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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:

Ascension Day—Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9 OR Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Sunday Readings—Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

I’ve listed the readings for Ascension Day (June 2) as well as for Sunday, June 5, which includes some Ascension scriptures even though the Sunday may or may not have that focus.

Before looking at the scriptures, I want to say a word about my approach in this blog—not just this week, but all the time. When I agreed to write regularly for this blog, I said I would share my own thoughts on and responses to the lectionary scriptures each week, period. I do new research only if something beckons me in that direction. I read journals regularly and often am exposed to new research, although I make no claims what I write reflects the latest scholarship. It is my opinion that pursuing the question, “What did the writer really mean?” (if we think we even know who the writer was), while perhaps informative, is ultimately leads to something unknowable. Speaking from years of preaching, I can say that we preachers (or at least this one) sometimes aren’t even sure why we include or exclude things from our sermons. How can I possibly get fully into someone else’s mind?

I have been particularly influenced by a 1971 statement by Phyllis Trible, well-known Old Testament scholar. “ . . . all scripture,” she said, “is a pilgrim, wandering through history, engaging in new settings, and ever refusing to be locked in the box of the past.” She pointed out that within the Bible old truths are reinterpreted and applied to new situations, that even Jesus engaged in such reinterpretation and application. You and I are part of that continuing process. What I write is intended to stimulate your thinking and to be part of a continuing conversation as we interpret and apply old truths to our own experience and situations.

So, what about the ascension? What really happened? I recently read about someone who, visiting the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, was “directed to a footprint-like depression in the rock, said to be the exact point from which Christ parted from his disciples and from our world—as if he sprang into the heavens with such vigour that the very rock underneath his feet was compressed in the act!”

My take is that the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost (however you describe the events) all are attempts to interpret the continuing power and presence of Jesus’ Spirit in our midst. They move us from an earthly physical presence to a universal spiritual power at work in and through the entire cosmos. Rising from that spot in the stone is a big leap. I hope it’s not sacrilegious to say something like, “One small leap for Jesus; one giant leap for the cosmos and all things big and small that dwell in it.”

Still, I don’t want to get stuck looking into heaven as if watching the trail of a shuttle lift-off, or witnessing a Star Trek beam-up. I rather suggest that Jesus’ wants our focus to be on this earth where we’ve been “left behind.” The phrase “Left Behind” has been coopted by those who are waiting to be taken up into heaven, sometimes at a specific day and hour. We recently witnessed another failed prediction of that moment. The Ascension reminds us that we have all been “left behind.” When Jesus’ earthly physical ministry was complete, he left the job to us. “Don’t just stand looking up toward heaven,” he said. (Acts 1:11) In his prayer for his disciples, in John 17:12, Jesus said, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world . . . protect them in your name . . . so that they may be one, as we are one.”

This world is our reality, the place of our ministry. It’s all we have at this moment. Whatever comes next has been described, and debated, in a variety of ways, but Jesus declared that his Spirit would empower us for living right here.

Miscellaneous thoughts and comments on the various scriptures that may provide other themes for exploration or guidance for the living of these days:

1. Sometimes the thing to do is wait. We human beings are inclined to rush into this activity or that activity without trying to discern where God’s Spirit is at work and where God wants us to go. In Acts 1:4-5 & 8, Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Luke 24:29 he says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

2. Several of this week’s readings, including the Psalms, speak of the universal reign of God. There is nothing that is outside the working of his Spirit. That universal presence is often depicted in terms of kingship. “For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth . . . Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.” (Psalm 47:2, 6-7) “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” (Psalm 93:1) “God has put this power to work in Christ . . ., far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Ephesians 1:20-21) The Ephesians passage concludes by speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23) It’s hard to get any more universal than that.

3. While Psalm 68 also speaks of a powerful God, “who rides upon the clouds” and (vs. 4) and “whose power is in the skies” (vs. 34), its focus is upon God’s compassion in response to the needs of this earth, God’s work among those “left behind.” He is the “father of orphans and protector of widows.” (vs. 5) “God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.” (vs. 6) God is “awesome” because God “gives power and strength to his people.” (vs. 35)

4. The reading from I Peter comes the closest to the situation the “left behind” movement anticipates, but perhaps it can be applied to all of us as we live in this imperfect world. It describes a situation of testing. (I Peter 4:12) It is, however, not described as a time of terror. It is a time to “be glad and shout for joy” because Christ’s Spirit is with us in the midst of the testing. (vs. 13) As those who, after the ascension, are “left behind,” we are to live humbly, cast our anxiety on him, discipline ourselves and keep alert, and resist temptation and the power of evil. (I Peter 5: 6-9) The ascension does not mean we are left alone. Christ’s Spirit continues to “restore, support, strengthen, and establish” us. (vs. 10) Do those words sound familiar? Our pastor uses them almost every Sunday to send us into the world.

5. Finally, back to the waiting. They “returned to Jerusalem with great joy;” it says in Luke 24:52 “and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They went “to the room upstairs where they were staying” and “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:13-14) If we who are “left behind” are to be restored, supported, strengthened, and established, we need to pray for one another. The reading from Ephesians, in which the writer prays for those with whom he is corresponding, offers a model. In our prayers we can give thanks for one another. (Ephesians 1:16—“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”) We may pray that we all have “a spirit of wisdom and revelation . . . so that, with the eyes” of our hearts enlightened, we may “know what is the hope to which he has called” us. (vss. 17-18) It is a prayer of empowerment. The ascension may have seemed to some like they were being left behind. Instead, this prayer signals “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” (vs. 19)

Sometimes Jesus’ ascension may distract us into an obsession with heaven, when he wanted us to pay attention to the power of his Spirit in our midst right here on earth!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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