Tag Archives: ascension

Sunday, May 17th

ASCENSION OF OUR LORD/SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them. Trinity will also observe the Ascension, but through the lens of texts appointed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I confess that I am motivated, in part, by a desire to escape having to preach on the same texts for the same liturgical feast for the seventh straight year running. But I also feel compelled to address this very important day in the church year from a broader perspective than the appointed lessons allow. Telling Luke’s story of the Ascension without reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in which Jesus returns in the same way he was seen to depart, we can create the impression that Jesus has gone to some distant place beyond the universe to await the end of time. One regrettable liturgical practice calls for the extinguishing of the Pascal candle following the Ascension gospel reading, which only reinforces this misconception.

John’s gospel leaves no room for Jesus’ absence. The gospel concludes not with Jesus departure, but with the disciples following their resurrected Lord into the future. It is as though John cannot imagine the church without the Good Shepherd to guide it. John makes clear that our confession of Jesus’ Ascension to the right hand of the Father must not leave us with his absence, but with the understanding that he is now more imminently and intimately present to us than ever before. Jesus is the right hand of God at work in the world. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, Jesus “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Ephesians 4:10. This is to say that Jesus is now at work in every molecule, bending each sub-atomic particle toward the advent of God’s new creation. Jesus is God’s way of being in the world for us. I like to think of the Ascension as a radical amplification of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh and now remains flesh. God is henceforth fully human-not merely as a species, but human as human was intended to be. God is human as we are not yet human. God’s humanity, God’s right hand is Jesus. And that means there will be no great tribulation unleashed by God nor any dramatic intervention to save us from our own folly. That is not God’s way with us.

In one sense, that is a little upsetting. It is comforting to believe that there is a God in control of the universe, a God that will not let us start a nuclear war or turn the earth into a pressure cooker. I would like to believe that God would never let anything really bad happen to me and that God would rapture me from the face of the earth before it goes up in flames. The trouble is, bad things have happened to me and the ones I love. Bad things are happening all over the world and God does not seem to be intervening-at least not in any dramatic or miraculous way. That leads me to wonder whether God can intervene. I sometimes wonder whether God has limited God’s self in creating a universe that is other than God along with creatures having minds other than God’s. Is human suffering the price we must pay for being creatures capable of making meaningful decisions about how we will live on this planet? Of course, volumes have been written on these subjects. The best overall treatment of the topic I have ever read is a book entitled God & Human Suffering, by Douglas John Hall (c. 1986 by Augsburg Publishing House). I cannot say that it answered all of my questions, but it convinced me that knowing the answers would probably not satisfy me.

What comfort is there, then, in knowing that God’s right had is Jesus? For me, it is good to know that God is human. On the night my grandson died and my wife and I held our son as he wept, wept as I had never seen him weep before, I knew that God’s heart was as broken as ours and that God was weeping with us. At that point, it was good to know that we were in the company of One who had lost his only beloved Son. It is good to know that God knows the ache of chronic hunger, the rage, helplessness and fear of a bullied teen and the loneliness that comes with facing death. Jesus can shepherd me through the valley of the shadow because he has been through it and knows it well.

And there is more. Suffering can break a person. Victims of violent crime can be eaten alive by anger, bitterness and grief. The tragic loss of a loved one, years of verbal and physical abuse, being stuck in grinding poverty-these are things that can extinguish the light of hope in the best of us. But if the resurrection means anything, it means that God does not succumb to despair, does not get sucked into the vortex of vengeance, does not lose the capacity to love the creation-even when it nails him to the cross. No matter what kind of ugliness we throw at God and at each other, God just keeps raising up Jesus who reaches out to us with his nail pierced hands, offering healing and forgiveness. Jesus makes clear that we cannot drag God down to our level.

It may sound trite to say that love will win, but it’s true. Love will win, not because it is the better strategy for achieving the good society or because our own better angels are stronger than the demons that drive us toward death. Love will win because it is eternal. Love is that Spirit binding the Trinity in unity. It existed before time and will outlast time. Our gospel lesson tells us that Jesus came to share with us that very love, love that now inhabits every corner of creation because Jesus is at God’s right hand. Given the grim realities of cruelty, oppression and violence inhabiting our planet, it might take some time for God to bring the world under God’s reign of love. It might take some time for God to reconcile all things through Jesus. But that’s OK. God has all eternity to work with.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8; Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.

I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”

So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.

We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?

I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.

1 John 5:9-13

The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.

“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.

The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.

John 17:6-19

To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.

Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.

The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:

“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.

Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:

“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.

However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.

These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.

Sunday, June 1st

ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Yes, I know that the Ascension of our Lord falls on Thursday, May 29th. Nevertheless, to the consternation of my more liturgically astute colleagues, Trinity celebrates it on the last Sunday of Easter. At least that has been the case for the last six years of my pastorate here. I have always believed that Ascension, like Epiphany, is an essential episode in the story of our Lord. But my chances of pulling together enough worshipers to observe it on a Thursday are slim to none and you know who just left. Better to recognize the Ascension of our Lord on the wrong day than not at all. At least that is how I see it.

I must confess, though, that transitioning from John’s gospel to St. Luke is a little like leaping from a speeding train onto a merry-go-round. John has convinced me that the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the presence of the Resurrected Christ among his disciples. In Luke, of course, Jesus directs the disciples to “stay here in the city [Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49. That clothing with power from on high occurs in Acts 2:1-4 after a period of ten days during which the disciples engage in persistent prayer and select an apostolic successor to Judas. Acts 1:12-26. Luke’s sequence of events forms the basis of our liturgical year. Unfortunately for me, both Luke’s chronology and his theology have been undermined over the last four weeks by our readings from John. John could never have imagined a hiatus of fifty days between Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. So also Jesus is as inseparable from his disciples as from the Father. In John’s thinking, it is conceptually impossible for Jesus to depart from his disciples. Neither could Jesus be present to them as the resurrected Lord apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Try as you may, there is simply no harmonizing these two apostolic witnesses, chronologically or theologically. Maybe jumping off the liturgical Easter train was not such a good idea after all!

Still, despite the cognitive dissonance I have created for myself by abandoning the lectionary, I believe Luke’s witness must also be heard at this time. It is not quite enough to say that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. To say that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father is not to say that he is somewhere “beyond the blue” in glory land. It means rather that whatever God does, he does in and through Jesus. That is to say, we can no longer speak of God apart from God’s Son or speak of God’s acts apart from reference to Jesus. Every effort to understand God prior to, after or without Jesus ends in idolatry. That is why, when a disciple of Jesus picks up the Bible, s/he reads every word through the lens of Jesus. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand-even if it is built on a foundation of biblical passages.

This is why we can say categorically that God does not punish sexual sins with AIDS or destroy cities with hurricanes to punish abortion or cause the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish homosexuality. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament; God’s decisive “no” to retaliatory justice. If God’s right hand is Jesus, it must follow that God does not resort to violence; God does not retaliate; and God does not employ coercive force to get his way. That may be the way Caesar runs his empire, but it is not the way God reigns over the universe.

Herein lies the grounding for Christological pacifism. Jesus is God’s way of bringing about God’s reign. Jesus rejected all means of kingdom building through use of violence when he turned down the devil’s offer to give him the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. Jesus steadfastly refused to employ violence even in his own defense and would not allow his disciples to defend him with violence. The kingdom of God is worth dying for. But it ceases to be God’s kingdom when you believe you must kill for it. If using violent force to defend the life of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, when can the use of violence ever be justified?

Nonetheless, the myth of necessary violence has been so thoroughly ingrained in our psyches that we have a hard time imagining a world without it. Violence has permeated the entertainment media from cartoons to police dramas. The plot always seems to suggest that violent means are necessary to subdue violent people. We have been indoctrinated for generations into believing that peace can only be maintained through maintaining the ability and determination to kill. When Wayne LaPierre of NRA fame said that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was only articulating a deeply held American cultural creed. Your survival, your security and your freedom depend on your willingness and ability to kill anyone who threatens you.

Sadly, the church has bought into that logic. Apart from our Anabaptist sisters and brothers, the church has for the most part lived a schizophrenic existence. We have confessed the prince of peace while blessing the wars of our host nations and glorifying the sacrifice of human lives made to the false god of national security. The theological stratagems we have constructed to justify our alliance with violence, the “just war theory, “two kingdoms” doctrine or “Christian realism,” are best understood as corporate psychic defense mechanisms enabling us to overcome this glaring contradiction. There is no better evidence of their failure than the psychological distress of so many returning veterans deeply scarred by all that they have experienced. Theological rationalizations for violence work just fine on the black board. On the battlefield where real people are called upon to hold together in heart and mind the conflicting commands to love the neighbor and kill the enemy, not so much.

Of course, we who call ourselves pacifists have no claim to moral superiority. We are just as vulnerable to the lure of violent conduct as everyone else. Violence is not limited to the threat or infliction of bodily harm. It includes any type of coercive action to compel, manipulate or intimidate another. We find this sort of violence all too often in the class room, in the board room, in the work place, in our churches and in our families. I am a violent man frequently tempted to resort to violent solutions. I get impatient with people who will not be persuaded to see things my way. No, I don’t own a gun or a pair of brass knuckles. But as a parent, attorney and pastor, I have learned to use the power of position to get what I want. That kind of violence can be just as hurtful and destructive as threatening someone with a weapon.

We are a violent people. Left to ourselves, we would devour each other. But Jesus reminds us that we have not been left to ourselves. We are not orphans. We have been called away from the violent reign of Caesar to abide under the gentle rule of Jesus, God’s tender and merciful right hand. This news is just too good to pass up. That is why I celebrate Ascension-even if I have to do it out of season.

Acts 1:1-11

A couple of things stand out here. First, the word “to stay with” used in vs. 4 of the NRSV can also mean “to eat with.” Meals are an important feature of Jesus’ ministry throughout the gospels, particularly in Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a meal. Luke’s gospel makes a point of introducing the resurrected Christ in the context of meals. It was in the breaking of bread that Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Christ. See Luke 24:28-31. When Jesus appears to the Twelve, he asks them for food and he eats in their presence. Luke 24:36-43. As we have seen throughout the book of Acts, meals continue to remain a central feature of the early disciples’ life together. See, e.g., Acts 2:41-47. Meals were about far more than food consumption in 1st Century Hebrew culture. Who you were was defined in large part by the people with whom you shared your table. Jesus was forever getting himself into trouble by eating with the wrong sorts of people. As we have seen, Peter got himself into hot water with some of the church leaders in Jerusalem for going in to eat with Cornelius and his family, all of whom were Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18. The in breaking of God’s kingdom is nowhere more evident than at the open table of the Lord where hospitality is afforded to all.

My second observation has to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the disciples are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus. Their question about whether Jesus will now restore the kingdom to Israel betrays their lack of comprehension. The kingdom is not for Israel only but for Samaria and even the ends of the earth. Vs. 8. But this will not become clear to the disciples just yet. At Pentecost, the Spirit will fill them and they will preach to Jews from all over the empire that will form the core of the church. That is only the beginning. Philip will bring the gospel to the Samaritans and Peter will, much against his scruples to the contrary, preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul will begin carrying the good news of Jesus Christ “to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8.

Third, the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus-his preaching, his healing and his suffering and death. Thus, as noted previously, the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts are intended to illustrate how the healing power of Jesus is still very much present in the church.

Finally, I am not sure what to make of verse 11 where the angels tell the disciples that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11. Is Luke referring to some second coming of Jesus at the end of time, or to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit soon to occur on Pentecost? Though I have always assumed the former, it is tempting to interpret this verse as pointing forward to Pentecost. Just as Jesus was taken into heaven, we read in the second chapter of Acts that as the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…” Acts 2:1-2. Although the identification of Jesus with the Spirit in Luke-Acts is perhaps not as strong as in the Gospel of John, the Pentecost transformation of the disciples from clueless to articulate preachers of God’s kingdom more than suggests that Jesus is now “in” them. John 14:15-20.

Psalm 93

The acclimation, “The Lord is King,” seems to echo proclamations of kingship found in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., “Absalom is king” (II Samuel 15:10) and “Jehu is King” (II Kings 9:13). This has led some scholars to conclude that this psalm was used in an annual festival, possibly Tabernacles, to enact or celebrate the kingship of Israel’s God. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 209. While plausible, this suggestion is speculative at best. It does appear nevertheless that the psalm is an enthronement liturgy sung at the Jerusalem temple to acclaim God’s reign over all the universe. Vs. 5.

Enthronement ceremonies are believed to have originated in Mesopotamia. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 617. Thus, scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile, viewing it as a liturgy for worship in the second Jerusalem temple. This reasoning is not conclusive, however. Because the enthronement liturgies were present in Mesopotamia centuries before the rise of the Babylonian empire and found their way into Canaanite religion at an early date, it is altogether possible that Israel borrowed this imagery from its Canaanite neighbors during the period of the monarchies or even before. Ibid. 618. In either case, the psalmist expresses the conviction that Israel’s God is enthroned triumphantly over the waters and so also over all sources of chaos, violence and injustice that threaten human life and community. Indeed, these chaotic forces are called upon to give praise to God as their master. Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 178.

The reference in verse 3 to “floods” rising up and “roaring” echoes the Babylonian creation myth in which the god, Marduk, battled and defeated the sea monster, Tiamat for supremacy. The waters generally and the ocean in particular are frequently symbolic of chaos, disorder and evil in ancient near eastern cultures. Moreover, Israel was not a seagoing people. Israelites feared the waters. The only seagoing Israelite in biblical history that comes to my mind is Jonah. We all know how that voyage ended! Yet as terrifying as the waters might be, they are no match for Israel’s God. As in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3, there is no hint of any struggle for supremacy. God has established the world and it shall never be moved. Vs. 1. His throne “is established from of old…from everlasting.” Vs. 2.

This psalm does not assert that Israel is immune from danger and harm. The foods have been an instrument of God’s wrath against human evil generally and Israel’s faithlessness also. Moreover, the very presence of the waters indicates an awareness of destructive and chaotic power within creation over which human beings have no control. Faithfulness to and faith in God are therefore required in order for human beings to live confidently on this dangerous planet.

Ephesians 1:15-23

This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the pulpit without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.

I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.

Luke 24:44-53

Luke must have believed the ascension to be an important piece of the Jesus narrative. Why else would he have told the story twice? This event is both the grand finale of Luke’s gospel and the springboard into the story of the early church in Acts. The two accounts are somewhat different, however. The gospel lesson has Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing his disciples (Vs. 50)-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Luke 1:21-22. Jesus has now re-opened the channel of God’s blessing upon Israel and soon the tongues of the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy once again. I might be reading too much into the story of Zechariah and what I see as its relationship to the ascension account. But I think it is significant that Luke’s gospel begins and ends with blessing. It is also interesting that the gospel ends with the disciples being continually in the temple blessing God whereas it began with the people gathered at the temple to receive God’s blessing. Luke begins with Zechariah being rendered unable to speak God’s blessing. Acts begins with the disciples empowered to speak the gospel in every language under heaven. I am not altogether sure what to make of these suggestive correspondences, but I have a strong suspicion that Luke is up to something important here.

The disciples’ reaction to the ascension is markedly different in the gospel from what is described in the book of Acts. In the gospel, the disciples return from Bethany, the site of the ascension “with great joy.” Vs. 54. In Acts, however, the disciples seem clueless and mystified. They are left dumbstruck, staring into the sky. An angel visitation is needed to clarify for them what just happened. Acts 1:10-11.

Another feature of Acts that does not appear in the gospel is the disciples’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The question indicates a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and precisely the sort of ethnocentric focus on a restored dynasty of David that Luke-Acts seems to be struggling against. But perhaps that is precisely why Luke opens his story of the church with Jesus dispelling such a notion. “Times and seasons” and the rise and fall of earthly nations should not be the concern of the disciples. Their concern should be for witnessing to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.

In the gospel Jesus reminds his disciples how he has told them repeatedly that “everything written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Vs. 44. Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Vs. 45. I do wonder what this means. I would love to know how to “open minds.” A skill like that would make my job ever so much easier. But perhaps I am focusing too much on the present moment. After all, Jesus has been toiling for years to open the minds of his disciples. That the cork finally pops off at this moment does not change the fact that Jesus has been applying pressure to those chronically closed minds for his entire ministry. This opening, then, might not actually have been as instantaneous as first appears. Certainly the parallel account in Acts suggests that there is a good deal of opening yet to be done.

Everything written about Jesus in the” Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” must be fulfilled. Jewish biblical scholars divided the Hebrew scriptures into three categories. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms but also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther. This is perhaps another clue to what it means for one’s mind to be opened. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures, is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus.

 

 

Sunday, May 12th

Ascension of Our Lord

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

It is an astounding claim when you think about it: that Jesus, a man put to death in the fashion of a recalcitrant slave in the backwaters of the Roman Empire two millennia ago “fills all things.” Yet that is what we mean when we confess that Jesus, having been raised from death, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. This ascension is not Jesus’ departure-far from it. In ascending to God’s right hand, Jesus is now more powerfully and intimately present than ever before. As we frequently sing:

“Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine.

But saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.”

Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 389.The lyrics have been slightly changed from when the hymn was originally introduced into Lutheran circles. The last line used to read: “He comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time.” I suspect that the change came about because the church has become a little squeamish about the use of militaristic metaphors in recent years. Being a pacifist myself, I can appreciate that sensitivity and the desire to purge such imagery from our worship language. Still, the Scriptures make frequent use of warfare, battles and weaponry to describe the church’s struggle to be faithful in the midst of a sinful world. That was not a problem in the first century. Metaphoric rather than literal usage was obvious to the New Testament church which lived its entire life testifying to the peace of Christ facing only the business end of the sword. Use of military imagery did not become problematic until the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire and was for the first time in a position to wield the sword. Given the history of ecclesiastical violence stretching from the church sanctioned campaigns against heretics in the fourth century through the crusades, the inquisition, the thirty years war and beyond, it is not surprising that most of us feel distinctly uncomfortable singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers!”

Nevertheless, in spite of the potential for misunderstanding they create, I think we need to retain these potent military metaphors. They remind us that discipleship is a call to live faithfully in a world that is hostile to the Christ now filling it. Trusting Jesus for salvation runs contrary to everything my doctor and financial advisor tell me about what I need for security. They both tell me that preserving my health and my wealth is what ought to be foremost in my thoughts and plans. Jesus tells me that people who cling tenaciously to life lose it and those who lose their lives in service to him gain them. Political leaders of all stripes keep telling me that with the right legislation, the right policies and the right people in office, we can fix America and return her to greatness. St. Paul tells me that this world (America included) is passing away and there isn’t a blessed thing anyone can do about it, but for all who are in Christ there is a new creation. Jesus comes to inaugurate that new creation, but don’t expect the old one to go down without a fight. We are at war, but it is critical to remember that the line of battle between good and evil does not run neatly along national borders, racial lines or class distinctions. The line of demarcation between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, every molecular particle of the universe where the resurrected and ascended Christ claims Lordship. Our marching orders come from the Lamb who was slain. The only weapons we employ are the sword of the spirit, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.

The Sermon on the Mount might not appear to be a very potent battle plan in this world of political attack ads, multi-billion dollar PACs and weapons of mass destruction. So too, a Lamb who was slain seems an unlikely champion against a ten headed beast having the kill power of leopards, bears and dragons. But as we have seen over the last couple of weeks in the Book of Revelation, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension assure us that God is putting his full weight behind the Lamb. That is where the smart money is.

Acts 1:1-11

A couple of things stand out here. First, the word “to stay with” used in vs. 4 of the NRSV can also mean “to eat with.” Meals are an important feature of Jesus ministry throughout the gospels, particularly in Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a meal. Luke’s gospel makes a point of introducing the resurrected Christ in the context of meals. It was in the breaking of bread that Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Christ. See Luke 24:28-31. When Jesus appears to the Twelve, he asks them for food and he eats in their presence. Luke 24:36-43. As we have seen throughout the book of Acts, meals continue to remain a central feature of the early disciples’ life together. See, e.g., Acts 2:41-47. Meals were about far more than food consumption in first century Hebrew culture. Who you were was defined in large part by the people with whom you shared your table. Jesus was forever getting himself into trouble by eating with the wrong sorts of people. As we have seen, Peter got himself into hot water with some of the church leaders in Jerusalem for going in to eat with Cornelius and his family, all of whom were Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18. The in breaking of God’s kingdom is nowhere more evident than at the open table of the Lord where hospitality is afforded to all.

My second observation has to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the disciples are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus. Their question about whether Jesus will now restore the kingdom to Israel betrays their lack of comprehension. The kingdom is not for Israel only but for Samaria and even the ends of the earth. Vs. 8. But this will not become clear to the disciples just yet. At Pentecost, the Spirit will fill them and they will preach to Jews from all over the empire that will form the core of the church. That is only the beginning. Philip will bring the gospel to the Samaritans and Peter will, much against his scruples to the contrary, preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

Third, the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus-his preaching, his healing and his suffering and death. Thus, as noted previously, the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts that we read about earlier this season are intended to illustrate that the healing power of Jesus is still very much present in the church.

Finally, I am not sure what to make of verse 11 where the angels tell the disciples that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11 Is Luke referring to some second coming of Jesus at the end of time, or to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit soon to occur on Pentecost? Though I have always assumed the former, it is tempting to interpret this verse as pointing forward to Pentecost. Just as Jesus was taken into heaven, we read in the second chapter of Acts that as the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…” Acts 2:1-2. Although the identification of Jesus with the Spirit in Luke-Acts is perhaps not as strong as in the Gospel of John, the Pentecost transformation of the disciples from clueless to articulate preachers of God’s kingdom more than suggests that Jesus is now “in” them. John 14:15-20.

Psalm 47

Though it has some affinities with an enthronement hymn that might have been used for a newly anointed king of Judah, this psalm celebrates the reign of Israel’s God. Clapping of hands, shouts of acclimation and trumpet fanfare were all means by which new kings were acclaimed. I Kings 1:39; II Kings 9:13; II Kings 11:12. Here the nations, as God’s rightful subjects, are called upon to make such acclimation. The subjugation of the Canaanite kingdoms under Israel in fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs is proof of God’s sovereignty.

The Ark of the Covenant was often referred to as God’s throne. Therefore, it is possible that this psalm represents a dramatic liturgical re-enactment of David’s bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. See II Samuel 6. This event coincides with David’s pacification of Palestine though a series of military campaigns; hence, the reference to God’s sovereignty having been established through God’s subduing “peoples under us, and nations under our feet.” Vs. 3.

The psalm also has an implied eschatological element, that is, an allusion to the “end times.” Even at the peak of its commercial and military power, Israel was never anything close to an empire in the same league as Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. Consequently, Israel’s God did not achieve the same name recognition and influence as did the cults of these great nations. Unless Israel was suffering delusions of grandeur, one has to assume that the acclimation of God as “King of all the earth” has an anticipatory future dimension. Though it is not evident now, Israel’s God is over all the nations and the day will come when the nations recognize God’s reign and submit to it. Perhaps we are seeing here the seeds of a vision that will come to full bloom in the writings of the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55).

Ephesians 1:15-23

This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the pulpit without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.

There is a neat tie in with the psalm between “For the LORD Most High is to be feared: a great king over all the earth, who subdues the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet at Psalm 47:2-3 and “he has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet” in Ephesians 1:22. What is intriguing here is the tense of the verbs. Whereas the psalm uses a present tense indicating that the process of subduing the peoples is an ongoing task, the author of Ephesians uses a past tense indicating that subjection of all things to Christ is complete. Christ is over all “not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.” Vs. 21. To be sure, the world does not yet acknowledge Jesus as supreme over every rule, authority, power and dominion. Yet this mystery has been revealed to the church over which Jesus is head.

I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.

I believe I preached on this text three years ago when it last came up. Chances are I will again.

Luke 24:44-53

Luke must have believed the ascension to be an important piece of the Jesus narrative. Why else would he have told the story twice? This event is both the grand finale of Luke’s gospel and the springboard into the story of the early church in Acts. The two accounts are somewhat different, however. The gospel lesson has Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing his disciples-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Jesus has now opened the channel of God’s blessing upon Israel and soon the tongues of the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy once again. I might be reading too much into the story of Zechariah and what I see as its relationship to the ascension account. But I think it is significant that Luke’s gospel begins and ends with blessing. It is also interesting that the gospel ends with the disciples being continually in the temple blessing God whereas it began with the people gathered at the temple to receive God’s blessing. Luke begins with Zechariah being rendered unable to speak God’s blessing. Acts begins with the disciples empowered to speak the gospel in every language under heaven. I am not altogether sure what to make of these suggestive correspondences, but I have a strong suspicion that Luke is up to something important here.

The disciples’ reaction to the ascension is markedly different in the gospel from what is described in the book of Acts. In the gospel, the disciples return from Bethany, the site of the ascension “with great joy.” In Acts, however, the disciples seem clueless and mystified. They are left dumbstruck, staring into the sky. An angel visitation is needed to clarify for them what just happened.

Another feature of Acts that does not appear in the gospel is the disciples’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The question indicates a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and precisely the sort of ethnocentric focus on a restored dynasty of David that Luke-Acts seems to be struggling against. But perhaps that is precisely why Luke opens his story of the church with Jesus dispelling such a notion. “Times and seasons” and the rise and fall of earthly nations should not be the concern of the disciples. Their concern should be for witnessing to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.

In the gospel Jesus reminds his disciples how he has told them repeatedly that “everything written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” I do wonder what this means. I would love to know how to “open minds.” A skill like that would make my job ever so much easier. But perhaps I am focusing too much on the present moment. After all, Jesus has been toiling for years to open the minds of his disciples. That the cork finally pops off at this moment does not change the fact that Jesus has been applying pressure to those chronically closed minds for his entire ministry. This opening, then, might not actually have been as instantaneous as first appears. Certainly the parallel account in Acts suggests that there is a good deal of opening yet to be done.

Everything written about Jesus in the” Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” must be fulfilled. Jewish biblical scholars divided the Hebrew scriptures into three categories. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which was the Psalms but also included Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther. This is perhaps another clue to what it means for one’s mind to be opened. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus.