The Preacher’s Study
7th Sunday of Easter, Year A
John W.B. Hill
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 (NRSV: 1-10, 32-35);
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11;
This penultimate Sunday of the Easter season, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, is uniquely a day of the Lord’s absence: “now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world...Father, protect them in your name...”(John 17:11).
According to the first reading, Jesus has given his disciples their definitive mandate (“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”) and then disappeared into the cloud, enthroned in the glory of the Father. Now, they are waiting for the fulfilment of his promise (“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”) — with no idea where this will take them (“it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority”). But they don’t need to know where it will take them; all they need to know is the way, and that consists in following Jesus (John 14:5-6).
But what should they do in his absence? What should any of us do when all we know of the Lord is a sense of his absence? Those first disciples stayed together, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”. That’s what we must learn to do. It is what we do on this next-to-last Sunday of Easter: singing Psalm 68 in anticipation of the Lord’s coming to establish justice and peace in all the world (“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered...”), and praying for the coming of his Spirit.
And what can we expect when the Holy Spirit has come upon us, and we seek to fulfil the Lord’s mandate, obeying his command to love one another and to bear witness to what God has done through him? The second reading — Peter’s last word to new disciples of Jesus — tells us what to expect: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” The warning itself may come as a surprise! Why should we expect a fiery ordeal?
The reason should be obvious: we now find ourselves ‘in the world’ in exactly the same vulnerable place where Jesus was ‘in the world’. We can expect the world’s reaction to us to be the same as its reaction to him, for we are his witnesses.
For centuries, however, the church has enjoyed a place of dominance in the western world (for centuries it was a total hegemony, more recently a cultural prestige) which protected us from the suffering Jesus himself endured. This dominance also lured us into a gross distortion of the mandate Jesus gave us; we used the gospel as a tool of power, threatening people into submission. For some of us, therefore, the ‘fiery ordeal’ may take the form of seeing the humiliating collapse of our once dominant ecclesial institutions.
But we now find ourselves again in a place of worldly weakness and vulnerability where we will once again be free to bear witness in the original sense Jesus had in mind (we must always remember that the Greek word for ‘witness’ is martyros (see Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13)).
In this post-Constantinian era, Peter’s advice and encouragement is therefore entirely relevant. “Humble yourselves 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. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion, your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith...”
This adversary is “the father of lies” (John 8: 44) who strives to delude us with false promises. He is “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), who strives to crush our hope in God’s coming reign. But Jesus promised his disciples that he would ask the Father to give them “another Advocate...the Spirit of truth” (John 14: 16). The Spirit is now our Advocate against the adversary (note that both ‘Advocate’ and ‘adversary’ are legal terms). We need only resist this adversary, confident that the Spirit will be our strength in weakness, our wisdom in vulnerability.
Further, if the Spirit can be referred to as “another Advocate”, then Jesus himself is our original Advocate who resisted the adversary on our behalf. He is now exalted to God’s right hand where he intercedes for us (cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for we are his people, the ones whom the Father has given him (John 17:2, 6, 9; cf. John 6:39; 19:29). Our commitment to him is simply our response to his commitment to us.
Thus, in this prayer of intercession which we are privileged to overhear, Jesus is asking “not on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” It is not that Jesus has written off the world; later in this prayer he asks, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, so may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Today, it is more important than ever that we who are baptized know ourselves as the company of Jesus’ disciples.
A prayer of Eric Milner-White:
“O Lord, let me stand alongside thee
for cleanness of hand and pureness of heart;
stand after thine example,
against the small, the shallow, the spiteful, the cruel;
stand for the world,
against the world...”
John Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada. He is a member of APLM Council and serves as chair of Liturgy Canada. He is the author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
“Ascension at Rechain,” by Robert Shaw. Available at http://www.robertshaw.ie/exhibition-pieces.asp?CategoryID=8&ProductID=472
“Ascension,” by Michele Morata. Available at https://ecofriendlyart.wordpress.com/tag/contemporarypainting/