Like a lot of people, my husband and I like to cozy up to an intense series on most Friday nights. Right now we’re into the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a religious dystopia sometime in the not-too-distant future.
There is a scene early in Season 2 where the main character, June, is transported by night in the back of a pick-up truck and dropped off at an abandoned warehouse. Her driver, a kindly subversive type, shows her around and drops her off. “Wait,” she says. “What happens now? How long will I be here? Where am I?” “Just wait,” he replies. “You just have to wait here”
The disciples are also waiting. Today’s reading from Acts is Act two of a three-part drama. We heard Act One on Thursday when we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension: Jesus ascended—they watched him. As Father Rob said on Thursday night, Jesus is not absent: his body ascends and he enters us in a new way. With the Ascension, the disciples’ work—our work—of becoming the Body of Christ begins in earnest.
That work begins with making the Body whole. This is what this Part Two reading from Acts is about. It is not about the randomness of Matthias being elected by casting lots, although that does make for a good story. This story about replacing Judas is about restoring the wholeness of the twelve disciples that signifies the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel, the restoration of God’s promise. For Luke, the wholeness of the twelve is a necessary piece of preparing to receive the Holy Spirit and the power it brings, which is Act Three of our story: “Wait here. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
This three-act drama takes place in the lives of the first disciples in a particular place in a particular ten-day span over two thousand years ago. And we are living in our version of that same story. The reign of God is already here and not yet here. We are restored and yet we are not yet restored.
If we look around today, at this earth, our fragile island home, or the block where we live or work, we don’t have to look far to see that the restoration the first disciples hoped for has not yet taken place, certainly not in the way Luke anticipated. Our Body is not whole. Division, misunderstanding, and separation dominate our public discourse in the wider Church, in the world around us, and in our own lives. Each of us has moments—I’m guessing—where we are perplexed, curious at best, about what’s happening and what’s next. Maybe we’re even terrified.
And so, with the disciples, we wait. Last night after Evensong a friend said: “Waiting is one of those counter-cultural things we do as Christians.” It’s true. In our world—including within the church—we are always being offered ways to do more, faster, instantly even. But in real life, in which God reigns, things that matter require waiting. Things beyond our control take time. Mystery takes time.
As we wait, Jesus gives the disciples—then, and now—a gift: his prayer for us. Because, when there is nothing else to do, we pray. Prayer can be the balm for waiting, the glue for the Body of Christ. (And if you’re watching the Handmaid’s Tale, you know that even June, surprisingly, turns to prayer as she waits for what’s next.)
This prayer of Jesus’ is a long and generous prayer. I pray for all of you on a regular basis, but my prayer is not nearly so long as Jesus’. We read a third of it each year on this seventh Sunday of Easter.
Jesus makes two intercessions on our behalf: he prays for protection, and for holiness. The life of discipleship is not easy; we need these prayers.
First, Jesus prays: Holy God, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. Protect them from the evil one. To pray that we might be protected in God’s name is to pray that the disciples—then and now—continue in the identity conferred upon them by God’s name. To keep that identity in God is to know who we are and whose we are.
When I was a child there was a popular TV commercial for Hebrew National Hot Dogs. It features Uncle Sam and the voice over says: “The government allows us to put fillers, artificial colors and artificial flavors in our hot dogs. But we don’t. We can’t. We’re kosher. We have to answer to an even higher authority. This is what it means to be in God.”
The disciples are not a social group, united and identified by their love of nature, or their good works, or even a common passion for Ralph Vaughan Williams. God’s name holds the disciples and defines them. It is in this identity, this belonging to God, that we are protected from the evil one who is everywhere, the spiritual forces of wickedness, Satan and all his works, that we renounce in our baptismal covenant.
Sanctify them, Jesus prays. Your word is truth. Set them apart for the work they will do in the world. Send them into the world as holy, set-apart people. In the world in which we live, thinking of ourselves as set apart, holy, is as countercultural as waiting. Holiness is not about morality—that may a by-product of holiness and is definitely another sermon for another day. Holiness is about identity and belonging. As followers of Jesus, formed in God’s name, we are resident aliens. We answer to a higher authority.
It is only fitting that in this first novena, these nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, we are reminded that what we need in order to be sent into the world on the other side of Easter is oneness and identity, protection and sanctification. Even as we wait, we are one with God, set apart from the many forces that draw us away from God. Every week when we gather at this table and share in the Body of Christ, we act out and live into this becoming one, becoming holy.
And you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.