WAITING FOR THE STARTING GUN
Novelists helpfully set out the inner thoughts and feelings of their main players. The Gospel writers deprive us of this. It simply wasn’t the ancient world’s house style and so we lapse into simple equations. Jesus’ death made the disciples sad. Jesus’ resurrection made them happy again. In reality, the moods would have been messy and complicated. They had deserted Jesus, and now here he was again, the man with X-ray perception, staring them in the eye.
And how did they feel about his ascension? They had just got used to him being around again, to feeling more comfortable around him, and he vanished for good. It must have played with their minds, though we rarely stop to think about this. They abandoned their lives to follow this man. Then he gets himself killed. But hang on, now he’s alive again. Oh, and now he’s gone for good.
Everything in life turns on the resurrection. If it didn’t happen, it’s the biggest con in history, leading millions in every generation up the garden path. But if it happened, it is the most important event in the story of humanity. So much hinges on it, that if we’d been the Father, we would have left people in no doubt about it. We would have asked Jesus to rock up to the Temple and then doorstep the double-minded Pilate. To leave the religious and political authorities in no doubt. The ancient world’s equivalent of the press conference, where the Messiah is unveiled before the waiting cameras. The last thing we would do is to remove the evidence and then claim we have it, but can’t show it.
Joseph Stalin liquidated his enemies on a daily basis, with the motto: ‘no person, no problem’. It could have been uttered by the religious leaders. No Jesus, no problem. Killing others is the time-honoured way to solve difficulties in corrupt countries. They will have heard rumours about Jesus being alive again. They may have searched for his body covertly. But they will have comforted themselves with that belief still: no Jesus, no problem.
The paradox of the Gospel is that this news is so big, it is left to a handful of people to share it, without the evidence they need to prove it. This is God’s chosen way. It is a mystery, but we can still apply some logic. If Jesus had imposed himself on the world after his resurrection, the human freedom to choose God would have been removed. As it is, an invitation has been placed in our hands, with an RSVP. But we decide what to do with it. For now.
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his followers to gather together in one place to wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. So they remained in the upper room. It may be contrived to describe this as their lockdown. People could come and go, different households were represented, and they could touch one another. But some of the emotions we feel on lockdown may have wormed their way into their minds too.
Lockdown has been different for each of us, but there are some common threads. There is boredom and stagnancy. The motivation we feel may have been unravelling with each passing week. The lack of stimulation makes us inert. But there are darker emotions too. Anxiety and fear lurk in our minds. We admire those on the front line, but soon we will each have a new front line and we don’t know what waits for us there.
The disciples may have shared some of those darker feelings. They waited patiently and with joy, but the enormity of what lay ahead would have stalked them too. Jesus had already warned them they faced persecution and hardship. His brutal death foreshadowed their martyrdom. The worst thing in life can be waiting to get on with a big task. The doubts creep in, especially around your own capacity. The disciples would have been less than human if they hadn’t felt something of this, especially as the Holy Spirit was yet to come upon them in power. Just because Luke doesn’t mention it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t whispering in their ears.
As we slowly come out of lockdown, lots of people will suddenly be feeling imposter syndrome. Am I really up to the job I was doing before all this? And lots will be anxious that, as they engage again with the world around them, they will be more at risk. What if I get the virus now, after all those precautions?
The preparations the disciples made were different to ours in that they freely mixed, offering warmth and affection to one another. But they can be similar to ours in one respect, and that’s in the personal commitment to prayer. To be in the right place for when life resumes again because we have let God in where we had previously crowded him out.
Surveys show that more people have been praying than before these last weeks. Some are praying for the first time, but even those who always pray may find they are praying to greater depths. They are no longer paddling in the breaking waves but swimming under the water. In the last ten years, something has been stolen from us. It’s happened so slowly and so openly that we didn’t grasp the audacity of it. And that’s the theft of our attention by an economy now built on grabbing and holding it against other competitors. And it has seriously messed with our commitment to prayer.
The extra space many of us have given to prayer is a gift we take back into the world. It can be squeezed out again, especially by our activism; our need to be seen doing stuff again. But whatever job lies ahead of us, it won’t be bigger than the one the disciples faced at Pentecost: to make disciples of all nations when the only disciples presently were those gathered in one room.
We share in that task, of course. And its specific shape for us is how to reach others with the love of God in a country that has been turned upside down by a lethal virus. Whatever that looks like where we live, the same resources are ours that belonged to St Peter and his friends. The free, generous gift of the Holy Spirit who moves among us with a viral spread infinitely quicker and more powerful than our present invisible enemy. And the belief that Jesus is risen from the dead and at work in us.
Those who crucified the Messiah cynically believed: ‘no Jesus, no problem’. On that Day of Pentecost, the disciples spilled out of the house to proclaim the good news. For them, the saying ‘no Jesus, no problem’ meant something very different. The Holy Spirit had arrived.
No Jesus? No problem!
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