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.