By Elaine Ramshaw
RCL Reflection for the Seventh
Sunday of Easter, Year A
Click here for the readings
May 21, 2021
The story of Jesus’ ascension in today’s first reading matches Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel for “those whom [God] gave him,” those who remain in the world after Jesus comes to the Father. In preaching on these readings, it is crucial not to make people feel the absence of Jesus. Jesus remains deeply involved in this world and deeply connected with us — a connection represented in these two readings by prayer: the followers who have seen Jesus ascend are constantly praying, and Jesus who anticipates coming to the Father praying for them.
The psalm was chosen for this day because depicts God riding upon the clouds, an image echoed in the cloud that receives the ascending Jesus. While the psalmist uses this age-old image of transcendence — God being high in the sky, above the clouds, “rider in the heavens” — at the same time, the psalm describes God as very much involved in what is happening on the ground, on the earth. Protecting the most vulnerable, the orphans and the widows. Making a home for the desolate, delivering prisoners, caring for the flock. Sending rain in abundance to make the land flourish. God may ride the clouds, yet God is very much about the nitty-gritty of human society and the health of the land, the poor who need empowerment and the topsoil that needs rain. God is high above, one might say, in order to be down low.
Jesus prays to God, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” While the readings from Acts, 1 Peter and John today do not say anything explicit about the work God has given us to do, we know from elsewhere in John and in the New Testament that the work is love, and that that love is care for the orphans and widows, the vulnerable and desolate, the prisoners, and, yes, the land we are turning into desert and wilderness. God is high above the clouds, Jesus is high above the clouds, in order to be down low.
The false gods we imagine and too often worship — fame and money and power and status — are high above the muck of our lives; so high that we wouldn’t have to care about the needs of a vulnerable planet and vulnerable people. The God who sent Jesus is higher still, high in the sense of surrounding and pervading all that is, as the spiritual says: “so high you can’t get over him, so wide you can’t get around him, so low you can’t get under him.”
What drives us to the false gods, the gods who are high above earthly cares, is our own anxiety. The letter of Peter tells us to cast all our anxiety on God who cares so deeply for us, who is so deeply present. No longer captive to anxiety, we are free to stop clutching money or longing for status, free to open our hands and hearts to the cares of those around us and those far away.
The work God has given us to do is stewardship, care for the vulnerable people, empowerment of the powerless, stewardship of the vulnerable land. Anxiety keeps us from this work. When we put our anxiety in God’s hands, we can be where Jesus is, so high he can be with the lowest and the least.
Two hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship speak directly to the truth that Christ has not gone far away from us, but rather is very much with us here, on this earth we are called to take care of. In “Gather Us In” ELW 532, the last verse says, “not in some heaven, light years away—here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day.” Christ is not removed from earth in a heaven far away; Christ is here, now, calling us “to be light to the whole human race” (verse 2), “to be salt for the earth” (verse 3). In “Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing” ELW 389, the second verse says: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching ev’ry place and time.” Both these hymns counter the naïve reading that Jesus by ascending has gone away. Rather, he is able to be more present, touching every place, and calling and freeing us to live for all (verse 5).
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a book for children worried about starting school; the mother kisses the child’s palm so he can take the mother’s love with him. He is told he can press his hand to his cheek and think, “Mommy loves you,” because the kiss is still there. You might use this story to talk about the ways we know that Jesus is still with us, even though we don’t see him next to us the way the people did before he went to God. When we make the sign of the cross with water on our forehead, the way it was made when we were baptized, we know Jesus is with us. When Jesus feeds us at his table, we know he is still here. Ask the kids, how do we live differently because we know Jesus is with us and cares for us?
In today’s psalm, God rides on the clouds but is still very much involved in what happens on the earth, protecting the poor and the vulnerable and sending rain to the thirsty ground. Often in church we talk as though God cares only about humans and works only through humans. Yet God often interacts directly with the non-human natural world. Explore what connections the teens see between caring for vulnerable people and caring for the earth. What connections do they see between the mistreatment of people and the mistreatment of the earth? They could do a search for the term “environmental justice” to get some ideas. How does pollution affect poor and marginalized people, in contrast to how it affects people with more money and power? Think of the city water in Flint, Michigan. What are we called to do as Christians, to care for the earth along with caring for people?
Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.