The Ascension: God’s Assurance that Jesus is Lord

Sermon delivered on the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 20, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1.1-6; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, the day when our Lord and his resurrected body moved from our earthly dimension to God’s dimension in heaven. If my experience with the church’s teaching about the Ascension is in any way typical of what most Christians have been exposed to (or more accurately, not exposed to), the Ascension remains a puzzle for most of us at best and an irrelevant and confusing event at worst. For example, are the NT writers, especially Luke, telling us that Jesus was the first cosmic space man to blast off from this planet? Are we supposed to look at Jesus from the soles of his feet?

But on a more serious and troubling note, does Jesus’ Ascension mean he has left us alone here on earth to fend for ourselves? Again, if you are like me, this is not an insignificant fear. Who among us does not worry about being abandoned and left all alone one day? And if John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is indicative of the first followers’ experience with their risen Lord, it seems that they too shared this fear that Jesus was now going to abandon them. How else do we explain the curious comment Jesus made to Martha in the garden when he told her not to hold onto him because he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20.17)? It seems that almost immediately after he was raised from the dead, Jesus began telling his followers that they were going to have to get used to interacting with him in a different way because he was not going to be with them physically any longer. So this morning I want us to look briefly at what the Ascension might mean for us, especially through the lens of this morning’s gospel lesson.

The first thing many Christians think about the Ascension, if they think about it at all, is to see it as reinforcing the idea of a deistic God. The line of thinking goes something like this. God is far away in heaven and so Jesus has gone there to prepare a place for us. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak (which conveniently frees humans to run the world they see fit). Sadly many Christians hold some version of this belief and as a result the god they worship is distant, aloof, and irrelevant. If truth be told, most folks who believe this is what the Ascension is all about would admit that God probably has left them to their own devices to fend for themselves in this world with all its problems. But of course this god is bound to fail us, precisely because he is not here to help us in our need or to provide us guidance and support as we seek to live faithful lives. After all, it is pretty hard to love, let alone develop a relationship with, someone who is distant and who never speaks to you or interacts with you. Hopefully no one here this morning tries to worship a god like that.

But thankfully this remote god is not the God of the Bible, the God who created the earth and then humans to be his wise stewards over it. This is not the God who called his people Israel to help him redeem his broken and fallen world and who remains faithful even in the face of his people’s stubborn and willful rebellion against that call. This is not the God who became human in Jesus to be for Israel what she could not be for herself so that in the Messiah God could finally rescue his fallen world and broken people as he promised. No, the God of the Bible is quite active in the affairs of his people and of his broken world, putting to right all of its ancient wrongs and conquering evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ death on the cross. In other words, the God of the Bible is a God who cares for us and who is actively involved in our lives if we have the good sense not to push him away or hold him at arm’s length.

And this is where the Ascension is so important. When the NT writers talk about the risen Jesus ascending into heaven and sitting down at the right hand of the Father (cf. Romans 8.33-35; Ephesians 1.19-21; Colossians 3.1-3; Hebrews 1.2-4, 8.1-3, 10.11-13, 12.1-3; 1 Peter 3.21-22), they aren’t saying that Jesus has gone away to heaven for a well-deserved rest and we his followers are simply out of luck. They are telling us that Jesus has gone into God’s dimension to assume his rightful role as Lord of this universe and who is right now actively working on our behalf to complete the saving work his death and resurrection started. In other words, they are telling us that Jesus is Lord and we are to do our work in his power and Name.

Not only that, but as the writer of Hebrews tells us repeatedly, as Lord, Jesus is also praying for us in all of our weakness so that by his power we will be able to accomplish the healing work he has given us to do. Think about that for a moment! The Lord of this universe is right now interceding to God on our behalf so that we will continue to enjoy our reconciliation with God and the peace that results, which is foundational if we ever hope to be Jesus’ followers. This was made possible by Jesus’ blood shed for us on the cross and Jesus continues to be faithful to us even now as risen and ascended Lord by being our great high priest. This is neither a God who is distant or who does not care about us so that he leaves us to our own devices!

We see this poignantly illustrated in today’s gospel lesson. The context for today’s lesson is the Last Supper. Jesus has told his disciples that he is about to be taken from them and this has left his disciples more than a little distressed. Think about it. Imagine the most wonderful person in the world you have ever known has just told you he (or she) is about to die. How would that make you feel? You would definitely feel sad and maybe even a bit angry as some survivors feel when they learn that a loved one has died. They get angry, in part, because they feel the loved one has abandoned them. Likewise for Jesus’ disciples. So here we see Jesus praying for them in this great priestly prayer. Notice carefully that implicit in Jesus’ prayer is the notion that God’s care for the disciples will not be much different from Jesus’ care for them. God will continue protect them just as Jesus had, and keep them holy, a word that simply means they are set apart to do the work Jesus has called them to do. In other words, because the disciples have known Jesus, they will know God! The point here is that whether Jesus is present with them physically or in Spirit, his disciples will not have to fend for themselves for guidance, wisdom, and protection. They will continue to be enveloped in God’s great and faithful love for them.

Second, we notice that Jesus is not praying for his disciples to get all spiritual and withdraw from the affairs of the world to take up navel gazing. No, there is kingdom work to be done in Jesus’ name, the work of new creation that his resurrection inaugurated! When Jesus tells us he is not praying for the world, he is not referring to God’s material creation or its people. If Jesus really believed God’s creation and people were not worth redeeming, it would have made his impending saving death a farce. Instead, Jesus is referring to the powers and principalities of this world who propagate evil and who are implacably opposed to God’s good intentions and work in his good but fallen world. This alerts us immediately to the fact that we too have a job to do in Jesus’ Name and for his sake. And like Jesus’ first disciples, we too can count on Jesus’ promise never to leave or abandon us, no matter how bad things might get in our lives and world.

And from our NT lesson from Acts, we see that the disciples took Jesus’ promise to be with them to heart. Luke tells us that after Jesus ascended to the Father, his disciples understood that they were going to have to interact differently with him now that he was no longer with them physically. So the disciples spent a lot of time in prayer (cf. Acts 1.12-14). We see how that played out in their selection of Judas’ replacement. His successor had to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, showing us how important eyewitness testimony was to the first followers of Jesus. Then in prayer, the disciples asked Jesus to show them the man to succeed Judas. They had work to do and needed both the guidance of Scripture and Jesus’ own guidance so that they wouldn’t begin the work of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus and working in his power to bring about God’s new creation short-handed.

If we are serious about both our church’s mission statement, Changed by God to make a difference for God, as well as our discipleship, we would do well to pay attention to what Scripture is telling us here. The first lesson we learn from today’s readings is that we must reject the lie that we have a distant and remote God who has called us to be his holy people but who has essentially left us to our own devices to figure out how to do that. Nothing could be further from the truth! As we have seen, the risen and ascended Jesus has now assumed his rightful place as Lord of the universe and is available to us right now in the power of the Spirit through prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, worship, and Christian fellowship. Of course, if we are not faithful in partaking in these proven means of grace, we should not be surprised if we don’t really know Jesus or that he seems quite removed from our lives. Like any other relationship, the health of our relationship with Jesus depends on the amount of time and effort we invest and how much we are aware of Jesus’ presence in our lives is a critical indicator of the state of our relationship with him. So how are you doing in that regard?

The second lesson we can learn from our readings is that there is plenty of work to do in Jesus’ name right now. Jesus calls each of us to bring his healing love to bear on God’s broken world and hurting people. We do that in various ways and we get our marching orders as individuals and as his body, the Church, primarily through prayer, Scripture reading, and fellowship, just the way the apostles did. There is first and foremost Good News to proclaim as John reminds us in this morning’s epistle lesson, and if we really understand the significance of the Ascension, we should never, ever be ashamed of proclaiming it. Jesus is Lord! There are also, among other things, hungry and naked people to feed and clothe. There are lonely and frightened people to visit and comfort. There are unlovable people to love and reconciliation to be sought, even when it seems impossible to accomplish. What Jesus calls us to do will vary by individuals and congregations, but the point is if you call yourself a Christian, you have work to do right here and now. And this is how Jesus can use us to bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Every time we refuse to retaliate when someone wrongs us, or when we give to the undeserving, or when we are simply present to someone who desperately needs the human touch, or when we seek reconciliation when nobody else gives us a snowflake’s chance on water to succeed, we do not allow evil to gain a toehold through us and we can have confidence that the kingdom comes by Jesus’ power as a result, precisely because Jesus is Lord.

Denying ourselves and taking up our cross each day to do Jesus’ work and be his people requires character transformation, patience, and great perseverance. And of course we can expect fierce opposition against our work in Jesus’ Name because the Evil One and his minions will not give up easily, even though they have gotten the memo that God has defeated them in and through the cross of Jesus. But we won’t lose hope if we do the things needed, the things we have just talked about, to cultivate Jesus’ power and presence in our lives because when we do, Jesus will remind us that he is Lord and it is not up to us to save the world. He has already accomplished that for us in his death and resurrection. No, our job is to embody Jesus’ presence in the power of the Spirit to others and then let Jesus do the rest. As Paul reminds us in his great tract on the resurrection body and new creation (1 Corinthians 15), our labor on Jesus’ behalf is never in vain, even when we ostensibly fail, because Jesus will use our work and our transformed and redeemed character to help bring about his new creation, and our labors will apparently carry over into the new creation when it arrives in the fulness of time. Power for living our lives right now and a wondrous hope for the future are surely the essential ingredients we need to live meaningful and purposeful lives, even in the face of great hardship, disappointment, and opposition. Here is the antidote to hopelessness and despair that can come from feeling abandoned in life.

This is why Jesus’ Ascension is so important to us because it reminds us that he is Lord and available to us right now in and through the power of the Spirit to help us be the men and women he calls us to be—fully human and wise stewards of his good creation. If you really understand this, you will make it a point to celebrate Ascension Day each year (it falls on the 40th day after Easter, which is always a Thursday) because it means you really understand that Jesus is Lord and evil has been defeated, if not yet fully vanquished. And that, of course, means you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen and ascended! The Lord is risen and ascended indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

David Brooks: The Age of Innocence

21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.

–Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 7.21-22)

Our Lord nailed the human condition succinctly (see above) and Brooks offers an astute analysis of the human condition and how democracies must compensate for and interact with it. See what you think.

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

But, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.

Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs.

Read it all.

David Waddell: Uncomplicated Adult Fun…

From here.

The Facebook campaign is “Stop marital affair .co.uk advertising publicly in the UK.” When I joined, on Saturday, there were about fifty of us. Two days later, there are now about 1,300 members. Do join if you agree with the premise.

The campaign is led by Jon Kuhrt, a father of three, who – like many others – is offended by the marketing of infidelity as “uncomplicated fun”. He complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, only to be told it would only consider complaints about advertising which offend “against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.” I believe the reasoning – to reject the complaint – is absurd on all three counts.

Words fail. to market adultery as uncomplicated fun represents delusional thinking at its finest and that is the most charitable thing I can think to say about this. Read it all and raise your voice against this if the Spirit so moves you..

A Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension

Hear us, O merciful God, and grant our minds to be lifted up to where our Redeemer has ascended; that at the second coming of the Mediator we may receive from your manifested bounty what we now venture to hope for as a promised gift; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Leonine Sacramentary

What’s This Ascension Thing All About?

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

–Matthew 28.16-20 (NIV)

Today is Ascension Day, the day when the resurrected Christ went to be in God’s dimension (heaven). You can read Luke’s account of it in Acts 1.1-11. As Bishop Tom Wright has written, for many of us who live in the post-Enlightenment era, the Ascension means that Jesus has left us to join his deistic Father and who is no longer really interested in the affairs of his world. But as today’s passage from Matthew reminds us, this is just not true.

When the NT talks about Jesus being exalted to the “right hand of the Father,” see, e.g., Colossians 3.1-3; Hebrews 1.2-4, it is not telling us that Jesus has gone away and no longer cares about what happens to us here on earth. Instead, the NT authors have in mind that Jesus has assumed his rightful and God-given place as ruler of the cosmos. As Paul reminds us in Colossians, Jesus has disarmed the powers and principalities through his cross and after his Ascension is now firmly in charge of all things. This is part of God’s eternal plan to restore his good but fallen world.

“But wait,” you say. “How can that be? Look around you! If Jesus really is in control of things why are there still wars? Why does greed and hate and self-aggrandizement still abound? Why are there so many starving and needy people in the world? Why is there so much suffering? Why do the secularists and atheists and all the other enemies of the cross seem to be winning the day?”

All good questions to which I would respond by asking if you think Paul was not aware of the mess that is God’s fallen and broken world? After all, Paul wrote Colossians from prison! He more than anyone was quite aware that God’s good but fallen creation had not been completely fixed yet! So why then did he write what he did? Because he firmly believed that it is true that God in Christ has decisively defeated the powers and principalities. He could write this because he had a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus and he knew that Jesus’ promises are true.

This is what it means to live by faith in the “already-not yet.” In Christ, God has decisively defeated evil. He has decisively overcome the power of sin and the alienation it causes between God and humans and among humans. God has done this by bearing the just punishment for our sins himself on the cross. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has given us a preview of coming attractions regarding his promised New Creation, the new heavens and earth in which God’s dimension and our earthly dimension will be fused together and we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever to love and enjoy him as he created us to do. Moreover, we will get to become the proper stewards of this New Creation, just as God intended when he created us and there will be none of the nastiness that afflicts us in our mortal lives. This is the Easter hope. This is the “already” because the Resurrection has happened and Jesus now rules his cosmos as the Ascended Christ, complete with his resurrected body and exalted humanity.

But the New Creation is not yet a reality. Christ has not yet returned to finish his mighty work of redemption and usher in the New Creation. This is the “not yet” part. So how is Jesus the sovereign ruler of the universe? Why is there still so much sin and brokenness in this world? Because God in Christ has chosen to exert his sovereign rule during these last times (the time between the Resurrection and Jesus’ Second Coming) through his people.

We see that plainly in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells his disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given him. So how has he chosen to exercise that authority? By sending his followers into his world so that they can make disciples of all people! Those who follow Christ are to baptize new believers (baptism is not an optional thing for Christians as this passage indicates) and then teach them to obey their Lord. This is not unlike how yeast works in dough. The more disciples of Christ there are, disciples who truly love the Lord and are obedient to his commands, the more his healing touch can come to bear on his hurting and broken world.

If we think about this for a minute, we cannot help but have our breath taken away.

God intends to use his human creatures to be the agents of his healing and redemption. What an awesome responsibility and opportunity for us! Talk about the potential to find real meaning and purpose in your life. This surely is it! None of us can say why God has chosen to restore his broken creation in this way but all of us can be thankful that God thinks enough of his human creatures to give us the opportunity to be his agents of New Creation until he returns again in great power and glory to finish the work he started.

We also see in this plan the proper ordering of things. Humans are being proper stewards of God’s creation by being God’s Kingdom workers and bringing God’s love in Christ to bear on his broken and hurting world. But God’s redemptive work will not be complete until God himself completes it as only God has the power to do. Only God could initiate his redemptive plan and only God can complete it fully.

And as our Lord reminds us in today’s lesson, we do not have to do this work alone. He promises to be with us always–even to the end of the age–in and through his Spirit. It is by his Spirit that we become his Kingdom workers. This is not of our own doing because left to our own devices we are part of the problem rather than becoming part of the solution. But when we are empowered by the Spirit, the sky’s the limit in what we can do for our Lord. Simply put, it is impossible to be a Christian without the power and Presence of the Holy Spirit living in and through us.

As we think about Jesus’ promise to be with us always, we cannot help but think back to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel in which an angel of the Lord announced the impending birth of Jesus, Immanuel–God with us (1.23). What a wondrous promise this is! We can be assured that God is with us in any and every situation to help us overcome all that bedevils us and to empower us to be his Kingdom workers, to bring his healing love, mercy, and grace to a broken and hurting world who desperately needs it.

This is the promise of the Ascension. This is worthy of our time, our reflection, and more importantly, our obedience with the help of the Spirit. Are you ready for this kind of action? Do you know this God well enough to trust his promises to you the way Paul and countless others have, even when appearances suggest otherwise? If so, draw strength and refreshment from God’s promise to you as you do the work he has called you to do.

If you don’t know God well enough to trust his promises to you, what are you waiting for? You will never know if God is good to his word unless you take a chance and allow him to demonstrate his trustworthiness to you. You simply cannot be an armchair quarterback in this regard. The very God of this universe has work for you to do and he loves and respects you enough to give you the opportunity to do your part in his redemptive plan for this tired and broken old world. What a grand opportunity!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen (and ascended) indeed! Alleluia!

Pastor’s Sexuality Splits Missouri Church Softball League

See what you think. From Fox News online.

The sexual orientation of a new pastor in a Missouri church softball league has put his team on the bench.

Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, the 27-year-old pastor of St. John United Church of Christ in Saint Clair, told FoxNews.com that pastors of three other churches in a local church softball league said their teams would no longer take the field against St. John after hearing rumors questioning Darnell’s sexuality. Rather than force the issue, St. John pulled out of the league.

“Three teams had issue with that and no longer wanted to play against our team since I am an out bisexual person,” Darnell told FoxNews.com. “And it’s surprising because I don’t even play, I have no affiliation with the league.”

Read it all.

Vietnam War Hero Receives Posthumous Medal of Honor 42 Years Later

Good for him and for his family.

From Fox News online.

Four decades after his brave actions in Vietnam, the family of Spc. Leslie H. Sabo Jr. accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf Wednesday at the White House.

His widow, Rose Mary, and her brother-in-law, George Sabo, were at the White House to accept the military’s highest award for bravery on behalf of Spc. Sabo for his actions in May 1970.

“His indomitable courage and complete disregard for his own safety saved the lives of many of his platoon members,” the White House said in a written statement.

Read it all and thank God for raising up heroes like Sabo.

Columbus Dispatch: Cemeteries in Bind as Cremations Increase

From here.

The only two-time Miss America, great-grandparents of Liza Minnelli, and Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard all saw fit to be buried in Oak Grove Cemetery.

But more Americans are choosing to forgo a traditional burial and opt for cremation, leaving many historic cemeteries in the lurch.

Read it all, especially the comments that follow the story.

If you are interested in seeing whether people are embracing the Christian hope of new creation (or even know about it), this is an eye opener, and not for the good if you care about folks and the Christian faith. Very little indication from the commenters that they have a clue about the hope of resurrection and new creation. Yuck.