Prayerful waiting for the Holy Spirit

June 5, 2011

Emmaus House Episcopal Chapel, Atlanta, GA

7th Sunday of Easter – Year A (RCL) – Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

For those who don’t know it, I have a twin sister whose name is Nancy. When we were seniors in high school, one of the biggest decisions we each had to make was what college we would go to.

Now, unlike some twins, neither Nancy nor I cared about going to the same school as each other, but as it turns out, we both wanted to go to the same school. We both wanted to go to Sewanee – in Tennessee. And we were both happy when we were each accepted. It wasn’t until later that we found out that this was a problem.

My parents knew that college was an important time to find your own way in the world – to discover who you are as an individual. Twins going to a small school on top of a mountain was not a good idea, and one afternoon in March of our senior year, my father said as much. So, since Nancy had chosen Sewanee first, it was incumbent upon me to find another place to go.

I knew if I stayed in Texas it would be very easy for me to fall back into the comfortable care of my youth-group friends and family spread out across southeast Texas. In light of this, going out-of-state seemed to be a better option.

After some direction from my mom, I settled on Wittenberg University, a small Lutheran liberal arts school in Springfield, Ohio. My uncle had worked there when I was very young so we spent many summer vacations with cousins running around the empty campus – this element of familiarity was a plus considering that I’d be so far from home, so Wittenberg was the choice.

In early September, the time had come to leave for school. My mom decided that it would be best for her to fly with me as opposed to me traveling alone. She realized that I wasn’t experienced enough to make that trip by myself… and she was right.

With the first leg of the flight delayed, we missed the connecting flight in Dallas. This threw off the entire schedule, and having only flown once before in my life, I would have been lost trying to figure out the best alternative. My mom took care of everything, rearranging the flight and rental car plans and we were on our way.

She had no way to know that when we arrived at the Columbus Airport several hours later, that my luggage would be sitting at the Dayton Airport, over 100 miles away. I was in tears, wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into… now feeling the impending loss of “all things familiar” and all I wanted was to go back home. But that was not an option.

My mom talked to an airline attendant and arranged for my bags to be delivered to the college dorm the following day. So, after a long day of travel, we drove into Springfield in the dark of night, making a quick stop at a local grocery store to get a toothbrush and a t-shirt for me to sleep in.

Through it all, Mom was right there, taking care of things and helping me through each step of this journey. What was I going to do when she left?

The disciples might have been asking themselves a similar question as we look at today’s lessons. The passage from John actually comes just before Jesus is betrayed and arrested leading to his crucifixion. Even so, it is also relevant in the midst of Christ’s Ascension, celebrated last Thursday on the 40th day after the resurrection of Easter Sunday.

This is a passage of Jesus praying for the disciples. In the verses leading up to this prayer, Jesus has told the disciples,

“The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

After the resurrection, Jesus had returned and shown himself to the disciples, but now he was going away again. The disciples were about to be without him, having to rely on what they had learned, no longer with Jesus there to answer their questions or solve their problems.

Jesus prays for his disciples… He isn’t praying for the whole world, but for those whom God has given him. Years earlier, Jesus had said, “Follow me” and they followed.

Jesus spent time revealing God to the disciples. Teaching them through his own actions what and who God is, with compassion and faithfulness at the center of all things. These disciples have been listening and watching Jesus every day.

In the prayer, Jesus reminds them that eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus and understanding their message for the world. It is bringing the kingdom of God into this world, here and now. Jesus asks God to protect them “that they may be one as we are one.” Other translations use the word “keep them” instead of “protect them” – like a mother hen keeping her chicks safe. Like my own mother, keeping me safe as long as she could, but knowing that I have to be on my own eventually.

So too with the disciples, though they will be scattered, away from one another, the prayer is for oneness and connectedness in spite of their physical separation. Remembering what they have learned and hoping they will live into it.

We heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus explaining that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. This power will enable them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and the entire earth. After seeing the Ascension of Christ, the first thing the disciples do is go back to the upper room and devote themselves to prayer, and waiting for the Holy Spirit who will help them.

I don’t know about you, but for me, this waiting can become a time of frustration… patience isn’t my strong suit. But for the disciples, they understood it as a time of prayer, that is, active waiting:

… a time to engage God,
… to ask what they are to do,
… perhaps even a time to purposefully rest for the journey that’s ahead.

But mostly, to wait on the Advocate being sent to them in the Holy Spirit… and trusting that the Holy Spirit will indeed come.

I’m sure I didn’t have that level of understanding as I woke up in Springfield Ohio that first day of college orientation. Instead I was putting on stale clothes worn the day before and wondering what mistake I had made thinking I could survive so far from home, on my own.

Yet, as my mom and I sat having breakfast in the university dining hall, a girl about my age came up to the table and said, “Hi Jody, do you remember me?” I didn’t have a clue who she was and didn’t try to guess. So after a brief moment she said, “I’m Leslie Overturf.”

Wow! Leslie was a childhood friend who had moved away after sixth grade – we had been great friends, both tomboys, running around together, spending the night at each other’s houses. Even so, when her family moved away to New Jersey, we hadn’t kept in touch – there were no cell phones, no internet or Facebook… we would have had to write actual letters, so needless to say, we didn’t stay in touch. But now, here she was, an incoming freshman, along with me, at Wittenberg.

Looking back, I realize that she was my Holy Spirit in a way… my Advocate. My link to what was familiar, even though so much time had passed since we had seen each other. I had someone from “home,” not to take my mom’s place, but to provide a connection in some way.

I realized very quickly that my parents had been right about my sister and me going to different schools. They trusted that they had taught us what they could and now it was time for each of us to be on our own in the world, yet not alone.

Jesus taught the disciples what he could in the time he had in this world. Now it was time for them to move forward without him physically there – going forth to bring eternal life to all… the eternal life that is simply knowing who God is and who Jesus is and how by caring for one another we bring the community that is God’s kingdom into this world.

As we continue in the same work the disciples did, we may find persecution and challenges, but we trust that we are being protected and cared for along the journey.

And when we’re not sure where to go next, it’s time to wait… pray… wait… pray some more… wait… and see where God would have us be.

It is often in this time of waiting that we let the Holy Spirit enter in and direct our path in the way God would have us go.


I invite your thoughts and insights.

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