Sunday, May 8, 2005

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


Ascension of Our Lord (May 5, 2005)
Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:1-15-23
Luke 24:44-53

These all with one accord continued stedfastly in prayer, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.

On this, the last Sunday of Easter, we hear the final words of our Lord Jesus Christ. In John, He speaks through prayer for Himself and for the disciples in the final hours before His betrayal. In Acts, He gives them His final instructions before being taken into heaven. He wanted them to know that they were all – including Jesus – in this together.

Of course, the disciples were still concerned with so many other things. In the lesson from Acts, the disciples were together with the risen Lord and they asked, “Is this the time?” The time they were looking forward to was the day that Israel would be restored as a kingdom, when they would be an independent nation under God. Even through the crucifixion and the resurrection, they still saw Jesus as a Messiah that would sit on an earthly throne and defeat their enemies. Jesus does not deny that a day would come when Israel would be restored, for God does not go back on His promises.

Jesus simply answers, “It is not for you to know the time.” It is for God’s knowledge to know the fulfillment of His plan. But Jesus does not leave it there. He says to them, “But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Then He was taken into heaven.

The Ascension of our Lord is celebrated forty days after Easter, which is why this important festival of the church year never falls on a Sunday. Many will celebrate with special services on Thursday evening, while others will use the texts Sunday morning. For this message we’ll focus on the lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, only briefly referring to this important event in the story of Christ.

It is important because at that moment Jesus was taken into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. He became invisible to us. After promising never to leave or forsake us, after insisting that we would not be left as orphans, He was taken away. It is no wonder that the disciples were left staring at the clouds. But as we heard in last week’s lessons, the promise is not forgotten. In Luke, He tells them to go wait for the Spirit to clothe them with power. We celebrate the fulfillment of this promise on Pentecost.

They were left staring at the clouds, but not for long. Two men in white appeared suddenly and asked why they were standing there. They encouraged the disciples, “He’ll be back.” So, they went to Jerusalem to wait, constantly devoting themselves to prayer. They weren’t alone, they were together with the women as well as Jesus’ family.

I think it is fascinating that the last time we saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, was at the cross. She is not found in the resurrection accounts, but she was part of that community of believers. I wonder how they saw her. Was she like a mother to those boys, caring for them as she’d cared for Jesus? Did they look to her for motherly love and encouragement? So much of the scriptural accounts focus on the work of those twelve disciples that we forget that others were part of that early community. They all lived and worked together for the sake of the Gospel, caring for one another and devoting themselves to prayer.

How much time do we spend in prayer? I’m sure most of us spend at least some time each day in prayer and many of us try to check in with God throughout our days, aware of His presence in the midst of our daily activities. As a matter of fact, for those of us living in this twenty-first century world, this kind of constant prayer must be referring to a more spiritual lifestyle because I do not know many people who can spend every moment of their day in prayer. As a matter of fact, we rarely get together with other Christians to pray throughout our week. We gather together to worship for an hour or two on a Sunday, perhaps another evening each week. During that time we have specific moments set aside to pray together, but all worship is a form of prayer – communication with God. Some churches set aside some time each week for small groups to meet for prayer.

Even with these gatherings, how much time do we spend in prayer? While individual prayer is an important part of our journey as disciples and should not be dismissed as unimportant, today’s scriptures emphasize the need for prayer within the community of believers. Apparently, in the days of Jesus, it was common that all prayers were said aloud. In this way, the words of one person are shared by the whole group. It is not unusual that Jesus’ prayer in the passage from John was heard – it was common practice. He was not using that as a teaching moment, but rather drawing the listeners into the relationship between Jesus and His Father so that there would be unity. He wanted them to be one – one with one another, one with Jesus and one with God. A community living and working together constantly devoted to prayer.

This passage is divided into two distinct prayers. First Jesus prays for Himself, that the Son would be glorified. The glory is found in the fulfillment of His mission – so that the world will know the one only true God and Jesus Christ. In these moments before His crucifixion, Jesus was looking toward that moment when He would be reunited with His Father, sharing in the glory He once knew. However, He had to suffer the cross first.

In the second prayer, Jesus talks of His disciples. This is a very distinct group of people. Though Jesus also prays for the whole world and for future believers, in this prayer He prays for those who knew Him in the flesh, who walked and ministered with Him for three years. They were the ones that would have to take His word and share it with others. They were the first witnesses, the ones upon which our entire knowledge of Jesus Christ would rest. Our faith comes from the words they have shared. As we hear that Word, as recorded in the scriptures, we receive the same gifts. They needed protection – from the cares of the world and the deceits of Satan. They needed the strength to lay the foundation of everything we believe.

None of the disciples could have done it alone. Though Peter is known as ‘the rock,’ he denied Jesus three times on the night He was betrayed. James and John, the sons of thunder, were too temperamental. Phillip was uncertain. They each had individual gifts and shortcomings. They lifted one another up and they kept one another grounded.

It wasn’t going to be 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. They’d 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 Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel. The Christians to whom he was writing were suffering persecution. They needed encouragement to get through. Peter uses this opportunity to remind his readers that we share in the glory of Christ when we share in His suffering. “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy.” 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. We are no different than the disciples in those final moments of Jesus’ presence on earth. We want to know when God’s plan will be fulfilled and we want to know we will be a part of it. 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. When Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples did not know what to do. They were left standing, staring into heaven. I wonder how long they might have stood there had it not been for the angels telling them that Jesus would return one day. It would not be surprising is they were confused, concerned or afraid. At that moment they were left alone. We often feel like we too have been left alone, particularly when we are suffering from persecution. God loves us, He won’t leave us alone.

Thirdly, Peter tells us to discipline ourselves. In recent times this word has taken on a negative connotation, it has been taken to mean simply punishment. However, there is far more to discipline and it comes from the same root as disciple. Jesus spent three years disciplining the twelve and other followers. He taught them 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 can find Him by our own works. However, faithful living means constant devotion to prayer. We can’t expect to just happen. It takes training and practice. It takes discipline.

When we are filled with God’s Word, received through Word and Sacraments, encouraged through prayer, we will have the strength to face the world. Peter warns the readers that Satan is prowling like a hungry lion waiting to pounce on prey. We must be alert and prepared.

There is hope despite the troubles we will face. When we have suffered God will restore, support, strengthen and establish us. He is indeed the God of al 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.

The greatest gift we have is the community of believers. We can’t 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 their testimony and the testimony of the Church from every time and every place. We are bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. Though we are unable on our own to be constantly devoted to prayer, we can know that someone somewhere is praying with us and for us. We are made one by God’s Word through God’s grace, together continuing the work of Jesus Christ in this world. Thanks be to God.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page