The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2018

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
I John 5:9-13
St. John 17:6-19

Background: Why an Ascension?

Perhaps in our biblical studies and meditation we ought to consider why it is that Luke/Acts has an ascension? Some will quickly respond that it is there because it happened. Why, however is it important? Is it to get Jesus back home, or is it because there are claims to be made about Jesus that are best contained in this symbolic construct? Equally, it might be that a whole cosmological and symbolical context can be brought to bear in knowing who Jesus was. Some commentators[1]would have us look back to the ascension narratives of Enochor Elijah, especially the Elijah narrative to see a model upon which Luke may have based his narratives of the ascension. What we see in that reading are a shared vocabulary and linguistic structure and talk about the bestowal of the Spirit. In a way the narrative continues claims that Luke makes about Jesus and his relationship with the prophet Elijah. The other aspect of Luke’s narratives is its dependence on Jewish apocalyptic. Jesus ascends not so much to physical place as he does to a status – that of the head of the cosmos. If Jesus is head of all, then he rules over a nation of nations, which fits well within Luke’s appreciation of the mission to the Gentiles. Finally, we must wonder at whether the ascension was an event, or a mindset looking at an event (the Resurrection)? 

First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus-- for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. So, one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." So, they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

There is a central focus to this pericope (other than the explanation of Judas’ end – which is carefully elided from the lectionary) and that is this – “become with us a witness to his resurrection”. The subtext here is aligned with the emphasis on the resurrection, and that is the giving of the Spirit. Here, the disciples are the first to receive the gift as they cast lots for a successor to Judas. The qualifications for this role is quite interesting – one who has accompanied them through the whole of Jesus’ ministry, from the baptism until “the day when he was taken up from us.” In other words, the completeness of Jesus’ ministry must be in the mind of this person. We cannot pass by the phrase “taken up from us” to quickly of blithely. With this phrase Luke has Peter connect all of their experience to both cross and resurrection – Jesus being taken up. We are then not so concerned with the person, who ends up being Matthias, but rather with their experience, and ultimately their witness. As we continue in our churches with the Easter mystagogy, we might want to guise ourselves in the experience and calling of Matthias – witness to the resurrection.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What does it mean to you to be a witness?
  2. How have you witnessed the resurrection?
  3. How have you shared that witness?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

     Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
     Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
     They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.
     It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
     Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
     For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

I am always pondering why a text has been appointed for the lectionary, wondering about its connections and relationship with the other readings. The initial phrase, “Happy are they” needs to be understood as “happy the man”, or “happy the woman.” In other words – “happy the individual.” It is a look back at the first reading where we understand the happiness (i.e. “blessedness”) of Matthias. The psalm helps us to stand into his persona. The attributes of such a person are fully explored by the psalmist. He or she wants us to understand the wisdom of such a person, and also to see and experience the journey (see the use of the verb “to walk”) of one who is truly wise. Robert Alter translates the line, “and they meditate on his law day and night”, as “and His teach he murmurs day and night.”[2]The murmuring day and night is evocative of two things. First of all, it is an activity, a mental exercise of knowing God’s law and way. Secondly it is full of the idea of breath and speaking and thus of the creation of all things. It is the breath that God uses to make things happen. There are other life-giving aspects, such as the streams of water and the fruit of the trees. All of this is in contrast with the wicked, who are separated from these steps and ways.

Breaking open Psalm 1:
  1. How are you an individual Christian?
  2. How are you a member of the Christian Assembly?
  3. How do you meditate upon God?

Second Reading: I John 5:9-13

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Here, again, there is a focus on witness, or as the author of First John would have it, testimony. He contrasts the witness of humankind with the witness that God brings to bear. That testimony bears witness to the Son. This witness and experience this John sees as all encompassing. Its ultimate gift is “eternal life.” When hearing this phrase, we are tempted to think of the end of time and an ultimate reward but isn’t it a life that is given to us even now, at this time. Resurrection is a hope, but eternal life is a present gift.

Breaking open I John:
  1. What do you understand by the term “eternal life”?
  2. For what do you wait?
  3. What do you already have?

The Gospel: St. John 17:6-19

Jesus prayed for his disciples, “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. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Here we have John’s vision of Jesus – an earthly bound vision of Jesus as High Priest. Unlike similar visions in the Letter to the Hebrews, here it is content more than image. It is what the high priest prays for, the gift he asks of God for the people. There is community and relationship. There is unity. There is protection and being guarded. There is joy. Francis Martin and William Wright have an interesting comment to make regarding this pericope:

“The fusion of times in this prayer show it to be offered by Jesus in connection with his self-gift to the Father on the cross and continuing forever in his heavenly glory, where he makes constant intercession to the Father on his disciples’ behalf (1 John 2: 1– 2; Heb 7: 25).”[3]

This is all part of the “yet and not yet” conundrum in which the promise extends between that which is now and that which is to come. It is complex, just as the relationship that Jesus want to elucidate is complex. We do not “belong to the world”, and yet we are in the world. The resurrection and the ascension are signs of God’s presence with us, and yet God’s immanence and transcendence. Some people are troubled by that silence and distance, and for others it is the substance of hope. If we are to be like Matthias, and to be a witness of the resurrection, then we must enter into the heart of Jesus’ prayer and understand our unity with every man – with every woman.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does your religious timeline look like?
  2. At what point do you place yourself at this time?
  3. How does it end?

Problem: How to be a witness to that which we have not seen or experienced.

Possibility 1:     Have we died in Baptism and yet are alive?
Possibility 2:     Have we been reborn at various points in our lives – having our own resurrections?
Possibility 3:     Have we not experienced the Spirit’s breath of recreation?
Possibility 4:     Do we not know God in one another?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     In exploring this problem, I have found the following volume to be quite helpful: Bryan, D., Pao, D. (2016), Ascent into Heaven in Luke-Acts: New Explorations of Luke’s Narrative Hinge, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Kindle Edition.
[2]     Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle location 854.
[3]     Martin, F. and Wright, W. (2015), The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, page 276.


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