What Do We Do Now?

Biblical Texts: Acts 1:12-26, John 17:11-19

The texts for Easter 7B (the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost), which often happens to be Mother’s Day as well, are just terrible for that. The general feel in both I would say is one of abandonment. Jesus is ascended and the Spirit is not yet present. Or in the Gospel, it is late Maundy Thursday and Jesus will be taken from them soon and is contemplating very Ascension Day thoughts. On top of that, you’ve got Judas. But it is Judas that gives the Apostles the chance to reflect on what Jesus tells them and to act on it. In real life those “what do we do now” moments often start with a call to mom. This sermon is a meditation on how we are given to act when the world seems to be falling apart.

Ascension Troubles

It was last Thursday (or today if you are reading this electronically). What was Thursday? Ascension Day. It is something of the forgotten feast day of the Life of Christ.  Why is that?  The easy answer is that it is on a Thursday – 40 days after Easter.  And while Epiphany can be forced by a Pastor as a nice late ending to the Christmas season.  It doesn’t hurt that everyone loves the story of the Wise Men and the star connected to Epiphany.  And Holy Week seems appropriate piety.  By the time you get to 40 days after Easter, Summer is starting. It is one thing to be in church when it is cold and dark.  It is another thing to sacrifice sun and good weather. Less joking, more serious, Ascension I think hits on all the modern church’s hangups.

What do I mean by that?  Well, among respectable educated folk, there is a tendency to spiritualize the more miraculous events of the life of Jesus. Not that the bible allows this, it is just that we are all educated as de facto materialists (i.e. there is nothing but matter). So anything that borders on the woo-woo must be a metaphor. The first step in much of mainline Protestantism’s losing the faith was spiritualizing Easter.  The resurrection is a metaphor for new beginnings.  If it’s just a metaphor, to hell with it.  I want to thrust my hand into the side with Thomas. 

Because then I know that my six foot slumber is temporary. If it’s a metaphor, there is no new beginning from that, unless you count being mulch a new beginning. What does Ascension say? That Jesus Christ was bodily taken up into heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11, Matthew 28:16-20).  And that in heaven he has been seated at the right hand of God the Father (Creed, Revelation 4-5). Ascension says that Jesus Christ is reigning right now.  And that is not some metaphor. The King is on his throne.  And it is not some King in Parliament scheme.  “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them fell down and worshipped (Revelation 5:13-14).” This King is the judge of the quick and the dead.  Good luck turning that into a metaphor.

The second reason is what the Royal decree of Ascencion Day is – evangelism. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).”  Luke’s version is “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8).” Having been clothed with power from on high, the Holy Spirit, the disciples are to make more disciples. Again, really hard to make a metaphor.  That’s a concrete mission.  The Gospel of John doesn’t have an explicit Ascension story, but it has an implied one that explains it a bit further.  From John 16:7-8, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.” Ascension Day, for it’s woo-woo happening, is very concrete. It is about sin and righteousness and judgement.

Ascension Day is this forgotten day, probably because we don’t always like the message.  Jesus reigns. And He has given us a Royal quest. It is not the myth of Camelot or some far away story, but it has come very close to you.  That Helper abides in you. Do we say Christ is Lord? And if so, do we mean it…by following his commandments? By being his witnesses? It is an uneasy message in these later days.


Biblical Text: John 15:9-17

The text comes from the long Maundy Thursday section of John’s gospel where Jesus issues a new command – “love one another as I have loved you.” And like all things John he turns it over and over. Our particular turning focuses on the direction of that love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” And it is a meditation of what abiding in the love of God means, what it looks like and what the ends of it are. The sermon develops each of those ideas. It also has an opening meditation on what a sermon is supposed to be.

Rogate – What Shall We Ask?

Every 6th Sunday of Easter I somehow get pushed into the same meditation. When we date things we find a calendar and just write say 5/3/24 – May 3rd, 2024. And that time encodes where we are in the earth’s annual trip around the sun.  It is handy for calculating interest owed or accrued as the days are easily countable. In other words it is a practical notation, but it is also a skinny one. Through at least the 19th Century, something on May 3rd might have been dated – On the Feast of Philip and James.  This Sunday would have been known as Rogate. The Sundays all took their names from the first words spoken in service from the Introits originally in Latin.  Rogate means to ask.  The First Sunday in Easter was Quasimodogeniti which means “as newborn babies.” You might recognize Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was born on that Sunday.  Marking time in those ways is thick.  It isn’t as practical for calculating interest, but it communicates a lot more than simply where this rock is in its yearly journey. It is centered on what we the people of God are asked to be in contemplation about that week.  And if you are a mystical sort, it might communicate what God is about at that time.

So if you come across a document dated Rogation week, what we are asked to contemplate is asking.  Originally this Sunday was tied to the Spring Planting.  Whether the seeds were already planted or if you were behind and still needed to get some in, Rogate was the Sunday that you asked God for his blessings on the ground and on the crops.  Deep rural congregations would often exit the sanctuary and turn the soil while asking for blessing.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And that daily bread starts with these seeds and this soil.

Rogate for a long time also had a specific meaning in parish life. Sometimes just the Pastor, sometimes it would be an entire procession, if you were Roman Catholic a Eucharistic one, would walk the boundaries of the parish. As the community prayed for its daily bread and the planting, so also would you pray for the entire people entrusted to the care of the parish.  The idea of a congregation and the idea of a parish get treated as synonyms today, but they are quite distinct. You could have many congregations within a parish.  You could have “rogue” congregations.  A congregation is ultimately just a gathering of people.  The parish was a defined geographic space full of sinners and saints and everything in between.  The parish priest/pastor/vicar was called to hold a spiritual office for the parish – all those within it.  Those seen daily, and those never seen. Rogate was the week to be seen.  And to ask God for the soil, that it might prove good soil.

I get to thinking in the same veins because I think these changes tell us a lot about ourselves.  We no longer really have parishes, even the Roman Catholics.  We are all “rogue congregations”.  Singular outposts of believers gathering around word and sacrament. And this is still meaningful.  And the promises are still present.  But it is thinner.  It is the church admitting that she no longer influences larger areas.  At the same time the boundaries which once were very easy to recognize – you walked the boundary stones yearly. They are now moved all over to who knows where. Which means questions about what exactly one is called to. And if you bump into the neighboring vicar walking the boundaries, what do you owe him?  But maybe more importantly who and what are we asking for these days?  At the same time as our lives have often become so busy, they have become so thin.  The thickness of living with family and known neighbors, has thinned out in many ways.  Lifelong work partners now come and go every six months.  People who you might spend 10 hours a day with for months leave and rarely cross our minds. The mystic cords of memory are thinner.  No longer strands of 3 connected by water, blood and spirit, but cords of one. So thin that we would rather worry about people half a world away than our literal neighbor.

We can see and feel the thinness and know it isn’t good.  But the thicker actually binds us. And are we binding ourselves to the right thing? St. Patrick knew what he was binding himself to (LSB 604). So I return yearly, made more difficult by myself having uprooted and moved a long way, and my Son heading back where we left for school, to questions about thick and thin.  To what needs Rogation.  For what should we ask the Father? 

Vines and Vinedressers

Biblical Text: John 15:1-8

For a second week we have one of the “I AM” sayings in the Gospel according to John – “I AM the vine”. And I think this saying invites us to ponder a couple of things. First what it reveals about God which is central to the mystery of suffering or in this case spiritual struggle. The Father as the vinedresser and the son as the vine with the point being greater fruitfulness invites meditation on pruning coded as struggle and how God prunes or limits himself in some ways. The second revelation is what it says about fruitfulness. Vines and branches are made to bear fruit. It will happen. The deeper question is if the branches stay connected to the vine. Measuring fruitfulness is usually fruitless, because it is aimed the wrong way. If there is fruit you will see it. The main concern of the branch is to stay connected – to abide – in the vine.

Easy Reading

The Reformation itself is grounded upon a doctrine with a terrible name – the perspicuity of scripture.  Perspicuity, a word that I can’t even pronounce, that most people probably don’t recognize, means something real simple. It is the doctrine that normal people can read the scriptures and understand them.  “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John. 20:31)”  That taps into “the priesthood of all believers” and Luther at Worms stand on conscience. Luther would also stand in his great work “The Freedom of a Christian (1520)” on a semi-mystical point that “God would make us theodidacti, that is those taught by God (John 6:45).”   And all of it gets summed up in the Reformation slogan “sola scriptura” – word alone.

At the time the Roman church argued that, “no, the scriptures were not comprehensible by ordinary people.  You need the pope to tell you what they mean.”  And given the situation today, it might be much harder to argue with them.  As they satirically argued, “you are replacing 1 pope with millions of popes.”  And that might not seem so satirical today.  Of course the Roman argument has to wrestle with Paul saying things like, “not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (Phil. 2:12 ESV)” just as much as with those verses from John. Luther was a sharp reader of scripture.  And Luther’s real radical streak was his willingness to trust God for his people.  “My sheep hear my voice (John 10).”

There is always the tension in the church to want to over control things. Whether that is to put God in the box. Saying to God that he must act this way.  Or if that is to put all the sheep under one shepherd who is not Christ. The Spirit blows when He wills.  We all like sheep have gone astray and only one shepherd is the good shepherd.  There are a bunch of reasons, but those are some of the reasons I love our First reading from Acts 8:26-40 this week.  The reading about the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It is a happening about all these confusing things.

It concerns Philip who was one of the 7 appointed deacons.  The deacons were supposed to take care of the widows and orphans fund.  But as soon as they are “ordained” you find Stephen preaching himself into martyrdom.  And you find an Angel of the Lord telling Philip to “rise and go (Acts 8:26).”  That spirit tells Philip to go out to a desert place.  He blows where he wills. He uses the means he desires. Somehow along this desert road the Ethiopian Eunuch is traveling in a chariot reading Isaiah. The Spirit sends Philip up to him, and the scriptures are not all that perspicuous. “Do you understand what you are reading?  How can I, unless someone guides me? (Acts 8:30-31)”  Now that might seem to be a slam dunk passage for the Pope, but Luther might say that it seems to be a perfect case of God ensuring teaching, of the Ethiopian Eunuch being a theodidacti. Our slogans never capture the full complexity.  Moving from preacher or teacher to Pope is a big step.  One that doesn’t seem authorized.  A usurpation of what Christ alone fulfills.

Because the Eunuch immediately runs past the teacher.  Somehow, out in the desert, “see, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? (Acts 8:37)” And the answer is nothing.  They stop, Philip baptizes, and when they come up “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away.” That Spirit of the Lord was now abiding in the Ethiopian.  (The Ethiopian church to this day maintains a story about his work on his return.)  And that Spirit of the Lord had other work for Philip to do.  “Philip found himself in Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns (Acts 8:40).”

We have this desire to make everything neat.  A Pope to make things clear. A confession to give us surety. An office that would guard the teaching.  And God often kindly works though such means. But our surety is never in the means, it is always in the one – in Christ. In the Spirit.  “We are all beggars” were Luther’s last written words. And what we are begging for is not some magical talisman or wise teacher or scroll.  Every earthly prop gives way.  We are begging for God himself to stop and not pass us by.  That we too might have that water of life.

Knowing and Being Known

Biblical Text: John 10:11-18

This was “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The Gospel text is from John 10 which includes one of Jesus’ “I Am” statements – “I Am the Good Shepherd.” He says it twice and after each saying expands a bit on what it means. At least that is my read of what John/Jesus is doing with these I Am statements. For me the core of the passage comes from Jesus saying, “I know my own and my own know me.” The I Am statements reveal to us something about God. In this case that God treats his creation and especially his “sheep” like an owner of something precious. The sheep are life and death things to God. The core of the Good Shepherd is that we have a God who knows, but He wouldn’t be much of a God if he didn’t. Although this one went to the extreme of becoming one of the sheep. But we also have a God who has chosen to be known. He has revealed himself. And his sheep harken to his voice. This is a God for whom this relationship with the sheep – his creation – is not some minor thing, but his engrossing mission, life and death.

Good Shepherd Sunday Contemplations

This Sunday is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday.  The 4th Sunday of Easter our lectionary in each of its three years reads a portion of John chapter 10 which contains within it one of the “I AM” saying of Jesus – “I Am the Good Shepherd.”  Artistically it is one of the deep wells.  The hymns worth singing range from the Sunday School simple “I Am Jesus Little Lamb” to the depths of “The King of Love my Shepherd Is.”  But I’ve always had a nagging question about the day itself.

I grew up around farms, but even then you could say I grew up around modern farms. My dad as a child grew up on a farm.  And portions of it you might have considered “modern” – like the tractor – but other portions were still  pre-modern, like milking the cows. There is a big difference between growing up on a farm, growing up around farms, and like most people today who have no experience of rural life at all. I find the 20 something craze of keeping chickens a charming call back. My mom, who also grew up on a farm and kept chickens as what farm girls did, chuckles at giving up buying a dozen at the store to keep them. But what almost everyone who keeps chickens discovers quickly is two things: 1) chickens are incredibly dumb and hence annoyingly always getting into dumb spots and 2) they are a lot more work than you might have thought.  When we city mice read the good shepherd type passages I fear that we come at them only through a pastoral romantic haze. Like The Natural stepping off the train to throw a baseball around in the field. Everything is clean and fresh and sunlit and well pressed. Everything is a little too cute.

And I wonder if this isn’t part of what puts some distance between how most people might have heard these passages and how we do. Just thinking about parts of Psalm 23 – a Psalm of David who was literally a shepherd at one time – the implements and verbs of the trade are contrary to the romantic glow.  “He makes me to lie.” Like I said about chickens being stupid, sheep aren’t known for their brains either.  The comic nearby captures that with a modern flair. Likewise, if you have never seen it, please watch this video: https://youtu.be/4DZNMgiqFYE?si=DHWbe0dnrb2IWeC- (It’s the sheep jumping into the ditch, if you have seen it.)  The Psalm uses forceful language – “He makes”.   That is not something the soft romantic glow usually allows. But the shepherd decides the general course of the sheep and the flock. And the straying sheep are brought back, unless the wolves have got them.

Alongside that forceful image of “he makes” are the implements of the trade, the “rod and staff.”  Why do they comfort in the Psalm?  Because they are pointed outward.  The shepherd and the sheep walk through the valley – through the wolves – and the rod and staff are the implements of protection.  But we should also ask what those implements are in the spiritual life.  And I think the best answers is the law and the gospel. Sometimes it takes the rod – the law – to make us wake up and realize where we are. Sometimes it is the staff with the crook – the gospel – that is pulling us out of some ditch we’ve fallen into. The spiritual applications of those shepherd’s instruments are toward ourselves. And at least when they are employed might not be as comforting as the romantic picture.

Our modern mechanical comforts allow us to think of the pastoral with that romantic glow.  Our distance from the reality allows us to have childlike thoughts when Jesus says “I Am the good shepherd.”  Thinking the spiritual life is gambling in sun dappled fields.  The reality I think they would have heard is exactly the opposite.  This is life and death. The Good Shepherd doesn’t exactly care about sun-drenched happiness.  He cares that you live. And life and death things often require serious instruments. Instrument that we might no longer accept.  I’m going to go dig out my precious moments shepherd now after those comforting thoughts.

High Anxiety

Biblical Text: Luke 24:36-49

There are lots of things that can cause anxiety or fear or doubt. WW3 might be up there this week. This sermon addresses that, but not in the way everyone that will get attention would do so. The gospel text for the weeks addresses 4 big things:

  1. The Resurrection of the body
  2. The Role of the OT and Scripture
  3. The call to witness
  4. These things are spiritually discerned

Those 4 things should go a long way to helping our anxiety. And turn our hearts toward the proper requests of God.

Men of Israel (Acts 3)

In Wednesday Bible study we are going to be starting the Book of Acts.  I’ve been calling the study Necessary Stories since we started.  Most of what we studied has been the narrative drive of the Old Testament.  We looked at 47 stories in the Old Testament.  We have just completed an extended reading of the Gospel of Matthew with some peeks at the other gospels.  The book of Acts is something of the end of that narrative. And Peter’s preaching in this week’s first reading (Acts 3:11-21) captures why.

The story is one of Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. You might remember the old VBS song standard – Peter and John went to pray, they met a lame man on the way…silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!  And that episode, as such healings so often worked for Jesus, gathered a crowd to which then Jesus and now Peter would preach. The miracle was never about the miracle itself.  The miracles were always about the one they pointed towards and His testimony.  And the testimony of Peter is pure law and gospel.  And it remains the proclamation of the church to this day.

Who is he preaching to?  “Men of Israel. (Acts 3:12).”  It is interesting that Peter explicitly calls out the men here, but he does.   And what does he fault those men of Israel with? Their lack of spiritual discernment.   “Why do you marvel at [the lame man walking]?” You have all seen exactly this for three years.  We are no different than you.  It is not our power or piety that does this. It is the God you know.  “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of our Fathers.”  And maybe this is why he addresses the men alone.  The women of Jerusalem wept along the path of the cross. They anointed him before.  Unlike Adam and Eve where Eve did not discern the snakes plot.  It was the men who did not discern that the God of their Fathers was at work in Jesus in their midst.

And because of their poor discernment, what did they do?  “You delivered him over and denied him in the presence of Pilate (Acts 3:13)” when even that gentile had decided to let him go.  You asked for a murderer instead of the “Holy and Righteous One.” Because you did not discern the time of your visitation, “you killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:14).”

“God raised HIM from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”

That proclamation is the two edged sword, the law and the gospel together. Because it forces a decision. Do you believe the testimony?  And that is ultimately what the narrative of the church is about to this day.  The church testifies to the resurrection.  “by faith in His name, he made this man strong (Acts 3:16).”  By faith in his name are all men made strong and able to stand.  “Repent, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out (Acts 3:19).”

That proclamation of Peter has two specific parts to those men of Israel.  “You acted in ignorance, as did your rulers, but God foretold [all of this] (Acts 3:17-18).” Part of the repentance, part of being able to stand, is to come out of your ignorance. God has given you everything necessary right there in his word, “everything to make you wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-17).”  We can’t trust our own discernment which would ask for a murderer over the Author of Life. But we can be made wise by the Word of God. We’ve been given glasses to correct our poor eyesight.

The second part of that proclamation is the one thing that has not yet happened.  “That he may send the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things. (Acts 3:21).” Today, Jesus is not raised to condemn you.  Today is not the day of vengeance or judgement.  Today is the day of grace. Today is the day we can correct our errors and believe. But the day is coming.  The day for which we have been warned by those same prophets.  The day when this narrative we live reaches its end.  The day when a new narrative starts and all things are restored.

Shakespeare’s plays had 5 acts. All the high drama took place in Acts 3 and 4.  But the effects of those acts took time to ripple out.  There was always an Act 5.  The Book of Acts is the start of Act 5.  We are all in act 5.  As the cosmic divine drama of passion and resurrection reaches to all eternity – Today, we are witnesses. Today is the day of grace when we are made to stand. Tomorrow is a new play.