Ascension Day, May 14, 2015

“When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive and He gave gifts to me.  He…ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  Ephesians 4:8-10

In Acts 1:1-3 it records that for the forty days between Resurrection Sunday and Ascension Thursday, Jesus Christ presented Himself alive with many infallible proofs, spent the time instructing His disciples concerning the Kingdom of God, and gave them final commands.  Of the day of Ascension, the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts offer the following details.  Matthew records that Jesus met His disciples on a mountain.  There He declared that all authority had been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and He commissioned them to go to all nations, baptizing and making disciples in His name.  He left them with the promise that He would be with them until the end of the age.  Mark declares that after He spoke, He was received up into heaen and sat down at the right hand of God, and that the apostles went about preaching the word in power with the Lord confirming their words with signs and wonders.  Luke indicates that He led them out as far as Bethany and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  In Acts he adds that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles in Jerusalem and that it would be the power that they required to be His witnesses.  As He was received up into the clouds, angels appeared to the apostles with the promise that just as Jesus had ascended into heaven, so He would return to the earth in the same manner.

This is an important day within the Paschal cycle.  When the Lord took upon Himself human flesh and ultimately went to His death on the cross, He humbled Himself as it says in Philippians 2:6-8, “although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”  Philippians 2:9 continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every other name…”  This supreme glorification of Christ took place in part when He ascended and sat down at the right hand of the Father in glory.  Daniel 7:13-14 may give us a glimpse of that moment.  “I was looking in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven, One like the Son of Man was coming.  And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him, and to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.”

Four major things were accomplished at the Ascension of Jesus.  First, Jesus entered into the glory that was rightfully His from all eternity (John 17:4-5 and Psalm 110:1-2).  Second, from heaven He sent forth the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15).  Third, as the Great High Priest He entered into the Holy of Holies not made with hands to make intercession for us (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:11-15, 24-28; and 10:19-22).  And lastly, He went into heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:1-4).  We commemorate Ascension Day by looking to the skies as the apostles did on that day and recalling His promises.  The day is intended to remind us, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:4-7, that Jesus is head over all things to His church, and that we, with him, have been seated in the heavenlies awaiting the culmination of the age and the inauguration of the everlasting Kingdom.  As we look to the heavens may our prayer always be, “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus Christ” (Revelation 22:20).

Lectionary Preaching

The word lectionary comes from a Latin word “lectio” meaning a reading or lesson.  It is nothing more than a systematized arrangement of the Old and New Testament scriptures into related lessons that are centered on a reading from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke), draw in related Old Testament and New Testament passages, and are keyed to the major works of God celebrated in the Church’s liturgical year.   It is not so much a preaching style as it is a method for choosing the lesson to be expounded or proclaimed.  So where did it come from?

Briefly, we can point to these key milestones in its development:

  • The Jewish synagogues used a multi-year series of readings to allow the Torah and selections from the prophets to be worked through in the first or second century before Jesus. It is likely these practices moved from the synagogues into the first home churches.
  • There is a writing called Comes Hieronymi, attributed to St. Jerome (4th century A.D.) in which Jerome is reported to have prepared, at the request of the Roman bishop, guidance for the public reading of the scripture. This document appears to have been the precursor of our modern lectionary.
  • An ordered, cyclical list for the reading of scriptures (only a gospel and epistle reading) during public worship was formalized by Pope Pius V in 1570 after the Council of Trent. During the Reformation the legitimacy or structure of the lectionary was never disputed; the only question was how to use it in the reformed congregations.
  • This lectionary was expanded to include selections from the Old Testament and Psalms by the Vatican II Council, and was published for use in 1969.
  • Finally, a Revised Common Lectionary was compiled by 20 denominational affiliations (including Roman Catholic and Protestant) and published in 1992 for use by the Church at large.

So much for history.  The real question is not what the lectionary is, or where it came from, but what use does it have in the Church?  To answer that let me give you just a few of many reasons why I have always been a lectionary preacher.

  • Having a common set of readings used for public worship adds a very practical and visible aspect to the unity of the Church in the world. Knowing that throughout the world other brothers and sisters are hearing the same words proclaimed can make us aware that we are part of something bigger than our small congregation.
  • The lectionary is keyed to the work of salvation that God has done for us and that we celebrate throughout the year (from Christmas to Resurrection, through the Ascension and Pentecost, and on to Thanksgiving). This is the “old, old story of Jesus and His love”, and we need to hear it repeated often, completely, and with passion.
  • The lectionary forces a minister to focus on preaching the word, not teaching the word. To do this he must first make the word his in a very real way, not just seek to understand its meaning or context.  The best definition of the difference between the two that I have come across goes like this  “Preaching  is trying to affect a person’s thinking by appealing to a person’s heart; teaching is trying to affect a person’s heart by appealing to their thinking.”  Although both can be done on any Sunday, it is preaching that is most effective for a general mixed congregation in need of hearing the “good news”.
  • Related to this, the use of a standard lectionary lets the whole church from the music ministry to the prayer leader to the children’s church helper know what the theme for Sunday will be. This unifies the entire Sunday experience of the congregation.  As one commentator puts it, in this way the scriptures belong to the church, not the preacher alone.  The lectionary strengthens the coming together of the church in one common vision and direction.
  • But most importantly, the lectionary revolves around Jesus; as Luke said it, it contains “All that Jesus began to do and teach…” (Acts 1:1). It is ultimately coming to know the Son of God and receiving that which He has done on our behalf that saves us, not having a full and accurate understanding of the ins and outs of a scriptural passage.

In closing, one of the best examples of lectionary preaching is found in Luke 4:16-21, when Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth, was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, read the passage and then simply expounded it in a clear and contemporary manner.  The words on the scroll were made relevant, pertinent, and timely in the hearing of the congregation.