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Ascension Sunday, Seventh Sunday of Easter

by Pastor Richard Clark

May 21, 2023

Acts 1: 6-14 (Common English Bible)

John 17: 1-11 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

As Pentecost approaches next Sunday, it is the perfect time to reflect on what it means to be “church.” The church is a community that not only “follows” Jesus in the sense of listening to him and learning, we are also a community who follows Jesus in the idea that we are being his successors, taking up his mantle and carrying on his life and mission, all that God’s glory and our own glory might be complete. As Jesus recedes from the view of the Galileans, the Body of Christ, the Church, prepares to be born next week at Pentecost.

At the moment, Jesus is ready to return to his pre-human form as the Eternal Christ. Jesus is praying as an intercessor. In most Christian traditions, a substantial part of worship is devoted to intercessory prayers. We pray by name for individuals connected to our faith community. We also intercede with prayers for victims of natural disaster and violence. This month’s Mission Of the Month for us is the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

In recent years in our national dialogue, intercessory prayer has gotten a bad reputation, due to the prevalence of the phrase, “thoughts and prayers” on the social media, because of the never ending gun violence at schools and other places. The habit of politicians offering thoughts and prayers without taking serious action has led to a mockery of that phrase. By contrast, Jesus’ intercessory prayers connect praying with action, preparing his disciples for the hard times ahead.

Prayers often do not give us the results we wanted. We remember those cancer patients we prayed for, but who still died of that terrible disease. Or the soldier prayed for but ended up being killed in battle anyway. But the main purpose of prayer puts us into solidarity with those who suffer or face harm. We offer prayers to be in communion with them and pray for the grace of God to inspire and strengthen us to be the Body of Christ with direct action.

Jesus prayed to God to glorify God and to glorify himself. The crucifixion was not the end. The Resurrection was to follow. That was the vindication of Jesus. It was as if God pointed to the Cross and said, “This is what rich and powerful men do to my Son.” And at the Resurrection, God says, "This is what I do and think of my Son!” The glory of the Resurrection destroyed the shame of the Cross.  

In John 17: 1-11, the prayer that Jesus prayed is known as the High Priestly prayer because Jesus offers prayers for his followers and himself, just like the High Priest offered prayers for the people from the Temple in Jerusalem. Something else that Jesus prayed for was unity. After Jesus’ Ascension, his followers were united through prayer. Christ’s unity still exists today, as can be seen through local ministerial associations with Food Banks. The PC USA is also in fellowship with the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical (liberal) Lutheran Church and maybe a couple of more in the Reformed tradition.

We are also united through our common belief in eternal life. Eternal life is not reserved until we die, it is something we can share now through Christ. We do not just receive the gift of eternal life. We also have the privilege of having a vibrant growing relationship with the Creator and all that exists. We receive this gift most felt when we gather together to hear Jesus’ words and give glory to God’s compassion, forgiveness, love and justice.

When Jesus prayed for glory, he was asking for God’s presence to be felt throughout the world through our words and actions. Our purpose on earth is to glory God. And we must never give up because we might be criticized for what we stand for. Jesus never gave up, even when he was on the Cross. When Jesus said, “It is finished!”, he was giving a strong message of, Mission Accomplished! We are to be One with each other, like God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit within the Trinity.

When we divide people into categories into us vs. “them,” because of race, religion, sexual orientation or nationality, tragedy often happens. One only has to think of Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jewish people, the forced removal of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 called the Nakba, the genocide in Rawanda in 1994 when the majority Hutus began massacreing the minority Tutsi and we can think of genocides in other places.  

As children of God we are united in one living God who revealed itself to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are united in the Universal Christ whose words fill us with faith. We are also united in faith by the Holy Spirit whose presence guides us through life. And we must put our faith into action, especially those suffering from poverty, systematic racism and oppression. And I’m proud to say the SPC did exactly that this week, when we aided Casey Owens, his wife and daughter who were stranded in Texas. That is what being a Matthew 25 Church does.

For most people, life is about getting the most stuff and that expresses the consumer mentality our society has taken. But this emphasis is empty, because no matter how much we have or buy, there is someone else out there with more or better stuff. If we live for stuff and prestige, life is hollow, empty and meaningless. 

In Acts, when Jesus is “taken up into heaven” this is not a “beam me up Scotty” claim. Instead it’s an announcement that Jesus has been taken up into the very life that is now forthcoming to all of us. Heaven is God’s unbounded love breaking through every situation, stronger than any loss, including death. We don’t go up to heaven, heaven comes to us. It is the unprecedented feeling of being loved in a community of a new creation beyond all that we can ask for or imagine.

During ancient times through the medieval era, the belief was humans lived in a three-tier universe. Only the gods and later one God lived in the heavens above earth. The earth below was where physical life like humans dwelled. Underneath the earth was where all the dead went, and later a mythical boogie land called “hell” was created there to keep people in line. It was also believed the stars were holes in the dark sky letting the light of heaven to be seen. Today we know better. When we look upwards at the night skies we see planets, galaxies and with telescopes, supernovas and much more.

As the two men clothed in white asked the Galileans after Jesus disappeared in Acts 1:11, “They said, Galileans, why are you standing looking toward heaven?”

The two men in white robes are wondering why the followers of Jesus are not active, carrying on Jesus’ work of healing, justice and proclaiming the dawn of God’s kindom. In the end, the Ascension itself is meant to invite and empower the Church to be all the more down-to-earth and into the world and into present history.