This will be my Ascension Sunday sermon at Grace Anglican Church.
Introducing the Ascension
Thursday this last week was Ascension Day, when Jesus was taken up, body and soul, into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. As the book of Acts tells us, Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Those forty days after Easter finished on Thursday. What happened that day, Luke goes on to describe in Acts 1:
Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The disciples were looking forward to the re-founding of the Kingdom of Israel, but Jesus corrected them, saying that they will not be given political power to set up an earthly kingdom, but that they would be given spiritual power to set up a heavenly kingdom. Rather than being princes, they would be witnesses. Rather than training an army, they would be training more disciples. Rather than sending military campaigns throughout the world, they would be sending missionaries. Make no mistake, they were commissioned to build God’s Kingdom. What turned out differently than they expected was that the population of that Kingdom is no longer Jews only, but all who believe in Christ; the territory of the Kingdom is no longer limited to the ancient boundaries of Israel and Judea; the enemies of the Kingdom are no longer human beings, but spiritual beings.
This is still the case today. To be worshiper of God you don’t have to be Jewish or become Jewish; the Kingdom of God is bigger than what we commonly call “the Holy Land”; our enemies are not flesh and blood, but the spiritual rulers and authorities and powers behind the visible things of this world. This means even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, is not our enemy; he was a mere human, like us, who got caught up too deeply in the machinations of the Evil One. He is still responsible for actions, as are we all. We each have to choose our allegiance: do we pay fealty to the Kingdom of God and bow before the throne where Christ is seated, or do we obey the alluring powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil?
Perhaps a different metaphor is in order here. We speak of Kingdoms a lot, in the Church, and while that is a biblical and accurate way to speak of Christ and his Gospel, sometimes it helps to bring it a little closer to our own experience. So I’d like to make an analogy for you. Think of the life and work of Jesus in terms of schooling. Even in the letter to the Hebrews, this analogy is hinted at: “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” So think of Jesus’ death on the Cross as the final exam. It, above all other signs and teachings, was the ultimate test of if Jesus really was who he claimed to be. The resurrection, three days later, was like getting the exam results back: he passed with flying colors! He then had forty days to spend time with his disciples until graduation day, when he ascended into heaven. His earthly ministry was finished, and his heavenly ministry had begun.
But from the perspective of his disciples, still on earth, that leaves this strange period of time between Ascension Day and Pentecost Day. Jesus had told them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So there they were in Jerusalem, waiting, praying, and wondering what exactly would happen. They had been promised the power of the Holy Spirit, and probably had a sense of what that might be like, having participated in the Spirit-filled ministry of Christ for the past three years or so. But it was still an unknown future before them. It’s like that time between graduation and starting the new job, or getting married, or whatever comes next.
In the Church today, we re-live that ten-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost with a time of special prayer. We began our worship service this morning with the Great Litany for that very reason; it’s a special time of more focused and intentional prayer. For the most part, though, we’re looking ahead to Pentecost and praying for the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon us. Yes, we look back to the Church’s first Pentecost described in Acts 2, and yes we celebrate the fact that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who have believed and been baptized, yet we continue to pray for growth and strengthening of the Spirit’s work within us and among us. The Kingdom of God is still being built, and we are his laborers. Celebrating the Day of Pentecost is kind of like renewing our employment contract: we pledge our loyalty to God, and God pledges his gifts of grace to us. And, as with every holiday like this, echoes of these pledges are made in every corporate worship service, be it weekly or daily.
Preparing for Pentecost
So we have one more week until Pentecost. On that day we will celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit not only in the past, but the present as well. We’ll be baptizing William here next week, bringing another precious soul into God’s Kingdom. We will pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life, and as we commit him to Christ, we recommit ourselves to Christ as well. In the meantime, as we prepare for that day, we ought to be praying earnestly for the work of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our community. To help us with that, I want to point out some Scripture readings that the past few weeks have brought to our attention.
Half-way through the Easter season, the Gospel readings at our Sunday Communion services have been from the “upper room discourse” in the Gospel of John. There, in chapters 15 & 16, Jesus tells us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit whom he was promising to his people.
On April 19th we heard about how the Holy Spirit would transform our sorrow into joy. This was true not only in the fact that the disciples got to see Jesus resurrected from the dead, but also as a feature of the ministry of the Spirit: revealing Christ to us as a source of joy, even when our lives might otherwise be grievously upsetting.
On April 26th we heard Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be a Helper, or an Advocate. In those capacities, the Spirit convicts the world about Christ, leads us into all truth (that is, the way of Christ), and reveals the true nature of divinity: that the Father is God, Christ the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Thus the Holy Spirit both provides and enables the entirety of our faith and religion.
Last week we heard Jesus’ statement that he will be with the Father, meaning we can pray to the Father in the name of Jesus and be assured that he will hear us. This doesn’t mean Jesus is our magical good luck charm, but that when we enter into true and authentic prayer, Jesus is right there with us. He told us that so that we might have peace, knowing that he has overcome the world. So now the only thing that can ever come between you and God is your own back.
And finally today we heard from the Gospel of John that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to be a witness of Christ, to make us witness for Christ, and to keep us with Christ through times of trial. Rather than falling away, turning our backs on God when times get tough, the Holy Spirit is with us to encourage us with the truth of Christ and strengthen us with the Gospel.
a Prayer Assignment
So as you prepare for the Day of Pentecost, next week, consider these themes in prayer. Does God intend to refresh your joy in the midst of sorrows? Does God intend to awaken deeper faith within you, or increase your religious devotions in word and deed? Is God calling you to turn around, and look at him, and finally listen to him rather than to the lies of this world? Is there encouragement and spiritual strength that you lack, which the Holy Spirit can give or replenish? Take these questions up with God this week. Read John chapters 14 through 17 on your own to revisit all these rich teachings and promises about the Holy Spirit, straight from the Lord Himself. And as you are drawn deeper into the identity and ministry that God has for you, remember the words of St. Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”