|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Acts 1:6-14||Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35||1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11||John 17:1-11|
By Bruce Epperly
This Sunday, often celebrated as Ascension Sunday, invites us to be both heavenly minded and earthly good. The Acts passage sets the tone. Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive the power of the Spirit, and then departs into the heavens. Jesus’ ascension is a puzzling event that is more problematic than helpful, if we take it literally. Jesus is no longer with us, and we have to explain his absence. While ascending to heaven is metaphysically and physically possible, given the lively and adventurous nature of the universe, whose deepest earthly energies are revealed in Jesus’ post-resurrection body, still the upward movement of Jesus is based on an outmoded understanding of the universe.
Sooner or later, the disciples had to grow up and the Jesus movement had to flourish on its own, without the presence of its charismatic teacher. As Jesus “ascends” to the heavens, the disciples quite naturally gaze upward, but are then told to focus on this earth rather than heaven. Their work is here in this world. Christ’s earthly ministry inspires their future ministries. Inspired by Christ’s resurrection, they can commit themselves to healing the good earth. God cares for this world and so should we. But, before they go forth to transform the world, they immerse themselves in prayer. Prayer orients us toward God’s vision and enables our actions to be grounded in divine wisdom and power.
Psalm 68 continues the exploration of divine and human power. God’s power liberates and equalizes. God’s power is aimed at justice. In light of God’s justice-seeking power, we are to use our own power to seek justice within our communities.
The words of I Peter describe the power to endure suffering. Endurance of suffering is a communal activity: we need a power and wisdom greater than our own, and communities that support our creativity and agency. We share in Christ’s suffering and experience Christ’s resurrection as a lived reality and as the spirit enlivening our communities. This is not a commandment to embrace suffering or endure abusive and dangerous relationships; it is an invitation to know that Christ is with us in our suffering and is our inspiration to share one another’s suffering in supportive ways.
How we suffer and how we respond to suffering are ethical issues. While there is no norm regarding our response to our personal suffering, Viktor Frankl’s advice to be worthy of our sufferings is sagely advice. Like any other season of life, suffering can ennoble or debase. God is moving in our lives, providing possibilities for creative transformation – the best for the impasse – in every life situation. While we should not deny our emotional lives in times of suffering, we can still seek to aspire toward the highest good during times of pain and suffering. We can, as Peter counsels, bring our suffering to God with the hope that God will restore us to wholeness in this life and the next. A God centered community seeks to prevent pain and suffering; it also responds to suffering in ways that promote healing and wholeness.
The reading from John’s gospel portrays Jesus praying for our protection and well-being as individuals and communities. Recent studies have indicated that prayer is good medicine. Prayer has been associated with better outcomes following surgery. In an interdependent universe, our intercessions may create a positive field of force around those for whom we pray, allowing positive energies to emerge in their lives and opening the door to a greater influx of divine activity. If God’s presence in the world is always contextual and relational, then our prayers help create open systems that more permeable to God’s visions and energy. From this perspective, we can claim that Jesus’ prayer still shapes our lives; it part of the environment from which each moment of experience emerges. Perhaps our ability to do greater things, described in John 14:12, finds its ultimate basis in Jesus intercessions on our behalf. (For more on process theology and prayer, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed; Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel; and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence.)
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of over thirty books in theology, ministry, scripture, healing, and spirituality including, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God. He may be reached for conversation and speaking engagements email@example.com.