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After Easter

A Series for Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday—and Beyond

The liturgical church year and the “programmatic” church year often feel most at odds in the weeks when we celebrate Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. In the midst of children’s and family ministries winding down for the season and church staff and worship leaders beginning to sigh with relief after the holy (and blessed) busyness of the Easter season, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of these important Sundays of the church year and the unique opportunities for teaching and worship they afford.

Additionally, these days hold big theological themes. It’s easy for us to get lost in amazement, wonder, and confusion instead of finding ways to make these themes relevant to our own lives and for the whole world.

This series of services looks for links between the celebrations of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday and then continues with two more weeks of reflection on the implications for us individually and globally. Included are some thoughts to start your worship planning. If you’d like to incorporate interactive prayer stations into your worship, see the companion article on page 9. These are not fully fleshed-out service plans, but I hope they provide inspiration for how to progress thematically through worship in a way that is authentic to your worshiping community.

The classic Christian pattern of worship tells a story: moving from approach and praise through confession, assurance, the Word, and on to response and sending. That, of course, is the overarching narrative of the gospel. But thematic worship services give us the opportunity to tell a nuanced version of that narrative. And so, for example, the story of the ascension can take us from the disciples’ wonder at Jesus’ glory as he rises to the heavens, to their confusion as they contemplate what’s next, and on to the angels’ reminder that they must remember Jesus’ command to go out rather than stand around with their mouths hanging open.

I’ve also recommended a historic Christian prayer for each week, and brief biographies of the prayers’ authors are included in sidebars. The function of each of these prayers is different: some offer reassurance, some are calls to a specific response. If you choose to use them, place them at an appropriate point in the worship service.

Ascension Sunday

Texts

Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23

Sermon and Worship Notes

What does the ascension of Christ mean? It’s one of the more confounding questions of Christian theology. If the risen Christ is no longer physically present on earth, where is he? Does the ascension diminish Christ’s power or magnify it? Have the original disciples, and we as their spiritual heirs, lost contact with him, or are we somehow closer to a Christ who is present but not physically contained?

We can get so caught up in the intricacies of the theology of the ascension that we miss an essential thread of those questions: just as the disciples stood on that hill wondering what to do next, we too wonder what the ascension actually means for Christian living. A sermon that only teaches theological intricacies misses the point that the ascension changes our lives. God’s presence in our lives is not limited to contact with a physical person, but with the ever-present Spirit. As disciples, we are witnesses; as Christ’s body in the world, filled with the Spirit, we are participants in God’s presence in the world.

Worship focused on the ascension could move from the praise for the ascension’s cosmic significance (Christ is exalted and reigns over all creation) to our confusion over what to do next to reassurance of Christ’s continued presence with us and a reiteration of the call to be Christ’s body in the world. Teresa of Avila’s prayer would work well as a call to service given at the end of worship. Consider stacking songs of praise for the ascended Christ at the beginning of the service and using songs that call for doing Christ’s work in the world at the end. This progression will mimic the narrative of Acts 1.

Historical Prayer

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people. —Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582) was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun, writer of the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer. Her books, which include her autobiography (The Life of Teresa of Jesus) and her seminal work El Castillo Interior (trans.: “The Interior Castle”) are an integral part of Spanish Renaissance literature as well as Christian mysticism and Christian meditation practices as she entails in her other important work, Camino de Perfección (trans.: “The Way of Perfection”).
–Wikipedia

Suggested Songs

“Christ Be Beside Me” WR 425
“He Is King of Kings” LUYH 222, PH 153
“Jesus Shall Reign” LUYH 219, PH 423, PsH 412, TH 441, WR 341
“Shine, Jesus, Shine” SNC 128, WR 319
“I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” LUYH 854, PH 369, WR 574

Pentecost Sunday

Texts

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27

Sermon and Worship Notes

The Spirit arrives at Pentecost to people who are fractured and a world that is fallen. The disciples are still not entirely sure what comes next, now that Jesus has ascended. Jerusalem is filled with people who come from different places and speak different languages. Romans 8 reminds us that we are all fractured and broken by sin in our individual lives and in the life of the world.

It is the Spirit who breaks into this chaos and begins to guide us back to our senses. Peter is suddenly transformed into a preacher with a clear vision of the gospel. The visitors to Jerusalem are united by their ability to understand the disciples. And the Spirit pulls our disordered lives back together, working not just in individuals but in the re-creation of the whole world. We are able to preach, proclaim, and pray, with the Spirit inspiring our words and moving us to action.

Instead of opening worship with praise, open with words and songs that express longing for the Spirit; in a sense, you are beginning worship with an extended invocation. Confession and assurance can focus on our need for the Spirit to work transformation in our own lives. Augustine’s prayer could serve well after confession by asking the Spirit to move in our lives and transform us. By the end of worship, we are ready to hear the call of the Spirit to go out and transform the whole of creation.

Historical Prayer

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit,
that my thoughts may all be holy;
Act in me, O Holy Spirit,
that my works, too, may be holy;
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit,
that I love but what is holy;
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit,
to defend all that is holy;
Guard me then, O Holy Spirit,
that I always may be holy.
—Augustine of Hippo, 354-430

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 – 28 August 430), also known as Saint Augustine, was an early Christian theologian whose writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria) located in the Roman province of Africa. Writing during the Patristic Era, he is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers. Among his most important works are City of God and Confessions, which continue to be read widely today.
–Wikipedia

Suggested Songs

“Come, Holy Spirit” LUYH 230, SNC 165, WR 127
“Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” LUYH 238, WR 326
“Come Down, O Love Divine” LUYH 234, PH 313, WR 330
“We Are Called” LUYH 296

Trinity Sunday

Texts

2 Corinthians 13:11-14
John 15:1-17

Sermon and Worship Notes

The liturgical formula of the Trinity in 2 Corinthians is not just pretty language; it is a reminder that we are surrounded and connected by the Trinity. Just as a branch must remain connected to the vine in order to bear fruit, so we must remain connected to God. In John 15, Jesus reminds the disciples that they are connected to him, and through him connected to the Father. While this particular passage from John does not mention the Spirit, the Spirit is one of the other main themes of Jesus’ extended discourse with the disciples. We are connected to the entire Trinity. We are surrounded and nurtured by the interplay of the Trinity.

It is this connection that brings us into relationship with all of God’s people. The affection that enables us to greet one another with a holy kiss flows from our connection to the Trinity. The Trinity is the source of our care for each other and our model for loving community.

In worship, open with praise that emphasizes the awe and wonder of the Trinity. During confession and assurance you can emphasize our need of the Trinity in our sanctification and remaining connected to God. As worship progresses, we are called to express gratitude for the fact that the Trinity surrounds us and invites us into God’s love. We are called to mirror that connectedness in our own lives together as a people who follow God.

Historical Prayer

Before thee, Father,
In righteousness and humility;
With thee, Brother,
in faith and courage;
In thee, Spirit,
in stillness,
Thine—for thy will is my destiny.
Dedicated—for my destiny is to be used,
and used according to thy will.
—Dag Hammarskjöld, 1905-1961

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (29 July 1905 – 18 September 1961) was a Swedish diplomat, economist, and author. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, he served from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He is one of just three people to be awarded a posthumous Nobel Prize. Hammarskjöld is the only U.N. Secretary-General to die in office; his death occurred en route to cease-fire negotiations. American President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”

His only book, Vägmärken (Markings), was published in 1963. A collection of his diary reflections, the book starts in 1925, when he was 20 years old, and ends at his death in 1961. Markings was described by a theologian, the late Henry P. Van Dusen, as “the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written . . . in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates the life of Hammarskjöld as a renewer of society on the anniversary of his death, 18 September.
–Wikipedia

Suggested Songs

“I Am the Holy Vine” LUYH 851, PsH 220
“Gather Us In” LUYH 529, SNC 8, WR 649
“Come, All You People” LUYH 496, SNC 4
“Holy, Holy, Holy” LUYH 814

God for Us

Texts

John 16:19-28
Romans 8:31-39

Sermon and Worship Notes

Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday introduce big, important themes—the stuff of the great historic creeds. But perhaps the most amazing thing about these enormous concepts is that they have an influence on our individual lives and remind us that even the great Three-in-One is intimately concerned with each one of us. As this wonderful Romans text reminds us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” In John 16, Jesus prepares the disciples for the coming roller-coaster of events (death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost) with the reminder that even if he is not physically with them, the Father will give them what they ask—and not just for Jesus’ sake, but because of the Father’s intense concern for each one of them.

This is a Sunday to keep worship quiet and introspective. Consider an emphasis on baptism during the time of confession and assurance (fill the font, and touch the water during the assurance of pardon even if there is no baptism this week). The suggested prayer is modified from a French Reformation-era baptismal liturgy; it would serve well as an assurance of pardon. By the end of worship, you might crescendo into songs of thankfulness and praise for God’s intimate presence in each of our lives.

Historical Prayer

For us you were born,
for us you healed, preached, taught, and died.
For us you rose again.
For us you sit at the Father’s right hand and intercede.
All of this for us, even when we cannot understand it.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled: we love
because God first loved us.
Scottish Book of Common Prayer, adapted from the French Reformed liturgy

Suggested Songs

“Before the World Began” (Wild Goose Resource Group)
“My God, How Wonderful You Are” LUYH 548, PsH 499, TH 35
“You Are Mine” LUYH 430
“Lead Me, Guide Me” LUYH 329, PsH 544, WR 498
“I Depend Upon Your Faithfulness” LUYH 371

God for the World

Texts

Psalm 47
Matthew 28:16-20

Sermon and Worship Notes

Each of these great theological narratives has implications for the individual believer—and for the whole world. We see Christ enthroned above all of creation in the ascension. Pentecost brings the nations together and sends us out into the world. And Trinity Sunday reminds us of the God who, from before the beginning of the world, has worked as the great Three-in-One to create and sustain the world and all its people.

While last week’s worship focused on “God for us,” this week we remember that God’s care extends beyond us. God is concerned with the affairs of our hearts and the affairs of nations. God is concerned with wholeness in our homes and wholeness in our ecosystems.

Songs and hymns of praise for God’s reign over all of creation are in order this week, followed by our confession that we sometimes ignore God’s call for us to move beyond ourselves and bring the gospel to all nations. This would be a wonderful service in which to include reminders of your particular congregation’s connections to the world: missionaries and aid workers you support, members who work in other nations, organizations and international congregations with whom you partner, the various heritages of people in your congregation. An extended period of prayer for the world would also be in order. A reiteration of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 would be a wonderful way to send the congregation into the world.

Historical Prayer

In peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For the peace of God and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For peace in the whole world, for the stability of the church, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For our church leaders and all who serve Christ, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For our country, our leaders, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For this city, for every city and country, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For favorable weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and temperate seasons, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For travelers by land, sea, and air, for the sick, the suffering, the captives, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and distress, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, our God, whose power is beyond compare, and glory is beyond understanding; whose mercy is boundless, and love for us is ineffable; look upon us and upon this holy house in Your compassion. Grant to us and to those who pray with us Your abundant mercy.
For to You belong all glory, honor, and worship to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.
Amen.
—from The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom was a 4th-century church leader in what today is called Turkey. Some of the traditional liturgy still used by the Eastern Orthodox church today has historically been attributed to him. While the form of this prayer may be unusual for your congregation, it is a great pattern for prayer in that it reminds us to pray for the whole world.

Suggested Songs

“God, You Spin the Whirling Planets” PH 285, WR 24
“O God of Every Nation” LUYH 282, PH 289, PsH 606, WR 626
“The City Is Alive, O God” LUYH 278, PsH 597
“Mayenziwe” LUYH 909, SNC 198