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!

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