Ascension of the Lord: The Psalm Passage – A Celebration is Coming

As I was thinking and looking towards writing for Thursday May 25th, the Day of the Ascension of the Lord, I got to thinking about the significance of that day to the disciples. As I said yesterday, it is not the same sort of celebration as Pentecost is. In hindsight it is clear to us as modern day believers that Jesus would return to heaven and the Lord who sent him. Maybe that was clear enough to the disciples or maybe that took them by surprise. But what really lodged in my mind, and led me to writing for a second time for today, is that the day BEFORE the ascension of the Lord, they did not know it was coming. It is like the day before a surprise birthday party or other celebration – the day before, you don’t know it is coming. And it is a celebration (it’s why it is commemorated in the church year) that Jesus is returning to heaven so that the things that were promised can and will come to pass.

Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet.” (Psalm 47:1-3)

Well, the psalmist is not quite within the same perspective as us for this day – in fact, this psalm is applied to this day as opposed to having been specifically written for the ascension of the Lord. A fact that finds in parallel in a great deal of scripture passages used in the Revised Common Lectionary. We will be celebrating tomorrow that the Lord God Jesus Christ is “awesome”. Just not quite for the reason the psalmist had in mind.

“He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” (Verses 4 – 8)

This is the celebration – that the Lord who was and is Jesus is now back with the Lord God Creator and all the other aspects of the Divine. It is, albeit, a celebration that is specific to God’s people who believe in the triune nature of the Divine – God the Creator/Parent, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And the psalmist says that all things are under God; whether it be a triune God that is now reunited with its God-self (okay, at admit it strains some theologies to see God in this light) or a God who is “simply” mighty over all things. And verse nine seems to be an exclamation point on this idea. I consulted with my “friend” Albert Barnes, and he helped me understand verse nine.

“The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.” (Verse 9)

Everyone is gathered under God; those who come voluntarily as the called people of God, and those who God “subdued” under the God-self, as described in verse three. Everyone and everything is under God. And our Lord Jesus Christ, now ascended, is over all things. And that is what we celebrate tomorrow, according to the psalmist.

But, and it is a big “but”, the Lord God as described by the psalmist is not quite the same Lord Jesus Christ that the disciples had come to know. And that was a big stumbling block to some. That the “mighty” Almighty Lord God came to earth and humbled the God-self unto being put to death. Not that it stopped the Lord God, you understand. So while we appropriate the celebration as the psalmist presents it, when re-define it to celebrate that what came to us humbled is now returned to heaven in victory. And that, beloved reader, is worth celebrating – tomorrow. Selah!

Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Substituted Acts Passage – A time for pondering and a time for acting

I know a secret. This week is the Day of the Ascension of the Lord. It is a minor big deal in the life of the church. Not quite Pentecost, but right up there – as it were. The time after Jesus’ resurrection and before his ascension is the interval of time when Jesus gave some final instructions to his disciples. Some of the gospels chronicle that time, and others quickly move to Jesus being taken up to heaven.

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:6 – 9)

I have spoken/written on numerous occasions about the expectations of the disciples concerning Jesus’ return. That they way they lived and the way the early church was set up was based on this expectation. And how the early church changed to accommodate the “wait time” for Jesus’ return. I have also talked about what we, as authentic Christians, ought to do while we wait.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Verses 10 – 14)

Do you, beloved reader, gaze up into the sky wondering when Jesus will return in the same way as he went into heaven? No, I don’t think you do. Because we as a called people of the Lord have learned that our mission and calling is here amongst humanity. That Jesus’ Spirit and Presence is here in ways we only understand in part. Prayer is good – prayer is essential! But prayer is not all there is to living out a Christian life. There is acting as Jesus acted. Caring as the Lord cares for us. Teaching and guiding as Jesus taught and guided his disciples. And, continuing to learn about the Lord and Jesus Christ our Savior. It is a busy time, this waiting for Jesus to return. Set aside some time to gaze into the sky, and communion with the Lord. Then return to the work you are called to. Selah!

Sixth Sunday of Easter: The Psalm Passage – When the Lord “comes through”

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” (Psalm 66:8 – 9)

Last week I directed and dedicated the psalm passage to my fellow chronic illness sufferers. I was reminded of that by this first verse, although some in our group have passed away because of this disease.

“For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.” (Verse 10)

Admittedly, however, these verses are directed more at sin and trying to live a life according to Christian principles. This disease is not from anything we have done that is against Christian precepts. Very very diseases are.

“You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (Verse 11 – 12)

And healing from diseases is not dependent on living out Christian principles either. That is, sinners as well as saints recover from disease or succumb to the devastation of body and health. So let us leave behind health considers, and look together at what this passage has to say.

“I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.” (Verse 13 – 14)

In times of trouble, we promise the Divine if we are delivered from our problems we will be more dedicated to the religious life and will turn away from habits and patters that are contrary to the Lord’s directions and guidance. The psalmist here promises now that things are better, the psalmist will follow through on these promises. And actually, by living a more authentic Christian life there will be far less danger of bringing problems upon ourselves.

“I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah” (Verse 15)

When the Lord has delivered us from our woes and worries, our faults and failings, our straying and distress, we seek to honor the God who stood by us and walked us through it. Ways and traditions of honoring and giving thanks to God have evolved and changed. But the impulse is still there.

“Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” (Verses 16 – 20)

Blessed be God! Selah!

Sixth Sunday of Easter: The Epistle Passage – Spiritual Fore-bearers, Large and Small

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” (I Peter 3:13 – 16)

I both feel and see the writer of I Peter seesawing back and forth. Being bold yet advocating care and caution. It is the careful “dance” of someone who is wise as a serpent yet innocent as a dove. I was reminded today, in another context, of the apostle Peter’s hesitation concerning going to Cornelius’ home because Cornelius was a Gentile. And his explanation to the gathering at Jerusalem as to why he went.

“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.” (Verses 17 – 20)

I am reminder too of the times Peter was imprisoned and was lead out of prison. Peter did suffer for proclaiming the faith given to him. And that lends extra credence to the words that are ascribed to Peter. This can be said of all of the writers of the Epistles. But do not think that it is only those who have suffered violently for their faith that have lessons to teach us. Living out an authentic Christian life, day by day over a span of decades without persecution or oppression is just as much a testament. And in some ways more. As Peter says, when we are pressed on the issues of our faith it gives us a chance to speak to the depth and breadth of our testing. But when there is no test, merely the living out of docile days, it is easy to slip in small . . . and then larger ways. We tend to forget the sacrifice that was made for us, because there is little sacrifice and suffering on our part.

“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (Verses 21 – 22)

I cannot, beloved reader, point you to many diaries and accounts of authentic and conscientious Christians of lived out their days in unruffled ways. For those accounts are not held up as examples. But they should be. Yes, Peter and Paul, and the other apostles suffered for their faith. And we can look to them as exemplars, in a smaller way than we look to Christ. Complacency can lead us just as much astray as yielding to temptation when the tough times come. Seek out, beloved reader, models of Christianity who were not pushed or stressed. And find out how to live a Christian life in “monotony”. Selah!

Fifth Sunday of Easter: The Substituted Acts Passage – What was old becomes new

During the Sundays of Easter passages from Acts are substituted for the Old Testament passages. I have said this multiple times, and usually I say it to help you, beloved reader, know why it is a passage from Acts. Today I tell you because this passage from Acts is as informative about faithful practices as any Old Testament passage. Let me show you why.

“But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)

The prophets from the Old Testament are said to have been filled with God’s Spirit, and acted according to that guidance and inspiration. Here we see a new believer who is filled with the exact same essence of God and testifies to it.

“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” (Verses 56 – 57)

But he is ignored and set upon just like any prophet from the Old Testament.

“Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Verse 58)

Unlike the Old Testament, however, unbelievers do not stop at just threatening his life but actually take it. Remember, beloved reader, how many times the Lord’s prophets had to flee in fear of their lives? It as if the reactions of those times were exacerbated with the killing of Jesus Christ. Taking a life is no longer an unthought of act, but one that is gaining acceptance.

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” (Verses 59 – 60)

But just as Jesus’ death was the beginning of a wave of persecution, so was Jesus’ willingness to give up his life. And even in death remaining faithful to the Lord who was followed and served. It was one thing for Jesus the Son of God to be willing to give up his life, but such faithfulness in humanity was new and unheard of, except maybe in Old Testament times.

And do not think, beloved reader, I have overlooked who was present at Stephen’s death. Here we have the foundation of the Lord getting ready to call a new prophet who would carry forth the Lord’s word and Jesus’ work. No, beloved reader, we have missed out on nothing by not having an Old Testament passage. May we learn lessons from scripture where ever we may find them. Selah!

Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Gospel Passage – Of Sheep and Shepherds

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:1)

The gospel of John has several purposes, beyond the telling of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The writer of the gospel of John sought to establish Jesus’ divinity, and what is here and what is left out often serve that purpose. Biblical commentators, understanding this, pick up the task and assign meanings & messages that I am not convinced were the original intention of the writer of the gospel of John. I am not arguing or disputing their interpretation, but am simply stating that many passages are laden with meanings and extrapolations that point to the character and nature of Jesus Christ. Verse one, for example, is said to mean that Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of being poor leaders, or shepherds, of the Jewish people. And they come to leadership not to care for and tend to the needs of the people but to establish power and authority for themselves.

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” (Verse 2)

The person who comes into leadership through the call from the Lord is a true shepherd and will care for those who follow him/her with compassion and understanding.

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (Verses 3 – 6)

Do not think it strange, beloved reader, that the metaphor and motif of shepherds and sheep is used so much. Jesus was using what the people of that place and time knew thoroughly and gave new meaning to common understandings so that complex theologies could be made clear. Ironically, we who live in modern times and are removed from older ways of life come to know and understand these ways of life by studying them in order to have insights into scripture. Or, more interestingly, work the metaphor and motif backwards using the insights and understandings were are familiar with in scripture and applying them to the everyday practices of those people in biblical times.

“So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Verses 7 – 10)

Here is an interesting thing – the biblical commentators I consulted with say that what Jesus means is that any and every person who tried to claim authority over the people (excluding those who were called prophets starting with Noah, Abraham etc) were false and wrong. The implication being that the Pharisees were not good leaders of the people. How then do we reconcile that with those who followed such poor leaders? Were they not sheep? Or just not the Lord’s sheep?

You see, beloved reader, it behooves us to make wise choices as to who we follow. We are not to be mindless sheep, blindly following any voice that calls out “follow me.” Do not think that the Lord’s sheep have no responsible or use no judgment in their actions. It is not just the shepherd who will be judged, but also the sheep for allowing themselves to be lead astray.

All of this will make tomorrow’s scripture passage very interesting to consider. Shalom!

Third Sunday of Easter: The Psalm Passage – From then to now . . . believing in the Divine

I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, save my life!” (Psalm 116:1-4)

One of the things about the Old Testament is that it is a “before” in terms of a relationship to God. Before – salvation, forgiveness, redemption and atonement. Before – speaking to the Divine as a close personal friend. Before – the assurance that the Divine always has our best interests at the center of our relationship to the Lord. And, Before – we knew what the Lord wanted in return for the blessing and gifts that are bestowed on us.


“What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones. O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!” (Verses 12 – 19)

That is not to say that there was no one who had an intimate relationship with the Lord. The bible, and the Old Testament, is filled with stories of men and women who lived extra-ordinary lives dedicated to the Lord. It’s just that there were many people who didn’t, who went astray, and never really found their way back. The coming Christ broke down many barriers. But, beloved reader, humanity is also very skilled at putting up barriers to the Divine; the same skill, I imagine, that many unnamed people had back in the time of the Old Testament, branching into New Testament times.

Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that the coming of Christ tore down the barriers as it tore down the curtain in the Holy of Holies in the temple? But my optimism for those living in New Testament times, and more specifically in the decades and centuries after Christ, meets up with reality. So we look back – back to the Old Testament to learn how the distance between the Divine and the people of God came to be. Back to the New Testament to learn how a new way of believing and living came into existence. And then back over the history of humanity since Christ returned to heaven. And hopefully we learn, and carry those lessons forward. Hopefully . . . . Selah!