Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 17, 2015
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:44-53
Reading 2: 
Psalm 93
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 1:15-23
Reading 4: 
John 17:6-19
By Ron Allen

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

(Observed as Ascension Sunday)

May 17, 2015

 

Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:44-53

The lectionary appoints separate readings for Ascension Day (Thursday, May 14, 2015) and for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. These comments focus on the Ascension since it is even more important than Easter, at least for Luke-Acts. However, below I comment on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday because part of the Gospel lection set for Ascension, Luke 24:44-53, has already been partially discussed (Luke 24:36b-48, Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015).

Congregations sometimes wonder the ascension could have occurred. How did Jesus go from earth to heaven? Where did Jesus go? How can we speak of “ascending” in a universe that is constantly expanding? The preacher may need to note that the story of the Ascension assumes the mythological three-story world view of antiquity in which a person could ascend from one realm to another, but that the deeper point of the story is not tied to that way of thinking.

Luke portrays Jesus as God’s eschatological prophet who announces the coming of the Realm of God and who embodies aspects of the Realm. God has divided history into two ages: the broken old world and the coming Realm. God will destroy the old and bring the fullness of the Realm through an apocalypse (the second coming). The Ascension accounts for the presence of Jesus between the resurrection and the second coming, and it makes a crucial theological point.

While the resurrection demonstrates and foreshadows the Realm, the Gospel of Luke climaxes in the ascension (Luke 24:50-53). The Book of Acts begins with the ascension (Acts 1:1-11), so the life of the church takes place under the authority and power of the ascended Jesus. In royal courts in antiquity, the right hand was where the ruler’s most important agent stood. Jesus is in that place (Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33; 7:55-56). Everything that happens in Acts takes place under the aegis of Jesus as God’s ultimate representative Jesus is the ruler of all the rulers of the earth.

At the deeper level, the Ascension assures Luke’s congregation that Jesus has authority over all other authorities—e.g. Satan, the demons, Rome, and Jewish leaders. While other authorities may resist the Realm, and even cause the church to suffer for its witness, the church can witness boldly, including taking significant risks, in the confidence that Jesus is at the right hand of God.

Many people experience the world today as manifestly broken. So many human communities are fractured. Brazen displays of power and exploitation—military, economic, relational—fill our screens, airwaves, and screens. Disease and accidents leave people wounded. Racism twists the lives of individuals and communities. Poverty eats away human community on a larger scale than ever. In such a world, it is easy to dismiss the Ascension. “Well, mythologically speaking, Jesus may be at the right hand of God, but what good does it do?”

Even if God cannot simply flip the apocalyptic switch and turn on the full-power of the Realm, the story of the Ascension reminds us that God is ever present offering Realm-like possibilities. As a student said, “One of the great things about God is that God never runs out of energy.”

Psalm 93

Psalm 93, like Psalm 98 (Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015) is an enthronement psalm. Psalm 93 probably dates from the exile or shortly thereafter. Like Psalm 93, this psalm seeks to assure the exiles (or those just returned from exile) that God is more powerful than the deities of the Babylonians or the Persians. Even if their life is difficult, they can endure the present look to the future with confidence because God sits on the throne of the universe.

Enuma Elish, a Babylonian myth (which shares themes with other ancient peoples) is in the background of Psalm 93. To oversimplify, before the creation of the earth as it is now, existence was populated by deities. Two Babylonian deities—Tiamat (who was a water god) and Marduk—got into a violent fight. Marduk slayed Tiamat and made the world from her body by cutting it in half and using the top to make the heavens and the bottom to make the earth. People in the Ancient Near East consequently associated water with chaos—incredible energy but unfocused and often destructive. Moreover, since the world was created through combat, life itself was a struggle. Creation through violence licensed violence in human relationships. That Israel remembered this association is evident in the similarity between the name Tiamat and the Hebrew tehom which is often rendered “deep” (as in Genesis 1:1-2).

By contrast, Psalm 93 assumes that God has always been sovereign: God’s throne “is established from of old.” God was not born (like some of the Babylonian deities) but is “from everlasting.” God is robed like a monarch on the throne, but in remarkable garments (majesty and strength).

When the psalm mentions the floods—no less than three times—along with the mighty waters and the sea, the listener (or the singing community) would have compared the struggle between the gods in stories like Enuma Elish and the picture of Psalm 93:3-4 in which the energy of the waters—the energy of chaos—serves God’s purposes. Indeed, the floods roar in praise. Life is not a violent struggle but a partnership with a God who aims for all things to bless one another.

The sovereignty of God in creation is an indication of the trustworthiness of God’s decrees—the commandments and promises that God has given and made (Psalm 95:5). The community that wants its social world to be as dependable as the natural world should follow these decrees.

The relationship between God and chaos in this psalm opens an interesting possibility for preaching. The energy associated with chaos—represented by the floods—is here in the service of God. People might expect the floods to be destructive, but here they lift up their roaring as praise to God. A preacher might ponder where things that appear on the surface to be chaotic, even destructive, in our world actually point towards the divine purpose of helping the world become a community of mutual support.

Scholars almost all agree that Psalm 93 was likely used in worship. This suggests a possibility for worship and preaching. In the ancient community, reciting the psalm liturgically was itself an experience of the sovereignty of God. When saying the psalm, the congregation felt, for a time, what life is like when God’s reign is fully actualized. The preacher and worship planners might move in that direction—a service in which the congregation has the opportunity to experience imaginatively the divine reign through song and story, image and movement, bread and cup.

Ephesians 1:15-23

While scholars debate whether Paul or one of his disciples wrote Ephesians, this letter is in the canon and has a record of sparking significant conversation about God’s purposes. In my view, the main theme of Ephesians is that God is at work saving the world (both humankind and trans-human communities) through grace. Ephesians 1:1-2:10 announces this theme. Ephesians 2:1-3:6 applies it to the human community and the reconciliation of Jewish and gentile peoples. Ephesians 3:7-11 broadens the theme to include the salvation of the principalities and powers.

Whereas most letters associated with Paul follow the Greek letter style including a prayer of thanksgiving, Ephesians 1:3-23 is modeled on Jewish prayers of blessing. Ephesians 1:15-23 picks up some elements of the traditional Greek thanksgiving by giving thanks for the recipients and offering prayers for them. The prayers foreshadow the theological content of the letter.

This passage indicates the theological foundation for the notion that God is saving the world through grace. God has not only raised Jesus from the dead but has raised Jesus to God’s right hand where he has authority over all other powers. The resurrection is the proof of God’s saving power. The ascension creates a cosmic structure through which that power operates day to day.

Many people who lived about the time of Ephesians believed that the universe contained supra-human beings that exercised “rule and authority and power and dominion” (cf. Ephesians 6:12).

In the minds of the ancients, these powers existed as evil force fields between heaven and earth. They sought to interpose themselves between God and the cosmos and to claim for themselves authority over humankind and other beings that rightly belonged to God. They sought to enslave. While they could press down on individuals and households, they also sought to bring larger institutions, such as the Roman Empire, into their sway. Indeed, for the Ephesians life is a conflict among the powers of the world and the power of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) which has left them effectively dead (Ephesians 2:1ff.).

However, according to Ephesians, God has placed Christ above these powers and has “put all things under [Christ’s] feet” (Ephesians 1:21-22). That is, Christ representing God is sovereign over all other powers. The writer thus assures the Ephesians that although they experience life as conflict among these forces, they can live in the present with the wisdom recognizing of the true, evil nature of the powers in the world and with the hope that the Ephesians will share in the “glorious inheritance of the saints,” that is, when the rule of God is fully and finally manifest (Ephesians 1:17-18). The power of God is already at work bringing about this transformation (Ephesians 1:19).

Many people today do not think the world is inhabited by personal trans-human beings. But the language of principalities and powers does point to a common experience: the feeling that we are deeply influenced by—sometimes even controlled by—forces that are outside of us. Today, we might think of systems--such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, various forms of empire—that have many effects similar to the powers in antiquity on personal and communal life. The preacher could help the congregation recognize points in our world in which the power of God is offering people the opportunity to participate in the movement towards the age to come.

(John 17:6-19)

I put John 17:6-19 in parenthesis at the heading of this discussion as a reminder that this text is the Gospel that the lectionary appoints for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The preacher who wants to focus on the Ascension through a Gospel should probably work with Luke 24:44-53 in connection with Acts 1:1-11.

As noted frequently since Easter, the Johannine literature is sectarian. John 17:1-19 weeks to reinforce the sectarian identity of the community in the face of hostility from the world. The church needs to be one to survive in the world after Jesus ascends. John 17:20-25 widens the theological lens to encourage the community, even in its sectarian life, to witness in such a way that the world might believe that God sent Jesus.

John 17:1b-26 is a prayer: Jesus asks God to glorify Jesus so that Jesus might glorify God (John 17:1b). The glory of God in the Fourth Gospel is the presence and purposes of God, especially God’s nature as love (1 John 4:7) and God’s love for the world (John 3:16). For God to glorify Jesus is to reveal these things through Jesus. For Jesus to glorify God is for Jesus to point people to God and God’s purposes. To accept God and Jesus is to have eternal life (John 17:2-3). When Jesus returns to God, Jesus enjoys the divine presence in unmediated fashion. Jesus’ followers have believed the things that Jesus has said, especially that Jesus is from God (John 17:6-8).

The Johannine Jesus prays for this glorification to become manifest only in behalf of the disciples. Jesus expressly does not pray in behalf of the world (John 17:9). By way of reminder, John’s language, “world” is a technical term for the lower story of existence where the devil exerts power and which is a sphere of death, darkness, lying, slavery, violence, fractiousness, and scarcity. While God loves the world, those in the world who do not believe in Jesus are condemned (e.g. John 3:18-21; 5:29; 16:11).

Jesus’ followers (the Johannine congregation and the other followers who belong to other congregations, John 10:16a) belong to God, and Jesus has been glorified (i.e. has revealed God’s purposes) in them (John 10:10).

Jesus is on the way to God, and will soon no longer be in the world while the disciples will remain in the world where they live in a sphere of heaven in the midst of the world. Jesus has protected them in the sense that they have continued to believe while he has been with them. This has been possible because Jesus has made them “one” with one and with Jesus in the same way that Jesus and God are one (John 10:11). (In the Johannine context, this “oneness” is not a unity of being but a continuity of purpose).

Such protection and unity are necessary because the world hates Jesus’ followers because the disciples “do not belong to the world” in the same way that Jesus does not belong to the world (John 10:14). That is, the Johannine congregation lives in the midst of the world but lives according to the values and practices of heaven and rejects the assumptions, values, and practices of the world. The world responds to the Johannine community with hate. In this situation, members of the community need to be one, that is, they need to be mutually supportive of one another in the same way that God and Jesus are one.

Jesus does not ask God to take the congregation out of the world (John 10:15). That will happen individually as they die and follow the way of Jesus from the world to heaven (John 14:6). Jesus does ask God to continue to sustain the congregation while it remains in the world

In John 17:20-25, John widens the lens of theological concern. Jesus prays for the glorification of John 17:1-5 not only for the believers of Jesus’ time but also for believers of subsequent generations, including John’s own congregation about 90 CE (John 17:20).

John widens the lens yet further. Jesus prays that the congregation will be in both God and Jesus “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). The Johannine Jesus stops short of a bold statement of mission to those outside the congregation and outside of Judaism such as Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8 and Matthew 28:16-20. But if God, Jesus and the disciples are one, then we might suppose that Jesus’ disciples can continue the revelatory work of Jesus in the world, which includes inviting people to believe in Jesus.

The presence of Jesus will continue to make God’s name known, i.e. to reveal God, in the ongoing life of believing communities (John 17:25-26)

The Johannine notion of mission with respect to those outside the congregation (inviting people to believe in Jesus as the way to heaven) will be too limited for many Christians today. But John 17:21b-25 it does set in motion a trajectory of thinking that moves beyond expressing love and living in one-ness that is otherwise strictly within the community. The one-ness is not ultimately for its own sake but is for the purpose of making a witness in and to the world. A preacher could help the congregation imagine next steps in this trajectory.

With its emphasis on the unity of the church, John 17 has been a part of the canon-within-the canon of the contemporary ecumenical movement both in its conciliar form in the historic Protestant churches from the 1950s through the 1990s which sought organic/institutional union among denominations. Some Christians functionally regard this approach to unity as institutional in character such that institutional union became the mission. However, at its best, this movement regarded the union of the church as a witness to the possibility of the reconciliation of the many other cleavages in the human family.

The text can help empower churches across the theological and ecclesial spectra who seek to find points at which churches can engage in common witness while respecting cultural, theological, and ecclesiological differences. Such commonality is far short of the one-ness that John describes as the mutual indwelling of God, Jesus, and disciples, but it would be a significant witness in the midst of the balkanization, caricaturization, and demonizing that is so commonplace in Christian circles and in so many other sectors of life in the United States today. Indeed, the capacity for respectful dialogue might be one of the most important ways the church could contribute to the larger culture.