Monday, May 22, 2017

Preacher's Study - Easter 7A (2017)

The Preacher’s Study
7th Sunday of Easter, Year A

John W.B. Hill

Acts 1:6-14; 
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 (NRSV: 1-10, 32-35); 
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11;
John17: 1-11.

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

“Ascension,” by Michele Morata. Available at

Friday, May 19, 2017

Preacher's Study - Ascension 2017

The Preacher’s Study
Ascension Day

John W.B. Hill

Acts 1:1-11; 
Psalm 47, or 93;
Ephesians 1:15-23;
Luke 24:44-53.

The exaltation of Jesus “to God’s right hand”, and the outpouring of the Spirit upon his followers are both essential parts of the gospel.  But only The Acts of the Apostles assigns these particular developments to particular days, following the day of resurrection.  Paul makes no temporal distinction amongst them, and John’s version of the gospel assigns both Jesus’ ascent to the Father and his gift of the Holy Spirit to Easter Day itself.

However the chronology of Acts has been so illuminating that it has shaped the Church’s calendar for most of church history.  It has helped us to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection, his exaltation, and our participation in his Spirit are not synonymous!  They are not just three metaphors for the same reality (even though they are integrally related); their meaning cannot be reduced to ‘the enduring influence of Jesus of Nazareth.’  That is not the gospel; for Jesus is risen, and Jesus is Lord, and the Spirit of Jesus is “his own first gift for those who believe.”

This, together with Luke’s insistence that the events of this gospel can only be understood as the fulfilment of “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24: 44), was especially important for Gentile believers who might have been tempted to interpret the good news of ‘Jesus and the Resurrection’ (Acts 17: 18) through a Greek or pagan lens.  It is just as important today for believers who might be tempted to interpret the gospel through a new age lens.

What, then, is the significance of the fortieth day (Ascension Day)?  Pentecost (meaning ‘fiftieth’) was originally the fiftieth day after Passover, a day to celebrate the gift of the Law through Moses, and thus also an appropriate day for followers of Jesus to celebrate the gift of the Spirit.  So too, the fortieth day might evoke the memory of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, that interlude between two epochs: their subjugation in Egypt, and their settlement in the Promised Land.  Thus, in the book of Acts, the forty days are the interlude between the time the disciples spent with Jesus until his arrest and crucifixion, and the beginning of their apostolate.  During this interlude, Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God”.

Today, people who respond to the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection by accepting baptism also need the benefit of such an interlude, a time to be guided toward a fuller recognition of their calling.  They need to be grounded in the mystery of Christ “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1: 20-21).  As a medieval hymn observes, “angels wonder when they see how changed is our humanity” (O Lord Most High, Eternal King).  For his dignity is now our dignity, too.

Thus, as the second reading spells out, we are being given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with your eyes enlightened, you may know 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” (Ephesians 1: 17-19).  In short, we are inheritors of the kingdom of God.

At the same time, we need to be grounded in the humble spirit of trusting agnosticism, confident in the one essential role we must play in the coming of that kingdom: “It is not for you to know the times or the 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...” (Acts 1: 7-8). 

This is the primary vocation of the baptized: put simply, to be the witnesses to what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!  This is what Jesus’ had consistently taught, before his death: “you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify!  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21: 12-15).  “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me...” (John15: 26-27).

Such inspired testimony is no guarantee that those who oppose us will be convinced by our witness, or that the charges brought against us will be dropped!  Rather, our witness is simply God’s way of convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgement (John 16: 8).  The followers of Jesus conquered their accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12: 10-11).

John W B 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" by Ivan Filichev,

"Baptism," by Ivan Filichev,