Acts 1:6-14John 17:1-11
My roommate from seminary, Jon, is now an Episcopal priest. He sent me a postcard a few weeks ago. On the front are four dour looking men with long, frowning faces and even longer beards. On the back Jon wrote this denominational dig at the founder of Presbyterianism: "John Knox and three friends share a joke." If you have any ideas for how to get him back, let me know...
John Knox was a Scottish Catholic priest in the 16th century. He was troubled by many of the excesses of the Church at the time, and was also beginning to get influenced by the teachings of those at the heart of the Reformation. As these ideas began to appear in his sermons and activities, he was forced into exile: first in England, then France, and finally winding up in Geneva, where John Calvin had begun creating a theocracy styled after his own methodical brand of theology.
There's an apocryphal story about John Knox arriving in Geneva on a Sunday afternoon to find Calvin and some friends lawnbowling. He was scandalized by this desecration of the Sabbath day. So we can consider Knox the one who tried to take the fun out of Calvinism.
As the tides turned back home, Knox ended up back in Scotland, and even with a Catholic ruler on the throne, he had so many powerful friends that he was given license to preach freely in Edinburgh. When Knox was on his death bed, he asked his wife to read to him from the 17th chapter of John, specifically verse three: "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." For Knox, with all of the exiles and troubles in his life, he called this favorite passage the place where he "first cast his spiritual anchor." And as he faced the end of his life, he wanted nothing more than to hear these words of certainty about knowing God and the gift of eternity that awaited.
That image of a "spiritual anchor" is an evocative one. It gives the image of a boat, moored in place. The waves rise and fall, the boat moves back and forth, the storms might even rage, but the boat stays firm - not fixed in one place, but flexible. Firmly rooted, but moving out in little circles, gently rising and falling. There is something to this image that we, too, might learn, the idea that we might identify the spiritual anchor (or anchors) in our lives, the place (or places) where we root our spiritual boats that we might be able to move flexibly and withstand the ups and downs of life and yet know that we are not adrift.
It seems fitting to consider this in the echoes of these two texts from John and Acts. In John, Jesus is gathered at table with his disciples there in that Upper Room for their final meal, their last supper, together. The passage comes in the midst of a long prayer by Jesus, where he is linked directly to God and directly to his followers, that this connection might mean their union and strength. It is not long before the disciples will lose that anchor which has held them so fast, Christ himself, who will be betrayed and crucified in a few short hours. The storms of life come crashing in in real and frightening ways.
And yet, there is this odd calm - perhaps a sense of shock as much as anything else - that descends on them in our passage from Acts. Jesus has been with them after the resurrection for forty days now. And as he ascends from the Mount of Olives, leaving them staring at the clouds and blinking at the sun, it is as though they are casting about for another place to drop anchor. And so they return to that upper room where Jesus had shared the cup with them and washed their feet. And it is there that they devote themselves to prayer. The anchor had been Jesus' person, a reliable presence, a challenging teacher, a wonderful healer and miracle worker. And now, as they cast about, their anchor becomes this place, so central to the faith they had inherited and so imbued with its own meaning because of the time spent there with Jesus.
I can't help but wonder if we need anchors. Do we? There is something potent about that image, this idea not that we are fixed in place, unable to move, stubborn and unmovable, cemented and bolted. Maybe our new playground can give a sense of this. We have these incredible new climbing things where the kids can run around and climb and hang and laugh and play. All of these are bolted or cemented into place, obviously necessary for the sake of safety. There is one of these new toys that is a slight exception. It's a little firetruck which, too, is cemented into place; but out of the ground, four springs rise which attach to the bottom of the firetruck. It's safe, like the rest, but it moves. And our contractor tells us that, whenever he's built a playground with one of these firetrucks, it is always the most popular item, no matter how interesting or fun or exciting the other structures might be.
It's like the pine tree, which stands so tall, and sways back and forth with the gentlest of breezes. Yet because of its give, and because it is so firmly rooted, it makes it so much stronger and so much more able to withstand the strong storms, too.
We don't want to be fixed in place; if so, there's no room for God's gentle nudges. But we don't want to be so adrift that there's nothing keeping us from getting lost at sea. Do you have a spiritual anchor? If so, what is it, that thing that speaks of your connection to God, to those things of ultimate meaning? Is it particular music or hymns? Is it the familiar refrains of the Doxology or the Gloria Patri? The words of the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles' Creed? Is it the season of Easter, or other times of the liturgical year, the fasts and feasts that can anchor us into a rhythm of the life of faith, with its moments of exceeding joy and its times that require perseverance? Is it particular places - this sanctuary, this building, a room in your home, a getaway place, the mountains, the beach? Is it particular relationships with family or friends that give you that grounding? Or is it memories, moments in your past that you just knew God was at work, times to which you can return again and again for the nourishment of certainty as those waves crash around?
My hunch is that most of us can name that anchor. And if you can't, or if you find yourselves like the disciples, rooting around for something that seems to be lost to you, then I invite you to find that place or that moment where you knew it most strongly. I invite you to pray, to revisit words or tunes which have meant so much. I am sure that you will find a new place to cast that anchor that you might face the raging of the seas and the rising and falling of the tides.
One final thought on all of this: there may be times when it is appropriate to pull up anchor and trust the wind to carry you away. There are times when we might cast our anchors in places that might miss the mark. Again, I'm struck by the life of John Knox. And as much respect as I have for him as a theologian and as one who withstood the trials of life, I am also aware of those moments where he cast his anchor into troubled water. There was the time when, troubled by the rulers in Scotland, England, and France, all of whom were in opposition to the teachings of the Reformation, and all of whom happened to be female, he published a tract entitled "The First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women." It's a horrific piece to read today. And it did Knox no favors, especially when the Protestant Elizabeth took the throne in England. Not surprisingly, she didn't think very highly of Knox.
The point of all of this is that even those folks whom we might consider the paragons of faith and virtue got it wrong - very wrong - from time to time. How much more for us, that we might miss the mark, that we might find ourselves stuck among the rocks because that which we assumed was of absolute priority was simply of our own design? Could it be time for us to pull up our anchors and trust the winds to take us to fresher waters where the catch might be richer?
Could we learn something from those disciples returning to that Upper Room in Jerusalem, doing the only thing they knew to do, to pray and wait? As we will remember next Sunday in worship and celebration, it was to these folks that the Spirit entered, with the rush of a violent storm, moving them out of that room and out onto the streets where they preached and taught and gathered more into their community that the word might spread further afield. Could it be true for us? Could it be time to pull up that anchor and trust the Spirit, the wind, to carry us to where we should go? It is the prayers we offer that will give us the surest picture and trust of it all.