A few notes:
1. This was first preached on May 27, 2001 at Summit UMC in Middletown. The (updated/edited) version below was preached on May 20, 2012 at WesleyUMC
2. I cannot figure out how to get blogger to accept footnotes. If you want the footnoted version, please contact me. For editorial integrity, please know that this draws from three books. Two are by the same author: Trinity and Kingdom, and The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann. The third is Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther
3. I wrote this at a time when I preached from a manuscript; I now use outline notes.
Ascension Sunday/Easter 7
This morning is the seventh Sunday of Easter the seventh Sunday of our celebration of the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
If you have ever wondered why the Easter Season is called “The Great 50 Days, ” it is based on a Jewish festival of fifty days that began with the opening of the harvest season two days after Passover and continued until what came to be called Pentecost.
The number seven is highly regarded by Jews, and indicates fullness. On the seventh day of creation, God celebrated the fullness of creation. The number seven came to be known as a week; and if seven is a good number,
then seven squared- forty nine- is even better. So a 49 day period is a “week of weeks,” and as one seventh of the week is holy, so one seventh of the year is held in special regard.
Fifty also has sacred meaning. In Leviticus 25, the 50th year was the year of the Jubilee. This was to be a year of liberation and debt forgiveness, overthrowing business as usual. So the number fifty points to the renewing of Creation, and Christ’s coming return and restoration
Thus it makes sense that forty nine days of festival with a fiftieth day that represents newness and rejoicing
make up the Easter Season.
This morning is officially called “Ascension Sunday” for reasons that are probably clear, now that we have heard the scripture for this morning. We have just heard the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
This mornings’ scripture also contains Luke’s version of the commission to the disciples. In each of the gospels there are actually last words by Jesus to the Disciples, where Jesus commissions the disciples for ministry.
Matthew’s version beginning in 28:18 is the most widely recognized commission.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always,even to the end of the age”
We have heard John’s version from 20:21“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Mark says in 16:15 “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned."
This morning, we hear Luke’s version in 24:46:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in h is name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
This is Luke’s version of Jesus’ final commission to the Disciples. Notice that it is rooted in the Jewish scriptures. It begins with the words “Thus it is written…” referring to the Jewish scriptures as a way of saying ‘This is what God has been up to for a very long time…’
The message is familiar: Christ has suffered, died, and been raised to give us the gift of repentance and forgiveness of sins. It is this message that is to go to all nations.
The early church struggled in both of these areas almost immediately. They struggle to embrace belief in a Messiah (a Savior) who suffers and dies, because this meant showing weakness by the world’s standards. They also struggled to embrace all nations, initially having a hard time welcoming non-Jews without distinction, and struggling to welcome people from all classes of society.
We see evidence of both struggles other places in scripture…In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul defended the message of the cross, saying “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
Continuing in verse 22 Paul goes on "For Jews demand signs and Gentiles desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”
We see evidence of the early church struggle to welcome non-Jews in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, called the Jerusalem Conference. Jewish food laws were hotly debated. And in 1 Corinthians as well as James, believers were encouraged to welcome all people, including the poor… to treat all people well.
If you have ever spent time looking forward to a time when the church will not be divided by controversy, I encourage you to maintain that hope in the context of Jesus’ return. Because the church as we know it has always had points of controversy and disagreement.
We may consider food laws arcane; but consider how difficult a debate this was for the early church. Imagine that for your entire life, you were taught practiced a very important, daily way of honoring God by observing food laws, and practicing circumcision. Now imagine that this daily practice is declared unnecessary. Conversely, imagine that you have no experience with food laws and circumcision, and you have an experience of the Holy Spirit, and the saving power of Christ. How might you react to food laws and circumcision?
Ultimately, the controversy was settled in Paul’s favor (over Peter). Orthodox Christian practice holds to the doctrine that since Christ has fulfilled the law, food laws and circumcision are not necessary for salvation.
Today, with Jesus’ words ringing in our ears,we continue to face the same struggle: to proclaim a Savior who suffers and dies in order to accomplish God’s will, and to welcome all people in without distinguishing between them.
These are two foundational beliefs in the Christian faith.
So now that we have a clearer understanding of Jesus’ commission in Luke, let’s focus upon the crucifixion
and resurrection, since this is what we celebrate this Easter Season.
What are the implications of believing that our Savior has been crucified? Certainly it means that we must be willing to appear foolish to the world. We all know people who think that religion is just some human invention that people make up to deal with the difficult parts of life. I used to be one of those people.
Not only do we believe in God- we believe in a God who is willingly weak and vulnerable – in order that the world might be saved. This is different from the world’s belief in power and might as the safest and best path forward. And who hasn’t had an experience of wishing God would act more powerfully in the world, and set things “right” according to our judgments?
Another implication of believing that our Lord and Savior has suffered, died, and been raised, is that we are able to wrestle with an important question in a meaningful way. The question of suffering is a question that has existed since time began. The crucifixion and resurrection help us to engage this question.
The fancy word for this question is “theodicy.”
There is a theologian named Jurgen Moltmann who has devoted his life to the theodicy question. This stems from his personal experience as a German soldier in WWII.
In a book called The Trinity and the Kingdom he writes this about theodicy, the question of suffering:
“It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation”
Questioning human suffering leads us to the cross of Christ, where God suffered. It is on the cross, that the Father and Son are most deeply separated. And so it is here that God experiences suffering.
At the same time, the Father and the Son are most inwardly one in their surrender.
As a result of the crucifixion, the Holy Spirit, who comforts and saves all of us who suffer. Because God is intimately familiar with suffering, God is able to fill us with God’s love…. love so strong that it can even make the dead live.
Thus it is our God who suffers, who can offer us hope and new life even in the face of suffering and injustice.
It is the God who knows our suffering completely; who has been crucified for the sin of the world, and who has been raised from the dead. It is THIS God who offers us the hope and the strength to make it possible for us to go on living with the open wound of suffering in the world.
God IS love- completely and totally. We know this is true because God takes upon himself the grief and pain that flow from the contradictions to life. God does not angrily suppress the contradictions. Rather, God willingly allows himself to be forced out God suffers on the cross of Christ, and allows himself to be crucified, showing God’s unconditional love. This love is filled with hope, because we know through the resurrection that suffering is never the final word.
Real love is free. Love cannot be forced to exist. Real love cannot be a requirement. Choice must be allowed. Therefore, love cannot prohibit the things that cause suffering.
Think about it: if you knew that your spouse, or someone else in your life whom you love, was hard wired to love you. If they were incapable of doing anything else, would it feel like real love? Real love requires the freedom to choose.
This is the closest we come to an explanation for suffering: that to eliminate suffering, freedom and love would also cease exist.
However, that is not a complete answer to our question. Honestly, there is no complete answer that is revealed to us at this time. It is one of the most difficult mysteries and contradictions of life.
What Love CAN do, is to take suffering upon itself- and take on the grief over this contradiction using the grief as a protest against suffering…This is what happened on the cross of Christ.
Suffering is a part of the human condition. Suffering does not come from God, but rather is part of our world, broken by sin and evil. God cares so deeply about our sufferings, that God himself has suffered for us, giving us hope through the resurrection, and giving us the gift of knowing how intimately God is familiar with our suffering.
I was at a luncheon several years ago, where a man was sharing with us about a difficult time in his life. As he recalled those years, he talked about one man who really, truly understood what he was going through. And so they talked about it.
He related this story with tears in his eyes, as he said “you know what? I’m here to tell you that you can go through HELL as long as somebody else understands….”
Our God understands. God knows what it is to suffer, and God offers us hope through the resurrection, with the promise that one day, all things will be made whole and new.
And in this in between time, we know that our God loves us suffers with us. We also know that we are called to suffer with our brothers and sisters. Paul talks about this in Galatians when he tells us that we are to
“bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”
It is when we listen compassionately to one another, we are able to bear one another’s burdens. It is when we willingly enter into pain and the grief with a sister or brother in Christ that we are able to take another’s burden upon ourselves. And it is in this way that the burden becomes bearable.
In her book Holy Listening (29-30) Margaret Guenther says that after a day of listening she feels “heavy and very tired, with queasy stomach and aching head. It helped me to understand my somatic reactions when I remembered novelist-theologian Charles Williams and his theory of “exchange” and “substituted love.”
She quotes this writer, who said: “St. Paul’s injunction is to such acts as to ‘fulfil the law of Christ,’ that is, to acts of substitution. To take over the grief or the fear or the anxiety of another is precisely that; and precisely that is less practiced than praised.”
The one who gives has to remember that he has parted with this burden, that it is being carried by another, that his part is to believe that and to be at peace. The one who takes has to set himself – mind and emotion and sensation- to the burden, to know it, to imagine it, receive it- and sometimes not be taken aback by the swiftness of the divine grace and the lightness of the burden”
So we are to rejoice and to suffer with others- to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ- because it is in this way that we experience God. It is in this way that we are in relationship with God. In the suffering and death of Christ, and in his resurrection, we find hope in the midst of Godforsaken circumstances because we have the promise of the world’s never dying salvation and renewal.
This morning, I invite you to consider how it is that you experience God in the midst of suffering I invite you to consider how you are being called into relationship with the God who is intimately familiar with all suffering and into relationship with fellow Christians.
Suffering is perhaps the greatest mystery. There are no easy answers to these questions. What we have, though, is even greater- God’s awesome, ever present love- and hope through the resurrection- Amen.