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Revised Common Lectionary Readings:
Ascension of the Lord (June 2): Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Seventh Sunday of Easter (June 5): Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
We are nearing the end of the Easter Season, and some congregations may choose to celebrate Ascension Sunday and use those readings rather than the Seventh Sunday of Easter readings so I have included both in this post.
If you are choosing the Ascension passages, Luke 24:44-53 shares the Ascension, which makes a great place to end the Gospel of Luke, and just like a lot of sequels, it is summed up again at the beginning of Acts. Luke offers proof of who Jesus is based on the words of Scripture: Moses is the central figure of the Law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible; the Prophets are the second part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Psalms make up the beginning of the Writings, the third and final part of the Hebrew Bible. Luke is showing that what they have been taught, what their people have been through–all of their history, teachings and writings have been pointing the way for the Messiah, and Luke proclaims Jesus as the Messiah.
The Acts lessons from both sets of readings overlap somewhat. The Ascension reading begins with the introduction by the author of Luke and Acts to Theophilus, writing that the accounts of the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection serve as evidence of who Jesus really was: the Messiah, the Son of the living God, summing up what he said at the end of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus promises the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” will come upon them soon, and that they are not to leave Jerusalem (foreshadowing to the day of Pentecost which we will celebrate the following week). But it is clear the Holy Spirit is already present–Jesus has given instructions (vs. 2) through the Holy Spirit. Again, this is great foreshadowing for us using the lectionary because Trinity Sunday will be the Sunday after Pentecost, a great time to wonder at the works of God the Creator, Christ the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit.
The overlapping passage of vs. 6-11 shares the story of the Ascension. As it has been pointed out by many scholars, the disciples watch Jesus ascend into heaven but two angels turn their attention away. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (vs. 11). The attention of the disciples is not to be watching their Savior depart from them again, but to be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit, and to be prepared for Christ to come again in a new way. In vs. 6-7, the disciples ask Jesus if this is the end–if this is when Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel. The disciples are still thinking in earthly terms–they are still wanting a messianic King who will conquer the Roman Empire and return power to the earthly kingdom of Israel. Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (vs. 7). In a time when the discussion of the “Rapture” (a word not found in the book of Revelation at all) and the end times, it is a reminder for us to cool our heads. We are to always be prepared for Christ to enter our lives in a new way, as the parable of the bridesmaids reminds us. We need to be prepared, we need to be awake and ready for God to do something new. But we cannot possibly know exactly how that is to happen and when and those that do are most certainly leading us astray. Turn your focus away from that, the angels seem to be telling the disciples, and turn instead to the work of God through the Holy Spirit here on earth.
Verses 12-14 tell us that the disciples didn’t have to go far to get back to Jerusalem, and that they gathered together to pray. Luke is great in reminding us that the group of disciples included men and women. We must remember that in these early days, in the few short weeks that Jesus appeared after the resurrection, the believers were few in number. Vs. 15, beyond our pericope for today, tells us that there were about 120 people who believed, but of the close followers of Jesus, they could all fit into an upstairs room. They were still outcasts. Perhaps some people felt sorry for them. There may have been others who believed in Jesus but did not experience his appearance after the resurrection. Others may have lost their faith after his death, and still others despised Jesus and his disciples. But this little group, despite their scattering after the trial, came together and remained together to pray, even after Jesus ascended. As we remain in this transition time, now almost two thousand years, between when Jesus ascended and when Jesus will come again, what is our focus? Where is our attention? Who are we gathered with and what do we do when we are gathered together?
John 17:1-11 contains part of the farewell discourse of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and betrayal. A fitting reading before Pentecost, it includes the prayer for unity of the disciples: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (vs. 11). For us, almost 2000 years later, this prayer is poignant. Jesus prays beforehand that all the disciples would understand that we belong to God, that all we have comes from God, that we have the gift of eternal life as well as new life on earth. Christ prays for unity for his followers, but we go our own ways. We strive for right-ness over righteousness. We strive for being first rather than being last. We work so hard to keep our possessions and create more wealth rather than seeking out the poor and sharing what we have with others. Often we do not work for unity, but instead we work for our own gain. To pray the prayer that Jesus prays for us calls into question our way of life and our selfish behavior, and for many of us, we aren’t ready to go there. We don’t want to face that. We want to believe we are doing enough yet still keeping ourselves number one. Jesus teaches again and again that in order to be first, we must be last of all and servant of all. In order to gain, we must be willing to lose. Most of us aren’t there yet. But as we have read throughout the book of Acts this Easter season, the early followers of the Way of Jesus gave up their possessions, shared what they had with others. They perceived fellowship more important than ownership. They sought prayer rather than debate. They studied Scripture together rather than quoting verses to each other. Our lives could be much, much richer, if we sought to live the Way of Christ rather than our own ways. And I’ll be honest: I’m not there yet. I still put myself above others and my wants and desires above the needs of others. I’ve got a long, long way to go. But if we all work together and pray together, we can seek God’s righteousness over right-ness.
Ephesians 1:15-23 is an encouraging message to the early Christians. I often refer to Ephesians as “the world’s first chain letter.” Scholars don’t think Paul wrote it specifically for Ephesus as earlier manuscripts do not contain that reference, but rather this letter or portions of other letters put together in this one were distributed among churches and we found the version that went to Ephesus. This part in particular encourages the faithful and reminds them that Christ is the true authority and that the church is Christ’s body.
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5: 6-11 concludes our readings of 1 Peter that have been part of the Lectionary this Easter season. Again, the reminder is to persevere in times of suffering, but also a reminder to be ready for the coming of Christ into a new way in our lives. Resist evil and cling to what is good. When we are broken, Christ will restore us. We have to be careful, as I have been saying, about reading 1 Peter in context, understanding that God does not desire suffering, but when we do suffer, when we do face persecution, to know that Christ will redeem and restore us, and to keep the faith in Christ.
Psalm 47 is a psalm of praise to God, the true King, not only of Israel but of all the nations of the earth. God is Triumphant, merciful and great. Psalm 93 is also a psalm praising God the King, but of all creation as well. Psalm 68 sings of God the King, triumphant over enemies but the protector of widows and orphans. God is not only king but Father/Mother of us all, and we are God’s family.
We are God’s family, and God calls us to be one, as Christ prayed for our unity, that we may be focused on righteousness for the sake of God and others, and not on right-ness. That we may be awake and ready for Christ to break open into our lives in a new way, to come riding in on the clouds and wind of change, to sweep over the earth and make things new, without being preoccupied with worry or fret, things that distract us from the coming reign of God. We are called to live as brothers and sisters in this world, now. We are called into living Christ’s Way, now. Let us live out the Gospel message.
Call to Worship (from Psalm 139):
Leader: Where can we go from God’s presence? Where can we flee from God’s spirit?
People: If we ascend to heaven, God is there. If we die on earth, God is here.
Leader: If we take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
People: God, even there your hand shall lead me, your hand shall hold me fast.
Leader: Even if the darkness covers us, and the light around us becomes night,
People: Even the darkness is not dark to you, O God.
Leader: For the night is as bright as the day,
People: Darkness is as light to you.
Leader: Come, let us worship the God who created us.
People: Let us worship the God who brings us into life.
Prayer of Confession:
Triune God, Three-in-One, we confess that while we celebrate your Unity, we have done our part to create discord and division. We have not prayed enough to be one, but rather we have prayed to be right. We have not prayed for our brothers and sisters to be reconciled to us, but we have prayed that they would be punished and that we would be rewarded. We confess that we have put being right above righteousness. We have put ourselves above Your ways of living and caring for the poor and the outcast. We have saved our own skin rather than risked ourselves for our brothers and sisters in the world. Forgive us, O God, for not living into Your vision of unity. Forgive us, O God, when we seek our own ways rather than Your ways, when we twist Your teachings to satisfy living our ways rather than truly seeking Your ways. For You are the Father and Mother of orphans, the protector of widows, the caregiver of the poor, the great Physician for the sick. Help us to do our part, to repent of our selfishness, and to turn back to You. In the name of Christ, our Redeemer and Savior, we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon:
Jesus prayed, “May they be one, as you and I are one.” May we turn away from division and work towards reconciliation, knowing that we ourselves are forgiven and reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, and Friend on this journey of faith. Amen.
Prayer (from Ephesians 1):
Loving God, we pray that You, the Creator of Glory, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we may come into relationship with You in a closer way, that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened. May we know Your immeasurable greatness of Your power. May You work in us to build Your reign here on earth. May we know this hope that You have called us to, the hope of new life now and the promise of the resurrection. We pray in the name of the Risen Christ, the head of the Church, that we as the body may know the fullness of Christ in our lives, and continue to work for the reign of God here on earth. Amen.
“Seek Ye First” would go well with the message this week of seeking the reign of God, the unity of Christ in our lives first and foremost. Another suggestion, an old favorite, is “Be Thou My Vision.”