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Wednesday, May 16, 2012
WHAT NEXT?—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR ASCENSION DAY OR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER—(MAY 17 & 20, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN


Lectionary Scriptures:
Ascension Day: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1:1-6, I John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

Human stories usually end with a death, or sometimes with a consideration of the person’s legacy. The story of Jesus’ human life ended with a crucifixion. The ragged band of his followers, however, continued to feel his presence. A whole movement was born and swept across the known world.  It took centuries to explain it and we’re still trying.

Some churches will celebrate this coming Sunday as Ascension Sunday, Ascension Day being Thursday, May 17.  I see “ascension” as one of three of the earliest attempts to talk about the new reality, the “next,” in which they were living.  The other two are “resurrection” and “Pentecost”—the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.  Over time these explanations were woven together into a sort of logical sequence.

I’ve listed the readings for both Ascension Day, and the alternatives for Sunday if not celebrating Ascension Day.  I will comment only briefly on the Ascension Day readings.  Both accounts of the Ascension are presented.  Ironically they are both from the same source, the combined story told by Luke-Acts.  Luke’s Gospel has Jesus speaking to his followers, interpreting the scriptures to them (Luke 24:44 and following), and lifting his hands to bless them (vs. 50), but says only this about the ascension itself: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew and was carried up into heaven.” (vs. 51)

As the story continues in Acts, Jesus is again speaking to his followers, commissioning them as his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  Then, “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,” and spoke to them.

Both stories include the instruction to wait until power comes upon them.  In Luke 24:49, Jesus says, “ . . . stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  Acts 1:4-5 tells us that “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father . . . you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  These readings are part of an attempt to interpret the empowerment the early church experienced.  They came to understand that Jesus rose to heaven where he sat at the right hand of God, exercising power and authority over all things.

The other readings for Ascension Day speak of the power of a King.  “ . . . sing praises to our King . . . for God is the king of all the earth . . . God is king over the nations . . . God sits on his holy throne.” (Psalm 47:6-8)  “The Lord is king, her is robed in majesty, he is girded with strength . . .” (Psalm 93:1)

The reading from Ephesians, in which the writer prays for his readers, talks about “the immeasurable greatness of” Jesus, who was raised from the dead and seated “at the right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:19-21), ending by speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23)

So, what next?  First we wait for power from on high which emanates from heaven.  Beyond that life pretty much goes on as usual.  In Luke, after Jesus “was carried up into heaven . . . they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:51-53)  In Acts, the “two men in white robes . . . 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.” (Acts 1:11)

What next?  The implication is that we are to get on with our worshiping and serving and witnessing now, here on earth.  That’s where it is for you now.  There’s work to be done, including what some might dismiss as the administrative details of the church.  Sunday’s reading from Acts tells the story of such an administrative detail---finding a replacement for Judas, chosen by lot of all things. (Acts 1:23 & 26, as well as the entire reading.)

Is it possible that Psalm 1 is included as a description of the kind of person needed to give leadership?  It speaks of one “who does not follow the advice of the wicked,” but delights “in the law of the Lord,” those who “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” (Psalm 1:1-3)  I’ve always been a little troubled with the stark contrasts in this Psalm, beloved by many.  I believe most of us are men and women of mixed motives and mixed merit.  Nevertheless, we have here guidance about the nature of one who might be “empowered” as God works in human lives and relationships—and even in organizations like a congregation or church—or Congress?

The Gospel lesson is presented as a prayer by Jesus at the end of a time of conversation and teaching around the Passover table, what we call the Last Supper.  It is a prayer for his disciples and those who will come after him.  The heart of it is that, while he will be gone, they will still be “in the world.”  He prays that “they may be one, as we are one.” (vs. 11)  Jesus does not ask that they be taken, “out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (vs. 15)  There is sort of a paradox here.  “They do not belong to the world,” but “as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (vss. 16 & 18)

As I was reflecting on this prayer, I kept thinking about a book by Robert W. Spike, influential in my seminary education, In But Not Of The World.  Published in 1957 (the year of my high school graduation), it’s title is a summary of Jesus’ prayer.  What next?  We are to get on with our living, in the world, but not according to the dominant values of the world.  We are called to offer a resurrection alternative to those values.

Robert Spike embodied that attempt.  He was an early pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, an alternative church if there ever was one.  When Spike was murdered in Chicago in 1966, where I was in graduate school, Martin Luther King, Jr., said of him: "He was one of those rare individuals who sought at every point to make religion relevant to the social issues of our time. He lifted religion from the stagnant arena of pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. His brilliant and dedicated work will be an inspiration to generals yet unborn. We will always remember his unswerving devotion to the legitimate aspirations of oppressed people for freedom and human dignity."

My thinking turned to another influential book from the same era, Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.  I came across a blog posting by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., on the 50th anniversary of its publication, in which he says, “God has called us to lives of difficult paradox, of painful negotiation between conflicting and competitive values, of seeking to cooperate with God wherever he is at work.”

And that reminded me that Margie and I have just begun reading Parker J. Palmer’s book, The Promise of Paradox.  Originally written in 1980, a new edition was released in 2008.  In the introduction to the new edition, Parker talks about an insight he gained from Thomas Merton about the messiness of life.  “ . . . we will find our spiritual lives in that mess itself, in its earthy realities, unpredictable challenges, surprising resources, creative dynamics.”

Robert Spike, Richard Niebuhr, John Stackhouse, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer are among many mentors who have helped many in our struggle to live out some answers to the question, “What next?”—seen through a glass darkly.

Finally, the epistle of I John, speaks of “eternal life.”  Some would see the “What next?” as being a journey to an eternal home in heaven.  Eternal life may include that future dimension, but mainly it is living in Jesus now.  “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 . . . so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:11-13)  Now!  You don’t have to wait.  What’s next?  You are to start living according to eternal values now—in but not of the world.

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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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