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Sermon for May 28, 2017 (Ascension Sunday)

Scripture readings:
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:1-9 or Psalm 93:1-5; Eph. 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

By Lance McKinnon


Many Christians, it seems, suffer from “ascension deficit disorder.” Perhaps that’s because few churches celebrate Jesus’ ascension, which occurred 40 days after his resurrection and 10 days before the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost. One of the benefits of following the lectionary in our services is it causes us to remember the important events of the story of Jesus, and his ascension to heaven is one of them. Today, in accordance with the lectionary, is Ascension Sunday (the Sunday following ascension day). And so today we’ll look at Luke’s account of that great event.

“Ascension of Christ” by Cavedone
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“Ascension deficit disorder” among Christians is the result of many causes. I mentioned how churches fail to emphasize Jesus’ ascension. There are two other causes that come to mind as well:

  1. The problem of philosophical dualism. The idea that a human, flesh-and-blood person would ascend to heaven (thinking of heaven now as the realm of spirit) runs against the grain of the western mind, which tends to see a radical separation and even conflict between what is spiritual and what is physical. Thus the idea that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven is viewed as fantasy, or perhaps some sort of metaphor.
  2. The problem of human rebellion. That Jesus has ascended on high is an uncomfortable reminder that we earth-bound humans are not in charge. Our rebellious human nature does not like that—we want to be captains of our own ship. But the gospel declares that Jesus has indeed ascended to the Father’s right hand—the place of all power and authority—and there Jesus is declared Lord of all! This person Jesus, who continues to be fully human (though now glorified) as well as fully divine (the “God-man” as we say), cannot be spiritualized away. He is in charge of the physical, here and now, whether we acknowledge that reality or not.

An encounter with the risen Lord

Let’s go now to Luke’s Gospel where in Luke 24:44-49 we find Jesus meeting with his disciples in the time between his resurrection and ascension. Note Jesus’ words to them:

This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Note how Jesus tells them that all of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) point to him. The same can be said about the New Testament—the purpose of the written word of God (Scripture) is to point us to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is through Scripture that the risen Lord encounters us, as the Spirit opens our minds and hearts to understand who Jesus is and what he has done on our behalf. It is this encounter that fuels our proclamation. That’s true today as it was true for these disciples.

Notice how Jesus tells them to stay put in Jerusalem until he sends the promised Holy Spirit—the great event of Pentecost we’ll celebrate next Sunday. If the Spirit is not powering our proclamation of Jesus, we are left with an anemic “tooting” of our own horns. Notice too that Jesus does not send the Spirit until he first ascends to the Father.

The ascension of Jesus

Let’s go now to Luke 24:50-53:

When [Jesus] had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

There in Bethany, about a mile and a half outside Jerusalem, the disciples witness one of the great events in salvation history: Jesus’ ascension. Note here a key point: Jesus lifts his hands and blesses them. Also note an important detail—Jesus ascends while offering the blessing. Luke goes out of his way in many parts of his Gospel to show the universality of the gospel—and the ascension is no exception. When a priest of Israel would bless an individual, he would place his hands on that person. When blessing a group, he would naturally back up and raise his hands so as to cover the entire group. The larger the group, the further back and higher up he would stand to stretch his hands out to cover all for the blessing.

But now, Jesus, our High Priest, extends his hands and pronounces a priestly blessing while ascending “up into heaven.” He is thus extending the blessing to all humanity—all creation. No one is left outside our Lord’s blessing. All are included!

It’s important to note here that “heaven” is a reference to God’s presence. When we take seriously the union that we have with Christ which involves the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, we find Jesus and the Spirit working to bring us into the presence of God the Father. The statement “taken up into heaven” is not to be understood as Jesus leaving us to ourselves, but rather as what he, through the Spirit, is doing with us and for us to unite us with the Father in a new and fuller way.

The ascension of Jesus thus points to the blessing that is the work of both the Son and the Holy Spirit to bring all creation back to the Father. The ascension should not be viewed as the Father taking back his Son, or the Son “clearing out of town.”

The ascension of Jesus means that we are, in Christ and by the Spirit, forever in a face-to-face relationship with the Father. In the human person of his Son Jesus, the Father holds us all up as his precious and beloved children. As Karl Barth states, Jesus “returns to heaven, which is the dwelling of God in his creation.”

Let us not miss what Jesus brings us in his ascension—note Luke 22:52—the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.” They experienced that joy as they worshiped and so blessed the ascended Lord. As we read in Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Seeing Jesus ascend reassured them that Jesus was Lord and thus in charge. That was a source of reassurance and thus joy for them. It is also a source of joy for us (and, indeed, for all creation).

Conclusion: yielding all to our ascended Lord

The good news of ascension Sunday is that the wicked rule of fallen humanity, which has produced such groaning, has come to an end. We experience the kingdom reign and rule of this Lord as we yield our all to him, and that includes all our space, time and matter:

  1. Yielding our space. Fellowship is a way we can worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over space. There is great joy as we live a life of shared space. Hospitality is inviting others into our space for the sake of relationship. This is the blessed life we see in the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit have always lived in fellowship, sharing “space” together. We can now participate in that life of sharing as we fellowship with one another in our families, churches and communities.
  2. Yielding our time. Trust is a way we can worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over time. We trust Jesus with our time in the past. We trust that his rule extends to our past with his forgiveness and redemption. We trust our present time not to be absent from God’s presence. He is with us in every second of our day. We also trust Jesus with the future that he brings us into as he walks with us in the present.
  3. Yielding our matter. Gratitude is a way we worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over matter. We can be thankful for all we have because we know God is with us. As we live in gratitude, we are taking a posture of receiving. In this posture we are able to receive all the blessings poured out to us in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you can think of other ways to worship and bless the Lord in all your space, time and matter. I encourage you to do so, and as you do, may the ascended Lord Jesus lift you in all your space, time and matter to receive his life and presence of overflowing love from the Father and through the Spirit. Amen!

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