I don’t normally remember my dreams but the other night ‘I had a dream’. Nothing as grand as the dream granted to Martin Luther King. No, in my dream our Director of Music, Annette, had arranged a fundraiser and persuaded me to play a trumpet solo. This is a most unlikely scenario and (I should hasten to add) the dream was clearly a stress dream! I had agreed because, once a upon a time, I used to be able to play the trumpet rather well. As a sixth former I passed my Grade 8 exam and had even applied to the various music colleges to study once I left school but…this is all over 40 years ago and I haven’t played a trumpet in at least 30 years. So what possessed me, in my dream, to say that I would stand up and perform the 3rd movement from Flor Peeter’s concerto is anyone’s guess. There’s no reason why you would know the piece but let’s say it is fiendishly hard and a definite ‘no go’ for anyone whose trumpet playing is now more likely to sound like a flatulent elephant than a dizzying virtuoso at the Proms. To make matters worse, in my dream I didn’t pick up a trumpet until the day of the concert – I thought I could ‘wing it’. ‘Who needs months of practice, who needs to spend all that time developing an embouchure that can cope with the extremes of Flor Peeter’s concerto?’ I thought. At that point the stress must really have become too much because I woke up….and you never heard my trumpet playing.
‘Lord’ said the apostles ‘is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ I can understand their question. Jesus has appeared to them repeatedly through the period after the resurrection. He met with Mary Magdalene on Easter Day…and the two disciples heading towards Emmaus. He met with Peter, he appeared to all the disciples (not forgetting Thomas) in the Upper Room. In some gospel accounts he appears in Jerusalem, in others he is with the disciples in Galilee. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians he appeared to over 500 disciples at once. These ‘miraculous’ appearances just kept on coming, but it’s understandable that, as Jesus came…and went…and then came….and went, eventually the disciples (now bumped up to be called apostles) should begin to ask ‘what’s going to happen now’. ‘Is this the time?’ How long is this ‘coming and going’ going to carry on? Have we finally got to the moment when God is going to sort everything out, put the nation of Israel (and the world perhaps) to rights and we might all live happily ever after?
Jesus doesn’t say ‘No’…but it is a ‘no’ isn’t it? Because there is quite simply no short cut – which was the trouble with my trumpet playing dream. There is no short cut to things being as they should be. Nothing on earth could possibly enable me to dazzle you with my current state of trumpet playing: wishful thinking isn’t going to make it happen. No, there is work to be done. Likewise with the Almighty’s ongoing project of bringing the whole created order back into fellowship with its maker. Here are no short cuts. There will be no divine intervention to force the unwilling to bend the knee – because that is not His nature. Instead, there’s a work of mission to be passed on by Jesus. ‘Passed on to who’ you might ask? Well, passed on to You.
And so we arrived, on Thursday, at the Feast of the Ascension. The American preacher, Barbara Taylor Brown describes this as the ‘Feast of the left behind’…and who wants to celebrate that? It’s tricky isn’t it? Jesus is taken up into heaven, we sing some tremendous hymns of celebration and yet somehow it feels as if we’ve missed the bus because he has gone without us. He’s gone. We’re here….what’s to celebrate? It was rather sweet of Him to bless us as He left but without our feet even leaving the ground we now have to come down to earth with a bump. Always ‘alright for them’, those first disciples. They had seen Him. They had been with Him on the Mount of Olivet. Not quite so easy for us.
When I was very little I would visit my Auntie Peggy’s house. My guess is that my mum would leave me there for a while whilst she went off to do the shopping. Auntie Peggy seemed to be incredibly old: I doubt she was in reality. What do I remember? I remember she had a Toby Jug next to the fire in her back room that played tunes. I remember too the table where I ate my jam sandwiches for tea: it had a table protector on made of heavy felt and it was on that table that we would play card games: matching up pairs was a favourite. She would also play a game where she’d put a host of small objects on a tray, let me look at them before covering them and removing one – to see whether I could remember which one was missing. Why do I tell you this? because, as we know from losing someone or something from our lives, there is an absence that bears witness to a presence….an absence that can be felt so acutely that the Presence somehow becomes more, rather than less, real.
Jesus ascends into heaven, enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory and, for a while the apostles are so overwhelmed with the experience that they simply stand there, gazing up to heaven. We’re not told that these two men in white robes are angels but they are aren’t they? – these two angels break the spell and nudge them off the mountain back to Jerusalem with their question ‘why are you standing here?’
So what now? Well they must learn to live with His absence bearing witness to His presence.
No: the kingdom is not about to be restored to Israel. There are no short cuts. ‘You must be my witnesses’, he says
No: you can’t just stand around here gazing up into heaven: there’s work to be done, so move along now why don’t you?
And off they go. Not quite sure what they are meant to be doing other than that they should stay in Jerusalem (for how long….who knows?) Told that they will receive ‘power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them’ but not told how they will recognise this gift. And He has gone…but they are not sure when He will come back (next week…next month? perhaps…we don’t know) but till then they have one another.
So what is happening? The church is being born. The church is coming into being. These people are the ones who knew Jesus. They are to carry His story, they are to bear witness to who He was and is. These people recognise Him. And now He has stopped appearing to them physically they’re expected to recognise Him in new ways. For one they must learn to see Him in one another – that’s really important. But they will also bear witness to His presence in others too: seeking Him out in the faces of the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the children, the women, the left behind and outcasts, the slaves, the hungry and thirsty. Because they have known Him they can see Him more readily now. His leaving has somehow made Him more present not less. The whole universe seems to speak of Him because once you know how to recognise Him you spot Him…again and again, just beneath or beyond, out of the corner of your eye, hidden in the smile or the gesture of someone unexpected. Far from being a ‘Feast of the left behind’, His leaving is transformed into a Feast of His presence exploding throughout the whole universe, not abandoning it.
‘You will be my witnesses’. Point me out to those who can’t see me. Help others to recognise me. Show me to others in the way that you are as a community, in the things that you do together and apart. Point me out wherever you see me so that others can see. This is your work now: in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth so that one day the kingdoms of this world might become the kingdom of our Lord and God. There are no short cuts. There is work to be done…but remember what he says elsewhere: ‘I will be with you to the end of the age.’
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