One of the most moving moments in the Gospels is that scene in the garden on Easter Day where Mary stands weeping outside the entrance to the tomb. (John 20). I say, `moving` because there are few of us who haven`t or won`t experience that same sense of loss, standing by a graveside.
But it`s a moment which succeeds in touching us on many levels. For example, it has it has a frankly `comic` side to it as well… as Mary mistakes Jesus for the Gardener! But the serious point is that the one whom she is seeking is right there in front of her. The God whom she longs for is right there with her – but she doesn`t recognise him. It`s the same Jesus but somehow… different. The tears have clouded her vision.
And then Mary says something which I think goes to the heart of this meeting with the risen Jesus. She`s asked: “Woman, why are you weeping?” She (says) “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20.13) What`s amazing is the language she uses: ‘They have taken away my Lord`. What she`s basically saying is, “They have taken my God away”. In other words, because of all she`s been through she`s saying: “I don`t know where God is anymore” ….
And this of course is another thing we find ourselves wrestling with in times of loss or grief or disappointment… It`s a question many will ask in the light of the events in Manchester last week. We simply can`t see where God is in this… We can`t see the point when the wicked can do such things….
Mary, of course, hears the Lord call her name and her eyes are opened. And then something else happens… She tries to get hold of Jesus and curiously he steps back saying, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father`. (John 20.17) What seems to be happening is that she`s being invited into a new way of seeing, recognising, and understanding Jesus. And at the heart of it is this `Ascension`…And of course, that`s the link with our first reading this morning.
You see what I want us to ponder this morning is that just as the experience of the cross and resurrection led Mary into a completely new understanding of God and his purposes for the world… so the same kind of thing is happening to the disciples. Just look again at those opening verses of the Acts of the Apostles…. We hear about a group of people who are frankly bewildered by Christ. He`s appeared to them and as he`s briefing them about the future they simply can`t get beyond the assumptions they`ve always had about him and about what God was going to do. These assumptions are, to say the least pretty earth-bound and limited. Their conception of God and what he is doing is still apparently wrapped up in a somewhat narrow and nationalistic agenda.
But this is where everything was about to change. Putting it simply; for the penny to drop they must lose sight of him. They must experience what Mary went through. They must know what it means to say: `We don`t know where God is anymore`. They must come to know him in an entirely new way. It`s not that he has literally `gone away` but now they need to learn to see him differently and interact with him differently.
Many years ago, when I was preparing for training my Director of Ordinands, as he was called was a lovely priest called Michael. He was kind and gracious and very wise. I met him some years after my ordination as he invited me to become Vicar of a parish. I said, “Hello Michael”. And then I was taken aback as he kindly said- “I think we`d better make that `Bishop Michael`”. Now, he wasn`t being po-faced.. he was quite correct. Our relationship had changed. And in a similar way at the Ascension, the disciples` vision of God is entirely re-framed. The Jesus they walked with in Galilee is now revealed as their Risen and Ascended Lord… And the point, I think, is that this is a process we all go through (perhaps many times) in our life of faith. Not least because, if we`re honest our sense of God is all too frequently far too small.
So, just think about it. A `Sunday School` faith – a childhood understanding of God- simply must grow and change and be capable of supporting an adult life lived for Christ. Far too many of us miss that opportunity for growth because the transition isn`t always comfortable. Often as not it involves some experience of death or loss; and as Mary and the disciples discovered it invariably means that he `disappears from our sight`. This is what I think we learn from those few verses at the beginning of Acts. In these days following the Ascension the church is, to some extent, in transition. They are as grief stricken, bewildered and uncomprehending as Mary was ….and as we often are…. And we need to become more adept at noticing moments such as these.
Because the problem is that in such moments of bewilderment, grief and disappointment where we don`t know where God is anymore…. The temptation is to walk away; to give up. But notice, the disciples grew because they went to pray.
So, what do they teach us? Well the first thing is that they were together. Luke goes to great length to list the names of this motley crew; these bewildered disciples. And we mustn`t underestimate the power of this simple point; this simple together-ness… Because I`ve sadly seen the faith of so many shipwrecked because in time of bewilderment they chose to isolate themselves.
Just when their sense of who the Lord God is and what he`s about needed re-shaping… they thought that prayer and worship was the LAST recourse. Whereas (as the disciples teach us) it should be the very first. Why? Well because secondly, in their prayer and worship they had the means; a framework for making the change; of coming to an enlarged vision of God. We mustn`t imagine for a minute that in their praying they were in any sense making this up. For example, we can be virtually certain that they will have been using the Psalms.
Now there are many reasons why the Psalms are important but one of the best is that they give us a grammar or a language of prayer…. Words to use when words won`t come. The Psalms both come to our help and stretch us hugely. And they give us permission to say all those things we have grown up believing we can`t or shouldn`t say in prayer: not least our questions…
Just listen to the passionate prayer that is Psalm 10
1 Why stand so far off, O Lord? Why hide yourself in time of trouble?
2 The wicked in their pride persecute the poor; let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
3 The wicked boast of their heart’s desire; the covetous curse and revile the Lord.
4 The wicked in their arrogance say, ‘God will not avenge it’; in all their scheming God counts for nothing.
I mean, this is prayer `telling it like it is`… isn`t it? In a sense, the writer has a good old rant…. But the point is that we accompany this person (or maybe they accompany us) in not just getting these things out of our system… but in being led into a greater conception of God. That despite the bewilderment… the Lord God knows what he`s about.
Again, the writer says:
14 Surely, you behold trouble and misery; you see it and take it into your own hand.
15 The helpless commit themselves to you, for you are the helper of the orphan.
18 Lord, you will hear the desire of the poor; you will incline your ear to the fullness of their heart, (Psalm 10.14-18)
You see what`s going on here is more than trying to find a means of self-expression… (of getting things out of our system) it`s about getting in touch with the truth of who God is ….and who we are. From time to time, bewilderment just goes with the territory- because we are finite creatures. But it`s not the end of the story; and if we are wise it will be a moment of growth.
St. Paul told the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God”. (Colossians 3.16)
Why? Not because he wanted to boost numbers at the Morning Service but because he knew that such praying forms us and keeps us in the truth especially when we`re being called to grow into a bigger vision of God. Someone said it`s rather like a trellis… such worship, such prayer provides an anchor for healthy growth.
So, in their time of bewilderment, waiting and uncertainty, the disciples pray. Firstly, they are together… and secondly, they let the Psalms, the scriptures shape their praying… and they are led into an enlarged vision of God. And this is a key point about praying and worshipping… It`s not about US… It`s not about self-expression; it`s about singing, chanting, recounting and being formed by the truth of who God is… especially when it seems that he`s been `taken from our sight` (Acts 1.9)