I wasn’t sure this week whether I would write on the lections for the Feast of the Ascension or on the ones for Easter VII, but I finally settled on Sunday’s readings. After all, I’m writing these each week looking forward to Sunday. And there have been some weeks when I’ve read and reflected on the lections for a midweek feast, but life continues to be crazy. So since I don’t have to preach tomorrow night, I’m not doing all that preparation. I am, however, privileged to be reading the first lesson, which is the Ascension story from Acts, so I’ve printed it out and formatted it how I want to see it on the lectern tomorrow night. And, because the authors of the RCL knew that most Christians aren’t going to get to church on a Thursday to celebrate the Ascension, they’ve given us the real gist of that story in Sunday’s first lection anyway.
So this Sunday’s readings have quite an interesting shape and flow to them. We begin with the Ascension story. Jesus had returned to his closest friends and spent forty days with them, being with them, teaching them, loving them… until it is time for him to go. Again. And though he has tried to prepare them for this, and has told them that he is sending a comforter to them, and that he is coming back at any minute – I don’t know how much of this the apostles would remember in that moment. They see Jesus ascending to the heavens, and the glory and majesty of God all around… and then I’m sure reality sinks back in with its numbing terror. He’s gone. He was our only hope, our saviour, and now he’s gone again. What on earth are we going to DO? But there are helpful angels there to say, um, guys? Want to stop scratching your heads and get back to work? So they do. (I know I’m not the only one who thinks there was probably some grumbling and kvetching on the way back to Jerusalem. And not a few “why me?” and maybe even “wtf, God?” prayers going up.)
Next, the psalm is full of majesty and glory and triumph, praising God, singing to God, telling the story of all the wonderful things God has done to help us. And then… the letter from 1 Peter. Sigh. I can’t be the only one who is tired of this letter by now, with its emphasis on suffering and humility and ordeals. I want my Easter to be joyful, dammit, and these epistles have really been bringing me down! And, well, maybe that’s a good thing. Because the hard truth is, we don’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday first. There can’t be a resurrection without being a death. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t come until after Jesus has ascended to Heaven. As the bumper sticker says, sh*t happens. I used to have a really hard time with a God who is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and yet who allows sh*t to happen so much. But the thing is, sh*t, well, just happens. But God is there, with the love and the wisdom and the power to help us redeem the sh*t, to turn it into fertilizer and to make something beautiful and wonderful and worthwhile out of it. And we may not think that the beautiful and wonderful and worthwhile thing was worth the price, but we aren’t able to take the long view… yet. So, dagnabbit, these readings from 1 Peter are necessary and important; they are here to remind us of the cross. The cross may be empty now, but there was once a man hanging on it, suffering for us. And that sh*t that happened has most certainly been redeemed by God!
So the shape of these readings has been the sense of grief and loneliness, followed by renewed purpose, in the story from Acts. Then we get triumph and majesty and awe in the psalm, but are reminded in the epistle that we do still have work to do, and that it may sometimes suck. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, and then, we get to the gospel. This week’s gospel is from the farewell discourses in John, which may be my favourite section of the bible. In the gospel of John, most of these four chapters take place at the Last Supper, when Jesus is delivering his final teachings to his closest friends, and then prays over and for them. This gospel reading – it is a love story for us. We have watched Jesus ascend to heaven with the apostles, and then joined them in devotion to prayer once the angels kick us in the pants and remind us to get back to work. We have thanked and praised God in a joyful psalm, and then we’ve been reminded, as the Man in Black said in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” But then, we are given this wonderful love story, reflected in Jesus’ prayer for us all.
As wonderful as this love story is, though, it also gives us an action plan for our own lives as Christians, as followers of the risen – and ascended – Jesus. In the prayer, Jesus says, I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. And what was this work? Jesus says that he has made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. Jesus continues with a beautiful picture of stewardship, acknowledging that everything he had in this world came from God and belongs to God, and then praying for God’s love and protection for us in the world. And he concludes with a very powerful statement, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus prays for us all to be one, as Jesus and the Creator are one.
So there’s our action plan:
- Make God’s name known to those whom God has given us.
- Be faithful and loving stewards of those whom God has given us.
- Pray and work for unity, for us all to be one, as the persons of the Trinity are one.
Simple, right? It’s a nice, pat, three-part plan. We like plans, right? So let’s go do it!
What’s that? You have questions? It’s simple, but it’s not easy? Well, yeah, there is that.
I mean, who are those whom God has given us? I have an uneasy feeling that God’s answer is already in front of us, in the response to a very famous parable. But we don’t have to adopt every last human being on the planet. We can start in a simpler place. Look around you. That’s right – right now. Are you at work? Your co-workers, your officemates – God has given them to you. Are you at home? Your family, your husband or wife, your mother and father, your sisters and brothers, your children – God has given them to you, just as God has given you to them. Are you, heaven forbid, reading this on your iPhone during the sermon at church? Well, the folks around you in the pews have been given to you by God, too. Start with the people you know, and make sure they know God’s name.
The beauty of that first action in our three-part plan from Jesus is that it doesn’t mean you have to be terribly pushy. Yes, the Great Commission directs us to go out and make Christians, but sometimes, the best evangelists are the quiet ones who live a godly life and serve as an example of joy and peace and hope and love to the people who know them. St. Francis famously (if apocryphally) said, preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words. So we can make God’s name known to those around us without using words all the time.
To be faithful and loving stewards of those around us, we must realize that they don’t belong to us. I know this sounds obvious. Of course my husband doesn’t belong to me – he is his own person! But we still use that language – my husband, my daughter, my employees, my parishioners, my cousin, my sister – when the truth and reality of the matter are that these people all belong to God. But by the same token, God has entrusted them to us, has given us the responsibility to care for them, to love them, to be sure that they are fed and housed and clothed. We are not completely without resources in this effort, of course, because while my daughter has been given to me by God, I have also been given to her by God. And while you – yes, you there, reading this post at 2am in your footie pajamas – have been given to me by God, I have also been given to you by God, even though you’ve never met me and don’t even know my real name.
Of course, from your dark corner of the house at 2am, in your footie pajamas, you’re probably wondering how on earth you’re supposed to take care of me, who is writing this at 7pm in my work clothes as I watch my little bird flip around her window perch to play with her toy. Sometimes, all we can do is pray. Sometimes we can offer words or hugs or virtual shoulders to cry on. Sometimes a “You GO, girl!” is all we have. But I’ll bet that there are people physically present in your life to whom you can offer more, and to whom you probably already do.
The third action in Jesus’ three-part plan is the hardest, I think. Pray for us all to be one, as the Trinity is one. I mean, do any of us really understand how the Trinity is one? At least, without the benefit of some really good medicinals? Can any of us really understand this? And then, how do we extend that form of oneness from this(ese) divine entity(ies) to flawed, mortal humans? What exactly are we praying for here? Can we ever be one, here on earth? Must we wait to join God in God’s kingdom to achieve this unity?
We can also get caught up in unity vs. conformity, which are two entirely different things. We can be united, while still being different. God created us to be unique images of Godself for a reason – together, we are like a giant, cosmic disco ball, each of us our own mirrored facet that reflects just a tiny part of God’s glory. Together, in the disco ball that is the communion of saints, we are one; but when you look more closely, each of us is different, special, unique.
So. Jesus is gone. (Again.) The Holy Spirit isn’t here yet, but the angels have reminded us that we have a job to do. We know that God is good, that sometimes sh*t happens, and that Jesus loves us and wants us to be one with each other and with him. So let’s get to work. Devote ourselves to prayers, as the apostles did, and then make God’s name known, care for those God has given us, and work to bring about God’s kingdom – when we all will be one.