Thursday, June 02, 2011

Into the Glory -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-15, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

            The season of Easter is coming to an end and so it’s time to say farewell.  The time of Jesus’ post-resurrection conversations with his followers must come to an end so that the work of God might progress.  The Master must let the students go so they can become what they’d been trained to be.  Are they fully prepared?  Have they learned every lesson that they must learn?  Not likely.  But some of the learning will come on the fly.  We who have heard the call to pastoral ministry know this is true – at least if we’re self-aware enough to realize that seminary didn’t teach us everything we’d ever need to know.  So, as we come to Ascension Sunday the time to say good bye has come upon us. Jesus must leave if the promised Spirit can come upon us, empowering us to fulfill the work of God set before us.  One needn’t take the ascension imagery literally to find meaning in this day.

            Although this final Sunday in Eastertide offers the preacher the choice of two sets of texts, one for Ascension Sunday and the other for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, this meditation will focus on the Easter texts (since I’m preaching on the gospel reading for the 7th Sunday of Easter), but you can still get to Ascension through these texts (especially Acts 1).  Each of these texts also set us up for Pentecost (though we must always recognize that John’s idea of the bestowal of the Spirit differs from that of Luke).

I’ve chosen the title for this meditation because it carries the sense of eternal life and finding one’s self in the presence of God, a message that is present in these texts.  Of course, the question that we must always ask concerns what we mean by eternal life (but I don’t want to get ahead of myself).   

Again the lectionary keeps us in Acts rather than taking us into the Hebrew Bible.  The words glory or glorify don’t appear in Acts 1, but the word power does and it carries similar freight.  This is an ascension text, for in it Jesus will take his leave from the disciples after commissioning them for service.  I’ve always believed that the key to the meaning of Acts comes in verse 8 of this first chapter.  Be my witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and extending out to the ends of the earth.  Everything that happens in Acts is a working out of this commission.  

Following this commission, Jesus is taken up into a cloud (into the glory), while angels of God interpret this event for the stunned disciples.  They’re not ready for this day.  I understand.  I’ve wrestled this past week with the loss of one of our most beloved members and a strong leader in the church.  But the angels don’t let the gawking disciples just sit there (I imagine there is a degree of grieving going on at just that moment).  No, the premise is pretty clear – get going – or at least as soon as the Holy Spirit comes upon you. 

In 1 Peter 4-5, the theme of suffering returns.  By now, if you’ve been reading through 1 Peter during this Easter season, it should be clear that Peter’s community is experiencing suffering.  Some are slaves and can’t get free.  Some are suffering because of their faith.  But, they continue to receive the promise that in doing so they are sharing in Christ’s sufferings and as a result they will be glad and they will shout for joy “when his glory is revealed.”  Now I know that promises that suffering will be overcome in eternity has led to charges that religion is an opiate, and it’s true, it can be an opiate.  It can numb us not only to our own pain, but the pain of others.  It can also feed our desire for vengeance, if not in this life, at least in the next.  You know, let him suffer for eternity for his wickedness, while I bask in glory.  While that surely can be a concern, I find something else here.  It’s not only that we endure suffering, but receive the Spirit of God, that is the Spirit of Glory.   Therefore, having the Spirit of Glory come down upon us, the author of this letter encourages us to take a humble perspective of ourselves and our place in the world:  “Humble yourself therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”  With this understanding, we can be steadfast in our faith and continually strengthened by that faith.  Of course, all of this great, except that we must also ask the question – why is there suffering.  We may understand the situation that “Peter” finds himself in, along with his audience, but what about us?  What if we’re in a position to relieve suffering – what should we hear in this text? 

I’m going to leave that last question unanswered, inviting you to consider how 1 Peter might speak to us in our time.

Finally we come to the gospel – the text I’ll be preaching Sunday.  John 17 brings to a close Jesus’ farewell discourse.  If I were a literalist here I’d want to know why Jesus left so much important material for the last hours of his life. But that’s a question for a different time.  Instead, I’d like for us to wrestle with the question of eternity that stands out in this passage.  This is, scholars would say, Jesus’ “Last Will and Testament.”  It’s also a prayer, though it’s one of those prayers that’s addressed more to the audience than to God – I’m not sure God needs to be reminded of the unity that exists between Jesus and the Father.  The last part of the prayer is a favorite of my tradition, because it speaks so clearly of Jesus’ desire that his followers experience unity.  As Disciples we find the key to our passion for unity – it’s Jesus’ passion!

But what about eternal life?  What is it?  What does it involve?  I must say that many of the traditional portrayals of eternity aren’t that enticing.  Maybe that’s why we need hell – I mean if heaven is little more than sitting around playing harps, if everything is static and there are no challenges, nothing more to learn.  If eternal suffering is the alternative, I guess I’ll take this option, but I’d really like another. 

According to John’s Jesus, eternal life is this:  “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.”  Eternal life is first and foremost a relationship, a connection with God and the one God sent into the world to glorify God on the earth.  This definition raises interesting questions.  If eternity is to know God, then can we not say that eternity begins now?  Eternity then isn’t something that stands out there on the horizon, the proverbial greener grass on the other side of the mountain.  No it’s instead that calling to fulfill that calling which God has given us, even as Jesus fulfilled the calling given to him.  Now this text has interesting theological implications, including the possibility that it speaks of preexistence (vs. 5).  If eternity is to know God and Jesus whom God sent into the world to make manifest the purposes and glory of God, then how should we experience this eternity. 

It’s probably wise to note that while God loves the world (John 3:16), at this moment in time, Jesus is most concerned about the remnant, the ones God has chosen to be Jesus’ people, the ones in whom Jesus is being glorified – extending eternal life to them.  Jesus prays for them, that they might know the unity that he experiences with the Father.  Watch over them, Jesus says so that they may be one even as we are one.  Isn’t that God’s final purpose for all of us, that we might all be one?  I’m not sure what that will look like, but it seems like something to work toward.  Indeed, it seems like a goal to take up on Pentecost!    But first we must watch as Jesus is taken up in glory so that we too might share in that glory, and that means knowing God, which is to follow the way of God.      

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