Sunday, May 20, 2007

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

And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God.

Ascension Day falls on the Thursday before the Seventh Sunday of Easter, so is therefore never a festival that falls on a Sunday. Some churches choose to celebrate the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday; others will hold special services May 17th. Unfortunately, many churches will ignore Ascension Day altogether. Though I’ve chosen to focus on the scriptures for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, I think it is valuable to recognize Ascension Day.

It has apparently been the practice of some Christians to recreate in a sense the Ascension of Christ on Ascension Day. They take a statue of the Lord and raise it through a hole in the church roof, thus giving the congregation a tangible image of what the disciples may have experienced. With up stretched arms and upturned eyes, they watch as Christ is raised into heaven.

Luke gives us two different versions of what happened when Jesus ascended into heaven. In the Gospel, Luke tells us that they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. In Acts, Luke tells us that when Jesus rose into heaven, they stood there staring into the sky. While they were looking up, “two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” In one story, the disciples worship Jesus and go joyfully to wait for His promise. In the second story, they stand gaping at what they have seen, unmoving perhaps because they are unsure of what should come next. I don’t see this as a contradiction, but as the reality of our faith in Christ. We joyfully worship and wait, but we also wonder and worry. We know Christ and His promises, but we aren’t sure of what it means for our life today.

Heaven is the easy part. Over the past few weeks we have seen images of heaven in our scriptures. We have seen the New Jerusalem, the river of living water and the Tree of Life. We have seen God’s grace and magnificence. We have seen the time when our tears will no longer fall and when we will never know sickness or pain. It is worth waiting for heaven, but that’s the hard part. How do we live in this paradox between urgency and patience? How do we continue to watch for the coming of Christ while also living in His presence in this world?

We start at Jesus’ prayer and His promise. In John, Jesus prays for the believers, but He also prays for those who will believe because of their witness and testimony to the truth that is Christ. We were once those who would believe, but we are now those who believe and we are sent to share the Good News of Christ to the next generation of believers. The early church had a natural sense of urgency when it came to the mission of the Church. Christ is coming again, soon. The kingdom of God is near. Now is the time, don’t wait! They were passionate about the message and they shared it with the world.

It has been two thousand years. We are no longer living with the same sense of urgency. Yet that message, “Today is the day,” is as true for us as it was for them, perhaps even more so since we are closer to His coming than they ever were. For us, however, two thousand years is a long time to wait and we have lost patience and our zealousness. We have allowed the worries and the cares of the world to temper our enthusiasm and we have followed with a skewed sense of purpose. Jesus calls us to love one another and be of one mind so that the world will know that God.

We are a diverse people – we come from different times and places. The Church has existed for two thousand years and has touched nearly every corner of the world. Unity does not necessarily mean that we will all be the same. It is impossible. Not even the twelve disciples were the same. There were fishermen, a tax collector, revolutionaries and others. At least one was married. Some were brothers. They were from different villages. In the scriptures we can see they had different personalities. They did not always get along. The disciples often bickered and the early Church faced difficulties.

When Jesus prayed for the unity of the believers, He was praying for them – and us – to be of one mind. That mind is not our own, or the mind of our leader. That mind is Christ’s. As we have seen over the past few weeks, Jesus set down how we could be unified. We are called to love one another with an active love. In service to our brothers and sisters in Christ, the world will see that we are one and will know that God is the Lord Almighty. They will see our unity and will that God does exist in and through our lives. If two people can disagree about the color of the carpet and still love one another – that is a sign of God’s power. Living in this world is the hard part, especially since we are still sinners, imperfect in our knowledge and in our action.

Can you imagine responding to Paul’s experience in prison as he responded? It is not that Paul is perfect – surely not. As a matter of fact, the healing of the girl was brought about by Paul’s impatience. He was annoyed by her cries and her constant attention to them. Now, we might wonder why this would have been a problem, after all the spirit within her was speaking the truth – they were servants of the Most High God. However, the terminology she used was not typical of the time or place in which they lived. As a matter of fact the term “Most High God” is not one that is used in the New Testament by Christians and Jews. Perhaps the demon was using it as a form of disrespect. Perhaps her cries were making it difficult for Paul to even speak or maybe her cries were sarcastic and mocking. Whatever it was, Paul was annoyed and he turned to her and cast the demon out of the girl. He wasn’t concerned about her welfare, but about his own welfare. However, her healing was the first in a series of incredible events that led to the conversion of many.

She had a spirit of divination, so she could read the future or discover hidden knowledge by interpreting signs or by some supernatural power. This power was used by her owners; she earned them a decent living with her gift. Paul’s intrusion in their business was going to cost them a great deal of money, so they had him arrested along with Silas. They were put in prison and the jailer was ordered to keep them. Paul and Silas were not downcast by their lot. They sang hymns and prayed while they were chained and the other prisoners witnessed their faith and heard the Gospel message. Perhaps even the jailer heard their songs and prayers.

During the night an earthquake stuck, breaking down the walls of the prison and unfastening the chains that bound the prisoners. Now, we might look at the earthquake as a miracle – God setting Paul and Silas free from their bondage, yet Paul and Silas remained steadfast in their prayer and they did not run away. None of the prisoners ran away. When the jailer realized that the prisoners were free, he thought to kill himself rather than suffer the humiliation of failure, but Paul cried out in the night, “Stop, we are all here!” The jailer was amazed by their mercy and he asked what he must do to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.” They told them about Jesus and his whole household was saved. He took care of them, washed their wounds and gave them food to eat. The jailer and his house were all baptized.

Now, the jailer’s baptism did more than just save one household. Since the jailer was a man of authority and power, his conversion to Christianity gave the message of Christ that had been brought to Philippi by Paul and Silas a measure of credibility. His conversion led to the conversion of many others in the town and the Church of Philippi grew. This sequence of events began with the offhanded response of Paul to the annoying cries of a servant girl who was possessed by a spirit.

Freedom from the prison would have meant tragedy for the family of the jailer. Despite the incredible miracle that come from the earthquake, Paul and Silas did not run off. They stayed and gave witness to the mercy and grace of the living God.

The psalmist writes that God’s power and majesty is accompanied by darkness, fire, lightning and the melting of mountains. We often think of these things are bad, after all they bring pain and suffering to people. But we are reminded in these verses that God is supreme over all things. We are not to hate darkness or fire, lightning or that which can melt mountains. We are to hate evil. Hating evil means living a life that does only what is right and not doing what is wrong, even if it is justifiable. Our circumstances may not seem good, but then living in God’s will is not always sunshine and happiness. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in the middle of an earthquake. But as we trust in God and do what is right, we will find that His blessings are even greater than we ever expected. For Paul, the blessing was obvious when a new Christian – brought to faith by their witness and their action – joined them in praising God’s holy name.

It might seem odd that Ascension Day is before the last Sunday of Easter because we expect Pentecost to come when Jesus has been raised. However, when Jesus ascended to heaven He told His disciples to wait until the received the power of the Holy Spirit. Though Jesus had spent three years with them before the crucifixion and forty days after the resurrection, they could not continue His work alone. They needed the Holy Spirit. In this way Christ would dwell in and among His people forever, making them one with Him as He is one with God.

The second lesson for today comes from the final words of the scriptures, from the book of Revelation. In this passage, John gives us the final words of Christ and His promise. “Blessed are they that wash their robes, that they may have the right to come to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.” We are assured of the truth of this message because this testimony comes from Jesus Christ – the root and the offspring of David and the bright morning star.

Our passage does not include several verses, and though I can understand why they might have been removed for the sake of this reading, I also think it is worth considering what it says. The text is talking about the New Jerusalem where the believers will live for eternity in the presence of God. We know God is gracious and loving so this image of Him leaving some outside His presence is counter to our expectation of God. We are disturbed by the image that they is or will be some who are not given the same blessing – that there are those who will remain outside the city walls.

The list is very specific – sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters and liars. The point of the Revelation is to draw the believer’s attention to that which will come when Jesus returns so that they will be prepared in that day. That day will come when we least expect it, and John’s language is urgent. “Behold, I come quickly.” John is encouraging his reader to act now. “Don’t wait until tomorrow, for tomorrow may be too late. Those with washed robes are those who turned to God – repentance. They heard the Word and by the faith given in that Word they turned to God and responded to the invitation to “Come.”

Verses eighteen and nineteen were also left out of this passage. In these two verses, John warns the reader that those who remove any of the words and those who add to the words will be punished. Again, we are bothered by these verses and I expect part of it is because they have been abused for so long by those who claim to have some special knowledge of what God means and intends for His word. As a matter of fact, there are scholars who believe these were not the words of John but that they were added by a later believer to give the passage a Gnostic point of view.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t important in those verses to study. John tells us that if we add to the words then God will add unto him the plagues of the book and that if anyone takes away from the words of the book then God will take away his part from the tree of life. If we add something, then something will be added and if we take away something, then something will be taken away. When we add to God’s word, we set upon ourselves and others an extra layer of works necessary for righteousness and when we take away from God’s word we take away from His grace. The Gospel is simple and does not need our intrusion.

What we do learn from this passage and our scriptures for this week is that the message of Christ is immediate – it is for this moment, for this time. Though we’ve been waiting for two thousand years for the coming of Christ, this is not the time to procrastinate. There are so many who need to hear the Gospel. We may not think the time or the place is right, but God knows and He is directing the movement of His people in a way that will bring salvation to the world. The time is now to act – don’t wait. Christ is coming. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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