The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's Church
Sunday, 13th May 2018 at 11.15 AM
I wonder how many of you watched the gripping final of the 2018 World Snooker Championships on Bank Holiday Monday? The sheer excitement and tension of the occasion was unforgettable. After four gruelling rounds John Higgins and Mark Williams faced each other in the championship final. John Higgins had been world champion on four previous occasions; Mark Williams had twice before been world champion. Both men were at the very top of their game. And the match lived up to its hype. Played over two days and thirty four rounds, the match was very closely fought. Williams had a 10 – 7 lead overnight, but Higgins came back on the following day, taking advantage of a costly mistake by Williams in one frame, and then making a maximum break in a later round. Williams still led by 15 frames to 10 at the beginning of the final session, but Higgins then won five frames in a row, levelling the score at 15 all. The two finalists were playing superlatively, and the audience was utterly absorbed in the contest. In the 33rd frame, Williams missed a pink ball that would have clinched the title; and Higgins counter-cleared to pull the score back to 16 frames to 17. At the beginning or frame 34 you simply could not know who was going to win this match. The fear and excitement were palpable.
After the Ascension of Jesus and before the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the first disciples had to live through a period of almost unbearable waiting. They had, themselves, experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during the previous weeks: cheering Jesus into Jerusalem as palms were waved in his honour; living with the guilt of betrayal and the searing grief of bereavement as Jesus died; then the astonishment and sheer joy of meeting with Jesus risen from the dead; and then farewells again as Jesus was finally taken into heaven. So now, these disciples wait with baited breath in Jerusalem, just as Jesus had instructed them to do. They have no idea what to expect next. We can imagine the heady mixture of excitement and fear that kept them on tenterhooks. What will God do next? Unfamiliar territory beckons ahead. What will be the implications for them when God next acts?
And with a bit more imagination we might also think of God himself waiting, holding his breath to see what might happen next; for if the disciples think that they are involved in a risky venture, so too is God. God has already risked his all with this frail little band of men and women. Whatever happens when the Holy Spirit is given, the success of God’s plan will depend on the reaction of these disciples. And given their performance to date, there’s no guarantee at all as to how they will react in the way on which the fulfilment of God’s plan depends.
We get more than a hint of this sense of the risk which God is taking in today’s gospel reading. The reading is part of the prayer which we are told Jesus prayed sometime before his betrayal and death. ‘Holy Father, protect [the disciples] in your name that you have given me’, runs the prayer. There is fear for the future here on the lips of Jesus, a fear for what the future may hold for these followers of Christ.
Well, we may think that all these years on after the coming of the Holy Spirit things will have changed. But those first disciples, waiting in excitement and fear, are a model for us – Jesus’ disciples today. Christian faith today, as well as 2000 years ago, is about learning to wait with expectancy for what God will do next in his world. Christian faith is about looking and trusting that God will act, even if God then surprises us and acts in quite unexpected ways. And if it is God whom we’re expecting to act then we should not be surprised to find our expectancy tempered with excitement and fear.
Where might God act today? In the lives of individuals, certainly – why not? I know that there are those among you who can speak of God acting in your lives, bringing you to faith, deepening your sense of hope and purpose, changing your priorities, calling you to pray and to serve your neighbour. There are many people here, and well beyond Westminster, who can and do bear witness to God working in their lives today. Or perhaps you have seen God’s hand at work on a wider stage, in national or international affairs? After all, only a month or two ago, who would have thought that we would see the Presidents of North and South Korea walking hand in hand across the border between their countries? And equally where disaster has struck a community, or in times of great suffering we can also see God at work. There is a deep truth in the observation that were the evils of sin abound in our world, there God’s grace abounds too. We only need the eyes of faith to see that grace at work and to receive it.
So, it is right and proper that we should hold our breath and live with a sense of expectation that God will be at work in our world, even today. If we don’t have that sense of excitement and risk, we’re in danger of simply missing the point and failing to recognise the signs of God’s kingdom around us.
And perhaps it may also be true that God still holds his breath, so to speak, in excitement and fear about our own involvement in his world. Perhaps it is just possible that we mere humans might come to a point where we so co-operate with God that we actually manage to abolish the ravages of famine in our world? Or eradicate the fear and the arrogance which can lead us to war? Or will we instead choose to destroy our God-given planet by the terrors of nuclear violence or the creeping poisons of pollution? You see, the Christian faith represents a risky enterprise for God and for us, both alike.
In his autobiography The Calling of a Cuckoo, the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, puts it this way (p 171):
‘We are called to join in God’s amazing agenda of unending love with all the grace, guts and intellectual, spiritual, moral energy and insight we can muster. I am convinced that God will multiply our efforts in ever more far-reaching and engaging ways if we will just take the risk. It is odd and sad that religious authorities and strongly religious individuals should expend such energy to protect God and the faithful from risk when the God we worship has taken the colossal risk of creation, following it with the incarnation and persevering with engagement, enduring forgiveness and the suffering hope of sacrificial service in and through the Spirit.’
Wait for God, by all means, with those first disciples – but wait excited and fearful, expecting God to act here among us, today.
Oh yes, and for those who didn’t watch the World Championship snooker final on Monday: I can tell you that it was won by the Welshman Mark Williams, after a wonderful winning break of 69 in the final frame of the match.