Sunday after Ascension

Collect

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, giver of love and power, your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of his kingdom: confirm us in this mission, and help us to live the good news we proclaim; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

First Reading

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Acts 16.16–34

Psalm

1    The Lord is king: let the earth rejoice;
let the multitude of the isles be glad.

2    Clouds and darkness are round about him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

3    Fire goes before him
and burns up his enemies on every side.

4    His lightnings lit up the world;
the earth saw it and trembled.

5    The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

6    The heavens declared his righteousness,
and all the peoples have seen his glory.

7    Confounded be all who worship carved images and delight in mere idols.
Bow down before him, all you gods.

8    Zion heard and was glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoiced,
because of your judgements, O Lord.

9    For you, Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.

10    The Lord loves those who hate evil;
he preserves the lives of his faithful and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

11    Light has sprung up for the righteous
and joy for the true of heart.

12    Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name.

Psalm 97

Epistle

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

Revelation 22.12–14, 16,17,20,21 12

Gospel

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

John 17.20–26

Sermon on Sunday after Ascension

‘These fellows are disturbing our city; they [are Jews and] are advocating customs that are not lawful for us [as Romans] to adopt or observe.’

“Lawful” – this is such a loaded word, isn’t it? What does this Greek word translated as “lawful” really mean? I would like to delve into the Greek Lexicon just a bit to start us on our way.

The first meaning of the word is “the ability to perform an action”. This is quite innocuous, isn’t it? But the word quickly takes on more significance as it is used mor and more. It transforms from ability  all the way to legality. You can see why it might accrue that sort of content. After all, if I am able to do something, I have permission to do something. I have the power to do something, don’t I? I have the ability to make something happen in some way or another.

However, the question “Just because I can, should I?” raises its head here, doesn’t it? It suggests that I have the permission to do something, and such authority can often be questioned. In other words, power and responsibility of action become entwined morally and it seems that such a combination is reflected in language. The Greek word begins with ability and ends up including rights.

In both the Greek and Jewish communities, the word is used with the connotation and denotation of “authority” and “permission” to do something. For the Greeks a right is granted by the courts and civil authority, in other words through civil law. For the Jews of Jesus’ time and the translators of the Greek OT – the Septuagint – God is the author of all permission, the giver of the Torah, God’s Law. So let’s read our verse again with these considerations in mind.

‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’

Haven’t we heard this sort of complaint before? Hasn’t it been said by people all over the globe when “a foreigner” to the community has spoken out about something important? The apostles are just those sort of people – they are disturbing the status quo, aren’t they? But why are they perplexing? Why do they advocate doing things that we don’t want to do – things we say are not customary and legal?

Just what is it that has caused all this commotion in our reading from Acts? The people who are complaining about the apostles are losing their income. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination and told fortunes was very lucrative for her owners. They made this slave tell the future for a price, and that money went straight into their pockets. That girl got nothing. No wonder they caused such a stink for Paul and Silas – and all because they loved money so much.

However, despite the exploitation of the poor slave-girl, she kept up her looking into the future. “A spirit of divination” – that is a rather odd phrase, isn’t it? What does it mean to be so gifted? From the story, we understand that she can look into the future in order to predict it. This is an obvious money spinner for anyone who wishes to make use of it – either by being in charge of the girl or taking a new course of action because of what has been revealed. The owners played on human vulnerability by allowing the girl to tell fortunes to people who would pay for a hint to the future.

But is this really what the spirit of divination is all about? The girl does not predict any future for the disciples as she follows them about and makes her declaration about the apostles. What does she say? ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, [they] proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ This is not predictive in the way we think of telling the future, is it? However, it is prophetic in the sense that the OT uses that word and in the sense that the Church uses it as well. It is a declaration of truth.

The slave-girl’s owners couldn’t make any money from that sort of a declaration, could they? No wonder they complained and took Paul and Silas to court. No wonder they accused them of such a fundamental wrong-doing! Their love of money got in the way for what is right. The spirit of divination, what I want to call prophecy, is not a money-spinner which everyone usually wants to have.

Prophecy is not fortune telling, is it? The girl showed this to be the case in her declarations about Paul and Silas. ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ The girl reveals to any who would listen just what these men were doing among them. They were there to “proclaim the way of salvation”, not to profiteer off some gift that another had. They were there to speak and teach for the benefit of others.

Who would listen to such a message? Aren’t there more important things in life, just like the owners of the slave-girl argued in the courts? Paul and Silas were acting contrary to the norms and morés of the crowd around them. They eschewed the motive of greed and exploitation which the owners of the slave-girl display.

This is not unlike what is happening in the world today. Some have been declaring that we need to take responsibility for everything we do. It could save the planet and our society, if only we were to follow their plan of action. In the Ukraine the West has been castigated because it has done nothing in the face of a war that had been expected. In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has been charged with irresponsibly because of a lack of leadership in the matter of the rule of law, laws that were drawn up for the sake of the nation’s health and safety. However, the law dictates the customs of the population and we see how that is working itself out in the news every day.

The prophets speak against the way the crowd thinks. The prophets want action pursued for the sake of what is right. – Don’t we all? Or do we only what what feathers our own nest? Will we act for the sake of the widow and the orphan? Or will I act only for myself? Will the law speak for the weak and disadvantaged, or only let the status quo stand?

These are the questions that the slaves of the Most High are asking in that Greek town two thousand years ago. These are, I think, the questions the slave-girl tried to raise when she acknowledged the preaching of the way of salvation after she lost that  ability to tell fortunes and she could no longer be exploited by selfishness.

Amen