As we draw towards the end of May, it’s hard to believe that we’ve been in lockdown for approaching 10 weeks. Who could’ve imagined in those first few weeks of 2020 what the coming days and months would look like across the face of our planet?
As always, I’m writing this letter from my office desk at the vicarage, where over these many weeks I’ve been spending considerably more time in front of a computer screen than ever before, editing together readings, intercessions, sermons and pieces of organ music from our beloved Jules, to make our Sunday morning worship accessible to as many people as possible.
Both myself and Sarah, who’s a trustee for the brilliant local charity ‘Mercy in Action’ which, along with overseas mission work in the Philippines, works to support some of the most vulnerable and poor in our city, have been out and about dropping off food parcels and medicines around the city. It’s been amazing to see the kindness, generosity and care that so many have shown to others in these difficult days – the weekly applause for the NHS workers has been a great example of this. It’s been such a joy to join in with the cheers, whistles and pot banging echoing across the Widcombe valley and beyond each Thursday evening.
Daily, I continue to be in contact with church family, staff team members and multiple church leaders from across the city. Most of us had never heard of Zoom before February – now we are ‘Zooming’ every day to vast numbers of people. This week, for example, marks the launch of a new online Alpha course with some 20 guests logging on to seek answers to some of the bigger spiritual questions many are asking. Without doubt, it’s evident that whilst church buildings may be closed, the church of Jesus Christ is very much alive and growing.
Sadly, of course, Jenny and I have also been involved in quite a few funerals. And I know, for many I meet, these days of isolation and challenge continue to be filled with fear and increasing uncertainty about what the future holds, along with the very real challenges of home-schooling, extended furlough, job losses and persistent separation from loved ones.
So, it’s into this context (with our Easter celebrations being so unusual this year) that last week’s ‘Feast of Ascension of Jesus’ felt a bit like a bolt from the blue! Ascension Day marks the day when Jesus was ‘taken up into heaven’ right in front of his disciples. One witty soul commented that this feast appropriately marks the first day that Jesus started working from home!
48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Jesus’ Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives near Bethany, where Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. In the original Aramaic, one of the meanings of ‘Bethany’ is ‘house of figs’ and Scripture is full of these sorts of frequently overlooked little details, which so often are there for a reason.
The first time we read about figs in Scripture is, of course, when Adam and Eve back in Genesis 2:16–17 use leaves from a fig tree as clothing to hide themselves, having disobeyed God and eaten from the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Adam and Eve’s cobbled attempt at covering up their sin with a temporary and, presumably highly risky, fix is such a human trait isn’t it? We mess up and all too often simply try and cover it up – perhaps we tell a white lie, or deflect, or make excuses, or like Adam and Eve, just run and hide!
But God doesn’t abandon us in our mess, He calls to us, searches for and finds us, drawing us to Himself with His love and compassion.
And so here, at Bethany, at the house of figs, verse 45 of Luke tells us that Jesus ‘opened their minds so they could understand.’ It’s as though God doesn’t want anything hidden any more. Jesus explains and reveals the full extent of God’s great plan for Salvation: His place in it, along with their place in it and concludes by telling the disciples to wait, because they will soon amazingly be ‘clothed with power from on high.’
No longer ashamed and fearful, hiding behind flimsy fig leaves of fear or timidity and insecurity, these disciples emerge, fully and confidently clothed in the power of the Holy Spirit, radiantly revealed as children of God, boldly standing their ground – unashamed and resplendent in their new clothing – the Holy Spirit! These previously confused, timid, argumentative and ramshackle followers of Jesus emerge from lockdown with a bang! And a flash – as it happens – as the Holy Spirit descends on them, empowering them and driving them out into the world to share the transforming news of the Kingdom with words, works and wonders!
So what about you and me?
I know in the past I have tried at times to hide my faith behind flimsy fig leaves of fear and insecurity, or hide my struggles behind fig leaves of other constructions – success, wit, achievements? It’s all too easy for us to mask our struggles, inadequacies and failures.
But as we emerge into this new, unfamiliar landscape post lockdown, I love to dream and imagine you and me, the church in Widcombe and beyond, clothed not with success or stature,self-confidence or past glories, but simply clothed in God’s power from on high. All else stripped away, simply now garbed in the presence of God’s goodness, mercy and glory, and able to emerge boldly with renewed confidence and vigourto proclaim the good news of Jesus to a hungry world.
So, just as God opened the disciples’ minds, maybe in this season we too could pray with rekindled expectation for our friends, our neighboursand our colleagues, that their minds might be opened to know God’s goodness and love in extraordinary ways, so that they too may come to believe.
Much thought, love and prayers in these complicated days,
Tim, Sarah, Ellie, Sam and Jo. x