Seventh Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your anxiety upon him, because he careth for you.
I have been seeing many pictures on Facebook of graduation ceremonies around the country. So far most of the pictures have been of college events. Several friends have received doctorates. Colleges have posted pictures of their graduates with hearty congratulations. Many people who were chosen to give commencement speeches have posted them on the board. Those in high school are posting pictures from proms and are excited about finishing their final projects as they prepare for their own graduations in the next few weeks. One local coliseum will host thirteen schools in ten days.
The students look forward to graduation, but they are also a little anxious. They donít know what life will be like out in the world. Will they find a job? What will it be like if they move onto higher education? Will they succeed? Will they be happy? They will look back at their accomplishments with pride and look forward in awe at the possibilities they face. They will have to be more responsible. There wonít be someone to bail them out whenever they make a mistake. They will have to be more independent and the work will be much harder. They will have to stand on their own two feet.
Tomorrow is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God the Father. The text we are studying today, which is for this coming Sunday, takes place in those days of waiting for the promise Jesus made to them for a helper. They watched Jesus ascend and worshiped Him, then returned to the Upper Room to wait and pray.
Jesus spent three years with the disciples before He was crucified. After He was raised, He spent forty days with them, teaching them all they needed to know and giving them final instructions. He affirmed His promise of power from the Holy Spirit. Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. His teachings were finally beginning to make sense. It was time for Jesus to go to God and sit on His right hand. He was taken into heaven, bodily raised from the earth into the clouds right before their eyes. They had seen Jesus do many miraculous things, this was just one more.
Jesusí ascension left little room to question the nature of this man they had known for three years. He was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. Now He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but a promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. However, Jesus did not intend for them to wallow in the past. I can imagine some tears in their eyes and their nostalgia as they remembered all Jesus did and all that He was to them.
But like the graduates, those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons are over; the time has come to work. And like the graduates, they had no idea what the future held. They had to stand on their own two feet. They had to be responsible. They had to be more independent and the work was going to be so much harder without Jesus. Would they be able to do the job God was calling them to do? Would people believe them? Would people believe in Jesus because of their work? Would they be happy? This was the beginning of the end of their time as disciples, but it was also the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to do the work that Christ was doing. Instead of just one man, there was eleven and soon there would be more.
They didnít wait until Pentecost to make the first change amongst their group. Jesus originally selected twelve men to accompany Him. Sadly, Judas exactly what Jesus expected him to do, he did not know how to deal with his grief and his guilt. Iíve often wondered what would have happened if Judas had just waited long enough to see Jesus face to face after the resurrection. Would he have found forgiveness? The prophecies said he was doomed to destruction, but was that destruction destined to be the horrific ending we see in todayís story? After all, though Peter did not betray Jesus, he did deny Him. Yet, on the beach after the resurrection, Jesus had mercy on Peter, forgave him and called him to lead the Church into the future. Might Judas have found a similar grace at the feet of his Lord?
The destruction came because he was unwilling or unable to face Jesus. He sought forgiveness from the priests in the Temple who had no mercy. He saw no other way out besides suicide. How could the disciples forgive him? He never saw the whole story from the other side of the cross. He only knew that Jesus was dead and it was his fault. He thought there was no hope. Suicide is never a good option, though many people think that it is better to die than to face the pain their situation. Death seems so easy when there is no hope.
But it is never easy for those left behind. We donít really know if the disciples grieved their loss, after all Judas is often described as being self-centered and greedy. It wasnít much of a loss, was it? And yet, Judas was their brother in Christ. He lived with them. He was one of the disciples who healed the sick, cast out demons and shared the Kingdom. I imagine that among the lessons they learned from Jesus during those forty days was that even Judas deserved to be loved and remembered for the good he did, not rejected for the betrayal. After all, Judas did what had to be done; it was part of the plan.
We all know people like Judas among our Christian circles. They donít quite get it; their focus is off. Judas was concerned with the wrong things like the money bag and he missed the bigger picture: forgiveness. How might his story have been different if the disciples had sought him out? What if they had made sure he was not alone? Even if they were angry, they may have been able to keep him alive just long enough to know that there is always hope. How often do we abandon people, even in our Christian fellowship, when we think they have the focus or are doing things the wrong way? All too often, I fear.
Unfortunately, when we argue with our Christian brothers and sisters, or ignore their needs, they disappear from us, too. Most donít commit suicide, but how many run to another church or simply stop being a Christian? Iím sure we all know someone who was once passionate about their faith but who have fallen way; the reason usually has to do with how they are treated in the body of Christ. They feel rejected, betrayed, abandoned. They think there is no hope. They Ďkillí themselves spiritually by rejecting Christ, when it is the human relationships which have failed.
I once knew a woman who received extremely bad news about her health. She was quite passionate about her faith and had very strong opinions about the way we should believe in Christ. Her bad news made her desperate to convert as many people to her point of view. She wasnít just trying to share the Gospel or even Ďsave people.í She was arguing over ideology, doctrine and dogma. She spent her last few months of life desperately trying to make the world think the way she did. She was so afraid that she would not have enough time to accomplish her goal of making everyone Ďrightí that she responded to debate and discussion with frustration, anger and condemnation. In the midst of her pain and confusion over her illness and impending death, she lost touch with the purpose of our faith and the grace of God.
We will die. Most of us wonít know the time or the place. Many of us will die suddenly, without warning. Others will become sick or old and will pass through a time of suffering. Few of us will be given the bad news that we have only so much time left. Few of us will be able to go about our business day by day knowing that tomorrow will not exist for us. However, all of us live with the knowledgeóeven if we refuse to accept itóthat tomorrow might never come. We could pass away today.
My acquaintance was an intelligent, studied adult. She had powerful arguments about her point of view and convinced many to think seriously about her perspective. However, when things went out of her control, she lost the joy of her faith and no longer remembered that God called her to share her faith, not control minds. Her mission became convincing the world that she was right rather than shining Christ to the world.
Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. He is specifically writing to a people who were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. They faced trouble with the secular world in which they lived and with the religious world from which they came. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of Godís grace with anyone else. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them, going forth through it all with joy and peace.
Weíve been doing this for two thousand years now. The big questions they faced in those early days have been decided. While we do still argue over too many things, we can turn to the scriptures and know what God thinks. Beware of those who think theyíve discovered something new because it is likely that they have interpreted Godís Word to suit themselves. Sadly, we spend too much time trying to make the scriptures say what we want them to say.
The worst part is that we spend so much of our time trying to convince others that our new thoughts are the right thoughts and that they must believe us. When they will not, we get angry and frustrated and condemning; in our raw emotion we miss the opportunity to love them. The disciples were probably angry with Judas and didnít go after him. Perhaps it was too late, but they abandoned him in his grief and guilt, missing the opportunity to love him.
For three years and forty days, Jesus dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new. Faith comes through the spoken Word. We can see good works and recognize a righteous life, but the world will never experience the promise of salvation through good works or right living. We must hear the Gospel to be saved. It is Godís Word that transforms, not our hopes or our actions. Not even our faith saves. By Godís Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the saving faith that God has promised to those who hear and believe all that God has said and done. This is what the disciples were waiting for in those days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
But there was business to be done. The Church would not remain a group of eleven men. It would not be just a few women who supported and encouraged those apostles. It would not include just a few dozen followers. It was about to explode. They gathered in prayer, and Peter suggested that they should replace Judas. They chose two men out of the disciples and voted by lots for which should be the new apostle. Matthias was chosen and he joined them in their work. They would have to add other leaders over the years, people would join each of them in their ministry and then they would be assigned to lead the new churches. Day by day the community of faith grew; in those early days they added to their numbers daily, sometimes by the thousands!
They could do this only with Godís help. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned, the disciples would succeed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We see the promise of Godís presence in their work and lives in todayís Gospel lesson. John records two distinct prayers in this passage. In the first section, Jesus prays for Himself. This is not a prayer to be removed from the cross but instead to be glorified. The prayer is a remembrance of the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of his life for us to hear. It is unlikely that these are the words that Jesus spoke, but have been written by John so that we might know Christ. The second half of the prayer describes the life that reflects the glory of Christ in the lives of the disciples. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those directly touched by His ministry and message while He lived in this world.
This is a prayer that was meant to be heard, a message that we are called to repeat for each generation. We relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father. Those good words become part of our own lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world.
The prayer reaches well beyond those disciples. They shared the Gospel with the first Christians, and Christians have continued to share the Good News with every generation since. They were His because they heard the Word and believed all that God has said and done. So, too, we are His by that same Word, the Living Word that once dwelled among a small group of men but now dwells among all those who believe. We give thanksgiving and praise for those who shared that Good Word with us, so that we too might know Christ and live according to His Word.
Glory is found in suffering. It is found through our pain, heartache and uncertainty. Christ was glorified not in heaven or on earth but on the cross. It wasnít Jesusí words or His miracles that brought Godís blessing on Him, but His willingness to face death for the sake of others. He hung on the cross and God raised Him up, as was Godís purpose all along.
Doesnít sound very glorious, does it? The world cannot see the glory of the cross, after all it was a weapon of torture. But God sees the world in a different way. The glory was not in the instrument, but in the one playing it. Christ was glorified, not because He died, but because He did what God sent Him to do. Even Judas glorified God because he did just what he was meant to do. We will glorify God by doing just what He has sent us to do. It might not be pretty. We might find ourselves in the midst of suffering; it wonít seem very glorious. But as we live in complete obedience to Godís intention for our lives, He will be glorified. God tells us to go forward, to do His work and not to worry. Whatever the circumstances, Heíll be with us and will help us overcome.
Psalm 68 describes the journey of God and His people from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. It was used in liturgical processions into the Temple. The people call God to arise while His enemies are moved by His power. The wicked will be afraid, but the righteous will rejoice in the presence of Godís glory. In the midst of this story, Godís people pray that He will continue to rule over the world and empower His people. The song ends in the sanctuary where God is glorified with the praise of the people.
The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of Godís power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.
We will fail. Weíll follow the wrong voice; weíll do the wrong things. We will be fooled by the tempter. We will deny Jesus, run and hide. We may even betray Him, just like Judas. When we do fail, it is important to remember that we fall it is because we havenít trusted God or done what He has called us to do. But we can live in the promise that God is awesome in His sanctuary and He will give us the strength to withstand and overcome. When we do fail, as the disciples did and as we do, God forgives.
Many denominations are having difficulty finding people to become leaders, especially ordained leaders. There are probably as many reasons for this problem as there are people who are being called by God to serve in the Church. The high cost of school and the low pay for pastors makes it financially impossible for many. The expectations of a pastor, who is often seen not only as the spiritual leader of a church but also as a slave for the congregation members, called at all hours of the night with rarely a word of thanks. Whenever something is wrong the pastor is blamed. Some churches treat the pastor as little more than a hired hand, someone to be pushed around and expected to do whatever they say. Pastors, and other church leaders, get burned out. It is no wonder that others do not wish to follow in their footsteps. What would Matthias think if he were being chosen as the twelfth disciple today?
On this Sunday we stand between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples had been sent but were not yet gifted with the Holy Spirit. They went back to the upper room, the place where so much had happened over the past few months. There they waited, they prayed, they wondered, they grieved. They had hope, though, because they knew God was faithful. They had seen it in the resurrection of Jesus and they were beginning to truly understand it after the past forty days. We do not have to wait any longer for the Holy Spirit is ours through faith and baptism. And so we are called, like those disciples, to glorify God in all we do, to share His Word with the world so that they, too, will believe. We might face suffering and pain, but in doing so we share with Christ the very glory of God. He loves us and has called us to this great and wonderful work. It takes humility to accept this life and to live it.
Perhaps thatís what Judas and the disciples were missing the most; they lost touch with the reality that God is able to do the extraordinary and is willing to forgive even the most horrific sins of His people. May we always find a way to reach our brothers and sisters, even when we think they have done the unforgivable, because God can do the impossible.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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