Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday 8 May 2016 - Ascension Day [transferred?]/Sunday after Ascension

First I give the readings for Ascension Day, with Comments
Then I give the readings etc for the Sunday after Ascension also know as the 7th Sunday after Easter.
This post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day.

Theme                  Christ risen, ascended and glorified        

Sentence             Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]

Collect                  Eternal God,
                                By raising Jesus from the dead
                                You proclaimed his victory,
                                And by his ascension
                                You declared him king.
                                Lift up your hearts to heaven
                                That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601]          

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


Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53

I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.

In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.

The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.

Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).

Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.

Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.

Psalm 47

This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.

The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.

There is a sermon in every verse of this passage! 

Further theological reflection on Ascension and its significance may be found at Psephizo.

Sunday After Ascension = 7th Sunday of Easter

Theme(s): God's power at work / Church in mission / Unity for sake of the gospel

Sentence: "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

Collect: Easter 5:1

Holy God, you feed us
with earthly and with spiritual food.
Deathless, unalterable, you have chosen us,
sinful as we are,
to hear your word and to proclaim your truth.
Alleluia! Make us salt of the earth;
make us yeast in the loaf. Amen.


Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26 


Acts 16:16-34

We continue reading through Acts (though, bear in mind, next Sunday is Pentecost, and we will switch back to Acts 2 and the coming of the Spirit who drives the apostolic mission forward through Acts 16).

Here Paul and is band, including the narrating author Luke, continue their work in Philippi and run into trouble. Casting out a demon from a fortune-telling slave-girl is one thing, facing her profit driven owners is another and Paul and Silas find themselves in the presence of a lynch mob. Flogged and thrown into jail they do the only thing they can do while constrained by stocks: sing hymns to God.

Such singing: the earth shakes, chains are broken, the jailer wakes to a reality which is a nightmare and thinks killing himself is the simplest way to escape impending doom. But peace rules: no prisoner has actually escaped and the nightmare turns to vision for the jailer. He has been saved from death, can he be saved by God?

Paul assures him he can. To the jailer's brilliant question, "What must I do to be saved?" Paule replies with words echoing down the centuries of gospel ministry, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, you will be saved, you and your household."

The following verses tell us of remarkable transformation as the jailer hears the gospel ("the word of the Lord"), responds with ministry to their needs ("washed their wounds"), and is baptized with his household. The pattern here has been followed through the centuries: response to the gospel proclaimed, teaching in the faith, baptism.

Psalm 97

In these verses we have the earth responding to the Lord (cf. the earthquake in the Acts reading), the bowing down of the gods before the Lord (cf. the pagan jailer seeking salvation in the Acts reading) and the Lord guarding the lives of his faithful and rescuing them from the hand of the wicked (cf. the release of Paul and Silas from the jail in the Acts reading).

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

It is a pity that verses are missed out in this reading. The discomfort those verses provide are part of the reading as it was written and we damage the integrity of the reading, if not the integrity of ourselves as readers by omitting these challenging, confrontational verses.

But the verses we are prescribed to read speak of our Lord who is Lord of time and Lord through time. The Lord Jesus is beginning and end and will come again. What occurs in time, our lives and thus the flow of history through time, is under his Lordship and to Jesus as Lord we are all accountable: "my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work" (12).

Yet the Lord is gracious: the one who is coming in judgment also says to those who will be judged, "Come". The elapse of time between the beginning and the end is time for responding to that invitation, "Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift" (17).

John 17:20-26

We could read this passage simply as a lesson in ecumenicity in the body of Christ ("that they may become completely one", v. 23) but it is worth asking first, Why this reading on this Sunday after Ascension and before Pentecost? To what "ascension" and "Pentecostal" themes does the reading speak?

Putting the question like that, I do not see an easy answer! But here goes:

First, as Jesus ascends to the Father and as the Spirit is about to descend to birth the church, the vision and plan is for one united church. There is only one ascended Lord of the church and only one indwelling Spirit of God. The Johannine Jesus prays for the unity of the church not that disparate fragments of a divided church might be somehow moulded into one body but because the church is intended to be one, to remain one and to be renewed as one body of Christ.

Secondly, the ascended Jesus departs from his disciples and thus to the disciples Jesus hands over his mission (that for which God "sent" him, with "sent"/"send" being a fundamental conception of God's work through Christ in John's Gospel). Jesus prays for unity not for its own sake but "so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (v. 23, see also v. 21).

In other words, between Ascension Day and Pentecost we are invited via this reading to reflect on who we are as church and what our task is the continuing mission of Christ. To get a bit technical, ecclesiology meets missiology on this Sunday and via this reading.

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