Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension Day used to be a major holiday, and it’s still a public holiday in those countries in Europe which keep the connection of church and state. It’s kept a holiday so that people have off from work to go to church. Well, in America we don’t have the mind for such things anymore, and we think we don’t have the time for such observances, so we mark it on the Sunday following, which is today. But we still mark it because the Ascension of Jesus is an important doctrine and one of the major facts and mysteries in the Apostles Creed.
It strikes me that as you work your way down the Apostles Creed the things in it get gradually harder to believe. I mean it’s not that hard to believe that God created the heavens and the earth. Most people on the planet believe that, in one form or another. It’s not that hard to believe that Jesus was born of a Virgin; modern biology has begun to mimic that all the time in laboratories, and some species of creatures have always generated life that way. It’s not hard to believe that Jesus suffered and was crucified and buried. That’s actually attested in the documents of history.
But then you get to the resurrection, and that’s harder to believe, at least if you take it as it was first proclaimed, that he was resurrected in his body, not just in his soul. And then the Ascension is even harder to believe. Not if you just believe that Jesus went to heaven in his soul, because that kind of idea is assumed by most of the religions on the planet, and even by many of the philosophies. But to believe that he ascended into heaven in his body; that’s more difficult, and it’s much harder to imagine. It’s beyond our reckoning, both in its character and its meaning. And its meaning is complex.
But the Bible treats it as important. St. Luke is the most careful historian in the Bible, and he reports it twice, in our first reading from the Book of Acts and in our Gospel reading. And then the meaning of it is set out several times, especially by St. Paul, and especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which the Ascension is a controlling theme. And neither St. Luke or St. Paul had seen it with their own two eyes. The other apostles all had seen it, but not those two, for they were not yet believers when it happened. So they are the ones who best communicate it to the rest of us, throughout the centuries, who would never see it either.
It happened between Easter and Pentecost. We think of those as Christian holidays, but for the disciples they were still the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuoth. It was forty days after Passover and ten till Shavuoth. You can see the Ascension as the completion of Easter and the prerequisite of Pentecost. The Ascension is about both body and soul, and flesh and spirit. It’s the vindication of Jesus in the flesh and his inauguration as the giver of the Holy Spirit. The Ascension is about both history and eternity. It’s about history in his coronation as the Messiah of Israel and about eternity as his exaltation as the Son of God. It’s both a completion and a commencement. It’s the completion of his special work on earth, for which the Lord became a human being and incarnated in human flesh, and one of us, and it’s the commencement of his special work in heaven, at the right hand of his Father, the work for which he maintains his incarnation, the work for which he is still a human being, still one of us.
For us. And how for us? Four things today. Purpose and power, and comfort and joy. Let me start with purpose and power. The Ascension is for our purpose as Christians, and for the power we have to do our purpose.
Our purpose as Christians is to be witnesses. Witnesses to his Lordship and witnesses of what life is like within the Kingdom of God. Witnesses of what life can be whenever we honor him as Lord. For a few of us with special callings, that witness is witnessing in the narrow sense of proclamation or evangelism. That has its place, but it is not for everyone. It is for those who are given special gifts for that, as it is explained in a chapter four of this epistle. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel called to go out and do that kind of witnessing. There is a much more challenging kind of witnessing which is for most of us, and that’s the witnessing that you do in terms of daily human life. What you buy, and why you buy it. What you spend, and why you spend it. How you eat, and why you eat that way. Who gets invited to your table, and why. Whom you serve, and why you serve that way. Whom you love and how you love and why you love that way. How you sing and dance. What you rejoice about it, what you take pleasure in. What you suffer, and how you suffer, how you deal with those who make you suffer and how you deal with the pain from it. How you deal with loss and how you deal with abundance, how you deal with death and how you deal with birth, how you are a human being, what it means to be a human being in the world of which Jesus is the Lord. That kind of witnessing is challenging, and needy people notice it.
That’s your purpose, and to fulfill you purpose you are given power. That power comes from the Holy Spirit, which I will say more about next week, on the feast of Pentecost. But the gift of Pentecost depends on the Ascension, for Jesus went to heaven make room for us, and to send the Holy Spirit to empower us who take his place. This power is not given you just for anything. And if you crave it you will not get it. It is the power to be a witness, which includes the power to face your losses and your death, as well as your successes and abundance, which are more difficult.
His Ascension is for comfort and for joy. For comfort, because the Lord of heaven and earth is a wounded human being, who bears our flesh and feels our frailty, but who is fully able to guide the world to his chosen goal. So despite what’s in the news, despite how fearful the world may get, or your distress with how things are going, your disappointment by your own personal performance, your lack of success in many things, the aging of your body, the fraying of your relationships, and the frustration of your aims, you can take comfort in his Lordship. It’s hard to believe, but you can believe him, and from the step of belief you can take the step of worshiping him, and that you will discover that worshiping him comes back to you in comfort.
And for joy. We read that the disciples departed with great joy, despite all that they did not understand. How joyful are you in your life? One of the chief goals of the Christian life is joy. Why are you a Christian? “To be joyful,” that has to be a great part of your answer. And here’s the deal: if you want to be more joyful, increase the measure of the Lordship of Jesus in your life. The joy in your life is a function of his Lordship in your life. Here’s a take home for today: If you want more joy, then you want more Lordship.
Let me encourage you to choose this joy. I don’t mean just enjoyment, not just entertainment, not the idolatry of fun and pleasure to which we are in bondage in America, but joy. Deep joy in the soul. Self-forgetting joy, like self-forgetting love, a joy that cannot be defended nor fully be explained. This joy hangs on Jesus’ Lordship. It is not spontaneous, and you cannot generate it in yourself. You have to choose for it, and that means choosing against some other precious things to you. If you want it, seek his Lordship. Learn the life within his kingdom. Learn to trust his kind of power and praise his kind of greatness and kneel before his love. It always comes down to love. For myself, I have so much joy in my life because I experience so much love in my life, and because I believe in his Lordship, I can see how all that love in my life has its source in God’s inexpressible and irrepressible love for us.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.