Ascension Sunday: Left Behind

Power-of-His-PresenceFIRST LESSON:  Acts 1: 1-11

To read the Acts passage

This passage begins with the first major issue:  Who will do it now?  Who will restore the Kingdom of Israel and restore God’s Kingdom?  But there is an underlying clear assumption that what Jesus began his successors will continue.  The assumption has nothing to do with duty or responsibility, but with sincere devotion to the truth that Jesus conveyed and the deepest desire for that truth to continue being spread throughout the world.  This assumption plays heavily into the way that the Book of Acts is constructed.  It has to do with the way the church and the people of the church pattern their lives after the life of Jesus Christ.

The phrases “through the Holy Spirit” and “the apostles whom Jesus had chosen” introduce that continuity and also introduces a partnership, a community if you will, that is being formed.  The Book of Acts begins with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the Gospel of Christ and with Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection.  The Resurrection of Jesus is a theme of enormous importance for this book.  It testifies to Jesus’ faithfulness to God and confirms him as Lord and Christ.  Acts simply says that Jesus “appeared” to his disciples over an extended period of “forty days”.  There are differing opinions as to what these “forty days” represent.  It may have been a way to fill out the calendar between Easter and the Ascension.  In Old Testament writings, forty often refers to a period of preparation (such as forty years) during which God fully instructs people for their future work.  Essentially, Jesus gathers his followers after Easter to prepare them for their future without him.  His leaving is not abrupt; he has prepared them for his departure.

What we are told here is that waiting for God to act is an individual’s project, but it is also a community project.  Waiting with others is an act of solidarity.  They were joined together in a specific place to await God’s action.  But waiting on the Lord to act is not a passive activity.  They waited by praying, studying together.  Prayers are not offered to solicit God’s benefaction, which they have already experienced, nor to ensure that God would fulfill what is promised them.  Praying demonstrates the importance of unity and the resolve in accomplishing that to which God calls us to accomplish.

When we proclaim the Ascension as part of the Gospel, we are not, as Ronald Cole-Turner says in Feasting on the Word, saying that we believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch.  It is, rather, a belief that Jesus Christ ascended to glory.  It is inextricably linked with the Resurrection.  As Jurgen Moltmann put it, “Jesus is risen into the coming Kingdom of God.”  He is raised in power and in glory.  The Ascension is the gathering up of all who are in the Presence of God.  Our lives are suddenly swept into something larger than anything we can possibly imagine.  No longer is Jesus our personal teacher or our private tutor or just our personal savior.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And through faith, we, too, are made whole.  The absence of the earthly Jesus leads us to search for a God who is present in the world.

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does it mean to speak of the “absence” of Jesus and the idea that that leads us to search for God?

3)      Where do you find yourself in this story?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Ephesians 1: 15-23

To read the Ephesians passage

This passage and the verses that precede it begin with sort of a thanksgiving prayer report.  But lest we spend too much time breathing our collective sighs of relief and thanksgiving, the author (possibly, but not definitely Paul for most scholars) claims that all this would not be successful if the church does not become known to others as a place of faith and mutual love.

This is sort of interesting—the letter begs the question as to how our churches become known for their faith in Jesus.  Is it a matter of reputation or a matter of publicity?  The phrase “with the eyes of your heart enlightened” describes the result of wisdom.  During this time, baptism was typically described as “enlightenment”.  In essence, it is a way of seeing God’s light through the darkness of the world.  But the letter warns its readers not to return to that state of darkness.

The concluding section of this passage is often recognized as the development of a creedal formula.  The audience already knows that Christ serves to mediate God’s gracious blessings from heaven.  Ephesians treats this exaltation of Jesus rather than the cross as the focus of God’s saving and redemptive power.  Ephesians probably does this to drive home a more permanent victory in Christ.

This idea of enlightenment is an interesting one when we think about The Ascension.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tries to explain it in this way:  imagine what it is like when you first wake up in the morning.  When you put on the light, all you are conscious of is the brightness of the light itself.  Only gradually do your eyes adjust sufficiently to the light that you are able to make out other objects.  After a few moments, however, you cease to be conscious of the light itself, and start to see what else is in the room, as it is illumined by the light.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, says Williams, show him to have been like that initial morning light; at first Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples could be conscious only of him.  The ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world.  (From Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009, “Ascension of the Lord: Ephesians 1: 15-23 Theological Perspective”, by Joseph H. Britton, p. 510-512.)

The whole Resurrection is a restatement of authority, a revisioning of power.  It changes everything.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the idea of “the eyes of your heart” being enlightened mean for you?

3)      What message do you think this holds not just for us as individuals but for our churches today?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 24: 44-53

To read the Gospel passage

In this passage, the verb for “opened” is the same that was used in the Emmaus story when their eyes were “opened” and the Scriptures were “opened” to them.  But the message of the Scriptures is, of course, not self-evident.  Here, Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.  Here, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins is opened to all—to all nations.  The mission, then, will begin in Jerusalem and extend to all nations.  Jerusalem has up until now been the center and focus of the Gospel.

The Lukan Gospel is the only one that chronicles the departure of Jesus.  The Ascension both closes the period of Jesus’ ministry and opens the period of the church’s mission.  The final words of the Gospel lead us to an appropriate response to the gospel of the one who saves, sends, and blesses us.  The disciples received Jesus’ blessing with great joy, they worshiped him and praised God, and they began immediately to do what he had instructed them to do.  Here, then, is the completion of the Gospel drama, the narration of what God has done for us, the challenge of Jesus’ teachings, and the model of those who made a faithful and joyful response.  It is our new beginning.  It is our turn.  Essentially, Jesus has given us the “footprints” in which to walk.  It is not about legislation or rules or “what would Jesus do”; it is about incarnation, about becoming the embodiment of Christ.

Thomas R. Hawkins says it like this:

 

For forty days after the resurrection, Jesus remained among the disciples.  He taught, encouraged, and patiently prepared them for what was to come.  “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24: 50-51)  Suddenly, the disciples were without their guide, their teacher, and their leader.  They no longer had an authority figure in their midst to tell them what to do.  Someone “at the top” no longer could explain everything to them…

They experience an expansion of being, an empowerment.  This empowerment authorizes them for ministry and mission.  They preach the gospel to every race, nation, and tongue already assembled in Jerusalem for the pilgrim feast of Pentecost.  It is an empowerment sparked by acts of inclusion rather than exclusion…Mutuality rather than subordination is the mark of the spirit’s empowerment…

When I was about 13 or 14, my father asked me to ride along with him as he cultivated a field of corn.  It was a tricky job.  The sharp blades of the cultivator had to pass between the rows of corn.  If we had veered a few inches to the left or to the right, we would have plowed out four rows of tender young corn plants.  The John Deere Model 70 did not have power steering, so holding the tractor and cultivator in a straight path was not always easy. 

After a few rounds down the 20-acre field, my father asked me if I would like to try driving.  Reluctantly, I sat down behind the steering wheel, popped the clutch, and took off down the field.  Steering was harder than it looked.  Forty feet of corn, in a four-row swath, were plowed out before I had driven five minutes.  My father gently gave me a few suggestions as I went awkwardly—and destructively—down the field and back.  After a few more rounds, my father asked me to stop the tractor.  I thought he had endured all the pain he could.  The carnage in the corn field was overwhelming.  He would tell me to stop.  I obviously was not controlling the tractor and cultivator.

Instead, my father dropped to the ground and said he had some chores to do in the barn.  I was to finish the field and then come in for lunch.  All morning long, in my father’s absence, I plied my way back and forth across the corn field.  Huge sections of corn were torn out, roots exposed to the drying sun, and stalks prematurely sliced down.  But by noon I learned to handled the tractor and the cultivator.

My father’s absence was a sign to me that he trusted himself and what he taught me.  It also signaled that he trusted me.  His absence was empowering rather than disabling.  It authorized me to trust myself and trust what he had taught me.  I would never have learned to cultivate corn had I worked anxiously under his critical eye, hanging on his every gesture and comment.

That is the meaning of Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus’ withdrawal becomes an empowering absence.  It is a sign that he trusts what he has taught us enough to set us free.  He refuses to allow us to depend upon him.  We cannot cling to him but must learn to discover his authority among ourselves.  Thus, he tells Mary not to cling to him but to return to the community of his disciples. (John 20:17).  This sense of empowerment and authorization is exhilarating.  It is like tongues of fire.  We name that experience the Spirit of the Living God.

We honor Jesus’ absence when we refuse to become little authorities, trying to fill up Jesus’ absence.  We honor Jesus’ absence when we help others experience the Holy Spirit through mutual collaboration rather than by making them passive, dependent, or subservient to our authority. (From Building God’s People:  A Workbook for Empowering Servant Leaders, by Thomas R. Hawkins, (Nashville, TN:  Discipleship Resources, 1990), 7-9)

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this “Holy Absence” mean for you?

3)      Why is that difficult for us to grasp?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The noblest prayer is when [one] who prays is inwardly transformed into what [one] kneels before. (Angelus Silesius, 17th century)

 

The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when God created it. (Harold Kushner)

 

As Annie Dillard once put it, “We’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build our wings on the way down.”…I don’t think transformation of any kind at all happens in this world of ours without some effort, some cost, and the willingness to leave something behind…But I think that when we begin to build our wings, it makes a difference in the world around us not because we seem dramatically other than who we once were, but because what we begin to offer back to the world is a little closer to what the world actually needs. (Kathleen McTigue, from “Build Your Wings on the Way Down”, 2006)

 

 

Closing

 

Let me bathe in your words.

Let me soak up your silence.

Let me hear your voice.

Let me enter your quiet.

Let me tell out your stories.

Let me enclose them within me.

Let me be the spaces between phrases where you make your home.

Amen.

(Jan L. Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, p. 96)

 

 

Lent 5B: Remade From the Inside Out

Wheat GrainsOLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This is yet another passage that centers on covenant, God’s promise to us as God’s people. But this one is different—it is not written on a rainbow or a stone, but is written deep in the people’s hearts. Essentially, this covenant is a part of their very being. The context in which this was written is probably following the exile. The cities have been breached, the temple has been totally destroyed, nothing is left of their lives. They have become subjects of the Persian king and have lost everything that they had before. But God through the Prophet Jeremiah gives a vision of reconstruction and renewal. But this time things will be different…

The Book of Jeremiah is sometimes called the Book of Consolation. The people have spent generations disobeying God, expecting God to give them more, even running from God. And yet, God loves them. God promises love and faithfulness and gives it over and over and over again, whether or not the people keep their part of the bargain. The prophet Jeremiah addresses the people’s suffering with words of comfort and hope, not just long ago but today as well. The timing of the ultimate promise is indefinite. Many would rather interpret this as a “renewed covenant”, a fulfillment of the promises that God made earlier, but with a deeper and profound meaning. (The Hebrew could be interpreted either way.) And even though the earlier covenant was broken, God, rather than cursing the people, forgives and renews.

The use of the word “husband” implies a familial, intimate relationship. This is the type of relationship that God envisions with each of God’s creatures. The future promises are certain. And the law, this time written on the hearts of God’s people, is no longer a requirement, but part of who they are.

It is easy for us to read this through our Christian lens, and, yet, God says “all”—all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. This is not solely a projection of the Messianic promise to come. But God has written the Godself into us, making who God is part of who we are. It is permanent. God has written the capacity for love and faithfulness into us. And someday…someday…we’ll get it. This idea of the covenant being “written on our hearts,” of this New Covenant becoming not just something to which we aspire, not just something by which we try to abide, but something that is actually part of us just downright eludes us. This covenant is something that should be part of our body, our soul, our heart, our mind, our very being.  The promise is certain, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it.  Read the words.  This is not about God just tossing some words out there in the hopes that someone will be curious enough or scared enough or ready enough to pick them up.  God is much more nuanced than that.  Rather, God’s vision is that they are written on our hearts, permanently tattooed, part of our very being.  It is as if God is remaking us from the inside out.  Maybe that’s our whole problem.  Maybe we’re making ourselves backwards.  Maybe we’re trying to do the right things and say the right things and fast and pray and live our lives with the hopes that our hearts will be made right.  And in the meantime, God is inside, with heart-wrenching fervor, remaking us from the inside out.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this new covenant mean to you?
  3. What does it mean that you need to do?
  4. What is the difference between a “requirement” and a covenant that is part of you?
  5. What is the difference between “doing” the right things and living a life of faith?
  6. How does this speak to you in the Lenten season?

 

 NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 5: 5-10

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage begins with a strong reminder of God’s action in Christ, with a strong reassertion that Jesus has been exalted above any of the cosmic powers. It reminds us that in the face of the difficulties in our lives and the madness of the world, God through Christ is stronger than anything else either on earth or through all of Creation.

Melchizedek is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible—in Genesis and then again in Psalm 110. He was a priest of the Most High in the time of Abraham who received tithes from him. His name literally means “righteous king” or “King of Righteousness”. Some have claimed that these passages refer to a literal human; others claims insist that it refers to a theophany, a righteous ruler superior to the Levitical priests. This is not what we think of as an apostolic priesthood. Rather, it is an eternal designation.

Remember that Abraham has been called by God, called to be the Father of Nations. And yet, for years Abraham remained childless and ultimately found himself struggling with his nephew Lot. And into this struggle, a figure named Melchizedek appears. He comes into the Valley of the Kings, offers bread and wine, and blesses Abraham.

So Jesus is part of this same so-called “order”, a continuation and culmination of God’s plan of relationship with humanity, God’s offering of order, and sustenance, and blessing. But the ministries of a priest like this must be with the people, not removed from them. God does not want compensation; God desires one’s very life; God desires to be in relationship with humanity. Jesus was human and suffered as humans suffered. But Jesus was fully human, the very epitome of humanity. This is the way not around suffering but taking it unto one’s life. And through the suffering, through this relational priesthood, God leads us to life.

At the end of The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says, “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something — an object or ourselves — and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it . . . to the life force.”   Thomas Long says that, “In Christian language, to be truly human is to shape our lives into an offering to God. But we are lost children who have wandered away from home, forgotten what a truly human life might be. When Jesus, our older brother, presented himself in the sanctuary of God, his humanity fully intact, he did not cower as though he were in a place of “blazing fire and darkness and gloom.” Instead he called out, “I’m home, and I have the children with me.” (From “What God Wants”, by Thomas G. Long, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3336, accessed 19 March, 2012.)

Irenaeus once said that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” So what does it mean to be “fully alive” in the faith? It means entering that continuation of God’s relationship with us. It means opening one’s life so that God can intervene, so that God can call you into this priesthood of believers, this ongoing relationship with God.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to be “fully human” to you?
  3. What does that have to do with being “made perfect”?
  4. How would you describe being “fully alive”?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 12: 20-33

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These verses are part of the final days of Jesus’ ministry. It is interesting that these Greeks, or Gentiles, had to have a sort of “mediated” introduction to Jesus, as if they had never seen him.   But this also looks to the opening of the message to the Gentiles. This is not a periphery part of the message. These are not merely Greek-speaking Jews, but Gentiles who have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. The imagery of the passage implies that there will be fruit among the Gentiles. This is a new section of the Gospel. The world has begun to see Jesus.

They approach Philip and request to “see” Jesus, to have a meeting with him. Perhaps they want to know more of who this Jesus is. Perhaps they just want to talk to him. Or perhaps they want to become disciples. But regardless of why they are here, their arrival points to the fulfillment of the church’s future mission—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world. This is the decisive dividing line between Jesus coming as a Jewish Messiah and Christ, through his death and resurrection, fulfilling God’s promise for the renewal and redemption of all of Creation. Now is the time for the Son of Man to be glorified.

But first, the wheat must die so that it can grow and bear more fruit. This is sort of confusing if you do not know what wheat is. Wheat is what is called a caryopsis, meaning that the outer seed and the inner fruit are connected. The seed essentially has to die so that the fruit can emerge. If you were to dig around and uproot a stalk of wheat , there is no seed. It is dead and gone. The grain must, in essence, allow itself to be changed. What this tells us in that in order for something new to happen, in order for a “new” or “renewed” creation to come about, we must allow ourselves to be changed.

So what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully thwart change, avoid conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we have no life at all. So why, then, is death so hard for us to talk about, so hard for us to deal with in our life? In fact, we do everything that we can to postpone it or avoid it altogether. So maybe that’s why the cross bothers us so much if we really think about it. Oh, we Christians can focus on the Resurrection and just let the cross somehow disappear into the background, covered in Easter lilies. But then we have forgotten part of the story. We have forgotten that God does not leave us to our own devices, does not leave us until we have “figured it out”, does not wait in the wings until we have covered it all up with Easter lilies. God is there, in the suffering, in the heartache and despair. And God in Christ, there on the cross, bloodied and writhing in pain, is there not in our place but for us and with us.

Whether you believe that God sent Jesus to die, or that human fear and preoccupation with the self put Jesus to death, or whether you think the whole thing was some sort of colossal misunderstanding…the point of the cross is that God took the most horrific, the most violent, the worst that the world and humanity could offer and recreated it into life. And through it, everything—even sin, evil, and suffering is redefined in the image of God. By absorbing himself into the worst of the world and refusing to back away from it, Jesus made sure that it was all put to death with him. By dying unto himself, he created life that will never be defeated. And in the same way, we, too, are baptized into Jesus’ death and then rise to new life.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What stands in our way of totally surrendering to being “made new”?
  3. Why is death so difficult for us to talk about?
  4. Why is the cross such a difficult notion for us?
  5. What is your image and understanding of the cross?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

For death begins at life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death. (John Oxenham, a.k.a. William Arthur Dunkerley, (1852-1941))

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)

The way of Love is the way of the Cross, and it is only through the cross that we come to the Resurrection. (Malcolm Muggeridge)

 

Closing

Out of the depths I cry to You! In your Mercy, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If You should number the times we stray from You, O Beloved, who could face You? Yet You are ever-ready to forgive, that we might be healed. I wait for You, my soul waits, and in your Word, I hope; My soul awaits the Beloved as one awaits the birth of a child, or as one awaits the fulfillment of their destiny. O sons and daughters of the Light, welcome the Heart of your heart! Then you will climb the Sacred Mountain of Truth; You will know mercy and love in abundance. Then will your transgressions be forgiven and redeemed. Amen. (from “Psalm 130”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 278)

 

And join me for daily reflections as we travel this Lenten journey on Dancing to God!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli