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Lectionary Commentary

June 5, 2011
7th Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also:[Year A] [Year B] [Year C]



Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Acts 1:6-14
Not long ago a Christian evangelical preacher and radio broadcaster announced that, based on his interpretation and calculation of certain biblical texts, Judgment Day would take place on May 21, to be followed by a period of turmoil and tribulation until the world would end on October 21. When May 21 came and went with no Judgment, the preacher announced that he had misinterpreted his verses, and now understood that Judgment and End would come together on October 21. We will see.

He is not alone in his attempts to use biblical verses and symbols to calculate the time of the End. Christians have been doing it, in one fashion or another, at least since the year 999 was about to roll over to 1000. According to Luke’s story in this Acts passage, even Jesus’ original disciples were curious about God’s timetable for world transformation: “when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” Jesus’ answer to them is instructive to all who’d like to predict the End: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Instead, Jesus directs their attention to a more immediate goal: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This tension between wanting to know the time of the Kingdom and being witnesses in the present is in part a tension over control. In the minds of the disciples, and in the minds of countless End-predictors after them, the assumption is that knowing when the End will come will allow them to be in control when it happens: they can plan, they can prepare, they can make sure their affairs are suitably in order, they can feel in control when the event transpires. But Jesus warns them that that sort of control is an illusion; the coming of the Kingdom is a matter of God’s authority, and there is no way for human life to be in control of that. Instead, the best preparation for the future is to be fully present in the present, bearing witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Making Jesus present by means of the inspired embodiment of his life-ideals in our active lives is the only genuine preparation we can make for the End — and that is true whether we take “End” to mean the end of this world or the end-purpose for which we are called into discipleship. Jesus in the opening verses of this passage is careful to redirect the disciples’ attention from questions about the future to meaningful action in the present.

There is a similar redirection of attention in verse 11: after Jesus is “lifted up” out of their sight, “two men in white robes” ask the disciples why they are gazing into the sky. This brings the disciples’ attention from the sky to the men; and then, when the men assert that Jesus will return just as he has gone, they effectively direct the disciples’ attention to the time between the two sky-moments, the time in which the disciples must be the witnesses Jesus has called them to be. It is with their attentions so directed that the disciples return to Jerusalem and gather in community to pray and await the promised Spirit.

Now on the surface of it, it would be easy to read Luke’s intention here as a simple redirection of his readers’ attention, eg, from future to present, from sky to earth, from cosmological speculation to social action, from the illusion of control to openness of witness, from Idle Metaphysics to What Really Matters. But I think Luke’s purpose is more nuanced than such simple binary opposition. Luke does not simply dismiss the otherworldly aspects of the story as if they were totally unimportant; after all, he does think the Ascension important enough to include in his gospel, an episode the other evangelists do not. While the text cautions disciples not to be too obsessed with peering into the future or gazing into heaven, the fact is that the promise of Jesus’ eventual return from heaven to initiate the kingdom is necessary to undergird and support the disciples’ mission to be witnesses. The fact that Jesus is “lifted up” means that he is no longer limited to one time and place — technically, we might say that the personal society of occasions that constitute Jesus’ selfhood is made available for prehension by a wider range of occasions than those immediately contiguous in space and time — and that in turn means that he can be present in and through the community of disciples as it expands outward from Jerusalem in continuing acts of witness and service. Disciples — then and now — can be freed from the anxious need to be in control of the future, the need to calculate the End, the need to locate Jesus in the clouds, precisely because Jesus-as-lifted-up provides the one encompassing reality in which all their futures, all their ends, all their locations are held together and animated as witnesses, exemplifications, of the mission of God in Christ. So far from teaching that disciples should forget the future in order to concentrate on witness in the present, this passage suggests that it is only in the context of the Ascension’s promise for the future that present witness can be fully engaged.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
The psalm continues to use the imagery of up/down, sky/ground as a vehicle for expressing God's overarching presence as that which undergirds and supports earthly faith and discipleship. The psalm begins “Let God rise up” — which, in the context of the first reading, is impossible to hear without thinking also of the Ascension — and goes on to praise God’s being “above” the world as the very thing that guarantees justice and righteousness in the world. God “rides upon the clouds” (v 4), God is the “rider in the heavens” (v 33), God’s “power is in the skies” (v 34). But all these images of God as being “above” do not diminish God’s influence on the earthly level of human lives; in fact, it is precisely because God is “above” the changes and chances of earthly life that God can guarantee righteousness, and so be a proper object of faith. The two themes are brought together in v 5: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation”; here, as in the Acts reading, the “upness” of God is not to be understood as irrelevant transcendence, but as the enduring of God’s purposes of justice and peace through all the unpredictable and uncontrollable changes of earthly life.

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
The Epistle reading returns to the theme of hope for the future first struck in the Acts passage. Even though Jesus warns his disciples not to become obsessed with trying to predict the future, it is clear that the promise of a future that contains the living presence of Jesus is a key element in their witness. So also here, the promise of “eternal glory in Christ” is what makes it possible for believers to endure “the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you.” But waiting for this future hope is not mere passivity in the present. Faithfulness in the midst of “fiery ordeal” calls for humility, discipline, alertness, resistance, steadfastness, and, paradoxical as it may seem, rejoicing. Like the disciples in the Acts passage, the believers addressed by 1 Peter are called to bear witness to Jesus by exemplifying in their own lives the qualities of Christic being communicated to them by Jesus, and it is the promise of those qualities being fulfilled in ultimate union with Jesus that gives them the here-and-now strength to continue in the midst of suffering.

John 17:1-11
The gospel reading for the seventh and final Sunday of the Easter season is always, in all three lectionary years, taken from the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel, the “High Priestly Prayer” in which Jesus prays for his church that is to be. In part this is because this Sunday falls between Ascension and Pentecost, between the definitive end of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to bestow the indwelling presence of Jesus in the disciples — and in these “farewell discourse” chapters of John Jesus is speaking as if he is already out of the world, already living in a transcendent state. In part it is because the “High Priestly Prayer” serves as an extended reflection on the defining characteristics to which the church aspires, the “forms of definiteness” embodied and exemplified in Jesus which are now, through the Holy Spirit, proposed to the church for its embodiment and exemplification as well. Three such characteristics intertwined in this passage are “glory,” “knowledge,” and “life.” Jesus asks to be glorified in God — actually, to be returned to “the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” — because Jesus has glorified God in his earthly ministry by exemplifying God to others, and because Jesus has been glorified in his disciples, in that they have “received” the words Jesus gave to them from God. This “glory” is closely tied to “knowledge”: Jesus speaks of having finished “the work” God gave him to do on earth, which in v 6 he glosses as having “made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” Because of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, his disciples now “know that everything you have given me is from you.” The disciples know that Jesus’ words are from God because they have “believed,” which for John always means more than just granting intellectual assent to propositions, but involves also an experiential component of putting themselves on the line in some way and realizing a truth by living it. Thus for the disciples to “know” Jesus is to “glorify” him, because both involve re-enacting in their own experiences the “words” or truths about God that Jesus has given to them. And these together lead to “life”: as Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Knowing-glorifying God in Jesus by re-exemplifying in our actual experiences the qualities of the Christic life is what leads to genuine and abundant life — not just bios but zoē, in John’s favorite words for this concept — life that is anchored not only in the transient factors of experience but participates in enduring meaning. It is for our continued meaningful life and witness and mission that Jesus prays in this High Priestly Prayer.

Paul S. Nancarrowis the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership.He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.

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