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Easter 7: The Sunday after Ascension Day, 2017 — 28 May 17

Easter 7: The Sunday after Ascension Day, 2017

RCL Year A Easter 7
Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10 and 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11, Saint John 17:1-11

Today is the single Sunday of the Christian Year that we focus on the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, was Ascension Day, and Ascensiontide bridges Easter and Pentecost.

The Gospel today is the first third or so of the seventeenth chapter of Saint John. This chapter since the sixteenth century has been known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus.

Of interest to me is the fact that today also is the only Sunday of the Christian Year that the Gospel is taken from this chapter. Next year we shall have the middle third of this chapter, and the year after that the final third of this chapter before the cycle begins again.

The “high priestly prayer” of Jesus falls in Saint John as the climax of the Gospel before his passion. Its setting is the Last Supper, and Jesus lays aside his instructions and teachings to the disciples. As the Gospel itself says, Jesus “looked up to heaven,”[1] and addresses God the Father directly as the disciples only overhear.

The prayer Jesus makes is that of an intercessor to God the Father on behalf of the disciples who overhear but also for future disciples, which includes you and me. Jesus uses many phrases resembling the Lord’s Prayer. Remember that Jesus earlier told the disciples that he would send another Advocate in his absence. And so, in this Jesus in this prayer begins to do on earth what he will do in heaven after his Ascension: he prays for his disciples. The second Advocate whom Jesus will send is the Holy Spirit whose descent we celebrate next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.

And so, after all this introduction to the Gospel, what does this have to do with you and me? The principal petition Jesus makes for you and for me comes at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus asks the Father to protect you and to protect me. This petition Jesus makes so that we, you and I, may be one with him and one with the Father.

That union is indissoluble so long as we are Jesus’ disciples. And that union is the basis of Saint Paul’s declaration in the Epistle to the Romans that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2]

How you appropriate that indissoluble union is yours to determine. You are free to minister in Christ’s name. You are free to intercede, to love, to spend yourself however you find a way to do it in God’s enterprise to draw the whole world to himself. And we are in the world for just these purposes.

And so, Jesus’ Ascension means a lot. It means that his going away sets us free to be what God made us to be. It means that he is in heaven interceding for us. It means that the second Advocate is with us empowering us to be God’s people in every circumstance imaginable.

In today’s First Lesson, the disciples asked Jesus when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.[3] They come to see, as I hope you see, that Jesus has a much more ambitious agenda than that.

[1] Saint John 17:1.

[2] Romans 8:39.

[3] Acts 1:6.

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Easter 6, 2017 — 21 May 17

Easter 6, 2017

RCL A Easter 6
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, I Peter 3:13-22, Saint John 14:15-21

The disciples were not ready to hear what Jesus says to them in the Gospel today. Remember that the setting is the Last Supper, and Saint John packs into that occasion much of what Jesus has to teach about the disciples’ lives, and our lives, after Jesus is raised and after Jesus ascends into heaven.

He says that he will not leave them orphaned. He will be with them, and they will see him. Not everyone will see him, but those who believe in him and those who keep his commandments will know him and will see him.

Jesus tells his disciples that he will send another Advocate to be with them forever. Jesus is the first Advocate, who teaches everything his followers need to know and who suffers on the cross, is raised from the tomb, and ascends to heaven to advocate for them forever. The second Advocate is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will remind them and lead them to God.

The disciples were not ready to hear any of this. For what they were ready to hear, what they wanted to hear, differs so significantly from the unconditional and limitless love of God.

This Easter I have presented Jesus’ resurrection appearances to you as events where God gives to people what they need to believe. Peter and John need to see only the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene needs to see Jesus and to talk to him. Thomas needs to put his hand in his side and his fingers in the wounds of the nails. Philip needs to see the Father. The little-known companions on the road to Emmaus need to make sense of the terrible events in Jerusalem in light of the scriptures. All these requests from the disciples Jesus fulfills. They all are given what they need to believe. Jesus opens to them another world, the world of God’s unconditional and limitless love. They only need to act as though they want to be a part of it.

The disciples want to hear that Jesus will save them in the terms of the only thing they know. They want to be saved in the terms of this world. But Jesus offers them another world, the world of the Spirit, the world of the Father’ perfect will, and the world where Jesus advocates for those who love.

And so it is with us. Jesus opens to us the world of the Father who is good and is love itself, the same world of the Son advocating to the Father for the people who love him, and the same world of the Holy Spirit abiding with the followers of Jesus forever, forever reminding them of God’s love and forever guiding them toward God.

All of these things, all of these spiritual things Jesus presents to his disciples and to us. They are different from all the other things we know. We step into that world by indicating to God that we want to be a part of it. And we indicate we want to be a part of it by keeping Jesus’ commandments.

I have heard people say that all these things, that heaven and Jesus, are fairy tales. Those people haven’t done a single thing to learn how true they are. They don’t know that heaven and Jesus become real to us the minute we keep a commandment, the minute we give God a single indication that we want to be part of it all.

 

Easter 5, 2017 — 14 May 17

Easter 5, 2017

RCL A Easter 5
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5 and 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, Saint John 14:1-14

Today’s First Lesson, the first Christian martyrdom, of Saint Stephen, reminds us that being a follower of Jesus can come at a cost. We are indeed fortunate not to live in the Roman Empire or in the Jerusalem of the first century. For, if we did, we might be brought to the supreme test of our conviction that Jesus has been raised, or, in the words of today’s Gospel, that Jesus is what he says he is, “the way, and the truth, and the life.”[1]

I take it that none of us wants to be brought to that test. And, ironically, desiring to avoid that test is one of the important requirements of genuine martyrdom. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus sums up the matter this way: “it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it.”[2]

Christians are in all things to take for our example Jesus himself. We are to live by being stand-up people who know and believe that God alone writes the endings of our story. I think that God releases to us the strength we need to be stand-up people when we let God be God, when we let God write the ending of our story. I mean by that we are to be comfortable in God’s hands. And those who believe are forever in God’s hands.

In the Gospel today, Saint Thomas and Saint Philip are on their way to being perfectly comfortable in God’s hands. But they are not there yet. It is the Last Supper, and Jesus is completing his teaching to his disciples before he is crucified. Later Thomas will have to see Jesus and place his hand in his side and his fingers in Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he has risen. And in the Gospel today, Philip asks to see the Father, and Jesus teaches him that seeing the Son is seeing the Father. Thomas and Philip are not yet comfortable with letting God be God. They are weighed down by the need for a kind of comfort, a degree of certainty, that betrays their limitations and how far they need to travel.

But Stephen, after the resurrection, is already perfectly comfortable in God’s hands. He doesn’t need to see and to be certain as Thomas and Philip do; Stephen already sees. He looks into heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And, while he is being killed by the stones, he stands up to God for those stoning him. Like Jesus on the cross, he asks for forgiveness for those killing him.

But Thomas and Philip will attain “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[3] The witness of the church is that all the apostles suffered the last penalty for their convictions. They neither ran toward martyrdom nor shrank from it.

Thomas and Philip at the Last Supper are on a journey that will lead them to a maturity like that of Stephen at his martyrdom. And so are we. By rehearsing the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus over and over again, we join them on the resurrection road—the way, the truth, and the life—that leads us to the glory of God where Jesus stands at God’s right hand.

About Thomas and Philip, about Stephen, and, indeed, about us, the words of the Epistle apply: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]

[1] Saint John 14:6.

[2] Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration xlii:5-6.

[3] Ephesians 4:13.

[4] 1 Peter 2:9.

 

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