Today, this 7th and last Sunday of the season of Easter is the in-between Sunday. The Sunday between the Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost. Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended to His majestic glory at the right hand of the Father and disappeared from sight until the Last Day. Fifty days after the resurrection comes Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Today is part of the days in-between. We also live in the time in-between, between Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, and His appearing in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. It’s called the last days, the end times, the “1000 year” sabbatical rest of the old creation. The resurrection was already the dawn of the new; now we await the full blown day of eternal life.
The in-between times call for faith, trust in the promises of God in Christ. They are not times of seeing but hearing and believing. In fact, there isn’t much to look at – water, words, bread, wine, church, ministry. Nothing fancy, nothing to suggest power and glory, but simply humble, earthy means by which the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord is present with us and deals with us.
The in-between time calls for patient endurance, rejoicing in suffering, sober watchfulness, faithfulness, and prayer. It is the time of the Church, the assembly of God’s chosen people who are called to a specific purpose – to declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. We are given to be God’s royal priesthood, His holy nation, His chosen people, His end times Israel.
How does the Church survive in the time in-between? What will sustain us as the people of God? What hope does the Church have as we approach the Last Day, as aposticy increases, as the old creation accelerates to its death, as society comes unraveled and those who have put their hope in this life are driven to despair? How will the Church survive?
Todays’ three readings give some warnings and some comforts to Christians living in the time in-between. We have the unholy trinity to contend with: the devil, the world, an our own sinful, Adamic selves.
Peter reminds the newly baptized Christians he is addressing that their lives have just become more dangerous and complicated for them. They can expect persecution and suffering for the name of Jesus, and they shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. Jesus Himself said so. “The world will hate you because of me, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” They can expect to be insulted for the name of Christ, but they should count themselves blessed, as Jesus said, ““Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Peter says simply, “the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
Now this is suffering for being a Christian, not the suffering that comes to us from our sin. That’s another matter. That’s a good suffering too, because it is the refining fire of God at work. And don’t think the Lord doesn’t judge His Church. In fact, “judgment begins with the household of God.” Just as He did with OT Israel, God makes an example out of His Church, showing mercy to the faithful remnant, showing His wrath on those who reject His gifts. And if judgment begins with God’s baptized believers, how will it go on with those who refuse to believe?
We have our sinful flesh, that prideful egotistical old Adam in us that gets in the way, that causes us all manner of shame and vice. We think we’re high and mighty, we don’t need to be picked up, we can pull ourselves up. ‘Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God,” says Peter. Humility is the way of faith, the way of Jesus who is humble and lowly of heart. Humble yourselves, and God will lift you up and exalt you, as He already has in Christ. But exalt yourself, and you will be toppled from your throne.
We have the devil, prowling around like a hungry lion looking for his next meal. Jesus defeated him by His own death and resurrection. He’s judged the deed is done. Yet he stalks around looking for the weak, isolated Christian, tempting to doubt and disbelief, enticing you with Religion and all they ways we invent to try to bribe God. “Resist him,” Peter says. The devil is resistible in the same way that Jesus resisted the devil – by the Word of God. “Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” Know what you believe and stand firm in it.
There is grace under the pressure of persecution and temptation. “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” God doesn’t leave His church in the clutches of persecution. He doesn’t abandon His baptized believers to suffering and temptation. As a good shepherd sets sheep who have fallen over back on their feet again, our Lord restores those who are down, He confirms us in the faith, He strengthens us in our weakness, He establishes us in Himself.
Remember that and cling to it when you are suffering for the faith, insulted for being a Christian, when you are beset by the devil or tried by your own sinful flesh, the Lord will lift you up and sustain you.
He provides the means – the Word preached and heard. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s side-kick and one of the architects of the Reformation once noted that without the Word the Church will die. The Church is born of the Word and is sustained by hearing the Word. This is why Melanchthon argued so forcefully in the Confessions that the churches have an inalienable right to preachers, and no one, not even someone in high church office, may deny a congregation a pastor to preach the Word.
In the in-between time between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, a pastoral vacancy was filled. Jesus had just disappeared after sending and blessing His disciples. Peter and the others returned to Jersualem, and Peter took the head count. Eleven. One short of a Twelve. Judas was gone. He had betrayed Christ, vacated his office, and killed himself. His place had to be taken by another. But what were they supposed to do? Jesus was nowhere to be seen now. Jesus had appointed them as apostles. How were they supposed to fill this vacancy without a visible Jesus around to help them?
The Book of Acts is the traditionally called “the acts of the apostles” though it is really the acts of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord Jesus through HIs apostles and His Church. It’s interesting. The very first act of the ascended Lord Jesus, the Jesus you cannot now see though He is still very much here, is to call and ordain someone to fill the vacancy left by Judas. Even before Pentecost, where the ascended Lord Jesus breathes out His Spirit over His Church, He is active giving His gifts of prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastor-teachers.
The narrowed the field to two eyewitnesses who had been with them from the beginning – Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. They prayed to the Lord whom they could no longer see but trusted His words that He would be with them and hear their prayers. And then they drew lots, flipped a coin as it were, and the lot fell to Matthias, and the apostolic vacancy was filled. The ascended Lord had acted, providing the twelfth apostle to His Church. The Church may never be without her ministers.
The Lord also prays for His Church. In our Gospel reading we heard the first part of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the prayer He prayed at the table where He gave them His body and blood, His eucharistic prayer. He prayed that He would be glorified – in His death, His resurrection, His ascension. He prayed for HIs apostles, that they would be kept in the Name in which they would baptized and teach. And He prayed for all who would believe through their word which was His Word. He prays for you and me, for His Church. He prays for our unity, that we be one. He prays that we would see His glory. He prays that the love of the Father for the Son might also be in you.
This is the prayer that sustains us. This is the apostolic Word that restores and keeps us. This is the apostolic ministry that restores, confirms, strengthens, and establishes the you and the whole Church and keeps it in Christ by the Holy Spirit in this in-between time between Jesus’ ascension and His reappearing in glory on the Last Day.
To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.