The Seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Transfer) – Year C
The Rev. Anna C. Shine
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
Our passage from Luke finds us with Jesus speaking to his disciples. He has already died and arisen, and has appeared to two disciples along the way to Emmaus. As they are explaining what happened to the other disciples, Jesus appears and shows them his hands and feet and then asks for food, clearly indicating that he is not a ghost. He then tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”As a preacher, I can tell you that the next part is something I pray will happen to me every week as I sit down to write my sermon – he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Given how often scripture has been misused and misinterpreted, I kind of wish Jesus just opened all our minds to understand the scriptures, wholly and correctly. He does give us a nice synopsis, however: Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
What an incredible mission! To proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations! Note that proclaim does not mean enforce, rather it is a calling attention to and a witnessing to what it is that Jesus did and still does for this world. True repentance cannot come from forced conversion, and forced conversion is a form of abuse that requires repentance in and of itself. Jesus then calls his disciples witnesses to what he has said and what he has done and promises to send the Holy Spirit upon them, an event which we will celebrate next week on Pentecost. Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. I love this verse. Jesus is in the midst of an action, of blessing his disciples, when he ascends into heaven.
Growing up my parents prayed individually with each child. There are four of us, and so it seems a bit excessive to do the exact same prayers with each child, but I was greatly appreciative because it was the one time during the day that I knew I would have my parents’ full attention, and it made the act of praying something special. As I got older and started developing my own prayer practice, I would say private prayers with God after my parents had left from our shared prayer session. I would lie in bed and clasp my hands together, usually talking to God like God was just one of my dearest friends. And inevitably, I’d fall asleep, hands clasped together. I felt guilty about falling asleep on God. I mean, Jesus chastises the disciples for not being able to stay awake and pray with him in the garden. But eventually I came to see it differently. Because I would wake up each morning with my hands still firmly clasped together. And that is how I came to realize that I could fall asleep praying and wake up praying, as though I had been praying all night long. That’s how I see this verse when I hear it read. Jesus is blessing the disciples and as he is blessing them he ascends, such that the blessing is not done and yet already done. That blessing continues throughout the time that the disciples wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive on Pentecost. And it is clear that they feel the blessing. Because the Gospel of Luke ends with the disciples rejoicing and worshiping God.
The Book of Acts picks up right where Luke ends. The author, understood to be the same one as the author of the Gospel of Luke, recaps what he wrote in the gospel and then begins with the story of the Ascension, including details not told in the gospel. Before Jesus gives his blessing and ascends, they are gathered together and the disciples ask Jesus, Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Despite all that Jesus has done and said, the disciples still are holding on to the idea of who the Messiah is supposed to be and what the Messiah is supposed to do. Their understanding is that the Messiah is supposed to restore the Davidic line and become the King of Israel, returning the land to the people of God. And I can’t blame them. After all, when you have something specific in mind for what is supposed to be the ideal realization of something as important as prophecy, it can be very difficult to let go of that ideal. But that is what the author of Luke and Acts shows us repeatedly. Luke is a gospel of radically reversing our understanding of reality! Where the first are last and the last are first. Where the mighty are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. Where women and lepers and Gentiles and tax collectors and Samaritans and marginalized people of all sorts are as valuable as, and understood to be equal to, the people of God.
Jesus’ response to this question is to say that it is not for us to know. Our job is to be the witnesses, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and proclaiming, as the Gospel of Luke said, repentance and forgiveness of sins in [Jesus’] to all nations. The power of the message is in the universal scope of the recipients of that message. We are all included in the love of God that is God’s grace. And I imagine that is part of the blessing that Jesus imparts upon the disciples as he is ascending into heaven, taking “our human nature…and interced[ing] for us” (BCP, 850). Like my prayers continuing through the night in my subconscious until I wake again, that blessing continues as Jesus ascends until he comes again.
And so, as we, like the disciples, wait for that fire of the Holy Spirit to come down on us at Pentecost next week, let us hold on to that blessing, and like the Collect tells us: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to Jesus’ promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.