Today in the Spirit: The Sunday after the Ascension A

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The Sunday after Ascension Day is the seventh Sunday of the Easter season (just as Pentecost Sunday is the eighth Sunday of Easter), but you will find that nowhere in the BCP 2019 is this Sunday referred to as Easter 7. The designation Sunday after Ascension Day is a change from the BCP 1979 back to the practice of earlier Anglican prayer books which sought to distinguish Ascensiontide (the ten-day period from Ascension Day to Pentecost) from the earlier part of the Easter season focused on Jesus’ resurrection appearances on earth. The Collect this week with the petition “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit” invites us into the experience of the first disciples who, according to Luke, watched Jesus ascend but then returned to Jerusalem to wait to be clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). The Gospel narratives on Jesus’ ascension are assigned for Ascension Day (the previous Thursday), so the Gospel readings appointed on the Sunday after Ascension Day are from successive sections of Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest recorded in John 17. In Year A, we hear John 17:1-11 in which Jesus asks the Father to glorify your Son, likely referring to the saving ministry of his death, resurrection and ascension as a whole. The OT reading in Ezekiel 39:21-29 helps us see a larger vision of the ascension of Jesus as a manifestation of God’s glory among the nations and a victory against his enemies. Psalm 68 (or the alternative Psalm 47) are the appointed psalms every year on this Sunday, carrying a similar message of victory as the Ezekiel passage: God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him! (Psalm 68:1). The alternative first reading out of Acts 1:(1-5) 6-14 does supply us with some narrative on the event of Jesus’ ascension and some amusing text on the response of the disciples. Our Year A series of readings in 1 Peter ends this day with 1 Peter 4:12-19 in which the Apostle encourages his flock, Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

The Collect

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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They Shall Forget Their Shame (Ezekiel 39:21-29)

[Israel] shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations (26-28).

Here, as in last week’s OT reading out of Isaiah 41, we have a message of comfort from YHWH to the exiles of Israel held captive in Babylon. This time there is more specific reference to their return to Judah, where they will dwell securely in their land, as the sign of divine liberation. But here again, the effect of God’s actions for changing the hearts of these people through just a physical transportation to Jerusalem is overstated. Israel’s return from exile does not cause them to forget their shame and the treachery they have practiced against the LORD. So what will cause the deeper, inner transformation promised in this passage? It is the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ. This passage promises inner peace. Jesus himself said: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27). This passage promises freedom from shame (Hebrew k’limma, NASB disgrace). Will that freedom come from a return journey home? We know from history that it does not for the Israelites, and from experience that “going home” does not set us free either. No, freedom from shame comes by the saving ministry of Jesus. Paul writes: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4). Today, Holy Spirit, we consider the fullness of the promises you gave to Israel in Ezekiel to be delivered through Jesus Christ.  

It Is Not for You to Know… But… (Acts 1:(1-5) 6-14)

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed 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 and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (6-9).

Notice the question about restoring the kingdom to Israel does not come from any one of the disciples in particular. It reads like the entire group is stuck on the issue. Devotionally, that should alert us to the fact any of us can become preoccupied with concerns beyond our need to know. Jesus’ response is in effect: “Stop dwelling on the things you cannot know and concentrate instead on what your job will be–witnesses near and far.” The privilege we have of walking with God and receiving special revelation in the Scriptures carries with it a high potential for dreamily pondering the mysteries. We can ask God, so we do, just like the Eleven. Let’s be careful not to become so paralyzed by matters too great, as if that is our ministry to do so, and miss opportunities to share the love of Christ with neighbors near and far. Today, with the Spirit’s help, stay focused on being a witness in the world.

God Shall Arise (Psalm 68:1-20)

God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
    and those who hate him shall flee before him!
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
    as wax melts before fire,
    so the wicked shall perish before God!
But the righteous shall be glad;
    they shall exult before God;
    they shall be jubilant with joy! (1-3)

You ascended on high,
    leading a host of captives in your train
    and receiving gifts among men,
even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.

Blessed be the Lord,
    who daily bears us up;
    God is our salvation.

Our God is a God of salvation,
    and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death (18-20).

Commentators offer lots of theories about the origin of this psalm and its use in ancient Hebrew worship. We Christians find in it connections to the whole of Christ’s saving mission: his incarnation (God in his holy habitation); his teaching (the LORD announced the word NIV); his crucifixion (the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain); his resurrection (the women who announce the news are a great host); his return (prepare a way for him who rides on the clouds GNT). And, of course, on the Sunday celebrating his ascension, we cry out, You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there. What a rich testimony to us in this psalm of the breadth of the gift of the Father in sending the Son. And in all of it, note carefully the turning of the tables in the spiritual realms: in all of the ministry of the Christ, God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered…But the righteous shall be glad; they shall exalt before God; they shall be jubilant with joy! Here is what is happening spiritually, even if physically we hardly notice. Here is what we must open our eyes of faith to see, even if our bodily eyes are not able to capture the sight. In Christ, the enemies of the kingdom of God, though still dangerous, lose their grip–and the subjects of that kingdom find their feet. Today, in the Spirit, with our hearts set apart and fixed on Christ ascended as Lord, we praise him and go about our day with energy for the new situation his ministry has brought to the world.  

Do Not Be Surprised (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

It is striking to me that almost every word in this passage, in tone and content, seems directed to an audience of people who might not be expecting to suffer for their faith. So it begins: Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. Would the earliest generation of believers, say those described in the Book of Acts, have needed to be addressed in this way? If we look at some of the earlier NT letters of Paul, 1 Thessalonians or Galatians, you see nothing of this kind of hand holding in language. Has the spirit of accommodation already so permeated the elect to whom Peter is writing that he needs to prepare them for adversity? Devotionally, I believe we modern Christians in twenty-first century America could be encouraged far more to put ourselves in the way of suffering, or at least to put forth less effort to avoid it. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, he writes. People pleaser that I am, I have to think carefully to remember the last time I was insulted for any reason at all, let alone for the cause of Christ. Today, Holy Spirit, hearing Peter’s words, make me, first, less surprised by the Christian calling to suffer for Christ that I might then be persuaded to enter into it.

Glorify Your Son (John 17:1-11)

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (1-5).

The idea of linear time–past, present, future in that order–is muddled in this passage, as it often is when the Bible concerns itself with heaven and eternity. Along that line, it is striking to hear Jesus say at this point, before his crucifixion, that he has accomplished the work you [Father God] gave me to do. Has he? He has not died yet. And Jesus prays, Glorify your Son, as if by his own understanding his death, resurrection, resurrection appearances, and ascension will be that which brings him glory. Devotionally, overhearing Jesus’ prayer in these terms places everything about the ministry of Jesus for us on a much bigger scale. His death and resurrection is not just serving the purpose of saving people in the world but of glorifying (making the holiness of God manifest) himself and the Father in heaven and on earth. Somehow, of all people, it is that Roman centurion who grasps the larger vision when he exclaims after the death of Jesus, Truly this was the Son of God! (Matthew 27:54). Paul seems to think that our understanding the larger picture of glory is critical for perseverance in service to Christ: So we do not lose heart…For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Today, in the Spirit, even as we struggle to grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ saving work, we press on that he may, as the Collect puts it, “exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.”  

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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