The Seventh Sunday of Easter - 5 June 2011

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 66:7-18
I Peter 3:13-22
St. John 14:15-21

BACKGROUND: The Ascension
The Feast of the Ascension is celebrated forty days following Easter Day, and is preceded by three Rogation days as well.  It is first mentioned as a liturgical feast sometime in the fifth century. It is attested to by St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, the Apostolic Constitutions, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and the Pilgrim Etheria.  In recent times the celebration of the feast has been moved in some churches to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

The Ascension is recounted by Luke in two different versions, one in Luke, and another in the Acts.  It is implied in the Gospel of John and in some of the Pauline epistles.  I Peter refers to it directly.  Matthew has a scene in Galilee in which the Great Commission is pronounced, but there is no ascension, per se.  Many scholars speak of the Easter Event and the Ascension is being one and the same thing.  It makes clear Jesus’ parting from the disciples and lays a place for the entry of the Holy Spirit.  It used to be the tradition in liturgical churches that the Paschal Candle was extinguished following the reading of the Gospel on the Feast of the Ascension, emphasizing the departure of Jesus.  Now the practice is to have the candle lit through Pentecost.

Acts 1:6-14
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

In these first verses from Acts, Luke has Jesus set the foundations for the mission and ministry of the Church.  There is in the verses immediately preceding this reading, a recounting of the Easter kerygma (proclamation) and then Luke launches into the promised coming of the Spirit, and Christ’s ascension into heaven.  In the questions from the group that has gathered around Jesus we have a hint of old doubts and misconceptions, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel.”  They still don’t get it, and Jesus moves on to indicate that they are looking in the wrong place, and then describes the new world that they will live and work in. 

The Lucan account of the ascension implies that it and the Easter event are one and the same.  This make the reading from Acts somewhat problematic in that it mentions the visits “for forty days.”  Some have suggested that the forty days are symbolic only (Israel in the wilderness, Noah in the ark, etc.) and that this reading in Acts does not destroy Luke’s timeline.  The important passage is really the question, “Why do you still stand looking?” directed at those who expected Christ’s immanent return. In Acts, Luke redirects the reader to the mission that is beckoning.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Does Jesus seem absent in your life?
  2. What do you do about that?
  3. What is suggested here in Acts?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 Exsurgat Deus

Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; *
let those who hate him flee before him.

Let them vanish like smoke when the wind drives it away; *
as the wax melts at the fire, so let the wicked perish at
the presence of God.

But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; *
let them also be merry and joyful.

Sing to God, sing praises to his Name;
exalt him who rides upon the heavens; *
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!

Father of orphans, defender of widows, *
God in his holy habitation!

God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; *
but the rebels shall live in dry places.

O God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,

The earth shook, and the skies poured down rain,
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, *
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.

You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.

Your people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.

Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.

He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.

Ascribe power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.

How wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!

The use of this psalm on this particular day moves from its original purpose and context.  The initial verse of the psalm (verse 2) is a quotation from the Song of the Ark” in Numbers 35:10, where we can surmise how the psalm was originally used.  Was it a psalm used in the temple liturgy, accompanying ceremonies around the ark, or is it simply a victory psalm?  For its use on this Sunday it is seen as a prefiguring of the exalted and ascended Christ, with phrases like “Rider of the clouds” (him who rides upon the heavens) and “To the rider in the utmost heavens of yore” (He rides in the heavens) picturing the ascending Lord. 

Breaking open Psalm 68:
1.     Why do you think this psalm is used on this Sunday?

I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

In previous chapters, the author has described the possibility of suffering for those who follow the Christ.  In the verses of this reading, the potentiality has turned to actuality, and the author describes how a Christian might live under such circumstances.  Two points are made.  The first is that a Christian’s suffering is a participation in the suffering of the Christ.  Participation in Christ’s suffering is also a participation in his glory.  The second point is an exhortation to trust in God’s faithfulness to the faithful.  In an especially poignant way, this reading also ties Christ’s exaltation (see Acts above) with the exaltation and glorification of the individual Christian, calling them to be vigilant and attentive to all this is happening about them.  Resistance, Steadfastness, and Suffering are the virtues that are lifted up for the Church.  These anticipatory virtues are completed in the virtue of glorification in Christ.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. Have you suffered actual persecution in your life for your faith?
  2. What do you think of the author’s idea about participating in the suffering of Christ?
  3. In what ways are you resistant and steadfast?

Saint John 17:1-11

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. "

This reading, taken from the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, comes from a series of discourse in which Jesus prepares the disciples for the Holy Week events.  The highpoint of these phrases is the unity that is lifted up for the disciples to see – the unity of the Father and the Son. There is a symbiosis here, between the Son who is sent to do the Father’s will, and who lifts up the Father for all to see, and the exaltation of the Son.  The unity that binds the two soon becomes the hallmark of those who follow “so that they may be one, as we are one.” Why does Jesus utter this prayer?  What follows will make it obvious, but it is unknown to those who are gathered about him now.  The humiliation, death and departure of Jesus will leave “his own” in need of protection and shelter, and this is what Jesus’ proposes to provide.  As Jesus has been cared for by the Father, so should those whom Jesus has gathered be protected as well.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How important is Christian Unity to you?
  2. Is it possible in our time?
  3. What prevents it?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


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