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Bible Study Guide for Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

May 21, 2023

[Acts 1: 6-14,  1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11,  John 17:1-11,  Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36]

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Asked by the Apostles to Jesus just before his Ascension in the first chapter of Acts, this question—along with Peter’s exhortations in our Epistle from today’s readings—reminds me of a song recently released by the rock band, Florence + the Machine. The music video for the song (accessible at this YouTube Link), which is simply entitled, “Free,” stars the band’s lead singer, Florence Welch, as she sings about learning how to live with her anxiety (personified in the music video by the actor, Bill Nighy). In the song’s coda, Welch wonders: “Is this how it is? Is this how it’s always been? To exist in the face of suffering and death and somehow still keep singing? Oh like Christ up on a cross: who died for us? Who died for what? Oh, don’t you wanna call it off? But there’s nothing else that I know how to do but to open up my arms and give it all to you… ‘Cause I hear the music, I feel the beat, and for a moment when I’m dancing, I am free…” Welch and her crew filmed this video in Ukraine shortly before the war there broke out, and at this particular point in the song, the video finds her singing in front of a memorial commemorating a WWII-era crematorium in Kyiv.

Scholars of early Christianity generally agree that Jesus’s disciples, the first apostles, and the earliest Christians expected Jesus’s return at any time after they had witnessed the miracle of Easter. For the earliest Christians, the Resurrection had demonstrated that the Kingdom of God as described by today’s Psalmist had already arrived; as such, they expected the “Eschaton”—or the “Final Judgment” in which Christians believe Christ will return to restore creation to God’s intended justice after the Fall—to happen within their lifetimes. The Apostles’ question to Jesus in Acts 1:6—“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”—perhaps comes from this very specific sort of hope for creation’s restoration through Christ: Jesus is the Messiah; the Kingdom of God has been restored through his death and Resurrection; so… that’s
it, right? We can now expect an end to all suffering and death in our own time…right, Jesus? In other words, their question exposes how the meaning of the Ascension would have been as equally as baffling to the Apostles as it might still be for us today: “Oh like Christ up on a cross: who died for us? Who died for what?” With the Apostles, we also long for the final restoration of God’s creation in the here and now. Florence Welch’s prayer in front of a WWII Memorial in Kyiv serves as a poignant current reminder of this longing—with her and the Apostles before her, we might similarly wonder why such anxieties and atrocities persist in a post-Easter world.

How, then, does Jesus reply? Before his Ascension as recounted in v. 9, Jesus answers his Apostles with this statement: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you….” (Acts 1:7-8). Today’s lectionary pairs Jesus’s reply here with selections from his concluding prayer to the “Farewell Discourse” as recorded in John’s Gospel, which we’ve now been examining for several weeks: as we heard from Morgan’s sermon a few weeks ago, Jesus offers his remarks in this discourse (see Jn. 13-17) on Maundy Thursday, and seems to intend through it—among many other things—to encourage his disciples by assuring them they are united to the Father through him despite his coming absence in the flesh. “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them,” he prays, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:10-11).

Both of Jesus’s statements point us forward toward Pentecost without glossing over the very real pain of the present world. In our longing for freedom from all suffering throughout the world, Christ’s words here—both to his Disciples in the Farewell Discourse before his Crucifixion in John, as well as to his Apostles before his Ascension in Acts—assure us that we may have hope for such freedom, even in the here and now, through the gift of the Spirit—through whom we ourselves are “one with the Father.” Sans the Incarnate body of God on earth with us in the present moment, the gift of the Spirit is still always within us, even within every painful moment, through grace. In the Spirit, each and every human person can enjoy the union with God described by Jesus in John’s Farewell Discourse (see, for another example, Jn. 17:22-23).

In this, there is joy! In this does Peter, too, find a continued source of encouragement in today’s Epistle. His exhortation to “rejoice” in the face of suffering does not mean that we ought dismiss, explain away, or ignore the reality of our anxieties as we wait for the final restoration of all creation after the Ascension. The end of the music video for “Free” finds Florence Welch resting her head on the shoulder of her personified anxiety in the manner of acceptance, even as she finds freedom in her song. Peter certainly knew deep suffering, both personally as he bore witness to his friend’s crucifixion, and as a first-century Jew whose homeland had been occupied by a foreign imperial power, and whose people continued to thus suffer after the Ascension. Approaching today’s Epistle from the perspective of Peter’s experiences of tribulations can help us discern the Spirit’s comfort in his words: “Cast all your anxiety” upon God, he tells us, because God cares for us, so much that God has even sent us the “Spirit of glory” to rest within us alongside those very real—and absolutely justified—anxieties. In this do we “receive power” to “keep singing,” “keep dancing,” and be free even as they persist.

–Katie Wrisley Shelby


What sort of anxieties and pressures do you think the first Apostles and earliest Christians faced? How does thinking about these anxieties affect your reading of their questions and Jesus’s response to them in today’s texts?

What relationship do you think there is between the miracle of the Ascension and—anticipating next week’s readings—Pentecost?

Have you had an experience of the Spirit’s comfort in a time of anxiety that you’d be willing to share? What did that look like?


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