Lectionary Planning Helps for Sundays



May 12, 2013
Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday

Festival of the Christian Home/Mother's Day
(Readings for Ascension Day may be used)

Read the texts online at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library:

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97 (UMH 816)
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Color: White

Planning -Ascension Sunday/Seventh Sunday of Easter

Note: The Revised Common Lectionary presents two distinctive sets of readings for this Sunday (May 12)—Ascension Sunday and The Seventh Sunday of Easter. If you do not celebrate Ascension Day on May 9, you may wish to use the Ascension Sunday texts to bring prominence to this major celebration in the life of the Church. You and your planning team may also consider two other criteria in settling on the texts and focuses for worship on this Sunday:" target="_blank">Ascension Day on May 9, you may wish to use the Ascension Sunday texts to bring prominence to this major celebration in the life of the church.

 

You and your planning team may also consider two other criteria in settling on the texts and focuses for worship on this Sunday:

  1. Immediate concerns: Where does your worshiping community need to focus more today, given the recent events in their lives and the lives of their communities -- on the Ascension itself, or on what comes next? Do they need doctrinal grounding/explanation (Ascension) or do they need assurance/encouragement to take the next steps in acting on God's mission where you are? (Easter 7). Both are valid.
  2. Programmatic, Teaching Concerns: How does the choice of texts for today connect with the larger Eastertide plan and help you move from where you've been in the past weeks to what you plan to do with Pentecost and Trinity Sunday in the two weeks ahead?

 

 


The Ascension of Christ. Late 6th century illuminated manuscript (c. 586).
Public Domain. Note the faces of Christ and Mary (front and center) looking directly at us.

 

 

 

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.

Acts 16:16-34
As a witness to the saving power of God available even to captors, Paul and his companions sing God's praise in prison, prisoners freed by an earthquake remain inside, and the guard's household comes to faith.

Psalm 97 (UMH 816).
An enthronement psalm for YHWH. "All gods bow down before the LORD." Use Response 2 (much more singable!), with Tone 3 in F Major.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
"Blessed are those who wash their robes," who enter into deep community with Christ among those suffering around them.

John 17:20-26
The unity of disciples of Jesus in the face of their diversity and any adversity that may surround them is the longing of Jesus' prayer that all may know God's love.


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Worship Notes for The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Calendar

Keep the Paschal Candle burning! Easter Season continues through Pentecost (next Sunday). Maybe even throw in an Easter/Mother’s Day egg hunt for fun today!

Easter Season has two main formational purposes: to teach Christian doctrine richly and to prepare persons for ministry in the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit and in Christ’s name.

This week, the Scriptures build around a common theme of "No Religion but Social Religion, No Holiness but Social Holiness.”

The doctrinal focus is on the church as body of Christ whose members watch over one another in love.
The ministry focus is on pursuing the things that make for peace and build up the common life.

See Come to the Waters, pages 94-95, 120-121, for further reflection on the season.

See DIY Tools for Spiritual Gifts Discernment and Ministry Deployment for guidance on building a spiritual gifts assessment process.  

Also see Pentecost Commissioning of Laypersons in Christ's Name.

 

For more about Eastertide, see Planning Worship for Eastertide, Year C.

 

Denominational Calendar for May and June

May is full of cultural and program calendar celebrations. Always remember theScriptures for the day or season in the Christian calendar are the first priority in planning. Plan all of worship around the Scriptures, and weave other programmatic or cultural emphases into worship as may be appropriate given the Scriptures and series or seasonal emphasis for that day.

Today: Mother’s Day and Festival of the Christian Home meets Ascension Sunday and The Seventh Sunday of Easter. Plan around Ascension and/or Easter 7 themes.

May 19 is Pentecost, Heritage Sunday, and the Sunday in Change the World Weekend. Plan around Pentecost themes. Consider whether other emphases belong best in worship or in other formational settings, such as Sunday School, small groups, or other programming outside of worship.

Pentecost is the culmination of Eastertide and a major feast day in the life of the whole church.

Heritage Sunday is one of the official program days of the church. The theme this year is "The Power of Place: The Contemporary Mission of Heritage Landmarks and Historic Sites."

It is also the Sunday in Change the World Weekend, sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

May 26 is Peace with Justice Sunday. This Special Sunday coincides with Trinity Sunday, another major feast day in the life of the church (first Sunday after Pentecost). It is also the day before Memorial Day.Plan based on the texts and themes for Trinity Sunday.

June 16 is Father’s Day and the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. For the Season after Pentecost, GBOD advocates developing sermon series using one stream of the lectionary texts (Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings are not related during this season) or another theme. Attend to Father’s Day during worship in relationship either around the texts for the day or the thematic series you have chosen.

June 19 is also known as Juneteenth, the oldest known African-American worship celebration, commemorating the date in 1865 the last of the former slaves (in Galveston, Texas) was notified of the end of the Civil War and their freedom guaranteed in The Emancipation Proclamation.   


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Atmospherics

The unifying theme of today’s readings is “No Religion but Social Religion, No Holiness but Social Holiness.” This wording comes from John Wesley, and he is not here describing socialism or even social justice as that term has come to be used since the twentieth century. What he meant, in context, was exactly what Jesus prayed in his “high priestly prayer” from which we hear this week. It is that our growth as followers, our progress in sanctification and our faithfulness in mission to Christ depends entirely on how well we are at one with one another, how well we watch over one another in love.

The sentence that immediately precedes this in Wesley’s preface to the 1748 collection, Hymns and Sacred Writings is “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers.” The point: The only way we progress in faithful discipleship, in holiness toward perfection in love, is to do it with others. In baptism we were not merely reborn as individuals, but rather birthed into the living body of Christ. To quote a poem of e.e. cummings entirely out of context, “we are for each other” (“since feeling is first,” 1926).

So as you think about the worship space today, ask yourselves what it looks like and feels like and sounds like when you act together in unity, when you are watching over one another in love, whether in worship or in service beyond the confines of your worship space. How might you describe your “esprit de corps,” the “spirit of your body”? And how does your “bodiness” as a community help all the members of it not only stay “in check” but also become empowered for bold witness and ministry in Jesus’ name?

Acts
Today’s reading is commonly referred to as "the conversion of the Philippian jailer." Re-read it carefully, and you’ll discover the focus of this story is not on the jailer, but on the signs and power of God's salvation through individuals and the community that bears Christ's name.

Paul and Silas had been singing hymns to God when the earthquake occurred, and the rest of the prisoners listened, like a congregation. All of them remained in the jail when the earthquake occurred, one community, not breaking ranks or each looking out for himself. These people aren’t even believers most likely, but they are already “one” with each other and for each other.

This is a remarkable thing in itself. Paul and Silas didn’t try to escape when they could. Why? Because their lives in Christ are never about “every person for oneself.” They are always about being the body watching over others in love. All others, even the jailer.

The jailer was astonished to see the prison flung open after the earthquake. He was responsible to keep those prisoners in the dungeon no matter what. His life was on the line for them. When he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” his likely meaning was less theological and much more practical, something like, “How am I going to come out of this alive?” He probably still couldn’t get it through his head just then that the prisoners were all there, none of them missing.

So when the jailer heard the simple words "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, and your household" he didn’t say anything in response. What could he say? He probably had no idea what Paul could have meant.

Instead, the love Paul had shown for him, in apparently keeping all the prisoners from escaping, became contagious. So he would return love to Paul and Silas. He brought Paul and Silas into his home, took care of their wounds, and shared a meal with them. During that meal, he and the whole household heard the gospel, probably got a lot of questions answered, and were baptized.

And this meant they were now part of the ragtag Christian community in Philippi.

Imagine the extended household of Christians in Philippi — a wealthy business woman who hosts the gathering (Lydia), several women who had formerly been part of a largely Jewish prayer meeting, a demon-possessed girl set free (earlier in this passage), and now a jailer and his family. What a diverse community, brought together, made one in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, through the faithful embodiment of the gospel and the love of Christ proclaimed and enacted.

Keep in mind that Philippi was a very stratified community. These are people that in normal circumstances would never have associated with each other. But now, they are one family in Christ.  

Who are the proclaimers where you are? Who declares "Follow the pathway of Jesus and you'll experience God's deliverance, too!" not just on Sunday morning, but whenever the possibility of saving encounter for others opens itself by the power of the Spirit? How do they function as part of your larger community?  What images do they use when they tell their stories?

How have such partners in the gospel (such as Paul and Silas) in your congregation or community helped bring not just individuals but households to faith?

How do you or people you know live out more than "drive-by" evangelism, but instead, like Paul and Silas here, find yourselves in the homes of people hungry for the good news of Jesus Christ?

And what about the discoverers, seekers, those in formation, or the newly baptized? Who are the newest professing members in your congregation — people who have recently come to a living faith? How does this story tell their story — and by extension your story as a congregation with them? What sounds or images are part of that story?

Doctrine: The church is a body that watches over and cares for one another for the sake of the gospel.
Ministry: Whatever we do, we seek to build the possibility for community.

 

Revelation
Our reading from the final chapter of Revelation offers a series of statements from Jesus announcing his identity as "Alpha and Omega," his arrival/return and his blessing on those who "wash their robes" (a phrase that picks up on Revelation 8:14).

While all three are important, the third best fits the theme of this Sunday, and is the primary reason for its selection for this day.

Revelation 8:14 speaks of those who “washed their robes in the blood of the lamb.” These were people who suffered and some of whom died with and for each other because of their discipleship to Jesus, and so also their commitment to each other in him.

Community as a term gets used widely these days, but has largely become a stand-in for “people I feel comfortable hanging around.” Community, whether face to face or online, has been marketed as another commodity, a sort of “desirable accessory,” for the lives of individuals. But in this text, and inScripture generally, the community called body of Christ is neither commodity nor accessory. It demands to move to the front and center of our lives and commitments, calling us to “lay down our lives for our friends” when needed.

It’s that kind of community the Alpha and Omega leads and seeks to form everywhere. It’s that kind of community that witnesses against all foes to the grace and power of the Risen One. 

Where are the signs of that kind of community within your worshiping community? What fosters this level of devotion to Christ and one another where you are?

Do not use this text to browbeat those who have satisfied themselves with the larger culture’s commoditizations of community. Read, sing, dance, pray, dramatize or even preach it instead to inspire them to reach for the real thing Jesus offers his disciples.

Doctrine: We are the body of Christ, united in his suffering and in suffering together for the sake of the gospel.
Ministry: We build up the common life, even in the face of suffering and death. 

John
We read and hear today from the "high priestly prayer" of Jesus, a prayer for complete unity of Father, Son and disciples through the Spirit. The language of these verses is like water from several streams flowing into a single river, or light or sound from several sources combining into an intense color or a magnificent symphony.

However, this unity is not unity for unity's sake. Nor is this unity simply for our own enjoyment.

It is for another purpose.

Jesus prays that we may be one so that the world may know the Father and the Father's love through Christ in us — individually, yes, but here especially as communities of faith. Our unity, our community, doesn’t happen because we want it to, because we “naturally” like each other, or even are like each other in some ways. Jesus is not praying for uniformity or homogeneity. Rather, he prays for the fullness of interactivity among differently gifted people that only the Father through the Spirit can bring about. It’s that kind of unity, and so that kind of community, that bears witness to the love and grace and being of our Triune God.

So where are the signs of that kind of unity where you are? How do people where you are talk about or witness to the work of the Spirit bringing diverse people together into an unexpected unity that displays the power of God’s love and grace? 

Doctrine: We are the body of Christ, made one in him in love and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ministry: We seek unity in the bonds of peace in all that we do so we may bear faithful witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

Three Wesley Hymns for Today

LET EARTH AND HEAVEN AGREE
(Closing or Response to Acts)
66.66.88.
Suggested Tune: DARWALL'S 148th (UMH 715) OR LENOX (UMH 379)
Words, alt. Verses included based on 1889 Hymnal, Methodist Episcopal Church South.


LET earth and heaven agree,
angels and men be joined,
to celebrate with me
the Saviour of mankind;
to adore the all-atoning Lamb,
and bless the sound of Jesu's name.

Jesus, transporting sound!
the joy of earth and heaven;
no other help is found,
no other name is given,
by which we can salvation have;
but Jesus came the world to save.

O unexampled love!
O all-redeeming grace!
How swiftly didst thou move
to save our fallen race!
What shall I do to make it known
what thou for all mankind hast done?

O for a trumpet voice,
on all the world to call!
to bid their hearts rejoice
in him who died for all;
for all my Lord was crucified,
for all, for all my Saviour died!


HE COMES, HE COMES THE JUDGE SEVERE
(Revelation)
Long Meter.
Suggested Tune: GIFT OF LOVE (UMH 408)


He comes! he comes! the Judge severe,
the seventh trumpet speaks him near;
his lightnings flash, his thunders roll,
how welcome to the faithful soul!

From heaven angelic voices sound,
see the almighty Jesus crowned,
girt with omnipotence and grace!
and glory decks the Saviour's face.

Descending on his azure throne,
he claims the kingdoms for his own;
the kingdoms all obey his word,
and hail him their triumphant Lord.

Shout, all the people of the sky,
and all the saints of the Most High!
Our Lord, who now his right obtains,
for ever and for ever reigns.


COME, LET US ASCEND
(Communion, John, Revelation)
Meter 6.6.9 D.
Suggested Tune: Trust and Obey (with or without refrain)
Refrain: Copyright © 2007, Taylor Burton-Edwards

1 COME, let us ascend,
my companion and friend,
to a taste of the banquet above;
if thy heart be as mine,
if for Jesus it pine,
come up into the chariot of love.

Come, Jesus, come!
By your power make us one,
one with you and each other,
till the world knows your love.

What a rapturous song,
when the glorified throng
in the spirit of harmony join:
join all the glad choirs,
hearts, voices, and lyres,
and the burden is, "Mercy divine!"

Come, Jesus, come!
By your power make us one,
one with you and each other,
till the world knows your love.

Hallelujah, they cry,
to the King of the sky,
to the great everlasting I AM;
to the Lamb that was slain,
and liveth again,
Hallelujah to God and the Lamb!

Come, Jesus, come!
by your power make us one,
one with you and each other,
till the world knows your love.

The Lamb on the throne,
Lo! he dwells with his own,
and to rivers of pleasure he leads;
with his mercy's full blaze,
with the sight of his face,
our beatified spirits he feeds.

Come, Jesus, come!
by your power make us one,
one with you and each other,
till the world knows your love.

Our foreheads proclaim
his ineffable name;
our bodies his glory display;
a day without night
we feast in his sight,
and eternity seems as a day!

Come, Jesus, come!
by your power make us one,
one with you and each other,
till the world knows your love.


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Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship

Greeting: BOW 388 (Acts), 390 (Revelation)

Opening Prayer: BOW 399 Week 7

Prayer for Mother’s Day/Festival of the Christian Home: BOW 437

Intercessory Prayers: BOW 397 (John), p. 439 (Mother’s Day)

Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Kenya, Tanzania

Great Thanksgiving (Communion): BOW 66-67 or UMH Word and Table II, pp. 13-14

For online alternatives see our collection of Great Thanksgivings for a variety of occasions.

  • A Kenyan Eucharistic Rite (in honor of Kenya’s place in the ecumenical prayer cycle today). May need some slight modification — the breaking of the bread should occur after the Lord's Prayer to follow our practice.

Blessing: BOW 563 (Ephesians)

 


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Preaching

On this Sunday, you have a choice of either preaching the texts for the seventh Sunday of Easter, which would afford an opportunity to wrap up your Eastertide Sermon Series if you've been preaching one, OR preaching on the lectionary readings for the Day of Ascension. If you choose the latter and have been preaching these texts as a series, be sure to weave in some sort of closure to the themes associated with the series you have been preaching. A third alternative would be to wrap up the series on Pentecost Sunday.

This is also the Sunday in which we celebrate Mother's Day/Festival of the Christian home. One way we might work this dimension into our preaching is to seek out the stories of women in our congregations, who-- by their words and actions -- have shown forth the face of Christ for others. As you prepare by talking with your worship team or Bible study group, you could focus this week in particular on the witnesses borne by the women of your congregation.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Ascension Sunday

Acts 16:16–34 Sermon Series: Signs and Wonders

There are two stories here. The first story concerns Paul, who -- by the power of Jesus Christ-- exorcises the demon from the slave girl, which her owners witness.  As a result of this first act, Paul and Silas are brought before the authorities where they are accused of disturbing the city. A crowd attacks them and beats them; then they are thrown in prison.  While in prison, Paul and Silas begin praying and singing; and the other prisoners and the jailer listen to them. Then there is an earthquake, and everyone in jail is set loose. Paul and Silas don’t run, but instead stay to minister to the jailer.  Upon seeing the faith of the imprisoned disciples of Jesus Christ and then experiencing grace through Paul and Silas as they stuck around even when they could have run off, the guard at the jail was so moved by what he saw and experienced that not only did he not kill himself, but he converted to be a follower of Jesus. He and his entire household were baptized into the faith.

This story, like the other readings for this day, points to the importance of witness in bringing others to know the saving power of Jesus Christ. And clearly these stories show that the most powerful witness we can give is not by our words, but by our example. We can witness to the power of Christ to bring healing by responding to people even when we are initially annoyed by them, as shown in the first example. Paul is annoyed by the slave girl because she had been following them around for many days and publicly jeering them about their activities. But instead of responding to her with anger, Paul invoked the power of Christ to heal her. 

What is the sign and wonder here? Perhaps it is tempting to focus on the miraculous power of Christ to exorcise a demon or bring about conversion in a non-believer. But I want to suggest another perspective on this. In a time when it is becoming increasingly popular for people to enthusiastically proclaim their atheism while at the same time jeering Christians for our perceived ignorance for believing in God, let alone Christ, it could be very tempting to give in to our feelings of annoyance or even anger.  But how much more powerful would it be if we could follow the example of Paul, and instead of entering into an angry debate, simply invoke the power of Christ to bring healing to our broken world. We don’t have to tell folks that we are doing this; we can quietly witness to our faith by our example, by continuing to do what we have always done as Christians:  by holding on to our faith and by praying and singing hymns to God.

As the words to the hymn proclaim, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” more than they will know we are Christians by our failing to trust in ourselves more than we trust in God to sort out the problems in this world. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the constant pressure to defend my faith to folks who don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t do any good. What does do some good, I think, is to share about my own experience of feeling the power of Christ at work among the people I know, or to simply let my friends who are not Christians know that I love them as they are. It isn’t up to us to convince others of the power of Christ; that is God’s work.  All I need to do is bear faithful witness to how I see God working in my own life and try to love God’s people with faith and hope and genuine Christian caring.


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Revelation 22:12–13, 16–17, 20–21 Sermon Series: Kingdom Dwellers

These words from the writer of Revelation bring the New Testament to a close. What final words did those who gathered and ordered the canon choose for a closing? These beautiful lines that emphasize the promise that Christ is with us, from the beginning of time to the end, and that invite all who hear, all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to drink from the water of life that God has given to us in Christ.

As I read these words and reflected upon them, I was reminded of an experience that took place some years ago. I visited a friend in Chiapas, Mexico, who was serving as a member of a Mennonite Mission group called the Christian Peacemakers Team. I hoped to learn about the oppression of the indigenous people of Mexico, especially the plight of coffee growers. When I went to Chiapas in 2001, I didn’t know anything of the history or the political situation in that part of the world. I went simply because my friend invited me to come and see firsthand what had occurred in Mexico over the seven years since the North American Free Trade Agreement had been signed into law by former President Bill Clinton.

During the trip, I saw firsthand the conditions in which the indigenous Indian people live. I saw the way the Native people were treated.  I bore witness to the contempt with which non-Indians looked at Indians. I saw the ruins of the ancient cities and holy places. I saw the systematic destruction of their culture -- destruction that had begun many generations before, but had escalated as a result of NAFTA.

The story of Indians in Mexico is Israel’s story. If we are to claim this faith as part of our own, theirs is our story too.  It is the story of how white America has treated -- and continues to treat --Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other Americans of color.

While I was in Chiapas, I visited a place called Palenque, an ancient Mayan city that is being excavated. The descendants of that huge, flourishing city are the same native peoples that are being oppressed today by the Mexican government.  The city of Palenque dates back to about 600 A.D.—not too terribly many years after Jesus the Christ walked this earth.  Not much of that ancient city has been excavated at this point, but you can still get a feel for the absolute grandeur that it must have exhibited.  Its residents had a written language, a calendar, a religion, and sophisticated architecture and engineering that included aquaducts to transport water to all parts of the city. 

At the end of my visit to Palenque, I hiked out of the primary site by way of a path that followed a stream down from the peak of the city, which was at the top of a mountain.  The stream zigged and zagged around through the thick vegetation. Palenque is located in the jungle, in a tropical rain forest— real Tarzan country, complete with monkeys and swinging vines.  About halfway down the path, I came upon a series of beautiful waterfalls flowing into pools that had been cut into the rocks by the ancient Mayans.  The waterfalls were called the “Queens’ baths.” Archaeologists believe that the pools and the gentle waterfalls were created for the queen of the city and her attendants to bathe in.  It was beautiful and serene and, well, HOLY, to be in that place; so I sat down, took off my hiking boots, rolled up my pants, and dipped my hot and tired feet into the flowing water. 

As soon as I sat down, I was overcome with emotion.  I thought about how that water had been flowing, day and night, year after year, in spite of all of the wars and the destruction that had gone on around it. The water was still flowing, day and night.  I thought about how the story of destruction of the Mayans and the continuing oppression of Indians in Mexico is the same story that we in the northern part of the Americas must tell.  As I sat there thinking about history and how it always seems to repeat itself, I began to cry. As I cried, words from the 137th Psalm began flowing through my mind like the water flowing around me.  I thought about how the Israelites, after they had finally managed to break free from the Egyptians, after only a short time found themselves held captive once again -- this time by the Babylonians.  In that time of captivity, they had offered a poem of lament: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.  There our captors carried us away to captivity, and required of us a song.  How can we sing our holy song in a strange land?”

In that moment, in the quiet of the jungle, with the water rushing by, I felt God’s grace wash over me, even as the cold water washed over my feet.  It was a moment of sacrament; and in that moment, the waters spoke to me. They told me that we are all one in Christ our Lord, from the beginning of time to the end. Just as those waters had been flowing from the beginning of time to the moment in which they passed over my feet, so the grace of God in Jesus Christ had been flowing from the beginning of time until it passed over me, and would continue flowing until the end of time. This is our hope. This is our faith. This is our promise, and it is for anyone who hears.  We dwell in God’s Kingdom. In this kingdom, the waters of life, the everflowing stream, the gift of grace from God in Jesus Christ, flows eternally. I sat there and remembered this gift that was given to me in my baptism, and I wept with gratitude for all that God has done and all that God is still doing in Christ our Lord, from the beginning of time to the end.

What are your stories? What moments can you share from your own life that bear witness to your faith that God in Christ is with us from the beginning of time to the end? What memories keep you going when the storms of life are raging and your hope is fleeting? Where have you seen evidence of God’s promise to be with us always?


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John 17:20–26 Sermon Series: Seeing is Believing

 “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon YOU what my Father promised” (verse 48). Can we get a witness from our congregations? Can the folks we serve witness to how the story of Jesus has transformed their lives?

What acts of faith have the members of our congregations seen in other Christians that have so moved them that they came to be followers themselves? What powerful stories can we tell about the power that comes from seeing disciples of Jesus Christ act in ways that transform the world? How have we seen the saints in the places we serve promote justice, offer grace, and protect the dignity and lives of the least of these among us? For many, if not most people, the thing that initially drew them to Christ was seeing the Christlike attitudes and behaviors of other Christian people. It is hard to describe; but when we see it, we are compelled by it and drawn to Christ. We DO come to believe. I have my own list of people who have shown me the face of Christ; and I have my own stories to tell, as do you. But this witness need not be limited to you! Invite others to tell their own stories of how they have witnessed for themselves God’s people loving others as Jesus has taught, and in witnessing this have come to believe in him.

 


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Ascension Sunday
Notes for Acts 1:1–11

The church where I regularly attend worship has been going through a crisis in recent weeks.  Toward the start of this crisis, a guest vocal group came to sing in morning worship. Between songs, one of the members of the group took a moment to offer his testimony and to acknowledge and comment upon the crisis the church was going through. He said, in essence, that while he didn’t know the reason that God had for bringing the crisis to the church, he was sure that God had a purpose in it. He said that what the church was going through was God’s plan.

While I know the comment was well-intended and from the heart, as a United Methodist and a non-predestinarian, I would respectfully disagree with this man’s assessment of the situation. I do not believe that God purposefully sent this crisis and the real human suffering that is involved in it for some divine purpose that we can’t see. Nor do I believe it is some part of God’s plan for the church. I believe that God has given us free will, and that God allows for evil and much suffering in the world. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us in our times of joy and in our times of suffering alike. It is our call to witness to God’s love and grace to the ends of the earth, not to try to come up with some kind of theological explanation for why an individual or a group or a nation must suffer.

Why do I bring this up on Ascension Sunday? Because I was reminded of this experience when I began to think about how this particular story speaks to a period of crisis and transition among the earliest followers of Jesus Christ.  The first chapter of Acts begins with a summary of what has happened since the end of “the first book” (verse 1), Luke’s gospel, and the present moment. It has been forty days since the empty tomb was discovered on the first Easter morning. During those forty days, Jesus has “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (verse 3). Jesus then ordered the disciples to wait in Jerusalem “for the promise of the Father” (verse 4).

So the disciples had asked him if this, in fact, was the time when Israel would be restored to her former glory. And Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (verse 7). After that, Jesus said the power of the Holy Spirit would come to them in Jerusalem and that they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. He was then lifted up into a cloud, and he disappeared.

I was reminded of this experience at my church as I read this first chapter in Acts because I don’t think that dealing with a crisis is as much about God’s plan or purpose as it is about the inevitability of cycles of loss and renewal, grief followed by hope for tomorrow, life and death, death and new life. That is the pattern of human life that God seems to have set into motion for us.  In this story we find a perfect example: The disciples watched as Jesus suffered and died. Then, they searched for new understanding and caught a glimmer of what was to come over the forty days when the resurrected Lord kept appearing. Next, they watched in awe and confusion as their Lord ascended into the clouds and disappeared. And then they waited. They waited as he didn’t reappear this time around. They waited for what was to come next. As they waited, they must have wondered why this was happening to them. They must have come up with possible explanations. And they must have been dealing with the inevitable mixture of emotions that comes with periods of transition: grief over their loss, confusion and fear about what would come next, hope that came from hearing Jesus’ words and promises. Periods of transition are always difficult for human beings. We want answers, but sometimes there just aren’t any. Sometimes we just have to be still and wait.

In many of our churches, this time of year is marked by grief and loss, transition and hope, excitement and anticipation for what is yet to come. Like the disciples, we sit somewhere between the mourning and the dancing. It is a time of year when folks are saying goodbye to one pastor and preparing to welcome a new pastor.  It is a time when we as pastors have to sit in the middle of saying goodbye to people we have loved, perhaps have struggled with, and the uncertainty of what the next community we are appointed to serve will bring.

Whether we are facing a pastoral change or something else, transitions are part of the lives of everyone we serve. How can the disciples’ example and Jesus’ promise to them speak a word of hope to those in our own congregations who are going through a difficult time, be it a crisis or a shift in pastoral leadership or simply one of the normal transitions of life that we all must face? How can the Holy Spirit sustain us through difficult times? And how can we look forward with hope and joy to the new life that is surely to come during periods of uncertainty and waiting?


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Notes for Ephesians 1:15–23

I love Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. I especially love verses 17–19: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (NRSV).

There is a sense in Paul’s letter that even though he knows the good people of Ephesus to be people of strong faith in the Lord Jesus (verse 15), there is still more for them to know about him. Paul implies that knowing Jesus is not something that happens in a singular moment, but rather it is something that comes over time -- over the course of a lifetime.  Throughout our lives, the power of the Holy Spirit continually fills us with new wisdom and enables us to see and experience Christ's presence in new and different ways.

What new wisdom and revelation have you experienced over this season of Eastertide? What new wisdom and revelation have the people you serve experienced? Where have the people in your community seen the real, active presence of Christ at work in your midst? How have the eyes of your hearts been enlightened?


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Notes for Luke 24:44–53

According to Luke, who was an eyewitness to these events, everything that is recorded in Luke and in Acts is exactly what happened as he recalled it.  He saw the risen Lord with his own eyes.  He touched him with his own hands.  He smelled the fish that the risen Lord ate before him.  He listened to Jesus’ words with his own ears, and he watched personally as Jesus ascended into the heavens. He waited in Jerusalem with the other disciples, and he felt the Holy Spirit come like the rush of a mighty wind, and he saw the tongues of fire and heard all the different languages being spoken all at once.

His is an eyewitness account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And Luke says that Jesus told the disciples that they were to go out into the nations and share this witness with others, so that is exactly what he did.  He went and he told the stories, and he even wrote them all down, so that now we can read them even today, over 2000 years later.

According to the instructions given by Jesus, the role of the disciples was to give witness.  That is, they were to share with other people what they had seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, and experienced for themselves about Jesus. According to the legal definition, a witness is someone who has firsthand knowledge about a crime or dramatic event through their senses (e.g. seeing, hearing, smelling, touching) and can help certify important considerations to the crime or event. A witness who has seen the event firsthand is known as an eye-witness. Witnesses are often called before a court of law to testify in trials.

If a person is called to give a witness in a court of law, that person can speak only about what he or she has personally experienced.  The person can’t talk about what someone else has told him or her, or tell what someone else said he saw.  That is hearsay, and hearsay doesn’t hold up in a court of law. Why?  Because as evidence, it just isn't reliable. Nor is hearsay as powerful as a direct witness account of something. What is true about the court system is also true about religious experience.

If we are to be effective witnesses, we need to tell what we have personally experienced. That means that we need to be telling our own stories as preachers, and we need to be inviting the people in our congregations to tell their stories.

You as a preacher can tell a story you read on a sermon illustrations website or in a book, or you can share what someone told you about an experience of Christ in their life. But retelling someone else’s story would not be nearly as convincing or powerful as it would be to hear a person from the congregation tell his or her own story. Perhaps this Sunday offers an opportunity, if you haven’t done this already during the Eastertide season, to invite someone from your congregation to give his or her witness to experiencing Christ in his or her life. Or perhaps at some point in the sermon, invite the congregation members to share a story with the person sitting next to them. On this day of all days, be sure to stress that by the power of the Holy Spirit received from on high, every follower of Jesus Christ is now a witness of these things, and as a witness is called to proclaim them to all the nations.

 

 


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God of creation, Alpha and Omega, we offer these gifts as a portion of what you have lavished upon us in your generosity. You have invited us to be your stewards, that when your Kingdom is fully established we might be deemed faithful servants in your sight. Open our eyes to the good we can do, every day, with the time, talent and treasure that has been entrusted to us. We pray in the name of your son, our risen Savior. Amen. (Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)


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Abbreviations:

BOW - The United Methodist Book of Worship

CLUW - Come, Let Us Worship (Korean)

MVPC - Mil Voces Para Celebrar (Spanish)

SOZ - Songs of Zion

TFWS - The Faith We Sing

UMH - The United Methodist Hymnal

URW - Upper Room Worshipbook

WSM  - Worship & Song, Music Edition

WSW  - Worship & Song, Worship Resources Edition