This is the seventh Sunday of Easter: the final “of.” It is time to turn back to the one who is “chosen and precious,” except, as you’ll see, he turns it back to us. Even when talking about himself, his own glory, he turns back to us. It’s amazing, really. in this moment, you’d think he would be focused on himself. But even in the final moments on this earth, we’re the objects of his attention and his prayer.
We’ve chosen the Gospel text for this week, the last Sunday of Eastertide. However, some might choose to observe Ascension Day on this Sunday. The real Ascension Day is May 21 this year, the fortieth day of Easter. But since most United Methodist churches don’t have weekday services, except perhaps as alternate Sunday services, then Ascension Day gets moved to a Sunday – if it is observed at all. Ascension Day is a minor observance, at the best of times. It is part of the mystical element of Jesus, supernatural, hard to understand, hard to see how it applies to our lives. Except that it is a part of the Creed: “Ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of the Father.”
It is part of the story of the Christ. It might not be our story, but it is his. Except, he always turns it back to us. Always. So, you could choose the Ascension Day Gospel text, Luke 24:44-53, which is a retelling of the Ascension at the very end of Luke’s Gospel. There Jesus connects his story with ours as he recounts the purpose of his mission and ministry on earth. “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 his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:46-48). From there, he promises the Spirit to empower those who now were called to bring to fulfillment this promise, repentance and forgiveness to all nations.
There is certainly “plenty of meat on those bones,” as they say. But our recommendation is that instead you look at John’s Gospel. It would be possible for the Ascension to be a theme alongside the interpretation of that text (see Preaching Notes). But whether you choose Luke’s retelling or John’s preparation, the theme is glory. You could even argue that the two texts present the spectrum of glory of Christ. In Luke, we have the post-Resurrection appearance and commissioning before the Christ ascends to take his place at the right hand of God the Father. In John, we have the pre-Passion Jesus about to suffer and be killed for the sins of the world, and he prays for those called to follow. Both are ends of a crucial timeline, the scope of salvation.
This Sunday’s worship is about glorifying Christ, about acknowledging the depths he traversed in his mission and ministry to us, and about leaning into the heights he attained as the first born of all creation, part of the eternal God we experience/understand as Trinity. There should be celebration; there should be light and color and movement as we praise God for the glory of Christ that reflects on us and reflects through us.
And there should be prayer. Notice that Jesus talks about his glory not by talking to the disciples, but to God. He had a long discourse for the disciples, helping them understand what he was trying to do all the time he had been with them, and trying to prepare them for what was coming next. Now, in chapter 17, Jesus turns to God to pray. So, prayer should shape our worship this day. Offer prayers of thanksgiving for what Jesus has done through suffering and death and what God has done through the Resurrection. Offer prayer for the glorification of Jesus in the finishing of the work.
Then, like Jesus, our prayers go outward, including those who follow him and those who don’t yet know him. Offer prayers for the church as we seek to finish the work we have been given; offer prayers for the world that is the mission field in which we work – not simply as numbers, as bodies to collect, but as precious children of God, hurting and hungry, harassed and helpless, without a shepherd to follow.
Today, worship should begin and end in prayer; and there should be prayer throughout. Use directed, printed prayers that are read in unison, as though the church has a common voice to go with the common mission. Use prayers that are sung by the congregation together or by the choir or soloist as a way of giving us words to lean into, words to hold onto, words that dive deep into our souls the way music has the capacity to do. Let there be space for silence, for the prayers of the heart, for prayers without words, for sighs too deep for words, perhaps. Find ways to pray with your hands also. Try movement prayers, gestures that guide thoughts, or prayer stations where people can go and write or color or light candles so that the sight and sound and scent of prayer can fill the room. This is a day for praying.
The prayers are not prayers of desperation, though we may feel desperate. They are not prayers of hopelessness, though we have walked in those shadows and may be there still. These prayers are prayers of glory. They are prayers of thankfulness for the glory we have seen and the glory in which we share because we are followers of Jesus. These are prayers of those who know that when Jesus was on the brink of death, he still prayed for us, for his disciples, for those present and those to come. He prayed that they might be one with him and with one another.
Add prayers for unity. Those prayers are sorely needed today in our church and in our nation and in the world. They are prayers worth praying because he did.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.