What are we to do in our periods of waiting, in our liminal times? Karl Barth called the waiting between the Ascension and Pentecost, the days we are experiencing now, the “significant pause…a pause in which the church’s task is to wait and pray.”[iii] Now, I know what you are thinking. That’s all you’ve got? I should wait and pray? Telling us to wait and pray seems like a classic platitude, what we say to someone who is hurting in ambiguity, and we have no real solace to offer. Will Willimon explains, “Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church. Our waiting implies that the things which need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort, our programs and crusades. Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays.”[iv] For the disciples, their waiting is not empty-handed. Though Jesus has left them, Jesus has left them to sit at the right hand of God. There is confidence in that knowledge about Jesus. And though they are facing the “significant pause,” the promise of the empowering Spirit is a promise of hope, empowerment, and companionship. So their waiting and prayer is not for personal comfort during this time of ambiguity, but for empowerment to be obedient. They are praying because they know that the coming work of witnessing will be hard work. Instead of praying out of self-pity, they are praying out of determined expectation.
Perhaps that is why they stay together and pray. By going to that upper room together, the disciples teach us that community is central to the life of the church and to the practice of prayer – is central to helping us get through those times of waiting. Like the disciples, “we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, in order to live into the possibilities and expectations of God’s realm.”[v] Now for those of you who have waited for the diagnosis, call back from the potential employer, or start date of college, you know that waiting and praying in community can be hard. Answering for the fortieth time, “Any news yet?” can be as torturous as your own longing for answers or change. Perhaps that is why some cultures spend their liminal time alone – so they can avoid all of that communal pressure. But that is not what the disciples do. They see this liminal time as a time for all of them – not even just the eleven left, but also the women and others gathered. If they are going to have to face this significant pause, full of uncertainty and change, they will pray and wait together.
That is our invitation today too – to pray and wait together. You may not be facing an obvious period of liminal time. You may not even feel as though you are waiting for something. But the reality is that we are all waiting. As David Lose reminds us, “We have no idea of what the remainder of 2017 will bring, let alone 2018. There will be accomplishments and setbacks, victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies on a personal, communal, national, and global scale. And in all these things, God will be with us, comforting, celebrating with, strengthening, and accompanying us in and amid whatever may come. And God will also be preparing us, preparing us to be God’s emissaries of good news, preparing us to comfort others, preparing us to work for peace, preparing us to live with less fear and more generosity, preparing us to look out for the rights of others, preparing us to strive for a more just community and world.”[vi] I do not know about you, but I would much rather face that ambiguity with a community who can remind me of God’s promise and helping me see the work of the Spirit. That is what we do when we pray and wait together. Our invitation is accept the gift of this community, and to wait and pray with together.
[i] Liminal time is a concept that has been developed by many scholars. Arnold van Gennep, Victor W. Turner, and Gordon Lathrop all developed the idea of incorporating liminal time into liturgical practice.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 9-10.
[iii] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 20.
[iv] Willimon, 21.
[v] Randle R. Mixon, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 524.
[vi] David Lose, “Easter 7A: Important Interludes,” May 25, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-7-a-important-interludes/ on May 26, 2017.