7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Day (June 1 • 2014)
‘Power from Above for Here Below’
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
1 Peter 4:12-19; 5:6-11
From its very inception, the church has always been called to live in the world, not to abandon it. In our reading today in Acts, Jesus’ ascension to heaven was not to become a reason for his disciples to search only for ‘heavenly’ things and ignore the ‘earthly’ things.
“It is not for you to know the time when the Kingdom of God will be established,” Jesus said to his disciples, “but be my witnesses from here to the edge of the world.” (Acts 1:7-8) In a similar vein, the angels stopped the disciples from searching for Jesus in the sky. “Stop looking towards heaven,” they said, “He who has just ascended to heaven will come back.” (Acts 1:11) In other words, the angels asked the disciples to bring their focus back here on earth where Christ would return.
The community who received the first letter of Peter was also aware that they lived in the time between Jesus’ ascension to heaven and the promise of his return. They lived in the time ‘in between’. Jesus would one day return; in the meantime, they were still in the world.
And the world they lived was a world full of pains and sufferings and disappointments. They still had to face all the challenges and tragedies that the world had threw at them. In the letter, the image of the devil as a roaring lion must have reminded the recipients of the letter of the real lions in the Roman arenas where many of their fellow Christians were indeed perished as food for the beasts. (1 Peter 5:8-9)
So, for these early Christians, the suffering that they faced was real. But, instead of ignoring it, or pretending as if their suffering had not been real, the author of the letter acknowledged it. “There was nothing strange with your suffering,” (1 Peter 4: 12) he said in his letter, “And you should not be ashamed when you suffer because of your faith.” (1 Peter 4:16) Their suffering was indeed the natural consequence of bearing the name, Christians, which meant “the adherents of Christ”. Indeed the apostles often called themselves as servants/slaves of Christ. By enduring the suffering, they shared in the suffering of Jesus, their Master, on the cross; and, by sharing the suffering of their Master, they too would share the power of God that strengthened and raised their Master from the dead.
So, yes, suffering is real, but so is the promise that God will be our strength. We are not left alone; we are left with the promise that God would be with us and guide us on our journey. In John’s Gospel, Jesus prayed to his Father to protect his disciples. In Acts, he promised his disciples that they would receive power from above when they were filled by the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8) This Holy Spirit is none other than Jesus’ own presence in our midst. Jesus may not be with us any longer physically, but he is with us in his Spirit.
And it was in Jesus’ Spirit that early missionaries, like Paul, found their strength to spread the Gospel in the known world. Paul’s strength was not his own. He expressed this clearly when he wrote in his letter to the Philippians (4:3) that he could do anything in Christ who strengthened him.
When Minerva Carcano was 11 years old, she found herself, together with her mother and her two younger brothers, in poverty. They lived in Texas at the time and, because of the poverty, they all had to work picking up cottons in a large cotton field, the largest cotton field in Texas in the eyes of an 11-year-old girl.
One day, as she was picking up cottons with her mother on her left hand side and her younger brothers on her right, she felt that both her body and her heart were heavily burdened. It was a grueling work. Her hands were bruised and cut, and her back was about to give up. But, most of all, she felt as if she was about to be ‘consumed’ by the cotton field and by the poverty she was in.
Unbeknown to her, her mother had finished her row of cottons and was picking up cottons on Minerva’s row. Slowly, her mother came towards her from the opposite direction, but she didn’t see her mother. She was too busy with her own work and too tired to look up. But she could feel and hear the rustle of the cotton plants. And, the moment she looked up, her mother was already in front of her. Her mother had picked up all the cottons on Minerva’s row and, as their eyes met, her mother said these sacred words from Paul, “We can do all things in Christ Jesus who strengthens us.”
Those words made Minerva felt as if her mother had literally lifted her, dusted her, covered her with her own body from the hot sun, and refreshed her with a glass of water. The words gave her the strength to help her younger brothers to finish their own row of cottons. As an adult, looking back to this experience, Minerva now understands what her mother did at the time: she shared the strength of Christ with her.
Friends, God is indeed bigger than all the problems in the world. “The sufferings,” said the author of the first letter of Peter, “are provisional and temporal; the grace of God, however, is for eternity.” (1 Peter 5: 10) We are to cast our eyes not to our problems, but to God.
The task that we have today is the same with the task that the early Christians had: to live in the world, not away from the world; to face the challenges in life with faith; to bear the name of Christ in the world; and to be ready to pay the price of bearing such a name. And if we share Jesus’ suffering in our life, than we too will share his power in our life; we too will experience the same grace from God that restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes our life. (1 Peter 5: 10).
· Parsons, Mikeal C., Commentary on Acts 1:6-14 (June 1, 2014), on http://workingpreacher.org
· Lewis, Karoline, Commentary on John 17:1-11 (June 1, 2014), on http://workingpreacher.org
· Boyce, James, Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 (June 1, 2014), on http://workingpreacher.org
 Zondervan’s Compact Bible Dictionary, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1993) p. 108