Throughout this time of pandemic, I have struggled with Holy Scripture. From not being able to wash feet and share in Christ’s last meal on Maundy Thursday, to ringing in the victory of Easter, to watching the disciples be able to touch Jesus or share in communion with him during his bodily appearances after the resurrection, each experience has felt like a stabbing reminder of what we do not have – that we cannot gather, we cannot touch, we cannot share that identity-making holy meal. But today, as we continue to celebrate Jesus’ ascension, we have finally landed on the perfect Scriptural metaphor for these days. Thanks be to God!
Of course, I say that not because today’s scripture lesson gives us answers about when we can expect a return to “normal,” (whatever that may mean now), or when this virus will be over, or even when we can safely return to church buildings. Instead, what our text from Acts recognizes is the brutal truth of this time: we are in a liminal time.
Now, we have talked about liminal time before. Liminal time[i] 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, a time when 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.
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?” Jesus responds with 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.”
Now I know I said I was excited about this text because the text is so perfect for this time. I say that not because this text finally answers all those questions of our liminal time – or even hints at when our anxiety, frustration, and confusion will end. Instead, what I love about this text is that the text names the very frustrating reality of this time – a time in which we are not longer what we were (a community free to gather how and when we like, doing things like passing the peace, sharing a common cup, and congregating en masse), and yet, we are not yet what we will be – in fact, what we will be is even uncertain. We are the disciples staring up at the sky, knowing Christ has gone to the father, but frozen in place, not really knowing what is next – waiting.
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.”[ii] Now, I know what you are thinking. That’s our Good News? I should wait and pray? Telling us to wait and pray seems like a classic platitude, what we say when we do not know what to say. 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.”[iii] Though the disciples are facing the “significant pause,” the promise of the empowering Spirit is a promise of hope, empowerment, and companionship. Their waiting and prayer are not for personal comfort during this time of ambiguity, but for empowerment to be obedient. Instead of praying out of self-pity, they are praying out of determined expectation.
That is our invitation today too – to pray and wait together. We cannot cram into that Upper Room like the disciples do. But we can gather – digitally in worship here, in Zoom gatherings, by phone, cards, emails, and texts, even drive-by Coffee Hours. As David Lose reminds us, in this time of pandemic “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.”[iv] I do not know about you, but I would much rather face the ambiguity of this liminal time with a community who can remind me of God’s promise, helping me see the work of the Spirit. That is what we do when we pray and wait together. Our invitation is to accept the gift of this community, gathered virtually for the foreseeable future, and to wait and pray with together. Amen.
[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] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 20.
[iii] Willimon, 21.
[iv] 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.