IN THE SPACE IN-BETWEEN
[RCL]: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
In a sense, we could say that on this particular Sunday the Church gathers in the space between because earlier this week it was Ascension day. It used to be a holy high day, where no work was done and attendance at church was important, if not obligatory. Ascension is the turning point, between the sixth and the seventh Sunday after Easter, where we are once again invited to enter a period of waiting. Next week is Pentecost Sunday — in the lives of those first disciples, the waiting lasted a little longer, the time between the moment they last saw the risen, physical, Jesus, and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, who empowered them for their callings.
In a sense, these days between Ascension and Pentecost are a little different, because the waiting is like a pause — a pause between the hope of the past and the hope for the future.
It is sometimes hard to hold this space because we’re so eager to move on and find a new direction. There have been several life-changing events in my life that I rushed the ‘in-between’ time because I was so eager to get from the old to the new. Like waiting for our first child to be born, or the day we left our home of 44 years, or when we made the decision to leave Africa and settle in the UK. I hurried those interim times along, impatiently, and with hindsight, I think I missed some of the blessings God had in mind.
It is possible to treat Ascension Day as a kind of ‘preemptive Pentecost’, but to do so misses an important life lesson because it is the in-between that invites us to find depth and to hold the anxiety and fears of the future at bay, as we embrace the moment. Jesus has left the disciples, well in human form, but there is still that promise that the Holy Spirit will come. They must simply, wait.
If you’ve ever stood at the door of a significant change in your life and found yourself anxious and waiting, longing for an answer or a direction in your life, you’ve experienced what psychologists and anthropologists call liminal space. I read all the time about ‘subliminal’ things: subliminal advertising, or messaging, to get us to unconsciously buy or do things.
Richard Rohr describes liminal space this way: “It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
It is all about TRANSITION.
It’s a very natural response to the uncertainty and ambiguity of this Ascension Sunday place. We find ourselves longing for the truth and structure of what was or of what will be. Uncertainty is not easy to live with. The good old days or a hoped for better future are often much easier to cope with than present reality.
Let’s consider then, how Christ handled things like this. In the uncertainty, Jesus doesn’t run away from the liminal space between his ministry and his crucifixion. Instead, he enters into that space and he reflects on the current state of the unknown. Jesus provides us with some idea of how to properly inhabit the space in-between the answers. Inhabiting the space in-between the answers is hard, but it is also most formative. Learning to live with the paradoxes of life and faith takes spiritual maturity.
This Gospel text can be a confusing one to read. Jesus, the long-promised, long-awaited Messiah, has come, has died, has risen from the dead, has walked and talked with many after his resurrection, and now talks about going away for good, but says that God’s power will protect the believers from Satan, will send them out into the world, and will make them holy (sanctified).
Think about this place in the history of our Lord and of the disciples, and of the beginnings of the Church of Christ, as the struggle that takes place in the space in-between. Then it starts to make sense. Jesus looks back at his time with his disciples and his work in the world, but he also speaks of his reunification with the Father in heaven and receiving once again the glory that was his from beyond time. Jesus’ discourse gives us this beautiful proclamation of his relationship with God the Father, with his disciples, and with the whole world.
Jesus speaks about his relationship with God, that he has proclaimed God’s word to the whole world. At the beginning of chapter 15, Jesus says, “Since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
He goes on to repeat his mission and ministry in the world and talks about the way he has proclaimed God’s word to those whom God has given to Him.
I think the space in-between the ascension of Jesus and the coming with power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was occasion for the disciples to begin to understand that Jesus did not come simply for them, or for Israel in the first century — but that he had come for the whole world, and now returning to his Father and his rightful place, he was telling us all to get on with the work of proclaiming the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. So simple, yet so hard to to get our heads around, let alone commit our lives to.
Then Jesus asks those who follow him — first the disciples, and subsequently all who have chosen to follow him, to embrace another paradox: you cannot do this all by yourself so I will provide all you need.
The Word has come, that is, Jesus has come. The world has hated those who received Jesus because they no longer belong to the world. We may have legal citizenship of a certain country of the earth, but as Christians, we are also citizens of heaven. Dual nationality. We have to live as good citizens of the earth but we also know that our faith and trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is our passport into eternal life with God.
Nicodemus once came to Jesus seeking to understand the kingdom of God. Jesus explains that in order to see the kingdom, one must be born again. It left Nicodemus perplexed. He was so perplexed that he asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” It is a paradox in which we’re called to live.
We live in the already and the not-yet of God’s kingdom. It is an in-between place. These earthly years are an opportunity for us to become more and more set apart from worldly things and more and more useful to the eternal purposes of God. Think about it, for at the end of this passage, Jesus begins to talk about the need to be sanctified. Now there is a lovely mumbo jumbo theological word for us.
Sanctified is simply a word that means to be set apart.
To make it really simple: one day you were born, and one day you will die. In the space in-between those events, every single person who has accepted Christ by faith has the opportunity and the responsibility, to become set apart from the world, and to do God’s work.
Jesus has already set himself apart from the glory of heaven and is about to set himself apart through the cross. He says, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
Today’s scripture calls us to set ourselves apart for God’s purposes in the world. You and I are part of the family of God, and we have an amazing responsibility. Jesus did not teach us to withdraw from society in order to be set apart, rather he showed us that in living our lives being faithful and true to the Good News, we would speak the truth, create justice, and offer mercy.
Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday and I will talk some more about the power Jesus gives to us so that we can do this work. But this week, take some time to consider how you might be in the space in-between realising what God is asking of you and having no idea how you are going to get that done, and then wait patiently for God to show you how he is going to do it.