Sermon delivered on Ascension Sunday, May 13, 2018.
Lectionary texts: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven. But what’s that all about? Is St. Luke trying to tell us that Jesus was the first astronaut, zooming up into space? Not at all, and if we understand our Lord Jesus’ ascension in this literalist and linear way, we miss the point and are robbed of the vital power we need to live as Christians in a broken world. What does it mean for us to participate in God’s power play? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
If we are ever to understand by the grace of God what it means to be God’s people in Jesus, i.e., people with power, we must first understand what St. Luke is telling us about the Ascension in our NT and gospel lessons. He is not trying to suggest that Jesus was the first astronaut who gives his disciples one last glimpse of him by allowing them to see the soles of his feet. No, for St. Luke and the rest of the NT writers, Jesus’ ascension into heaven (God’s space) meant that Jesus was going to assume his rightful place as ruler of the cosmos. When St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson that God seated our ascended Lord at his right hand, he is telling us that Jesus is now Lord over both the visible and invisible powers, i.e., over all creation. Jesus is Lord precisely because on the cross, God defeated the forces of evil and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins, thanks be to God. This is the wisdom and power of God: the suffering and self-giving love that rescued us from utter destruction and our slavery to the dark powers that hate us and want to see us destroyed. But none of us would ever have known the power of crucified love had it not been for God raising Jesus from the dead that first Easter Sunday. As we have seen during this Eastertide, the cross needs the resurrection and the resurrection needs the cross. Without the resurrection, the cross would have meant that Jesus was just another failed Messiah wannabe. Without the cross, the resurrection would have been nothing more than a spectacular act of power on God’s part because we would remain in our sins and unreconciled with God so that death would be our destiny, not eternal life
Based on God’s power in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, St. Luke and St. Paul both remind us that now Jesus has returned to God’s space (heaven) to assume his rightful role as Lord of all creation and to rule until all God’s enemies have been defeated, death being the last and greatest of these enemies (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.26, 51-55). Can any of us think of a greater power than being able to destroy the power of death forever when the dead are finally raised to life? And who among us has the power to be reconciled to God given the desperately sick hearts with which we are all burdened (Jeremiah 17.9)? The answer, of course, is that none of us has this power, only God does.
So in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see the penultimate chapter in the story of God’s plan to rescue his good creation and its creatures gone bad, corrupted by human sin and rebellion and the evil it unleashed in the world. Now that the forces of evil had been defeated on the cross and Jesus validated as the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Son returned to the Father to assume his rightful role as Lord of all and to build on the work he had accomplished in his death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus’ ascension signaled to his followers and the world that God is in control of things in a new and definitive way. For those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts and minds to believe, God is again demonstrating his power to save and reminding us that the good guys are in charge, not the bad ones.
But the Ascension also meant that Jesus would no longer be available to his followers in the way he had been during his mortal life. He had to return to heaven to continue the work he started on his Father’s behalf. So why does St. Luke report that after Jesus’ Ascension his disciples were filled with joy? If we knew our loved one was going to be absent from us for a period of time, wouldn’t we be filled with sadness and anxiety? So why weren’t the disciples? The answer, of course, is that Jesus promised them the power of his presence with them in the coming of the Holy Spirit. While Jesus would be strangely absent from his followers, he would also be strangely present because he was going to send the Holy Spirit to mediate his presence with us. Father Bowser will presumably take up this theme next week. Or not.
And now we are getting ready to understand what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to be part of God’s power play and what that might look like. Being part of God’s power play means we are people who have been forgiven our sins and equipped with the power to reorient our lives away from ourselves, which would mean death, to God, which means life. Don’t misunderstand. This process is not automatic or neat and clean. We are a profoundly broken people, but God’s healing power and love for us is far greater. To be part of God’s power play means we have the power and person of Jesus always available to us, even in our darkest moments of anxiety and fear, healing us, loving us, and equipping us to lead the cross-shaped lives he calls us to lead. He gives us this power because he calls us to continue his kingdom work by announcing repentance and the forgiveness of sins and bringing Christ’s love and presence to his sin-sick world. We are tempted to shake our heads about all this, of course. If Jesus is Lord, he is doing a really lousy job of it. Look at the mess this world is in! But this misses the point of the Ascension. The first Christians knew the world was in bad shape. St. Paul, after all, wrote about the dark powers being defeated while he was in prison! He certainly knew the reality of evil, but because he knew the risen Christ present to him both on the road to Damascus and in the power of the Spirit, he also knew that evil had been ultimately defeated.
What the Ascension means for us in terms of power is that we are given the tremendous privilege of being real human beings again and doing the work that God always intended and called us to do. We are to rule the world by reflecting God’s love and goodness into it. That God did not put the world to rights with the wave of God’s hand is a testimony to the worth God assigns us as his image-bearers. In and through Christ, God did what was impossible for us to do: rescue us from ourselves and our slavery to sin and evil. Now God calls us to continue the work of bringing in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. That’s a mighty tall order and it is impossible for us to do this on our own. We simply don’t have the power to get the job done.
But we are not called to bring in the Kingdom on our own nor are we given the task of bringing in the Kingdom in full so that all the darkness in our lives and God’s world are totally vanquished. Only God can do that when Jesus returns to consummate his saving work started in his earthly ministry. No, the kind of power we wield is the kind of power Jesus wielded and if we get this right, it will help us better understand how the power of God works and why quest-ions about the ability of Jesus to rule as Lord of all creation miss the point of the Ascension. The kingdom will come on earth as in heaven as the Church—you, me, and all other Christians—engage the world as Christ did. It means we go out as vulnerable, suffering, praying, praising, misunderstood, misjudged, and even hated people. But we are people of power, God’s power, and that means we go out into the world as forgiven and beloved people, and therefore as people with real hope. Consequently we are always celebrating despite our setbacks and failures because we know how the story ends. As God’s people, then, we are given power to forgive where no forgiveness is warranted. We are given power to bless when cursed. We are given power to love instead of hate and to offer the same crucified love to others that Christ offered to us. We are given power to have a tender and compassionate heart, especially to those who least deserve it. We are given power to be patient and kind and gentle, even when we know this makes us vulnerable to exploitation. We are given power to resist temptation and to refuse to make and worship our own idols like the world does. It means we have power to heal all kinds of disorders and to celebrate even when confronted by death because we know we bear in us both the scars and the life of our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior. And when by God’s grace we know that we share both in Christ’s death and risen life because we are forgiven and redeemed, we have power over anxiety that the world simply cannot possess or understand because the world neither recognizes or acknowledges this kind of power.
None of this is easy or straightforward. We don’t get to waltz through life without hassles, heartaches, and defeats. It just doesn’t work that way. Therefore we have to read and study the Scriptures, and learn how to pray, worship, and engage in real fellowship with each other, all the while trusting God’s grace to produce in us the needed faith and knowledge about these things we cannot understand on our own. And when we finally start to grapple with the realization we are people who possess God’s power to love, forgive, bless, and redeem, it can make all the difference in the world for us. We should therefore never be timid about sharing with all and sundry the Good News of which the Ascension is a part, precisely because we know God’s power to heal and restore in our own lives, however imperfectly that might look. After all, God is a God who calls into existence things that do not exist and raises the dead to life. So nothing in our life is too hard for God, even if it is too hard for us when we rely on our own power. The Ascension reminds us of this reality. Despite our doubts and fears, despite the messiness of our lives and the world in which we live, we are reminded of the dignity and nobility of being human in the eyes of God and God’s promise to rescue us and all creation from all that is evil and opposed to God’s good will and purposes for us. Because we are people of power who enjoy Christ’s love and presence with us in the power of the Spirit, we can learn to find real joy in the people and events and opportunities that the Spirit puts in our path. Because Jesus is Lord we know that nothing in our lives is ever coincidental or serendipitous. We are all connected and therefore have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the love and power of God. And because Jesus is Lord and we are not, we never have to despair when our best efforts and intentions apparently do not bear any results: We pray and our prayers are not answered in the manner we hoped. We offer forgiveness but it is not reciprocated. We are bedeviled by besetting sins. We offer Truth and receive shame and derision in return. Without the power of the Lord Jesus who is with us in the presence of the Spirit, we would surely be overcome with despair. But we are crucified and resurrected people who share the King’s power, and who enjoy his real presence in the power of the Spirit given to us. And because we have this power, we are not overcome because we know even the gates of hell cannot overcome the Risen and Ascended Lord of all creation, thanks be to God! Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen and ascended! The Lord is risen and ascended indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.