This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 28th May 2017. It follows the readings for Ascension.
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-53.
Ascension is one of those days in the liturgical calendar that many Uniting Church congregations appear to overlook. It’s there on the calendars, marked on my lectionary and on the two month-per-view calendars I have on my wall at the manse, one each from the Synods of Victoria-Tasmania and South Australia. Perhaps Evangelicals see this festival as a bit religious, a bit High-Church, more than a bit irrelevant to the cause of global evangelism. Perhaps it is that, unlike many other Christian festivals which move with the day of the year, Ascension is always on a Thursday and never on a Sunday. Good Friday, always a Friday is an exception because of what it is, and of course Christmas need not be Sunday to be Christmas, but otherwise if it doesn’t happen on Sunday it doesn’t seem happen at all.
I think that’s a shame: I like Ascension. I like what it represents and I like that it goes almost completely ignored by the world. I mean, if you aren’t a High-Church person now or you didn’t go to an Anglican or Roman Catholic school back in the day, you probably don’t know it exists at all. So, it’s one of ours, a day that the Church gets to keep for itself. We can worship God in the way we want, without interruption or compromise, and we get to eat all the lollies on our own and we don’t have to share them with anybody.
So, what is Ascension? Well in simple terms, and there is no need to be any more complicated than this, Ascension marks the day when Jesus returned to Heaven after the resurrection. Pretty much all of Christianity believes that after Jesus rose from the dead on that third day, the day now called Easter Day or Easter Sunday, Jesus wandered around with the disciples for seven weeks or so, popping up here or there, before finally giving the Great Commission to the readers of Matthew, and the assurance of the Holy Spirit to the readers of Luke, and then was taken bodily into Heaven. That’s one long sentence, because it’s one complete idea. The risen Jesus is the one who ascends; the one who walked out of the grave is a different sort if being from the one who was carried into it. More of that later.
Luke suggests in Acts 1:3-8 that Jesus ascends and descends many times in the forty days between the day of his resurrection and this final ascension ten days before Pentecost. I find this idea fascinating, and somewhat under-reported. If you’ve heard anything about the ascension before you know that it happened once, on the sixth Thursday after Easter. Jesus rose from the dead, hung about for forty days, and then was beamed up Star Trek style from a rock just outside Jerusalem. But Luke, and therefore the Bible, says something different. Luke says that Jesus came and went many times in those seven weeks, and that raises a question for me. Why did Jesus stop coming back after those forty days?
In the way that Luke reports it Jesus’ final ascension is an apocalyptic event with the cloud of presence and the angelic figures. So, does Acts 1:11 predict an apocalyptic second coming? He will return, just as you have seen him depart say the messengers. I don’t doubt that Jesus will return to the earth in glory, but I don’t think this is a proof text for it. Remember that Jesus has been up and down from Heaven on a frequent basis for the past six weeks; what I think this text says is that this will continue, even if less publicly. In other words, Jesus did not stop coming after the forty days, he just did it differently. Think of how Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9. Think, if you believe them, of the millions of accounts of Jesus appearing to people right up to our own day, many of them not Christian when he came. “Aha, but”, you might say, “Jesus appeared in person to the apostles; his appearances to Saul and the people in our day were only visions.” So, were Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus, and back in Jerusalem when Cleopas and friend returned, appearances in person or in vision? After all, in Luke 24:13-49 Jesus eats a piece of fish and breaks apart a loaf of bread in his hands, but he also appears and disappears suddenly and at will.
I’m not trying to tell you that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, I believe he did, but I am asking the question whether what we read in Acts 1:10 and Luke 24:50-53 really is the end of the story of the Christ in the world, or whether he indeed continues to come and go by the grace and will of God. Again, I say, the Jesus who walked out of the tomb is different in substance from the Jesus who was carried into it. The real, present, resurrected Jesus was not limited to one place at one time in the same way that the pre-crucifixion Jesus was; this is true of him today but I believe it might have been true of him in that six weeks too.
Forty is a number with Biblical significance: in Jewish philosophy, it tends to signify completion. Forty days and forty nights of flooding rain is sufficient to destroy all life on earth except the lives God personally saved. Forty years in the desert is sufficient to effect generational change in the Hebrews who left Egypt. Forty days in the wilderness takes Jesus to the brink of giving in to temptation, he has reached the very limit of human forbearance. Where in the Lord’s prayer we say, “save us from the time of trial” we mean “don’t push us beyond our limits, our ability to say no to evil.” For Jesus that limit was forty days or turmoil and starvation: his emptiness was complete. So, forty days between the opened tomb and the opened sky brings about the completion of the teaching and coaching ministry of Jesus the disciple-maker. Jesus returned to Heaven when the work was completed. And what was that work? Preparation of the 120 to receive the Holy Spirit.
That is why it does not surprise me at all to hear or read of Jesus returning to earth in our day. He comes for the same purpose, here time and again to continue to complete the work of preparing new generations of disciples to receive the Holy Spirit for the work of mission. I mean, look at Jesus’ last works in Luke (24:48-49) and Acts (1:4-5, 8): wait here in the place to which I have brought you until the Spirit takes you on to the next step with the Spirit’s power.
The power that Jesus promised to give the apostles is not the power to restore Israel to superpower status, but the power (boldness, authority security) to go with the good news of the Reign of God to neighbours, strangers, and aliens (Acts 1:8). Jesus does not intend to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6), he will restore Israel (and the world 1:8b) to the kingdom, by the word of the apostles’ witness. This is indeed what happens.
And this is where we see more of what Jesus has become in his resurrection. The new kingdom which the Church is heralding is characterised by embodied existence; Jesus is no ghost but neither is he a resuscitated corpse (Luke 24:39). And he has been raised by God, the great, complete, and unargued vindication of every word of his message. As I have heard it said, when a man walks out of his own grave to tell you something you want to pay attention to whatever he says. And as if more proof were required, the resurrected Christ then ascends publicly to the Father where he sits right beside God Godself. There is no higher proof that the message of Jesus is the whole truth of God, and therefore worthy of human worship (Luke 24:52). There is no higher proof that the promises he made will be fulfilled, the promise that he will be with us always, the promise that if we act according to his will he will complete the work because of us, the promise that we are loved, forgiven, and will ultimately be reunited with God in the new kingdom.
Paul gives thanks for the reputation of the love of the Ephesians for all the Church. This to me is evidence that the gospel has struck and stuck. The kingdom’s values are being lived out publicly, the disciples of Jesus are known for their character and they are unique. The Holy Spirit’s power is effective, the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled, and the news of the reign of God is going onward and outward. From Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria the gospel has reached and is filling Roman Asia with the news of God, the message is not too far from hitting the Ends of the Earth.
Paul prays for the Ephesian believers for wisdom and revelation as they come to know the Father so that they might see and understand the hope in the message of Jesus. That hope includes the story that the Church is empowered to continue the work of God, empowered with the same power that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place in Heaven. From being in the grave of an executed blasphemer and traitor Jesus is now enthroned beside God the King, and rightly so, because Christ is the head of all things. The ascension of Christ is the next state of his resurrection, a continuation of the process of vindication that not only is Jesus revealed as Christ the true messenger of God, but that he is Godself, the king and lord who was in flesh but is now in the fullest of glory. All that which was laid aside prior to the manger is now restored completely. This is the news that was proclaimed on Pentecost day and this is the news which is being proclaimed a generation later in Roman Asia.
Paul prays that the Ephesians, and I pray that the East Gippslanders know this. In Greek, this whole passage is one long sentence: one connected train of thought which we are supposed to hold together in our minds. We have been chosen by God, because of the work of Jesus who blesses us, to receive the free gift of redemption through grace, and the power to tell others where to get it for themselves, so that every member of creation might live a life full of hope, joy, and utter security.
I do believe in a second coming of Jesus. I’m not sure about the “Left Behind” model and I’m not a pre-Millennial, post-Millennial, ante-Millennial or any other sort of thousand-years person. Whether one day I will vanish in the blink of an eye, or bodily ascend like Jesus, or whether Jesus does what Jesus will do another way I am not bothered. Maybe I’ll not live to see the ultimate return of Christ at all and I’ll watch it all unfold from the old Heaven as the new one descends upon those of you who remain. But what I believe even more than the glorious apocalypse, the great and undoubted revelation of God as both Lord and King, is that Jesus has never stopped coming to earth to be with his own. Jesus does not walk with me like he walked with Peter, James and John, but neither is he watching us from a distance.
Ascension carries one strong and hope filled meaning for me. Emmanuel, God-with-us, he is still with us. Elvis may have left the building, but Jesus hasn’t gone away, and he never intended to.