A sermon for Easter 7; Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
Today is a bit of a betwixt and between day. Thursday is the prescribed day to celebrate the Ascension, the story we read in Acts this morning when Jesus ascends into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father. It is one High Holy Day that many congregations do not celebrate because it is in the middle of the week; moreover; it floats around from one day to the next because it is 40 days after Easter Sunday and no matter how hard anyone tries when you divide 40 by 7 (the days in a week) you get a remainder, so Ascension Day moves around. The other end of betwixt and between is Pentecost which is next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit arrives (at least for Luke); a celebration many mark by wearing all manner of red clothing and others by commemorating the birthday of thre church. But today we are betwixt and between. But, there are at least three excellent phrases in the reading from Acts we should at least take a closer look at.
The first is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?
One commentary notes:
They have had three years hearing Jesus teach and witnessing his deeds of power. They witnessed the crucifixion. They saw or were told about the empty tomb. And lastly, they have had 40 days of specific prayer and instruction with Jesus preparing them for their work to come. And still, they have one more religious-political who’s going to be in charge question (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Harrelson).
To which Jesus says It is not for you to know; ~ its none of your business. His answer and the unexpected time since then ought to make it very clear, that God’s plan for restoring Israel is not what anyone expects, that it will not “erupt from the heavens in the twinkling of an eye” nor is it not for a select few to know (Wall). God knows what God is doing, that’s enough for us to know. Jesus goes on to say
You have work to do here and now, go be my witness to the end of the earth, and I will send the Holy Spirit to help. (My paraphrase.)
To borrow a phrase from John’s Gospel story now is the time to work the works God has given us to work (Osvaldo).
After this the disciples witness Jesus ascend into the heavens. Now comes one of my favorite bibles verses: They stood there, staring into the empty sky. (Acts 1:10, The Message). How many times do we get caught up in some sort of speculation about what’s going on in the life of the church or about what God/Jesus/ Spirit is up to and just stare into empty space rather than get about working the work (Bratt)? There are good reasons, well at least there are good excuses. We might not have a clue what to do. We might be overwhelmed by the size of the task, after all the ends of the earth is a long way away no matter where you start. And there is plenty to be afraid of, threats abound; then and now. In places, Christians are physically threatened and or face death. In the United States, there is enough political instability to make us uneasy. In many places, including the Arkansas Delta, there is enough economic uncertainty, to distract us. And we should face the truth that we may be facing our personal fears. Staring into empty space may be just that, or it may be what pondering how to undertake what the unknowable is. Either way, we are not alone.
We are not alone because Jesus does not send disciples or us as individuals out to be witnesses. The ministry of continuing Jesus’ ministry is a task of the community of disciples that share a unity that mirrors the image of the unity between Jesus and the Father that John captures in Jesus’ prayer so that they may be one as we are one (John 17:11). The fact that there has always been intuitional factions does not mean there is not Christian unity. In Acts 1:7 Jesus lets us know that God’s plan is not about political or earthly structures. In John 17:11 Jesus lets us know that unity is relational. And if you go all the way back to the beginning, Genesis teaches us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Remember we are Christians, and as Christians, we understand stand God as Trinity ~ 1 in 3 and 3 in 1, a divine model of community; therefore, we are made to be a community that reflects the divine community.
The final, and by chance 3rd, phrase to pay attention to today is in the final verse they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. If you ever been stumped, and if you ever wonder what Jesus would do ~ the answer is pray (Logue). It is a lesson the disciples learned because prayer, constant prayer, is a foundational piece of their community life. As Episcopalians, we have an abundance of prayer resources. The oldest is in The Book of Common Prayer. If you look in the table of contents, on page 5, you will see 5 forms of daily prayer, 2 of which have 2 forms and also Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families which offers short forms of prayer for morning, midday, early evening, and at the close of day. Beginning on Page 809 you will find 70 prayers for all manner and occasions. If you ever need to pray for something go there, there is something you can use to help get you started; it is a wonderful powerful resource (The Episcopal Church). There is Forward Day by Day that offers a scripture verse and short reflection for every day (Forward Movement). There is The Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Brother give us a word that offers a daily email with a short reflection, and the occasional seasonal online reflections and forms of prayer (SSJE). From now till Pentecost they are offering Thy Kingdom Come in response to and in collaboration with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call to prayer (COE). We are often dismissively referred to as those people with the book. We are ~ those people with the book; a book of prayer, that is one of many ways we as a community can constantly devote ourselves to prayer where ever we are. Our prayer life is important, not because it lets God know what in our hearts, God already knows that. Our prayer life is important because it is how as individuals and as a community we do not let the current concerns of the world, or our passionate commitment to mission, replace our abiding relationship with Jesus. The oneness of the Father and Jesus is their abiding relationship. Our oneness with Jesus and the Father is our abiding relationship with them and each other (Wall). It only makes sense that the abiding place (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) the Father has prepared for us is the same place the work God has given us to work is ~ right here, right now.
Jesus has ascended. The work we are to work is right here. And the promise of the Spirit is right around the corner.
Bratt, Doug. Easter 7 A: Acts 1:6-14. 28 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 28 5 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Forward Movement. “prayer.” n.d. forwardmovement.org. <http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/forward_day_by_day.php?d=26&m=5&y=2017>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 28 5 2017.
Logue, Frank. “Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B).” 28 5 2015. Sermons that Work.
Osvaldo, Vena. “Commentary on John 91:-41.” 20 3 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
SSJE. Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 10 2015. <http://ssje.org/word/>.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.
Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.