Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12-26
Psalm 68:1-10
1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.

This Sunday, for the disciples, was a day of prayer. It was a time of transition, again. The last time they were there was between the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were frightened and confused. They didnít know what their future held. They didnít know if the next knock on the door would be someone who wanted to hang them on a cross. They probably wondered if they should return home and go back to the life they were living before Jesus entered their lives three years earlier.

Their attitude during this transition was much different. Jesus rose and appeared to them six weeks ago. He spent forty days with them, teaching them everything they needed to know to go on. He encouraged them to continue His work in this world. He heartened them with words of comfort; ďDo not fear,Ē He said. He breathed on them and promised to be with them forever, changing their fear into faith. They were in transition and though there was still uncertainty about their future, they trusted Jesus and obeyed His command.

When Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after the resurrection, He promised that Heíd send a helper. This, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit that they will receive on Pentecost. They were sent back to Jerusalem to wait. Their attitude was different than forty days earlier, but I am certain they still felt grief. Though they knew Jesus lived, He was no longer in their presence. Isnít that how we feel about those we love who are no longer with us? We know that by faith they still live and in heaven. We even comfort ourselves with the idea that they still watch over us. We still talk to them even though they are not here to hear. Though we know they are blessed by life in a better place, we long for their touch and to hear their voice. We miss them. The disciples were going to miss having Jesus physically in their presence.

So, on this day the disciples were in prayer. Those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons were over; the time for work was at hand. 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 word? 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 were 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 did 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 Jesusí 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, Peter did not betray Jesus, but 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.

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.

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.

Last week we heard the promise that Jesus would not leave His people as orphans. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned at that moment, the disciples would have the power of the Holy Spirit. We see the promise of Godís presence 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. That prayer was not meant for just those first apostles; Jesus was praying for us, too.

Have you ever been at a campfire and tried to avoid the smoke? It doesnít matter where I sit, the wind always turns in my direction. When I move, the wind blows a new way. I sometimes feel as though Iím being chased. Iím not, I know. It just seems that way. The wind might blow in a general direction, but that is never perfectly the same. It is probably better to just stay in one place because the wind will eventually blow the smoke a little to the left or a little to the right, and then someone else around the campfire will have to put up with it. It is hard to sit there, though, because the smoke burns your eyes and makes your clothes smell. The question is: can you put up with the disadvantages to have the fun that can be had around a campfire? I think, perhaps, símores are worth the hassle.

Have you ever felt like nothing will go right? I think we have all had times when our lives seem out of control, although I suspect that there are many people who feel that way right now. Theyíve lost their jobs so they canít pay their mortgages and they face foreclosure. If you add to those circumstances health issues and relationship troubles that come from the stress and uncertainty, anyone might feel like someone is out to get them. It is bad enough to face one problem, but one often leads to many and then it becomes a burden that even the strongest among us have a hard time handling.

Glory is found in suffering. 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. Jesus was never meant to try to get out of the smoke, but to stay in it so that others could live. He blocked the smoke so we can breathe. Discipleship means continuing the work of Christ in the world. There, even if we face difficult times, we will find the glory He has promised to share with those who shine His light to the world.

Christian faith means rejoicing in all circumstances and moving forward in faith. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to pray the prayer in todayís Gospel lesson? He didnít ask God to remove the cross, but for God to fulfill His promises found there. In this prayer we are reminded of all 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; they were written by John so that we might know Christ. Then Jesus went on to speak of the lives of His disciples: they will go on to continue glorifying God is the same ways.

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.

It isnít easy. The task ahead of them meant discovering for the first time how to live in this world without the physical presence of Jesus and yet continuing to carry with them all that He said and did. Theyíd been changed, no longer of the world but still in the world. They would be hated, despised, rejected. Satan would try to stop the message.

Peter was writing to a Christian community some years after Jesusí prayer in todayís Gospel. The Christians to whom he was writing were suffering persecution. They needed encouragement to get through. Peter used this opportunity to remind his readers that we share in the glory of Christ when we share in His suffering. ďBeloved, donít be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christís sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy.Ē Our joy comes from being one with Christ in all things, including His sufferings.

Peter then lists a number of ways to live out our faith in this relationship we have with God. First of all, we are to be humble before Him. He is God, we are His servants. We will share in His glory, but it is not up to us to choose the time or the place. God calls us to live humbly and we will be exalted. Second, we are to give our worries and our fears to God because He cares for us. We often feel like we too have been left alone, particularly when we are suffering from persecution. God loves us, He wonít leave us alone.

Thirdly, Peter tells us to discipline ourselves. Jesus spent three years and forty days teaching His followers what it meant to be a Christian. He showed them how to be a servant. He was an example of prayer. He worshipped with them, walked with them, scolded them, encouraged them, warned them, and corrected them. It is not easy to live the Christian life, it requires the kind of relationship Jesus had with His Father. This relationship comes first through His grace, for He comes to us. We canít find Him by our own works. However, faithful living means constant devotion to building our relationship with God through prayer. We canít expect to just happen. Peter warns the readers that Satan is prowling like a hungry lion waiting to pounce on prey; we must be alert and prepared. It takes training and practice. It takes discipline.

There is hope despite the troubles we will face. God has promised that He will be near and that He will restore, support, strengthen and establish us. He is indeed the God of all grace and He has called us to this life and to His eternal glory that is found in Christ Jesus our Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have all we need to live this life, to go forth in faith and to serve God in the world.

We canít do it by ourselves. We need one another. The witness of Peter and all the other disciples was passed on through generation after generation. We know Christ Jesus because of the testimony of those who have come before us and future generations will know Him because of the witness of the Church from every time and every place, including you and me. We are all bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are made one by Godís Word through Godís grace, together continuing the work of Jesus Christ in this world.

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