One of the more peculiar aspects of my job is that I am expected to go away on a kind of spiritual holiday, every year at the expense of my parish! I have sometimes wondered what the PCC treasurer would think if I told him I was going to spend my retreat in Barbados. I hope he would be supportive. I usually end up somewhere much less exotic, like Sussex. This three day spiritual vacation, known as a ‘retreat’ by those in the know, is something that any other member of my congregation would need to use their annual holiday, and hard earned cash for… not me, not only is paid for me, I get it in addition to my annual leave! Three days, in the countryside, I suppose you might say that it is one of the few perks of a clergyman’s job! Retreats are fairly commonplace. Anyone who is due to be ordained in the Church of England will probably be expected to go on a retreat immediately before their ordination: a time of peace and quiet, a time of prayer in which you can think deep thoughts about your impending ordination. We probably all hanker after something like this, particularly when we face a big change or challenge. We want to draw back, to take stock and to recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves.
Now you would think that, as Jesus was about to leave his disciples with one of the most daunting of tasks – taking the message of Jesus to the whole world – he would urge them to go on retreat to a quiet place, wouldn’t you? Surely, the conventional wisdom would say, ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, so go off to the countryside, spend some time praying and relaxing, some time in silence, waiting for God to guide you, because it is going to be hard work.’ But that isn’t what Jesus says: ‘so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Not, ‘Go back to Galilee’, but stay in the city. The same place where forty days earlier, Jesus had been arrested, beaten and executed. 'Stay there'. The same place that was so dangerous for the disciples that they fled and hid for fear of their lives. ‘Stay there’, Jesus says, and wait for God’s power.
The city, a place where the church is weak, powerless, threatened; the place where the church must wait for God to provide what she cannot produce for herself: the desire and the strength to take the good news of Jesus to the world. Our culture likes to tell us that there is nothing we cannot do. If someone is weak, they need to become strong; if someone is unemployed they need to get a job; if you aren’t good at something you need to work harder until you are good at it. Everything is down to us.
We can be guilty of thinking that way in Church too. We have to work harder, be more persuasive, have the right kind of worship, preach amazing sermons, and if we do that, the church will stop shrinking and everything will be alright. But as Jesus prepares the church for his absence, he wants them to know that they aren’t powerful. He wants them to stay in the place that reminds them of their weakness, and to wait for God’s presence, God’s strength to come to them.
Perhaps we need to stop running and hiding from our weakness, stop trying to find havens to retreat to which make us feel strong, and stay for a while in the place where our weakness is obvious and wait there for God’s strength.