Never Deserted

Sermon delivered on Ascension Sunday, Easter 7B, May 17, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

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

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

Today is Ascension Sunday, the Sunday after Ascension Day when we celebrate our Lord’s return to heaven or God’s space. Hear Luke describe it now in his gospel account:

Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. —Luke 24.44-51

So what is the Ascension all about? Why would the eleven surviving apostles return to Jerusalem rejoicing and praising God in the Temple every day? After all, this event signaled to them that Jesus’ appearances were going to stop permanently. Why wouldn’t they be sad over this? And why should we who live almost two thousand years later care if Jesus ascended into heaven? It is these questions that I want us to look at this morning.

In our gospel lesson, we see Jesus expressing concern for his disciples’ future and welfare. This passage is part of his so-called high priestly prayer in which Jesus acknowledged that his disciples would need his continuing help once he left them. They had work to do, just like we as Jesus’ disciples today have work to do, and given that the world was fundamentally opposed to the gospel message Jesus commanded them and us to proclaim, Jesus knew this work could be dangerous. Like the Good Shepherd that Jesus proclaimed himself to be (John 10.1-18), or like a good parent who watches over his children as they grow up, Jesus knew they were going to need his help and protection, even in his absence, if they were to get the job done.

Jesus also knew that his impending death would be devastating to his disciples. Just like we feel lost when we lose a loved one to death, so Jesus understood that his disciples would likewise feel lost and despondent, something to which all the gospel accounts bear witness. Of course, Jesus’ resurrection would turn their sorrow into joy, just as it has the power to turn our sorrow into joy, but what about afterwards? What would happen after Jesus’ resurrection appearances stopped?

If we think this through carefully, we realize how high the stakes were (and are). Without the right care and support, without the Lord really being present to his disciples, like us, they were in danger of losing all hope and faith. Sure, Jesus’ resurrection had convinced them he had not only survived death but had come out through the other side. But Jesus also made it clear to them that his resurrection appearances were temporary. That is why he spent so much time teaching them about himself after he appeared to them and that is why he prayed his prayer for them and us on the night before he was crucified. He wanted his disciples, both then and now, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was alive and that he would be with them always (cf. Matthew 28.20b), but in a fundamentally different way. And so Jesus prayed that his followers would not be taken out of the world, but rather that God would protect us from the evil one. When Jesus talks about the world in this context, he is not talking about the created order. After all, he had come to rescue the created order (including us) from the ravages of evil, sin, and death. Instead, the world Jesus was referring to is the realm of the dark powers and principalities who have usurped God’s rightful rule over his created order and who remain violently opposed to Jesus’ rule and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. If the disciples were convinced that Jesus was good to his prayer, if they were convinced that he would be with them even after his resurrection appearances stopped, they would have the needed power to do their work and their joy would be complete as they did so on his behalf.

Why? Because as John reminds us in our epistle lesson, Jesus is the key to having eternal life as well as to the creation being reclaimed and restored. This is what makes our work as Christians so vitally important. Contrary to the popular belief today that all religions are basically alike and that there are many paths to God, our epistle lesson, along with the rest of the NT, is adamant that eternal life and access to God the Father is available to us only in and through Jesus. We don’t have just the testimony of the apostles that this is true. We have the testimony of God himself. As Jesus said at the beginning of his high priestly prayer:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17.1-3).

Again, if we think about it, this should make sense to us. When human sin entered the world it brought about God’s curse and death (Genesis 3.1-19). And as the history of the OT makes clear, sinful mortals (you and me) cannot come into the presence of the holy and perfect God and expect to live (see, e.g., Exodus 19.21, 33.20). That is why God gave Moses the sacrificial system that would allow God to dwell with his sinful people Israel as God led them out of Egypt to the promised land. You can read more about this in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

And of course Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29) by his blood shed for us on the cross. Whereas the OT sacrifices were temporary and had to be repeated because those who offered them were sinful just like the people on whose behalf they were offered, Jesus was sinless and so his sacrifice was perfect and once for all (Hebrews 9.12-15, 10.10-14). Jesus’ death on our behalf thus made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence and live. This is why Jesus is the only way to the Father. And as we have seen, when God raised Jesus from the dead, God ushered in the birth of his promised new world, the new heavens and earth, giving us a foretaste of the day when we too will be raised from the dead and given the privilege to live in God’s direct presence when heaven and earth are fused together in a new creation, all because of Jesus’ blood shed for us on the cross. This is the Good News of Easter that we have been celebrating these past seven weeks, and this is why only in Jesus do we have eternal life. We can stake our very lives and future on it because we have God’s word that it is true. This is why Jesus needed to open his disciples’ minds to the Scriptures. If they were going to proclaim the gospel, they had to understand that the whole OT had been pointing to the reality of his saving death and resurrection. Without that knowledge there could be no real gospel, no real hope, no real joy, because as we all know, we live in a world that is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, marred by human sin and the power of evil.

All this, of course, applies to us who live as Jesus’ disciples two thousand years later. If we claim to love God at all, we must love all God’s human creatures and want them to share in the gift of eternal life that is ours by God’s love and grace in and through Jesus. This gift should never puff us up and make us want to think we are somehow more deserving or morally better than those who do not know or believe in Jesus. That is pride, the very antithesis of love, and if that is our reaction we must repent of this wickedness and ask God to both forgive and humble us, even as we ask him to set our hearts on fire for others so that we dare love them enough to proclaim the gospel to them, risking scorn and opposition or worse. And like the first disciples, if we are not convinced that Jesus is alive and available to us, if we are not convinced Jesus has the power to finish the job he started with his death and resurrection, we will have no hope, no joy, and no power.

All this brings us back to the Ascension. The Ascension promises us that the fully human Jesus is in the very presence of God the Father, foreshadowing the day when we too will get the privilege of living in God’s direct presence. Humanity has been exalted and restored and we dare have the audacious hope that where our Lord is, so will we be (cf. Philippians 1.23). But the Ascension is more than this because as the NT writers all proclaimed, when Jesus ascended into heaven or God’s space, he sat down at God’s right hand, NT code that proclaims God has made Jesus Lord over all creation to rule until the victory over evil that God won on the cross is consummated and all God’s enemies have been fully vanquished (Romans 8.34; Ephesians 1.20; Colossians 3.1; Hebrews 1.3, 8.1, 10.12, 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22). That, BTW, is what the punchline of the book of Revelation is all about.

This is a tall order for us to believe at times because we see so many things go desperately wrong in our world. Loved ones die, sickness interrupts and sometimes destroys our lives, wars are incessant, injustice seems to rule the day rather than justice, and suffering goes on, apparently unabated. We see this and wonder where God is in it all and what kind of Lord Jesus really is. When we get to this point—and all of us will—we must pay attention to our NT lesson where Luke tells us how the eleven chose Judas’ replacement. Think about it. Jesus’ disciples had come to believe that he really was God’s promised anointed one, the Messiah, who would rescue Israel and the world from all that bedevils it. They believed this based on the mighty acts of power Jesus demonstrated during his earthly ministry as well as his teaching. But then it all came crashing down. Not only was Jesus executed as a criminal by the hated Romans, the very people Jesus was supposed to vanquish, but now there were no longer twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, a theme I do not have time to develop. Long story short: God’s will had apparently been thwarted.

But the operative word is apparently. Based on their limited power of discernment and incomplete human knowledge, the disciples initially thought that they were wrong about Jesus and that evil had won the day. Not so, says the story of Acts, because after Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and his instructions for them to stay in the city while they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples realized that things aren’t always as they appear to be. Yes, Judas had betrayed Jesus and had subsequently committed suicide. But not even his treachery nor the power of the corrupt religious establishment in Jerusalem nor the power of the Romans could sidetrack God’s plan to redeem and heal his world through Jesus his Messiah. God had used Jesus’ crucifixion to defeat the dark powers and atone for the sins of Israel and the world, thus laying the foundation for the coming of God’s promised new world. In fact, part of Jesus’ teaching about himself in the Scriptures was meant to show the disciples that this was precisely how God’s redemption and the defeat of evil was supposed to happen, unexpected and shocking as that was for his disciples (and remains for many of us today).

This is why we are to take hope, even in Jesus’ ostensible absence, because God knows the hearts of everyone and has the power to use even our brokenness to accomplish his will. What appears to be hopeless situations or the triumph of evil is not what it appears because Jesus is Lord and the dark powers are not. God knows how to use even the evil we commit, intentionally or otherwise, to bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. And astonishing as it may seem, God calls those of us who follow the risen and ascended Jesus, i.e., his Church, to be an integral part of proclaiming God’s love and rescue of the world in and through Jesus, both in word and by how we live our lives, lives that are patterned after our Lord Jesus. Even when we get it wrong or it looks like we have failed, even when it looks like the Christian faith is in full retreat and we are defeated, we must never lose heart or hope because God knows the hearts of all people and transcends even our mistakes and failures, as well as the evil of his enemies, to bring about the kingdom. Judas had betrayed his Lord, but God knew who the disciples should pick as his replacement. Peter had denied his Lord on the night of his arrest and acted like a coward. But God knew Peter’s heart and so Jesus reinstated Peter and Peter did not disappoint. Likewise with us. Whatever it is in your life right now that brings you disappointment, grief, hurt, or sorrow, remember this lesson from Acts. And remember that Jesus is Lord.

But why did Jesus have to ascend to the Father to do all this? Why couldn’t he just remain with us in his resurrected state? After all, that would be much more comforting to us. The Bible does not give us the answer to these questions but there are a couple of reasonable explanations. First, if Jesus remained in this world in his resurrected body, he could not be with all of his people everywhere at the same time in the way he can be with us in the power of the Spirit whom he promised to send. Just like we ascend into heaven each week in sacramental time and space to be with Jesus at the eucharist, so Jesus must be with all his people as we live out our lives, and he can only do that in the power of the Spirit as long as heaven and earth remain essentially separate dimensions. To be sure, Jesus remains powerfully present with us in the eucharist, but the fact is we cannot partake of the eucharist 24/7. For Jesus to be with his entire body always to the end of the age, he must be present with us in the power of the Spirit.

Second, Jesus had to ascend into heaven so that we could learn to grow up. As we have seen, Jesus calls us to be his kingdom workers and if we are to do that to the best of our ability, we must learn to grow up in Christ (cf. Ephesians 4.9-16). Any good parent knows that the job of raising children is to make them independent, and as parents we cannot help our kids learn to be independent and make good decisions if we hover over them all the time and make their decisions for them. We have to teach them when they are young and then gradually give them the freedom to make their own choices, even when we disagree with what they choose. Otherwise, our kids will never learn to grow up and we will never know if they truly have learned the core values we taught them while they were young. Is this messy? You bet it is. But love must allow the beloved the freedom necessary to make their own choices and to love freely in return. To do otherwise takes away the very basis that makes love possible in the first place.

Just so with God and us as Christians. God in his wisdom wants us to grow up so that we can learn to truly love him. God wants us to grow up so that we can use our minds to learn how to search the Scriptures diligently and become mature Christians so that God can use us even more effectively as his faithful kingdom workers. Is this messy and hard? Of course it is. Will we make mistakes? Of course we will. But nothing worthwhile in this life ever comes easy, our faith and Christian maturity included. But because God knows our hearts and we know that God loves us and wants the best for us because of what he has done for us in and through Jesus, we can have the confidence that despite the messiness in learning to grow up as Christians, we can proclaim the Good News of his Son Jesus Christ in word and deed to a world that desperately needs to hear it, all the while trusting that God’s will be done, sometimes in spite of us.

To be sure, there will be uncertainty and ambiguity as we live out our lives for Christ. But uncertainty and ambiguity should never translate into powerlessness and joylessness. To the contrary. We have the power of our Lord Jesus available to us at all times in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is why we are never abandoned. So let us never lose heart or hope or wring our hands in despair as Christians because we know that Jesus is our risen and ascended Lord who has defeated the dark powers, even the power of death, and who now rules over the cosmos. And during those times when Jesus’ lordship is not obvious to us, let us remember that it is obvious to God the Father who knows our hearts and who by his love has retaken his world in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son. We have God’s very testimony that this is true, which means that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen and ascended! The Lord is risen and ascended indeed! Alleluia!

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