Transitions between historical eras are denoted mostly by the wars that separated them. I suppose it makes sense. Wars are relatively easy to remember: they’re big, loud, violent, and feature colorful heroes and villains. It’s the way history is taught and written about, and least in American schools. The same is not true for marking the transitions in humanity’s relationship with God from one era to the next. They’re not marked by wars, but if not, by what?
Holy scripture and the church year mark transitions from one era to another by significant moments in which conditions defining God’s relationship with humanity are changed dramatically, leaving God’s people confused and wondering what will come next. A time of confused wondering is hardly a memorable moment. We experience too many of them in ordinary life, but when they involve a new revelation from God that redefines humanity’s relationships with each other, creation, and God, they become historical markers of significance.
The story told in Hebrew scriptures unfolds from one transition to another as God is progressively revealed. In each, those to whom God has made ‘himself’ known in new ways are left in states of doubt, misunderstanding, and wonder as they try to figure out what’s going on, and what they’re expected to do. They are the stories of the patriarchs and Moses, judges, and prophets.
Hebrew scriptures have the luxury of wondering as they wander over two thousand years of revelation progressing from one era to the next. Christian scriptures compress it into a few decades on which hinge all of history and every era past, present and yet to come. No wonder the disciples were often in a state of confusion and doubt. Jesus brought an explosion of dramatic change into the world from the moment of his conception, through his death and resurrection, to his departure, which we remember tomorrow, Thursday, May 21, on the Feast of the Ascension.
A popular Anglican prayer instructs us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the story. His followers had no time to take it all in, much less inwardly digest it. Remember, it was only forty days ago that Jesus was crucified and buried. His resurrection was a surprise, hard to understand and easily disbelieved. It was more than disorienting to discover he was, and always had been, God incarnate, not just the young but uncommonly wise miracle working carpenter from Nazareth. Forty days is not long enough to get used to the idea, and suddenly, poof, he ascended out of sight. Never to be seen again? And now what? We call them disciples, but who did they think they were? What did they think they were supposed to do? And what, for crying out loud, was going to happen next?
We know that in ten days we will celebrate Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We know that within thirty years the Christian faith would spread throughout the Roman Empire. They didn’t know that! How could they? All they could do was trust in God, whom they now knew in Christ Jesus.
We live in our own time of uncertainty, marked by too many wars to count, and now a pandemic that’s upset the economic fortunes of the entire world. It’s upsetting. It raises our anxieties. It’s important, no doubt about that. But as we were reminded last Sunday, it is in God that we live and move and have our being. God’s ways may not be our ways but in following Jesus we can be confident we are walking in God’s ways no matter what else is going on around us. Confused and wondering as we might be, let us follow the example of Mary, Peter and the others, and surrender our anxieties to God, even when we don’t know what will come next.