YGRHRN

A sermon for Easter 7; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

 

In my trolling. around trying to find better ways to organize all the organizing tools I use I have come across a website named IFTTT, which means “if this then that.” Examples of what it allows you to automatically do are upload attachments from emails to google driver; or if it going to rain tomorrow add a reminder to your calendar. Today’s reading from Acts is another example that there is nothing in the world because it is an IFTTT story.

The “If this” is if the number of Jesus’ chosen followers is not twelve, and the “then that” is to choose a replacement. But why 12, why not 11, or 13? In ancient times numbers had meaning beyond count; 12, like 7, is a number for completeness. 12 has from her earliest days been a part of Israel’s history. In Genesis, Jacob has 12 sons, who become the 12 tribes of Israel (Keener and Walton).

Part of Jesus’ teaching is the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, so there must be 12 leaders for the 12 tribes of the new Israel (Harrelson; Gaventa and Petersen). In his opening lines Peter says the scriptures must be fulfilled, in verses we did not read (18-20), Peter cites the psalms (109) as reason to fill the empty apostle’s place (Wall). So far, we see the need for the 12th man is the symbolic restoration of Israel, and so that Israel will be whole (Allen). Restoring the Twelve also addresses any question of divine faithfulness. God’s fidelity is involved in the presence of the Twelve (Wall). There also the implication that as the Twelve are complete Jesus followers are ready for whatever is ahead of them (Keener and Walton).

The next sentence (2 verses) lays out the requirements. He must be male, and here the word is male (Bratt). He must be with them from the beginning (John’s baptism) until the Ascension and have been an eye witness to everything (Harrelson). He must become, with the remaining 11, a witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Wall).

An aside; this is not the only description of an apostle in the New Testament. Paul uses the apostle, which means “one sent” to refer to many followers, not just the Twelve. Both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene are depicted as apostles to the apostles (Harrelson). It is worth noting all the people sent with the first word of Jesus’ resurrection are women. An Apostle can be anyone sent as a witness of God/Jesus/Spirit.

Back to the story from Acts. The next step is nominations. Nothing is said about how this happens, only that 2, Joseph called Justus and Matthias, are proposed.

The third step is that the group prays. In Luke prayer surrounds all significant moments. Here the story touches on the reading from the Gospel according to John which recounts Jesus praying for all the disciples. Jesus asks the Father to protect them as he sends them into the world, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world (John 17:15-19) (Lewis). Prayer encircles the entire community, who follow Jesus, as they prepare to make this decision. It reminds them they are always encircled by divine love. And it connects them to divine wisdom, power, and insight (Epperly).

The final step in filling the Twelfth Apostle is to choose. Following common practices of the day they cast lots. They are not engaging in magic, which is forbidden. They are continuing the trust they place in God in their prayers. Saul casts lots, the Urim and Thummim, in 1st Samuel to a question (1Samuel 14:36-44) (Harrelson). Lots are used in Joshua (19: 1-40) and Jonah (1:7-8) (Wall). Urim and Thummin are typically restricted to priest, so the disciples are likely using a lot marked for each that are placed in a jar that is shaken until one falls out, or something similar (Wall). As we heard Mathias is chosen.

It is curious to note this is the last time we read about Mathias in scripture. After a dozen or so chapters Peter is no longer heard from. In fact, all twelve chosen apostles fade into the background (Harrelson; Wall). With this realization suddenly “If This Then That” doesn’t seem to carry the meaning of this story. Perhaps the message is “Not That, This.”

There other succession stories in scripture, there is nothing particularly significant about this process (Wall). And while it does remind us to trust God’s quiet voice far more than our carefully constructed processes, the story is not about process, or us, the story is about the continually “in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth” (Allen). While it is true that God works through Peter, and Matthias, and the other chosen apostles, and disciples, and the whole host of those who believe, and doubt, the story is that God’s kingdom continues to make its way into the world right here, and there, and everywhere, right now, and tomorrow, and forever. The story is that even in the in between times (and remember the Spirit has not yet arrived) the Kingdom is present, God is present in the in between times.

There are lots of people living in between times. I am living between having retired and being retired; between living at 1121 and living at 6651 or is it 15. Some of you have kids who are between one grade and the next. There are kids between parents. There are parents and loved ones between this type of care at home and another type of care perhaps not at home. There are people between this job and the next. We are approaching election season, so we are between our current representatives and the next. There are all kinds of betweens, and God is present in all of them. When our trusted symbols are no longer available; God/Jesus/Spirit is available to you. Today’s story from Acts isn’t “If This”, nor “Not This” but “YG-RH-RN” Yes, God is right here, right now.

References

Allen, Amy Lindeman. Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. 13 5 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Bratt, Doug. Easter 7 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. 13 5 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 4 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. “Prayers Needed.” 13 5 2018. Working preacher.
McCormack, Jerrod. “In the Space In-Between, Easter 7 (B).” 13 5 2018. Sermons that Work.
Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.
Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

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Joy, Worship, and Ministry

A sermon for Easter 7 / Ascension

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, Luke 24:44-53

My favorite scenes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind are:

  • Richard Dreyfus’ mysterious sunburn he got in the dark of the night;
  • the spaceship blowing everything off the stage the first time it plays the three note sequence, and
  • the magnificent ascension of the space ship into the stars.

There is a similar scene in the movie Knowing as mystic creatures gather all the species of earth, two by two in the ethereal ships that ascend into the stars, just before the earth is destroyed by a massive solar flare. There are all kinds of stories about a hero ascending. Greek mythology tells how Hercules ascends to the gods to avoid death; Roman mythology tells us Romulus has “been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.” In Sumerian mythology, there is the story of Adap ascending to the gods, escaping death. (Ancient Origins) No matter the age of the story something about seeing someone ascend to the stars ascend into the heavens catches our imagination.

The same is true in the Bible. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Genesis 5:24) We all know the story of Elijah being carried off in a chariot and horses of fire ascending in a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11) Of course there is a New Testament ascension story, otherwise we’d never observe Jesus’ Ascension, 40 days after Easter. (Which is always a Thursday so it’s rarely observed in these times.) Matthew and Mark imply an ascension. John treats Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as one event. But Luke describes Jesus’ ascension in short but significant detail. And, by the way, the Epistles also refer to Jesus’ ascension, especially Hebrews, from which we get the marvelous invitation to confession

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14, 16)

Jesus’ ascension is also woven into the heart of the Christian tradition. In both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed we hear:

… rose again according to the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead

To be honest, Jesus’ ascension creates a concern: because some say Jesus has gone away, he’s not here anymore. However; that’s not exactly true. Luke’s tale ends:

And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when we were reading  through the resurrections stories; every time Jesus shows up the disciples are terrified. Today, fear has turn to joy, worship, and blessing. (Troftgruben) Jesus’s presence with God,  in divine glory, is the final assurance of our inheritance of redemption. It is the source of energy for the mission of the Church. We hear that in the collect appointed for the celebration of the Ascension that “he abides with his Church on earth,  even to the end of the ages…”

So, now we know a little something about ascension myths in the broader cultures, of ancient times, and today. We’ve touched on ascension stories from the Old Testament. We’ve noted the difference in how the evangelists treat the Ascension, from part of a single story to inferences, to a specific event. We’ve touched on the references to the Ascension in the Christian traditions of Creeds, Liturgies, Holy Days, and collects. We’ve even explored the question:  “Is Jesus gone?” And now we find ourselves in that part of the homiletical exercise where we are challenged to ponder “So what?”

Well to do that, let’s stop and take a look at where Luke is. Unlike the other Evangelists, Luke produced two stories; the first, his Gospel, about Jesus, the second about the continuing ministry of the disciples and the beginnings of the Church. The Ascension acts like a pivot; it swings our attention from the story of Jesus’ ministry, as Messiah on earth, to the continuing ministry, the witness of those who believe, to those not yet transformed. Ben Helmer writes:

The Ascension makes Jesus a universal figure, drawing us all to him, and sending us to be witnesses of the Good News. There is no time to ponder; Now is the time to act – together. (Helmer)

Br. Geoffrey Tristram speaks of this time as one when, as the disciples do, we know we can break the death barrier, because

The Ascension was the means by which Jesus was able to share the fruits of his redemptive love with us – share his victory over death with us. (Tristram)

I believe it’s a time we realize we can break the mission barrier because Jesus shares the fruits of his love with us.

Luke’s Gospel begins at the Temple with the promise of Elizabeth’s conceiving. Zechariah stumbles out of the Temple unable to speak. Those around him aren’t sure what’s going on; however, as readers we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann) As his Gospel tale closes, the disciples are gathered at the Temple, joyfully worshiping, and blessing God. Once again, we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann)

Sisters and brothers ~ nothing has changed, something marvelous is about to happen. The presence of the ascended Jesus continues to be a conduit of divine love and victory; continues to be a force for breaking barriers; continues to provide believers with propensity to change the world; and continues to goad us to act ~ now, with whoever we find a common bond. Yes, it means change, read the rest of Acts about that. Yes, it means risk, read Paul’s story. But it also means joy  ~ joy born of being in God’s loving presence, joy born of another’s life touched by grace and coming to know the shalom of God; joy born of one less division between God’s people. And I don’t believe it’s always giant mission projects, although there are plenty around. I believe such joy comes from simple one on one encounters; encounter between you, and the stranger of the moment. I believe such joy comes as we witness God’s love touch another. I believe such joy comes as we are touched by the other. I believe such joy leads to worship, leads to ministry.


References

n.d. 17 5 2015. <http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ascension-heavens- ancient-mythology-001471>.

Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Vol. Genesis. Louisville, n.d.

Culpper, R. Allan. New Interpreter’s Bible, The Gospel of Luke. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. 9. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Ellingsen, Mark. Ascension. 14 5 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Rev Ben. Sermons that Work. 17 5 2015.

Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Petersen, David L and Beverly R Gavenat. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Tristram, Br. Geoffrey. Breaking the Death Barrier – Br. Geoffrey Tristram. 16 5 2010. 17 5 2015. <http://ssje.org/ssje/2010/05/16/breakingthedeathbarrierbrgeoffreytristram/&gt;.

Troftgruben, Troy. Commentary on Luke 24:4453. 17 5 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.