When I was still at Primary School, my parents went to Africa. My dad worked in the coffee industry and for professional reasons he had to go out and spend a few months in Mombasa. However, it was decided (I didn’t have any say in the matter, of course) that I would remain at home, in the charge of my elder sisters, while my parents were away.
I have only a few rather hazy memories of that period when my parents were abroad, and it occurred to me while I was writing this address that I have never really talked to my sisters about what the experience was like from their perspective – I suspect that it can’t have been much fun, finding themselves responsible for a rather badly behaved young kid for a period of months. But the one or two memories I do have are quite revealing.
I have a fleeting memory of my parents leaving our house to set off for the airport – which I certainly wouldn’t have described as an emotionally-charged event. We were never a very tactile family at the best of times – actually, I don’t think many families were back in those days. Indeed, I seem to recall my elder sister once telling me that her final words to my mother on her departure were: ‘How often should we clean the toilet?’
But beyond that, I really don’t remember very much at all about the following three months – a fact that is perhaps significant in itself. Because (greatly to the credit of my big sisters!), from my own point of view, life continued pretty much as normal. I was properly fed; I was clothed (they must have done all my washing and ironing); I was looked after; and I continued to go to school each day, as usual. I have a faint recollection of them dividing the cooking between them, and I do recall a particular incident when I was being singularly vile and made life difficult because I didn’t want to go to school that day – but apart from that, they knew the normal routine and they managed to keep the show on the road magnificently.
The only major spanner in the works was something completely unexpected and unprecedented. One lunchtime, an incident on the playing fields of my school left me with a broken arm. I was taken to hospital (I think in a taxi, accompanied by a member of the school staff) – where I spent several hours, culminating in surgery under a general anaesthetic; the whole procedure leaving me with an arm that was in plaster from my fingertips to the top of my shoulder.
So my poor sisters were no longer simply having to look after a ghastly primary school age child, but they also had to embrace a different kind of regime, as I needed all sorts of special help with getting dressed and getting fed, and being bathed, and just about everything else – and they had to work most of that out for themselves. Because in addition, my school were firmly of the view that my mother shouldn’t be informed of my injury, because they thought she would worry – she certainly had the shock of her life when she returned home to find me encased in plaster – so my sisters weren’t able to consult my mother either. But my heroic siblings managed extremely well with all of those challenges, and I should probably take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to them, because I don’t think I have ever done it before now.
Strangely enough that little episode from my own life was haunting me as I was reflecting on today’s Bible readings. Perhaps because what the readings and my story seem to have in common, is that they both take as their starting point the departure of someone who is normally in control, leaving others with the responsibility of keeping the show on the road (on the one hand the disciples, as Jesus takes his leave of them; on the other, my poor sisters, who suddenly found themselves left in charge, when my mum and dad headed off to another continent). And they all have to do their best; they have to find their own way. They begin by doing what they know, and when the unexpected happens, they have to work out how to deal with it.
I always find this particular day, the Sunday after the Ascension, to be perhaps the weirdest Sunday in the whole of the Christian calendar. Thursday was Ascension Day: the occasion when the Risen Lord finally takes his leave of the disciples, and returns to his heavenly Father after a series of resurrection appearances to them. He promises them that he is not abandoning them forever, because the Holy Spirit will be coming to them. But the descent of the Spirit has not yet happened – that doesn’t take place until the feast of Pentecost, which is next Sunday.
So here we are now, standing as it were alongside the first disciples, in a bizarre kind of theological waiting room, poised between the departure of the Risen Christ, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. And how do the disciples deal with this situation?
Well, perfectly understandably, they begin by feeling the absolute priority is to replicate what they have known before – the tried and tested ways of doing things – preserving everything that they had learned from Jesus. Which is doubtless why it is that the first thing that the disciples do is to replace Judas, who had of course fallen from grace because of his betrayal, and subsequently died an appalling death. But if you stop to think about it – particularly with the benefit of hindsight – surely that is rather an odd thing to regard as the most pressing priority.
Why did they think it so important to do that? Because, of course, Jesus had himself called twelve disciples, and that number was highly significant. Because those twelve men represented the twelve tribes of Israel, believed to be the descendants of the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob, which is why the tribes bore their names. But by the time of Jesus, the vast majority of those tribes had been lost – reduced to two and a bit. So Jesus’s decision to surround himself with twelve men symbolised the long-hoped for restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel in the forthcoming kingdom of God. Of course that number appeared to be of overriding significance, as was the tradition of preserving the twelve at all costs – and yet that particular perspective was to prove very short lived indeed.
Because immediately after the selection of Matthias as the replacement for Judas, the Holy Spirit arrives – at which point the disciples discover that the ministry that has been entrusted to them; the message of salvation from the crucified and risen Lord, in fact extends far beyond the twelve tribes of Israel – indeed, it is a message for the whole of humanity – an insight that St Paul, the self-styled apostle to the Gentiles, was to pick up and make his own. In other words, the disciples start off by replicating exactly what they know – but they soon have to start doing things differently because suddenly circumstances change dramatically.
I find all of this such an interesting model for the Christian life. Jesus goes before us as our model, our pattern in all things, embodying the sacrificial love and grace and forgiveness of God, and his promise of new life. And we are, of course, called to set his example before us, as we strive to discover what it means to live as his disciples. And although it might feel like it sometimes, we are not left abandoned or forlorn: because God’s Holy Spirit is there to guide us and to empower us.
But of course, discipleship is not like painting by numbers: all of us will encounter the unexpected; challenges that blow apart our sense of certainty; changing circumstances that require us to rethink what faith might be demanding of us, and to embrace new ways of doing things. But then, nobody, least of all Jesus, ever said that it was going to be easy. Quite the reverse.
But the good news is that, even though we will inevitably get things wrong sometimes, the most important thing that is required of us, is that we give of our best; that we always strive to act with love in our hearts, knowing that in doing so, we are responding to the love that has been shown to us by God. And that very often, it is precisely when we need it most that the smallest glimmer of encouragement; the gift of the Holy Spirit to comfort, and strengthen and sustain us, is what we need for that next step; and sometimes that is all we need.
In the words of the Collect that we prayed earlier:
O God, the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Jesus Christ
is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.