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Stories in the Threshold - the 7th Sunday of Easter

Updated: May 17

Easter 7B: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1

1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

May 12, 2024

Good Morning, St. Aidan’s. It’s hard to believe Eastertide is nearing its close. Already we stand at the beginning of its seventh and final week. We have now made our way from the Easter Vigil and the empty tomb through the several quietly beautiful stories of Jesus’ risen encounters with the disciples. The fortieth of these Great Fifty Days occurred this past Thursday in the Feast of the Ascension. The reading appointed for that day from the Acts of the Apostles tells how Jesus gathered “the apostles whom he had chosen” in Jerusalem. They tried to pin him down about what would happen next, and whether the time (the χρόνος) had arrived when God would upend the oppression of the Roman empire and restore the kingdom of Israel. In response, he redirected them, saying that it was not for them to know God’s χρόνους ἢ καιροὺς – the “times or seasons,” opportune, in-breaking moments. Instead, he said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:6-8). Before they could for clarification, “as they were watching, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” As they stood there gazing heavenward, utterly agape, two glowing figures appeared next to them and basically said “what are you looking at?” Get on with it (Acts 1:9-11)! Never mind that that their beloved Jesus who had died, who had been raised again, was now, again, no longer with them. But what was this last teaching he had offered them, again? They would receive power when the holy Spirit had come upon them. And they would be his witnesses. So, the immediate instruction to tease out was: wait.

This is where Eastertide locates us this morning: in a posture of waiting. It strikes me as oddly Advent-like. Advent locates us between the already and not yet of the first and second Advents, and invites us to a posture of expectation, anticipation of the in-breaking kingdom, the dream of God (in Verna Dozier’s phrase). That season sharpens our awareness of the location of our mortal lives, living between these “times and seasons.” So too does today’s seasonal location. But the difference now is at least two-fold. First, we are rooted in the sabbath saturated ethos of Easter astonishment and joy.  Second, what Jesus has invited us to anticipate in this moment is the coming of the Holy Spirit. To be fair, we are cheating a bit in our Holy Spirit anticipation—the disciples were perhaps less clear about what would come next in the wake of Jesus’ ascension. And to be yet more fair, none of these mysteries are as neatly schematized as the liturgical year plots them— God paints with a rather messy palette. Yet there is something uniquely powerful about the location of this day, the seventh Sunday of Easter, and the posture of Pentecost anticipation in which it locates us, how this day plots us into an ongoing story, how this day forms us and invites us to embrace our own ongoing formation as disciples of Jesus Christ. Here we are in a story that began before us and will continue after us, to reach back to Bishop Cole’s sermon of last Saturday’s consecration. Here we are at a moment in that story when we are to wait consciously for the coming, activating power of the Holy Spirit. Today we are invited to anticipate that coming Spirit with story: stories that connect us to where we have come from and open us to the new possibilities of where God is leading us.

The passage from the Acts of the Apostles that we heard this morning underscores the power of story-telling in this in-between locale. Jesus had ascended and the group had returned to the upper room of the house where they were staying in Jerusalem. The eleven remaining apostles whom Jesus had chosen were gathering regularly for prayer “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as [Jesus’] brothers,” Acts explains just before our passage begins (Acts 1:13-14). Then, in our scene, Peter speaks to the gathered crowd of believers – about 120. In this liminal location, this space of anticipation, he tells a story. This story is intended to guide their decision-making process. The process is about choosing a twelfth person to fill out the number of the apostles. Why would that need to happen? Because one of their original number, Judas, was no longer among them (Acts 1:16-22). This is where the practice and the ethics of storytelling enters the frame. Judas, you may recall, betrayed Jesus to the authorities, leading to Jesus’ arrest and death. He had obtained payment for this betrayal, and had died afterwards. In his rich and insightful commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, theologian Willie James Jennings invites a careful look at how Judas is narrated in this moment. He notes, “The past contains betrayal that now requires consideration of a replacement. Judas must be replaced, but first Judas will be placed, inscribed in the narrative as the one who was the tool of the empire in the imprisonment, torture and death of Jesus.”[1] Peter in particular, Jennings continues, “functions in the power of the storyteller. He will tell the story of Judas in a way that moralizes his life and… places on Judas the whole history of their betrayal. Peter and the other disciples are free,” Jennings observes, but Judas gets placed in the role of “carry[ing] the burden of collective guilt.”[2] To be sure, Judas betrayed Jesus, even unto Jesus’ death. Yet Judas was far from the only disciple to let Jesus down. He was being narrated by Peter in a way that moved the apostles’ replacement process forward, that led to the choice of Matthias by lot. The story Peter tells about Judas, Jennings asserts, “is the logic… of the waiting, the logic of the before.”[3]

In the waiting, in times of preparation, as we await the unknown, we have a need to tell stories. Stories help us to actively engage in our waiting. They prepare us to become agents, participating in what God is bringing to us, what God bringing us into. We work to narrate our experiences—joyous, mundane, and awful, and perhaps especially the awful, to help shore us up against that which exceeds our ability to comprehend, experiences and histories that may feel as though they threaten to undo us. To tell stories is a crucially important, spiritually significant, formative project. But, to return to Peter’s summation of Judas, Jennings invites us to remember, “the last word will not come from Peter. It will come from Jesus. Divine opinion is separate from Peter’s opinion.” In storytelling, Jennings says, crucially, “both realms of past and present merge… and only an ethic born of the resurrected life of Jesus can guide us in how to flow in both realms.” Peter, perhaps still smarting from the shame of his betrayals, anxious in the uncertainty of this post resurrection moment, seems not to be grounded enough to “flow in both realms.” Jennings bluntly assesses, “at this moment Peter has no flow.”[4] 

I would imagine all of that gathered group of 120+ had little to no “flow.” They had to have been unmoored to some degree. Astonished and then buoyed by resurrection accompaniment over the previous forty or so days, they now were without their risen savior, uncertain exactly how they would be changed in the days to come. They needed to tell stories to help anchor themselves in a present that emerged from a traumatic, resoundingly transformative past, in preparation for an uncertain but profoundly hopeful future. Their flailing narrative attempts clarify how important it is for the stories of our experiences to be grounded in “an ethic born of the resurrected life of Jesus,”[5] an ethic in which past and present can flow, an ethic that locates all of us in the power of God who reaches into the grave with unfathomable love and compassion. Our location in this Eastertide threshold, anticipating Pentecost, invites us into story—Jesus’, the disciples, our own. Year by year, our practices of worship saturated in story-telling form us for that work. These practices ask us, what might it look like to tell stories grounded in “an ethic born of the resurrected life of Jesus”? How might our stories open us, allowing us to flow into God’s future with careful, compassionate awareness of the past?

In contemplating these questions I’ve been reminded of a story I helped bring further to light several years ago. Over the course of almost a decade, I worked with my friend Jacob Lau to publish a memoir written by a transgender man named Michael Dillon who later took a Buddhist monastic name, Lobsang Jivaka. Jivaka was of my grandparents’ generation, born in England in 1915. He gained access to medical transition during World War II, went on to medical school and became a ship’s surgeon, traveling the world in the Merchant Navy. He was a spiritual explorer, born into a Church of England family and a practicing Anglican before he decided later in life to pursue Buddhist spiritual practice. He retreated to India after he was outed as having transitioned in sensationalist newspaper stories, leaving his family, friends, his entire previous life entirely behind. As his Buddhist practice deepened, he went on to publish extensively about the tradition for English-reading audiences, and finally composed a memoir so that his story could be narrated on his terms: “in his own way, in his own time.” He mailed a complete, typed draft of that memoir to his publisher on his birthday, May 1st, 1962, but by the time it arrived in England he had mysteriously died on May 15th. We are now located, I realize, in that anticipatory time between his May 1st birthday, the day of the manuscript’s mailing; May 15th, the day he died; and the unknown but slightly later date of the manuscript’s arrival. The existence of the manuscript was known for decades, and was accessed for writing about Jivaka, but it was long in danger of disposal by an unsupportive brother, and had never been published as Jivaka had always intended. Jacob and I learned of the memoir’s existence as we attended a reading at the Brookline Booksmith in Massachusetts by Pagan Kennedy. Kennedy had written a book about Dillon/Jivaka, and she mentioned drawing upon the memoir.[6] When we approached her after the reading, she helped us access the manuscript. Over the next several years we transcribed it and co-wrote an introduction. In 2016, just as I was arriving here at St. Aidan’s, it was finally published. We were honored that pioneering trans studies scholar Susan Stryker wrote a foreword to the book, noting how Jivaka’s life and writing “took him to primal scenes of meaning-making…” This is a process that entails braiding together various experiences and frames of meaning from the spiritual to the scientific. Much depends upon how one’s experience, as Stryker writes, “is framed, narrated, validated, and transmitted.” Jacob and I, as “students of religion,” were “especially attuned to this dual dimension of Dillon/Jivaka’s life quest… consequently deepen[ing] our understanding of him – and of the nonsecular qualities of that transsexual/transgender life processes can harbor.”[7] I appreciated Stryker’s use of the term “nonsecular” because it names and pushes back against the all too binary sorting of “trans” from “spiritual” or “religious,” the all too pervasive assumption that discerning one’s trans-ness, being trans, and critically narrating trans life is necessarily secular or to be worked out separately from that which is framed as “religious,” or even “spiritual.” I would not have thought of it in these terms at the time, but in helping to bring the memoir to publication, I sought to practice an ethic of the kind of “flow” Jennings names, seeking to honor the intentions of a pioneering forbear; opening up new possibilities for trans community, including awareness of our history; and for all of us, whether we are trans or not, to become in ways that refuses the strictures of those who would imprison us in false binaries, or distorting narratives.

On this Seventh Sunday of Easter, I pray that, each in our own ways, we might to continue seeking out ways to practice an ethic born of the resurrected life of Jesus. How might we learn to share stories with care and compassion, as a practice of openness on this holy threshold, openess to the incoming Holy Spirit who will greet us and empower us with joy and life next week. May we step into this practice of storytelling with awe, care, and compassion.

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 24.

[2] Jennings, 24-25

[3] Jennings, 25

[4] Jennings, 25

[5] Jennings, 25

[6] Pagan Kennedy, The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2007)

[7] Susan Stryker, Foreword to Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016)

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