The First Lesson: Acts (16:16-34)
[With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi of Macedonia, a Roman colony, and] 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 marketplace 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. Then 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.
The Response: Psalm 67
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 foundations of his throne.
3 A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.
5 The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.
7 Confounded be all who worship carved images
and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.
8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O Lord.
9 For you are the Lord, 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 saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.
The Epistle: Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)
“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.
The Gospel: John (17:20-26)
[Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said,] “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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
If you had entered one of our churches on this Sunday some 40 or so years ago, you would have seen that the Paschal candle, the Easter candle, was no longer burning. The custom at that time was to extinguish it after the readings on the feast of the Ascension, which was celebrated this past Thursday. Extinguishing the candle was viewed as a sign that the risen Jesus was no longer physically present with his disciples. Now, we keep it burning up through next Sunday’s feast of Pentecost, emphasizing the integrity of the entire Easter season and the fact that the story and the celebration of Easter are not complete until we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
The liturgy for Ascension Day includes the account, from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, of Jesus being taken up to heaven. That passage describes how, “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The disciples are left alone, speechless, standing there looking up into the sky, their mouths hanging open, wondering, suddenly and probably in panic, “So, he’s gone, what in the world do we do now?”
That, in a sense, is where we find ourselves at this time in the church’s year, during these nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Come to think of it, that might be where we live our entire lives. We have celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and sung many joy-filled hymns about the new life that we share in him. Now we are faced with the question of what we are going to do with that life, what real difference it is going to make in our day-by-day existence.
For some people, the notion of “being a Christian” seems to be no more than a matter of words; it has little or no impact on the way they live their lives. For others, for those living at the opposite pole, their faith informs every choice that they make in life. Most of us seem to live somewhere in-between the two.
Essentially, what we actually do about our claim to be a Christian, how we actually live our faith, seems to come down to a matter of cost. What is it going to cost us to live as a Christian? How much is it going to change what we choose to do with our lives? How much time is it going to take away from whatever else we might be inclined to do? How much money is it going to take: money that we could be spending on other things? In what ways is it going to set us at odds with the values and the choices and the actions of those around us?
These questions highlight the fundamental issue that faces everybody who supposedly aspires to any worthwhile set of values: how important are those values to you really? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to be true to those values?
That was the situation faced by the people in Philippi at the time of today’s first reading. Paul and his companions had arrived in the city and had begun teaching that God in Jesus was at work in the world setting people free. That would have come across as a message that was general enough and non-threatening enough that nobody seemed to mind, one that just about anybody could live with.
But then came the incident that we heard about this morning. Paul set a young woman free from a so-called “spirit of divination” that had dominated and controlled her life. We would probably have described it as a form of mental illness. Healing her, setting her free from her affliction, would probably have been accepted as an OK, if not praiseworthy, thing to do – except for the fact that her owners, her managers or handlers, were now going to lose out on the profit that they had been making from her suffering. Their reaction was swift and harsh, and all too familiar. It was essentially: “We don’t have anything against religion or against Jews like these men, but this is going to cost us money! That’s taking religion too far!”
As regards our religion, our life of faith, how far is too far? What are the limits that we place on the practice of our faith? What cost are we willing to bear?
As Christians, we say that we place our emphasis on serving the needs of others, of those who are not as fortunate as we are. But are we willing to pay more taxes to provide food for hungry school children or to provide decent housing for low income seniors? Are we willing to give up some of the things that we might like to have and donate that money instead to organizations that help the disabled, that provide counseling to returning veterans suffering from the traumas of war, or that help to care for refugees who are desperate for a new home and a new life? Are we willing to pay higher prices at the store so that those who produce our food and make our clothes can earn enough to support their families in the same way that we want to support our own families? How much are we willing to pay? What cost are we willing to bear?
And what about the cost of our time and talent? Are we willing to give up some extra sleep on a day off, or time enjoying our favorite hobby, or watching our favorite TV show in order to talk with or visit someone who is largely confined to his or her home, to volunteer to work with others in cleaning up and caring for our community and its environment, to raise additional funds for an organization serving those with special needs, to support efforts to feed the hungry or clothe and educate those in need? How much, in a sense of our time and efforts, are we willing to pay? What cost are we willing to bear?
As the old saying has it, talk is cheap. Or as Jesus put it (Mt. 7:21), “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
At times, we who profess our faith in Jesus seem intent on trying to get away with an easy faith, one that never requires us to do much of anything. It’s what the great 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” he wrote (The Cost of Discipleship), ”is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian in truth and not just in words, is a costly thing, in all the different meanings of that word. Ultimately, it costs us our life. As a seminary professor of mine used to remind us, “Grace is free, but it’s never cheap.”