Patronal Festival 2015-05-15
Waiting for the Holy Spirit.
If you notice this sort of thing you’ll know that at our Sunday mass we have been using large glass carafes for the water and the wine, rather that the silver jugs with cross silver crosses on top. One of these crosses was broken off before Christmas, and I sent the jug away to be repaired. And then we waited for it to come back. While we were waiting I realised that I’d only done half a job, that there were a number of bits of our church and school silver that needed some attention. So I took them to the silversmith too. And we waited again, using a tin plate at the school mass and a funny pewter goblet that my mother-in-law once bought for me to serve communion. Finally, this Friday there was a box delivered, our church silver returning home after a wait of six weeks.
As I opened the box I fell to thinking. About times in our lives when we have to wait for things. Sometimes the waiting is expectation of having something new, and sometimes the waiting is expectation of having something familiar returned to you, but having a new relationship with it – for me the chalice which I have used every Wednesday and Sunday is very familiar, but now all polished up and free from dents, I am going to be holding it and caring for it in a different way. And the time waiting for it,missing it, worrying about it, has been part of the preparation for having it again.
Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, when Jesus was taken up to return to the glory of Heaven and of God his Father. Next Sunday is the the Feast of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the Church as the reciprocal movement- Jesus goes, and the Spirit – his Spirit – comes. This Sunday though we are caught between the going and the coming, and perhaps we wonder what the Apostles did in the intervening time in Jerusalem? What did they do, and how did they feel?
Jesus’ instructions to them are very clear ‘You must wait for the promise made by my Father… You will be baptised with the Holy Spirit, and within the next few days’ That’s what St Luke wrote at the beginning of the Book of Acts, but at the end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus says a bit more ‘…stay here in this city until you are armed or clothed with power from on high’ Jesu told his followers to wait. Why? It wasn’t as if the Holy Spirit was a car waiting to roll off the production line at Dagenham, it wasn’t as if the church had to put in an order for the Spirit and then wait while DHL delivered it. So what was going on. Why did Jesus tell his disciples, these Apostles that he was sending out into the world to ‘wait’?
The answer surely lies in the nature of waiting. There are all sorts of ways of waiting. We can wait impatiently, as if we were waiting for a D7 bus, fidgeting and thinking to ourselves that we are late, we will be later still, and that the bus will never come.
Then there is the sort of waiting where we go off in a daydream as we wait for something to end or something to happen. Think back to your days at school and you’ll remember this, daydreaming as you gazed out of the window at half past two on a sunny Friday afternoon. I always try to avoid teaching at St Luke’s school on Friday afternoons – what the children feel about being cooped up in school is painfully familiar, and it takes exceptional teaching to get through to minds that are happily, dreamily somewhere else altogether.
And then there is the sort of waiting that is occupied by one thought and one thought only, the sort of waiting that mum and dad know when they are waiting for their first baby – time is short and there is so much to do, the baby’s room to paint, clothes to buy, a pram to get from your sister’s, because her children have all grown up now.
The birth of a baby is a delightful moment, but what about moments of waiting in fear? What about waiting for the whistle to blow an attack to begin over the mud of no-man’s land. A hundred years ago that is the waiting that our great-grandfather’s knew. Seventy years ago, with victory in Europe our grandmothers and grandfathers hoped they would never know that sort of wait in fear again, the waiting between the air-raid siren and the fall of the first bomb.
Then, different to all of these kinds of waiting, there is a sort of waiting that is patiently expectant, making plans, thinking about the future, enjoying the prospect of exciting, challenging things to come, doing what is needful now, to make ready for what is to come. Part of this kind of waiting is about making space in our lives, making time, making room in our minds for a new chapter of life. For the early Church, as we heard this morning, part of the waiting was the practical problem of bringing on a substitute for Judas Iscariot, the traitor whose place needed to be filled from among people who had known Jesus, and seen his death, and his resurrection. So, guided by God, they chose Matthias. This sort of waiting can be busy, but it is also reflective and can be prayer-filled. I suspect that this is the kind of waiting that Jesus wanted his followers to do. Stay in the city, he said, and prepare, be expectant, plan for the future, be excited about that future, the future that would begin the moment that the Holy Spirit came.
Twenty something years ago, when I was first a Curate, I remember being introduced to the poem ‘On Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold. Arnold describes the sound of the tide going out across the shingle beach, and then relates it to another tide that he sees moving away, the sea of faith. The poem goes on
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
It’s a frightening version of the world, that without its faith there is no joy, no love, no light, no certainty, no help for pain, no peace. And I found that picture really disturbing as I began my ministry. Was faith at such a low ebb in our country, in our world? On reflection over the years I have found another truth in this poem, which perhaps Arnold did not mean, but I believe reflects where we are now; that the tide of faith will return again to the world’s shores, as the tide laps at the shingle of the Newcastle drawdock up the road twice a day. And the time before that happens, as I believe it is happening, is precious time for the Church when we must use the waiting constructively. We must be expectant, purposeful and prepare the tools, the institutions and the way of working that we will need to be the church for, and in the future. There’s a lot to reflect on there as we celebrate the Christ Church patronal festival in 2015. Is our church the shape it will need to be to seize the opportunities of the future? Which, after all, is the future God himself wants to give us and welcome us into. Amen