The Sixth Sunday of Easter
• Acts 1:1-11
• Ephesians 1:15-23
• Luke 24:44-53
Today is Ascension Day. Ascension is the lost festival of the Church; not simply this year, for obvious reasons, but more generally. For the past few weeks, we have been celebrating our Lord’s resurrection and his triumph over death. What more is there to say? We sort of celebrate Pentecost because that is about what the Lord gives to us, but Ascension? We are not sure quite what to make of it.
It is St Luke who gives us the most detailed description of the event we are celebrating today. He describes it in both his Gospel and the book of Acts. St Luke tells us in our first reading from Acts that it was 40 days after the resurrection that the ascension took place. Jesus had risen from the dead, but he had not yet risen to his Father. He made use of this interval of 40 days, St Luke tells us, to present himself as ‘alive by many convincing proofs’ and to speak to his disciples about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
It is interesting (to me at least) to compare St Luke’s account in Acts with his account in his Gospel. In the Gospel, he records three appearances of our Lord to the disciples on the same day as the resurrection itself. Having written about the third appearance, St Luke immediately describes Jesus as leading the disciples as far as Bethany on the Mount of Olives where he takes his leave of them and ascends to heaven.
We now discover, however, that there were, in fact, 40 days in between the two events and that there was much that had happened in them. In his Gospel, St Luke deliberately passes over this period of 40 days only to tell us about it in our reading from the first chapter of Acts.
It is a reminder to us that neither the Gospel writers nor St Luke in the book of Acts tell us everything that happened in either the life of our Lord or at the beginning of the Church. The writers are highly and deliberately selective, as St John tells us he is being in his Gospel (John 21:25). There is so much more we would like to know. It is, however, sufficient for us to know that we have enough information to come to faith in Christ (John 20:30-31).
The fact, however, that St Luke includes the ascension in both his Gospel and the book of Acts shows that it is important. But in what way is it important?
You may have seen the drawings depicting the ascension in children’s books. They generally show our Lord standing on a cloud going up in the sky. Very often people make fun of this sort of Sunday School depiction, but what it is doing is attempting to put in visual form something that is hard to express fully in words.
With that limitation in mind, there are three aspects of the ascension that I want to highlight for Ascension Day:
The ascension, firstly, is about the return of our Lord to the Father. There is an image of Jesus that sees him as a highly gifted teacher whom God raised from the dead (in some sense, at least). His ‘going to heaven’ shows us what will happen to us too, if we but live the sort of life that Jesus told us we should.
The Bible’s understanding of Jesus, however, is not of a human teacher who somehow becomes divine, but of a divine person who becomes human. This coming Sunday, we will be looking at Jesus’ prayer in John chapter 17 immediately before his arrest. Jesus prays:
‘So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’ (John 17:5)
Jesus is now returning to where he belongs. We express this in the language of ‘going up’ to show that it is about his return to heaven, heaven being the home of his Father. But, and this is important, in the same way that Jesus was God become man dwelling among us, Jesus is now man dwelling with God. He ascends bodily into his Father’s presence. In this sense, the Sunday School pictures are not so far from the reality. While in this world, Jesus was God with humanity, now, in heaven, Jesus is humanity with God.
And he is humanity with God as one who experienced what it was like to be exactly like us ‘yet without sin’, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it (Hebrews 4:15). Again, as the writer of Hebrews expresses it, Jesus suffered like us and learnt obedience through that suffering (Hebrews 5:8-9).
Not only does Jesus give us an example of how we too should live. He takes the memory of that experience and suffering with him into heaven itself and into the presence of God. He understands what we are going through because he has been through it himself.
Secondly, though, the ascension is about more than Jesus returning to his Father, important though that is. It is about Jesus ascending to the throne of his Father and sitting at his right hand, having been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, as St Matthew puts it (Matthew 28:18). Or, as St Paul puts it in our second reading, Jesus is now:
‘ … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)
Jesus doesn’t just go and forget about us. He now reigns as the world’s leader. He is supreme over all things.
One of the amazing things about the early Church is just how quickly the first believers came to worship Jesus as the one who reigns over all things. Devout Jews, who were taught to worship the Lord their God and serve only him, now shared their loyalty to God and their worship of him with Jesus, and saw no contradiction in doing so.
John the Baptist said of Jesus, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). St John, in the book of Revelation, has a vision of a Lamb looking as if it had been slain. This is how St John describes the scene:
'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!'
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!'
And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshiped.’ (Revelation 5:11-14)
Our worship in this world, as Jesus’ followers, is joined with the worship of all of heaven. When we meet together as a Church, then, our focus should be on the ‘Lamb who was slain’ just as he is the focus of worship in heaven.
Sadly, though, all too often it is not. We have shifted the focus of our services from the worship of the Lamb to ourselves. It is now what we want from church services that matters most to us. So, we talk about what sort of liturgy, music, or sermons we like. We judge a service by its effect on us and what we get out of it, rather than on him who died for us and whose death, in every Eucharist we celebrate, we are proclaiming until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The worship of the Lamb and the proclamation of his death in it should, then, be our number one priority. The early Christians went to their death rather than worship anything or anyone else.
For some weeks now, we have not been meeting together for worship because of a modern-day plague. Plague, however, is nothing new in the history of the world. What is different in this one, however, is that in previous plagues the last thing to be cancelled were church services. This time, they were amongst the first.
(For the avoidance of any doubt. I am not saying that they should not have been cancelled.)
What I am saying is that perhaps the reason we found it so very easy to cancel our services was because our priority in church services has become ourselves. As long as we could get some of what we wanted by other means, then what was the problem? Did we stop, however, and ask how God might feel about the cancellation of his worship?
And no, virtual services or sermons online are not a substitute for physically worshipping together as the body of Christ. Why? Precisely because Jesus was raised physically, ascended physically, and left us with a Meal to remember him by that we eat and drink physically.
So, I am sorry, Christian, your safety is not the number one priority in all this, God is. And if your response is, ‘God wouldn’t want me to do anything that might cause me any harm, would he?’ You haven’t been listening to the Easter message.
Thirdly, there is, however, a problem with all of this. While it is great to think of our Lord reigning over all things and being worshipped by ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them’. The reality on earth appears very different to what St John saw in heaven. People do not worship God, and not only are they indifferent to him, they reject him outright and question his very existence. They pour scorn, or worse, on those who believe. And it certainly doesn’t feel as if Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth or that all things are under his control.
What we say and sing about in our worship doesn’t seem to match the reality of what we see in the world around us. We see wars, hatred, and violence; we see suffering, sickness, and death; we see poverty, injustice, and oppression. In our own lives, as those who believe in Christ, we know difficulty and tragedy firsthand. We cry out in pain. And in our pain, we question our faith.
Suffering is only too real in our world and a full answer will only be provided for it when our Lord returns. There are, however, a few things we can say in the meantime.
Most importantly, Jesus warned us that this was how it was going to be. This doesn’t make the suffering we see and experience any the less painful, but it does mean it is not a surprise. Jesus warned of the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ that would take place before he came again. He told them:
‘For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.’ (Matthew 24:7)
While, in his vision, St John saw our Lord reigning and being worshipped, he also saw visions of hunger, plague, disaster, and war. Jesus explained that these things would continue until he came again, and this is one of the reasons we long for his coming.
Sometimes, as believers, we offer a false optimism to people. I wrote this sermon shortly before taking a funeral of an old lady. Christians, at times of death, understandably turn to our Lord’s resurrection to find hope and comfort. In funeral services, the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 are often read:
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
We miss, however, the context of these words. St Paul has just written of how at the end of this age the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised. ‘Then shall come to pass,’ he writes, ‘the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory …’’
But that day is not yet. Again, as St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:
‘For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ (1 Corinthians 15:25-26)
We do see him reigning, but we do not yet see all his enemies under his feet (Hebrews 2:8). We do still suffer and die; we weep and mourn. But we do not do so as people who have no hope. The knowledge that Christ is ascended and reigning gives us confidence and hope as it did those for whom St John wrote down his vision of heaven.
It may seem as if the powers of darkness are in control, but the follower of Christ knows that the reality is very different.
Until we see all Christ’s enemies defeated, our role as his followers is to ‘proclaim his death until he comes’. We are to be his witnesses in this world, telling people that not only is Jesus risen and alive, but that he has ascended to his Father’s presence where he reigns and is worshipped. It is from here that he comes to us who believe in him to be with us as we seek to serve him. In his last words to his disciples, our Lord said to them:
‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33)
The Lord has ascended, but he has not left us. He is coming, as St John saw, at the end to right all wrongs and end all suffering. Then every eye shall see him and every knee shall bow. But he is coming before that to those who believe in him, who love him and keep his commandments. Coming, that is, with his Father to make his home with us and in us.
As, then, today we celebrate his ascension, we now await the ‘promise of the Father’ that Jesus told us about while he was still with us and which was given on the Day of Pentecost, 10 days from now. And we await with hope that Day when our Lord will come again and when the kingdom of the world will be become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15).
‘Amen, come Lord Jesus.’ (Revelation 22:20)