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Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11 or Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1 or 47 or 93; Luke 24:44-53 or John 17:6-19;
Ephesians 1:15-23 or 1 John 5:9-13
There are two sets of readings today for Ascension Sunday and the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
Acts 1:1-11 is a reintroduction by the author of Luke, summarizing the death and resurrection of Christ, and describing the Ascension a second time (the first time is another reading for today, Luke 24). Jesus’ parting words to the disciples is that it is not for them (or us) to know the time and place when the kingdom will be restored to Israel–suggesting that the disciples, and perhaps the author of Luke/Acts also still hoped for an earthly kingdom of Israel. However, Jesus was clear in Luke 17:21 that the kingdom or reign of God is within us–it is already present. Nonetheless, we still wait a day when Christ will come in a new way. As we waited in Advent, and waited in Lent, so now we continue to wait and watch for Christ to do something new, to enter the world and our lives in a new way. But as the disciples did, so we too often look in the wrong direction. We look for signs of the end of the world. We look for signs that things are getting better or getting worse. Rather, the reign of God is within us, and while we wait for Christ to do something new, we participate in the reign of God now.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 is the only place in the New Testament where we hear what happened to the disciples after Judas betrayed Jesus, in how they chose a new “apostle” to replace him. Luke/Acts has a distinction between disciples and apostles–disciples can be any followers of Jesus, not just the twelve, but apostles becomes a term referring just to the twelve, and later to Paul–but in Paul’s letters and elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no distinction in terms for followers of Jesus. The number twelve of course was significant throughout the Scriptures and Jewish history, referring to the twelve tribes of Israel. By the time of Jesus, tribal distinction had faded except for the Levites and a few others, but after two exiles, most of the old distinctions were lost. In the belief of the restoration of the earthly kingdom of Israel, there was also a belief in the restoration of the twelve tribes–by having twelve apostles, the kingdom was ready to be restored.
Psalm 1 declares two choices: to follow the way of God or not. Those that follow God will have roots, will be fed spiritually, and will bear fruit in the world, whereas those that do not will have no place to stand before God but will be blown away, like chaff in the wind.
Psalm 47 is a song praising God for being above all earthly kings. God is the God of all people, as a king of kings.
Psalm 93 also describes God as a king, but the one who made the world, and the world responds to God’s kingship. God is greater than the world.
Luke 24:44-53 is the first ascension description by the author of Luke/Acts, going back to the scriptures of “Moses, the prophets and the psalms” to explain who Jesus was and the recent events of his death and resurrection. The disciples are “witnesses of these things” and are called to share the Good News, as we are called to continue to declare the Good News. Only Luke/Acts contain ascension stories–the other Gospels do not explain what happens to Jesus after the resurrection, and neither does Paul. As we understand our world and universe better than we did 2000 years ago, and we know that heaven is not necessarily above the earth, the ascension stories don’t make sense when read literally. We need to grow in our understanding of what the ascension means–a re/turning to a fuller relationship with God, and the Second Coming–re/turning to a fuller relationship with us and creation.
John 17:6-19 is part of Jesus’ final discourse, preparing the disciples for the crucifixion but also the resurrection, and that God will send The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to enter the disciple’s lives in a new way. Luke also mentions this, but John goes into greater detail (and has a different story of how the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in John 20). John prepares the disciples for times of mourning that will turn to joy. We all experience at one time or another the “absence” of God. We are in a place so dark that we cannot experience any joy nor understand where God is. John reminds us that even in those dark times, the light shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome. Our sorrow will turn to joy, but in that time of waiting, it is difficult. We must hold on to the love of God, knowing that God will come through.
Ephesians 1:15-23 shares that while Christ is with God, the church is the body of Christ, and is the fullness of Christ. This is the ascension in Paul (and students of Paul, as Ephesians was probably not written by Paul himself)–the church is the body of Christ on earth. Christ is one with God, and one with us through the body, the church.
1 John 5:9-13 looks to the promise of eternal life. While our testimony, our witness and sharing of what God has done in our lives, is important–the testimony of God, what God has done in the world is even greater. While the traditional belief has been that those who believe in Jesus are granted eternal life and those that do not believe don’t have it, there is a different understanding present here: those that have Jesus have life, because the new life in Christ begins now. As Christians sometimes we focus way too much on life after death instead of life before death.
I remember seeing a sign in a cathedral in England for the Christian Children’s Fund that read, “We believe in life before death.” I think this is important for us to remember, that as followers of Christ we believe in the promise of new life now. This is why we work for justice and peace in this world. This is why we stand against hate and stand for love. We believe there is new life now. We also believe that Christ will come into our lives in a new way, come into our world in a new way, and we work and act for justice, peace and reconciliation in helping to build up the reign of God, which is already present among us. But most importantly, we love because Christ first loved us and we continue to love in the name of God, to bring the message that new life begins now, a life that is before death, but more importantly, transcends death.
Call to Worship:
Leader: A new day has begun.
People: Hope wins!
Leader: A fresh start is granted.
People: Faith wins!
Leader: Today you have the opportunity to do something new.
People: Hope wins!
Leader: Christ is entering your life in a new way.
People: Faith wins!
Leader: Come, let us worship God, who is inviting us into life in a new way, a way that transcends death, a way of hope and faith.
People: Love wins! Let us worship Christ, who overcame death to give us new life!
Prayer of Confession:
Ancient of Days, we confess that we forget to truly live our lives. We go from one task to the next, we get too busy to notice the world around us. We ignore the poor and the hungry and push away our families because there is too much to do. We are caught up in the ways of the world that call us to rush and work hard. Forgive us, God, for not taking time for You. Forgive us, God, for not making time for our relationships. Forgive us, God, for not seeing our brothers and sisters, for putting the ways of the world above Your ways of love and compassion. Call us into the New Life You have given us now, so that we may live into the promise of eternal life. In the name of Jesus, who calls us to The Way, we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon:
Whoever has Christ has life. We are called into the way of Christ, and no matter where we turn or fall away, we can always hear the voice of Christ calling us back. The promise of new life is always available. You are forgiven. You are loved. Come and follow Christ. Amen.
Holy Jesus, You came into our world to share with us the New Life that begins now and transcends death. You shared with us the ways of love and peace, to seek justice and mercy. When we fall away, loving Jesus, call us back. When we can’t feel Your way above the pace of the world, loving Jesus, slow us down. When we can’t hear Your voice above the buzzing of the world around us, loving Jesus, call to us again and again. Guide us into Your way, so that we might continue to build up Your reign that You created in us. We wait for You to come into our lives in a new way, to come into our world again, and we wait by continuing to seek justice and mercy, to love and care for our brothers and sisters in the world. Guide our feet always into the ways of Your peace and love. Amen.