Stewardship of Gifts: Lectionary Preview for May 2023, John, Acts, Peter, Year A
April 13, 2023 by Rev. Ivan Herman
There is a lot to celebrate and remember in the month of May. We continue with the Great Fifty Days of Easter for most of the month, mark the Ascension on Thursday, May 18, and finish off the month with the Day of Pentecost (also Memorial Day weekend in the U.S.A.).
The Revised Common Lectionary offers a few paths to follow through the month. Instead of a Hebrew scripture series for Eastertide, the lections include stories from Acts: the martyrdom of Stephen, Paul speaking at the Areopagus, the ascension of Jesus (more on that below), and the gift of the Spirit in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.
Gospel of John
The gospel readings follow what is often called the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in John 14-17 and Jesus’ resurrection appearance in John 20 as the Pentecost story. The fifth Sunday of Easter is sometimes considered “I AM Sunday,” connecting the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush to Jesus’ identity as the cosmic Christ who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” While the previous week’s imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a familiar warm-fuzzy, this week evokes more awe and grandeur at the magnitude of our invitation to join the journey with the Divine. The sixth Sunday of Easter recalls Jesus’ commandment to love, and that the gift of the Advocate will put this love to work in us. The seventh Sunday of Easter has a prayer of Jesus for his disciples for unity, a prayer that anticipates the gift celebrated on Pentecost. The final Sunday of May, the Day of Pentecost, returns us to the upper room with the disciples behind locked doors. The resurrected Jesus appears to them and breathes on them. This breath is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in that gift there is the animation of power for all people to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation.
Epistles: 1 Peter and 1 Cor. 12
The epistle readings spend the first three weeks of May walking through the letter of 1 Peter. This pathway offers several opportunities to consider the stewardship of our gifts. The inescapable reality of our human suffering highlights how healthy stewardship meets genuine need. 1 Peter invites followers to imitate Christ, even sharing in suffering for the good, as he did. The honest reality is that suffering continues even when God has already been victorious through resurrection.
Fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich offers the insight, “All we who shall be saved, for the period of this life, have in us a wondrous muddle of well and woe: we have in us our Lord Jesus arisen…” (Revelations, chapter 52). Suffering is not evidence of God’s judgment against us—quite the opposite! It is a sign of divine solidarity. On the seventh Sunday of Easter consider adding verses from 1 Peter 4:8-11 to the given readings that start with verse 12. This addition highlights how we are called to serve one another as stewards of the gifts that are given out of God’s manifold grace even amid our “wondrous muddle of well and woe.”
1 Peter 4:10 “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”
The epistle reading on Pentecost from 1 Corinthians 12 points to the gifts of the Spirit that are given for the common good. The unity in diversity of these gifts is reflected in the diversity of many members bound into one body through one Spirit. Stewardship of our diverse gifts is one of the responsibilities and joys of life in the Spirit.
Pentecost shares a history with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot or the Feast of Tabernacles, a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest. The abundance of the first harvest resonates with the abundance of the first gifts of the Spirit, and opens an opportunity to name the gifts we don’t consume, but do share.
The Ascension Through the Lens of Stewardship
The ascension is far more than a Jesus-is-the-OG-spy-balloon story, but most of us treat it that way and give it a wide berth. Maybe we are tempted to avoid it because we can’t explain the spatial or geographic logic of the action in the story. Maybe because it isn’t included in the four gospels it becomes an afterthought. When we do mention the ascension, it is inextricably tied to the resurrection—and it should be; however, it has its own distinct purpose. Even the early church rolled Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension all into one big Paschal celebration. Over time the celebration was spread to a week of weeks (7×7=49 days), and though we have more opportunities to address it, the ascension still seems to be hidden on always on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday. What are you up to on Thursday? There might be a deacon’s meeting where the daily scripture is read, and we wonder aloud if Jesus was taken up to heaven, where in the universe this heaven might be located? Or we might meet for a Thursday pub theology discussion about the already very real digital afterlife and how eternal life is (not) like being uploaded into the cloud (a vague Amazon Prime Video series ‘Upload’ reference).
If you don’t hold a service on Ascension Day, then consider focusing on the Acts 1 reading for the seventh Sunday of Easter to give the ascension the attention it deserves. The ascension is an opportunity to lift up these four distinct lessons seen through the lens of stewardship, paired here with verses from Brian Wren’s hymn, “Christ Is Alive!” #108 in The Presbyterian Hymnal. (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, #246, has the hymn as revised in 1995. While verse three below is no longer included, both hymn versions are appropriate for the seventh Sunday of Easter.)
The ascension signals the completion of God’s saving work in Christ. What God begins God is faithful to complete. This is an example of God’s faithful stewardship of time, intent, and God’s own self.
- Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
The ascension proclaims that the Risen One is no longer bound by time and space but gifted to every place and time. While there is value in making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, many people do so to walk where Jesus walked because they seek to feel closer to Jesus. The ascension, however, proclaims the truth that no matter our place or time, Christ is already near. To put in more mystical terms, the nonduality of the divine is intimately connected to us in every place for all time. As we are a resurrected people, we share our gifts so that others might know of Christ’s saving and healing that is not limited by borders or the walls we build around one another.
- Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
but saving, healing, here and now,
and touching every place and time.
The ascension assures us that the human experience has a permanent place in God’s heart. Just as God’s story became our human story in the incarnation, the ascension shows that our story is now God’s story, too. Scripture and the Apostle’s Creed proclaim that Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of God. The ascension shows God’s solidarity with humanity. Jesus, the Human One, not only sits at God’s right hand, but lives in the heart of God. Jesus is the steward of us with God, and of God with us.
- Not throned afar, remotely high
untouched, unmoved by human pains,
but daily in the midst of life,
our Savior in the Godhead reigns.
The ascension confirms human participation in the resurrection and is a foretaste of what is in store for all of creation. The resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus, but also happens to us, and we participate joyfully in this new life and new creation. We are stewards of God’s love in this new world. No longer is the gospel of love just good news for us, but the ascension reminds us that it is our responsibility to carry out Jesus’ commandment to love one another.
- Christ is alive, and comes to bring
good news to this and every age,
till earth and sky and ocean ring
with joy, with justice, love, and praise.
Rev. Ivan Herman has served as the associate pastor at Carmichael Presbyterian Church since 2009 and is active in the Presbytery of North Central California. He grew up in Ecuador and Colombia, and has previously served as pastor or ruling elder in Presbyterian congregations in Memphis, TN, Washington, DC, and San Antonio, TX. He holds an annual pass to U.S. National Parks as well as degrees from American University, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Wake Forest University. Ivan lives in Sacramento with his spouse, Susan, and their two children and might be found hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada foothills, around Lake Tahoe, or in Yosemite, just don’t look for him at the top of El Capitan.