Sunday 15th May 2016, Pentecost, morning
by Matt Selman
Today’s two bible readings reveal scenes of great contrast.
In the gospel reading, the disciples are full of uncertainty. We find them at the last supper as Jesus has just told them that, after all they’ve been through together, he is about to leave them. Jesus has tried to reassure the disciples but his answers are doing nothing for their nerves.
It’s ok, he’s says, he’s just off to his dad’s house to get their rooms ready – they know how to get there don’t they?
‘Er… no’, says Thomas, ‘funnily enough we’ve never been there, how could we know the way? ‘Oh…well, I am the way’ says Jesus, cheerily.
Hmmm… Philip is now trying quite hard not to panic as he looks to bargain with Jesus: ‘Erm, I tell you what Jesus, you just show us what the Father looks like and maybe we’ll have a chance of finding him, yeah?.’
All this is rather far flung from our other scene from the beginning of Acts, which happens not long after. With Jesus resurrected and ascended to heaven, the disciples now seem very assured. Devoted entirely to prayer, they have confidently appointed a replacement for Judas, as they wait, zen-like, for the moment of their ministry to begin.
And as each of them is dramatically filled with the Holy Spirit, and tongues of fire alight upon their heads, amidst the sound of rushing wind, they step out boldly into the world, speaking in new languages and prophesying to the crowds of the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day!
Or something like that….
The experience of the disciples on the day of Pentecost can seem altogether strange and distanced from our lives.
It reminds me a little of going to the cinema. Watching a good film, we often find ourselves suspending our disbelief. It happens to us unawares, and so, by the time we leave the cinema we can find that we are imagining ourselves as the hero; perhaps we could triumph against the odds, or deliver the witty line, or be the person entirely at one with their surroundings.
And then the feeling fades, just as unselfconsciously, and we come back to reality. We realise that we are just us, as we were before.
And yet today’s stories tell us that God did indeed transform the disciples’ lives – ordinary people began to do extraordinary things.
When we pray, as we have during this week of prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, do we know what we’re asking for?
When the disciples asked God to show them the Father, Jesus was disappointed, because they had failed to see that the Kingdom was already amongst them; that the Father was with them in Jesus.
It’s so easy for us to see only the mundane, the surface of things and to miss how God is calling to us in the depths. Yet Jesus makes it quite clear – he has come than we may have life in all its fullness. God’s promise is for transformation of our lives.
So why is it so hard to hear this promise and to let it be the guiding star for our life’s journey? Perhaps in part because it’s scary - do we really want to be transformed? Do we want to be the ones at the forefront of God’s purposes in the world? To return to the cinema again – whilst some of might imagine ourselves as James Bond, isn’t there also a bit of us thinking ‘rather him than me’ as he launches himself over another precipice?
To open ourselves to the Spirit of God is to let God have control of our lives. What if we want to get off the ride, or fancy doing something else for a bit, or aren’t sure that we wouldn’t really rather just take care of matters ourselves. If we can control things perhaps we can make sure we stay safe.
Yet this is a false hope. Because it is a hope purely for survival. It is the shallow, short-term hope of escaping danger that led the disciples to scatter in the face of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It offers us nothing that is life-giving, rather it is only death-delaying.
Of course our doubts are understandable – what if, like Philip, the Father seems so distant, what if God can’t hear our prayers…?
We all desperately want to know that God is there, that God has it all covered. And prayer can be tricky because none of us gets a manual. But prayer is simply allowing God in. It is letting go. It is the most natural, most affirming activity we can imagine. If we are finding prayer hard, it is probably because we are trying to conform to certain expectations.
You may be surprised to hear that many people at theological college often find it hard to pray, myself included. This is because we imagine that there are rules, that we should kneel, or hold out our hands, or say certain words. Or because we are too busy writing essays or planning services and think these must come first, that prayer won’t get these done. These are lies we tell ourselves. Because nothing we do as would-be priests, or in any other walk of life, can having lasting enrichment unless it is fuelled by prayer. Prayer is the very life-blood of our existence.
When we pray we are letting God take control of our circumstances. We are offering God our emotions and our doubts and letting God replace them with love and contentment. We are quite simply engaging with the whole purpose for which God has made us, to be in relationship with him.
The first time I went on a retreat was at a Benedictine abbey.
The monk looking after us told me how important it was to spend time alone and in silence with God. At first, this sounded a bit like another set of rules, until he explained that prayer was a lot like marriage, for example – if I never spent any time alone with my wife, without other people there, without the TV on, it would be pretty hard for us to invest in each other.
How would we ever hear each other’s deepest longings or desires, let alone the surface worries of that day? Prayer is about being yourself with God and hearing God speak into your heart his utterly endless love for you.
Such openness can be a pretty scary thing in itself. But we know that God is a God that has good gifts for his children. I pray in the faith that whatever God has for me, that whatever God gives, will be unimaginably better than anything I could conceive of for myself. Whatever my wildest dreams, God’s reality is wilder.
The place of God’s kingdom is one of endless beauty, love, and nourishment. It contains every last thing we need and an endless abundance more. When we see it, even momentarily, we know contentment because we know we cannot possibly ever need to strive again.
So next time we come to pray, why don’t we seek out some time alone with God, seek a place of refuge, of comfort, somewhere safe, and ask God to take charge of things - let God be the one to hear our deepest longings and let God be the one to provide the answers. As we continue to pray ‘thy kingdom come’, let’s do so in expectation that God does not give as the world gives but offers us nothing less than the utterly transforming power of his love.