The feast of the Ascension commemorates the risen Jesus’ departure from earth and his exaltation to his heavenly Father. Pentecost Sunday celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and their associates and the beginning of the Christian mission to the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, the questions raised and answered by the Scripture readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter include the following: How can the movement begun by the earthly Jesus continue without his physical presence? How can his followers carry on in his absence? What will keep them together and allow them to survive and even flourish?
The reading from Acts 1 describes how the inner circle of Jesus’ followers made up of the Twelve Apostles was reconstituted after the defection and death of Judas. Very likely an early feature of the movement begun by Jesus, the group of Twelve Apostles evoked the symbolism of the 12-tribe confederacy of ancient Israel and suggested both the new movement’s continuity with the biblical people of God and its claim to embody the faithful remnant within God’s people. The apostles determined that they should be 12 again, nominated two likely candidates and chose Matthias by lot. The use of lots suggests that the Holy Spirit really made the choice. The Twelve Apostles once more represented the 12 tribes of Israel and were ready to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The passage from John 17 is part of what is often called the high priestly prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper. It is more accurately described as the prayer of the Son of God, since in it Jesus prays as God’s Son in turn for himself, for his disciples and for those who will come to believe through them. In today’s selection Jesus prays that his heavenly Father might protect his disciples, make them holy and empower them to carry on his mission.
This prayer is part of Jesus’ farewell discourses in John 13–17, in which the main topic is how the disciples might carry on the movement begun by Jesus. Christians in the 21st century can learn some important lessons about the ideal nature of the church from that long speech. The church of Jesus Christ must be a community of faith made up of persons who trust in God as a loving parent and believe in Jesus as the revealer and revelation of God. It must be a community of holiness that reflects the holiness of God as the Holy One and of Jesus. It must incarnate in its members a perfect unity with God and with one another. It must be open to leadership by the Holy Spirit—that is, instructed, guided and protected by the Paraclete/Holy Spirit, who stands in place of the earthly Jesus.
It must also be a community of mission. As the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to humankind, so Jesus sends his followers into the world to share what they believe and to make possible a new way of relating to God and to one another. And it must be a community of love made up of persons who genuinely care about others, willingly put aside their selfish desires and even subordinate themselves for the good of others. Faith, holiness, unity, the Holy Spirit, mission and love are the fundamental values of the movement begun by Jesus and the principal means by which that movement can continue and flourish.
Love is basic to the church’s life. Today’s reading from 1 John 4 goes so far as to assert that “God is love.” That elusive word love means going out to others, wishing and working for their good and happiness and staying with them in their times of distress and unhappiness. By creating, redeeming and caring for us, God has proved his love for us and revealed himself to be love itself.
Having been loved by God, we can remain, or abide, in love. Think of love as the air we breathe. It is all around us, giving us life and sustaining us. Christian life is abiding in God’s love. The Johannine text goes on to say that “whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” Not only do we abide in God but God abides in us, especially when we love one another. So powerful is love that in love God is present to us and we are present to God.
The apostles and other early followers of Jesus found it hard to imagine how their movement could continue without the presence of the earthly Jesus. But according to John 16:7, the departing Jesus reassured them and us that “it is better for you that I go.” He left them and us the means by which his movement might continue and even flourish. And “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).