Sunday, May 17, 2015

Taken Up to Send Down: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday

Christ is risen! “Our God is a God of salvation, and to Yahweh the Lord belongs deliverance from death” (Psalm 68:20). As our celebration of Eastertide draws toward its close, we remember that, even after his deliverance from death, Jesus visited his disciples for forty more days. Does that strike anyone else as odd? I mean, the Ascension could have taken place on Easter Monday. It could have even taken place on the eve of Easter Sunday, with Jesus rising from the roof of the house in Emmaus where he broke the bread. But Jesus stayed, not just for a day, not just for a week, not just for a month, but for forty days – a nice, round number of biblical significance. Jesus chose to wait forty extra days before being enthroned in heaven's glory. Why? Was there some benefit he got out of it? The benefit wasn't for him. The benefit was for the disciples. Jesus had his focus securely on them and their needs, even after his resurrection. Is an abrupt goodbye really the Messiah's style? Here they are, still in shock after the crucifixion, still befuddled by the emotional wrenching back and forth of the discovery of the empty tomb, still awestruck and perhaps confused by seeing him living again. They're joyful, but believing their eyes is a long-jump of faith. Even after the resurrection, even in the midst of appearing to the believers in Galilee, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

If Jesus had left immediately, even the earliest disciples would have been left with divided hearts, afflicted and assailed by their doubts and questions, their misgivings and misunderstandings. So Jesus stayed to give them “many convincing proofs” of his risen life (Acts 1:3). And when he stayed, he wanted to make them ready for what was to come after he'd go. What did Jesus do to occupy his forty precious days as the firstfruits of new creation, still walking the corrupted soil of an old creation? He brought them peace, wished them peace, but he also gave them teaching. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Did he teach them off the top of his head while he was “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2)? No, he pointed them to the books of the Old Testament, saying that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”, and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and how they were really a story about him and his mission (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus reminded them that their work would be anchored in understanding Scripture – and has that changed? Is biblical literacy no longer vital to the church's work? Only if you think Jesus was wasting his time those forty days! The church is absolutely called upon to be a community saturated in the Bible, learning from the Bible, wrestling with the Bible, praying through the Bible, teaching each other the Bible – because it's from the Bible that we learn God's story, our story, creation's story, and are trained in the roles he's given us.

Beyond teaching his disciples to understand in their minds and hearts what the Bible was saying, he also gave them a gift, a gift which – to look at many believers today – you'd think the church resents. That gift was a commission, a calling, “to be witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48), called to declare both forgiveness of sins and repentance through the name and authority of the Messiah – not just to the Jews, but to “all nations”; and not just to foreign nations, but “beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). One and the same gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike, revolving around the authority of the same Messiah, who offers forgiveness for sins and calls us to repentance. Those are two sides of the same coin: without repentance from sin, there isn't forgiveness, and without forgiveness being granted, there's no power to really repent.

The church is called to keep those thoughts together. If we're so paranoid to avoid looking 'exclusive' that we forget that forgiveness requires repentance, then we're failing to be witnesses to the whole story. If we're so self-centered that we don't bother to proclaim outside these walls, then we're scarcely witnesses at all. But “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), he said – which is exactly how Acts runs, starting from Jerusalem and rolling the gospel mission right to the halls of imperial power in Rome. And the story isn't done, because here we are, across the ocean from Jerusalem, and there's still proclaiming of repentance and forgiveness of sins to be done. Jesus gave his disciples a mission. Are we his disciples too?

So after forty days, Jesus led them to the village of Bethany, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. And outside that village, standing higher even than the Temple Mount, he commissioned his disciples one last time, and then “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). “Lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). What was Jesus doing while he parted from them? Was he waving a tender goodbye? Was he turning his attention to his upward journey? No, even on the skyward trek from earth to heaven, his thoughts and actions are still on the band of disciples left below. Even while being caught up to heaven, even while the cloud interposes itself, Jesus is actively speaking words of blessing over them! And doesn't that just sound like the Jesus we know? Do you think he stopped once the cloud concealed him? Or do you think that he kept blessing them even while hidden from their earthbound gaze? I dare say that these words, “while he was blessing them”, have been his chief mode of operation from that moment forever onward; and of every other action he takes from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father, it happens “while he was blessing them” – and we're them. From earth to heaven and everywhere in between, his love pours itself out in words of beautiful benediction upon each and every one of us, and upon the tempest-tossed church as a whole. He blesses us still and “daily bears us up” (Psalm 68:19).

What did the disciples do when Jesus ascended, when they saw him go up and then saw him no more? Their gazes were fixed on his heavenward track, 'til a pair of angels asked these “men of Galilee” why they were just gawking at the sky and longing for the status quo (Acts 1:10-11). The status quo was no more. Then “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). When they witnessed the ascension, they worshipped. Their worship was focused on Jesus – unabashedly, unashamedly, true disciples worship Jesus. But never to the exclusion of the Father: true disciples are continually blessing God. And as true disciples bless the Father and worship the Son, they return with great joy to do what the Father and Son say. They returned down the mountain, down to Jerusalem: We can't always live on the mountaintops of spiritual rapture; we have work to do, but while we may not always have bliss, we can take the “great joy” of the Lord with us where we go.

The ascension motivated the worship of the early church, and the ascended Christ still spurs our worship today. But the ascension also motivated them to something we seldom think of: strategic planning. Where does that come in? Well, when the disciples came back down from the Mount of Olives, where do they go? They go to the Upper Room, to the midst of the praying community of believers – which by now includes Mother Mary and the formerly unbelieving brothers of Jesus, like James (Acts 1:13-14; cf. John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7) – and, while the gathered church is still only 120 strong, Peter leads the charge in filling out the leading body of the Twelve, since their number had dropped to an ill-suited Eleven (Acts 1:15-22). This was the only time a replacement was ever made, because it wasn't the death of Judas that required it, but his betrayal of the faith. Peter, Matthew, John, Thomas – they all still hold the office now that they held then, no matter the surprise it is to groups like the Mormons who hail their leaders as apostles who replace the original Twelve.

But here, a new apostle has to be found from among the ranks of those who were eyewitnesses “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). The final choice here was by God himself – the Eleven prayed and cast lots, knowing that God would answer them (Acts 1:24-26) – but first they had to propose two candidates, and that took strategic planning (Acts 1:23). Using God's wisdom, they brainstormed options and then laid the question before the Lord. Hammering out the strategy for the church's mission isn't the opposite of living by faith. God calls us to pray, and God calls us to think and plan. What the church does every Sunday is and should be a response to the reality of Christ's ascension. But the same goes for what the official board does on the first Tuesday of every month, and for the trustees and the stewards and the Christian Education Commission whenever they meet. In the wake of Christ's ascension, we need to bring all the wisdom and experience God has given us, and we need to plan strategically for the mission, and then we need to offer it up to the Lord who “knows everyone's heart” (Acts 1:24).

That's how we respond to his ascension. But why did he have to ascend at all? What makes that so important to our faith? Why couldn't the forty days be forty centuries? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Jesus still here with us in the flesh? Yet “it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7), he said. Where's the advantage? Well, first, the ascension of Christ is critical to his ongoing priestly ministry. Without ascending, there would be no lawful priestly work of Christ, as the author of Hebrews says: “Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all” (Hebrews 8:4). The foundational act of Christ's priestly ministry was to offer up the sacrifice of himself as a perfect atonement for our sins. But in order to bring such a sacrifice, one has to go into the right holy place to meet with God, just as the high priests of Israel went into the temple. And just so, Jesus had to ascend to the heavenly Holy Place so as to present his own sacrifice to the Father (Hebrews 9:12). And so Jesus “entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

Furthermore, if we live through Christ, then we're “in Christ”, as Paul's so fond of saying (Romans 16:7). If our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), then our lives are located wherever he is. If our lives are embedded in his risen life, then where he goes, we spiritually go. And it's only because he has ascended above all things to the Father's presence that we spiritually live the ascended life already: God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7). We've already inherited such a high and secure position, but only because Jesus spiritually brings us with him to the high and secure place where he's ascended. And only in that way do “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19).

With the ascension, Jesus Christ is fully empowered, raised and acclaimed to the highest position, being “enthroned at God's right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). After having “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is enthroned as the King of the kingdom of God – having “purged our stains, / he took his seat above” – but he is there as both a king and a priest. As a king, he lives in God's heavenly throne-room; and as a priest, he lives forever to minister in God's heavenly tabernacle, which is one and the same reality (Hebrews 8:1-2). And in being there, directly in the immediate presence of the Father, he can present our prayers to the Father in person. Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). And because our spiritual location is in his location, our seemingly earthbound prayers hit the ears of the Father through the lips of the Son at the Father's right hand – only because Jesus ascended.

As if that weren't enough, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and a guarantee of the greatest Gift. Why is it an advantage to us to have Jesus in heaven? Because “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7) as the “Spirit of Truth” who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). He was taken up to send the Spirit down. And the ascension accounts agree. The disciples had to stay together in Jerusalem, because even with all that Jesus had taught them from the scriptures, they weren't ready yet for their real mission. All the biblical knowledge there is, isn't enough in itself. After all of that, we need to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). We need to “wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), knowing that we “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [us]”, as Jesus said (Acts 1:8).

What's so important about that? Well, unless we're filled with Christ's Spirit, we can't be Christ's body (cf. Ephesians 4:4). A body without its own spirit, is a cadaver. And the church is not called the motionless cadaver of Christ; we are called the body of Christ, a living body: “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27)! And how can we carry out our commissioning if we're anything less? The Church cannot afford to be a zombie! Jesus gave us a Christ-sized mission! Who else can save the world? Who else can initiate people into salvation? Who else can teach mysteries from heaven? Who else can bring such healing and spiritual power? The Great Commission is a Christ-sized mission, and that will take the very body of Christ, living and animated by the Spirit of a risen and ascended Christ, to carry out.

This same Spirit, who animates the body of Christ, also is the means by which Jesus spreads spiritual gifts throughout his body. Although we're united as one body, responding in one Spirit to one God and one Lord, joined by one faith and one baptism into one hope of our calling (Ephesians 4:4-6), yet we have different gifts and graces, “according to the measure of Christ's gift” (Ephesians 4:7). For “when he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people”, or perhaps “gifts in his people” (Ephesians 4:8; cf. Psalm 68:18). What gifts? “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). That's not a complete list, as Paul shows elsewhere by listing more “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4).

The point is that the ascended Jesus has freely and abundantly sprinkled these gifts throughout his body, and I don't for a minute believe there's such a thing as an ungifted disciple, a believer whose purpose is just to take up space in a pew, a Christian whose calling is to be a consumer and not a contributor. Every believer has a role, every believer has a function, and the body of Christ can't grow properly without it. Because the purpose of the gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). We have to become fully grown, fully matured, fully equipped, because it's a big mission. That's one major reason why we get together regularly as a local church body: to equip each other. Not just for a preacher to prepare an audience, or a teacher to prepare a class; it's for each and every one of us to actively contribute our gifts to the spiritual improvement of the whole body.

And we have to grow into Christian adulthood. Children are easily misled, tricked by the lies and half-truths of the world, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery”, as we see with sorrowed eyes too often in American churches (Ephesians 4:14). But we grow up through living the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and Jesus will provide for our unified growth as we do that (Ephesians 4:16). Real adulthood, real maturity, doesn't conform to pagan culture or impurity, living “as the Gentiles live”; but rather, real adulthood, real Christian maturity, means using the spiritual gifts to help the whole body become more like the perfect likeness of Jesus himself, “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24). And it's because our ascended and exalted head has gifted his body through the Spirit sent down, that we can grow. The Spirit was given so that we could be the body of Christ on the mission of Christ: so that, even today, we could keep understanding and living out the scriptures and could continue being empowered witnesses, living the truth in active love.

Furthermore, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and guarantee of his eventual return: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Bodily he went up, bodily he'll come down. We have a certain hope, a guarantee, that Jesus will come back. And when he does, the kingdom of God will not just be inaugurated; it will be consummated, made full and perfect upon the earth as it is in heaven. When? The disciples had that question too: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Did Jesus say, “That will be May 14, 1948”? Did Jesus say, “That will be December 21, 2012,” or, “That will be September 28, 2015”? No – no, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We have the guarantee that Christ will return, but speculating on it is pointless. Ignore the ravings of the end-times pontificators, the prophecy speculators, the Robertsons and the Falwells and the Campings and the Hagees. The Father has set the times by his own authority, and we're called to be as ready for Jesus to return tomorrow as for Jesus to return in a century.

Finally, in being taken up into heaven, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10), and the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). If there were any doubt, Jesus is most definitely in a position vastly above all of creation, spiritual and material. His station is eternally secure: “His kingdom cannot fail, / he rules o'er earth and heaven.” And so his changeless character – “while he was blessing them” (Luke 24:51) – is eternally welded to changeless authority – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me; go, therefore, and make disciples...” (Matthew 28:18-19) – to give us a firmly-anchored hope beyond all fluctuation and beyond all shadow of turning. The Ascension is not some second-rate appendix to Easter, something optional to remember. The Ascension is a vital sequel in the ongoing victory of the risen Lord of Life! So “lift up your heart, / lift up your voice,” O church, and “rejoice! the Lord is King” in heaven indeed!

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