What Does Jesus’ Ascension Have To Do With Us?
This Ascension Sunday sermon is based on Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on May 4, 2008.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today we talk about the Ascension of Jesus, one of the most important happenings in the life of Jesus and the history of the Church. What was the Ascension, why did it take place, and what does it mean for our lives today?
In the church calendar, this past Thursday is the official date to celebrate the Ascension. It is precisely 10 days before the Festival of Pentecost. There was a time when church folk would naturally want to come out for a mid-week worship celebration in honor of the Ascension. But the busyness of our lives in today’s world means that most congregations, if they remember the Ascension at all, do so today, the closest Sunday to the actual day. Here’s the main reason for our wanting to celebrate the Ascension: Next Sunday we celebrate the third most important festival in the entire church year, Pentecost. In my mind, celebrating Pentecost without having paused to remember the Ascension is like celebrating the Resurrection without having paused at the Cross. You won’t appreciate and understand unless you see their significance together.
St. Luke wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. I think it is significant that he ends his gospel with the account of the Ascension and he begins Acts by re-telling the Ascension story as part of the beginning of the Christian Church. The Ascension then is a cap to the earthly ministry of Jesus and it is a prelude to the next part of God’s plan.
Back in 1969, I was in the Holy Land with a tour group hosted by my parents. I remember when the tour bus dropped us off at a little shrine dedicated to the Ascension. It’s on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. For a fee, you can enter the shrine and see the spot they say Jesus ascended from. Amazingly, you can see Jesus’ footprints there in cement. I remember that so well because I have a picture of me standing there holding the morning’s newspaper that had a front page picture of an American rocket blasting off on a mission to the moon. Somehow my college sophomore mind thought there was some significance there…
The picture we have of Jesus’ leaving this earth is this: the disciples and probably many more were with him and he gives final instructions. Stay together and wait. Not many days from now you will receive the promise of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then he ascends up into the clouds.
Jesus’ leaving them could have been a real low point and time of mourning and loss, like what they experienced after his crucifixion and death. Except, this time, he give them hope through a promise of what is to come. Jesus didn’t believe in time tables, but this time he said definitely it would come in a short time. And we say it was 10 days later that the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, the true beginning of the Christian Church.
One Bible commentator proclaims that the Ascension is the exclamation point on the exaltation of Christ that opens with the Resurrection. For Christ’s exaltation (his rising to the right hand of God in heaven) to be complete, Jesus must leave his disciples and this earthly existence. His Ascension then is about transcending this life. Jesus is no longer present with us as he was (we say he is not here incarnationally, in the flesh). His Resurrection is fulfilled now in two ways: he transcends to the Father at the Ascension; and he will be with us forever in the form of the Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost.
What does it mean for us today that Jesus ascended? The answer came today from St. Paul in our second lesson. Paul wrote to the Church at Ephesus and speaks about the power that has been entrusted to Jesus Christ now that he has returned to his heavenly place. Jesus Christ is now in the cosmic dimension, fighting the fight between good and evil. Paul tells us that Christ’s exaltation gives him dominion over all things and makes him head of the Church. He has been exalted to the heavens in order that God’s power is accessible to us on earth.
Here’s the point: we can now pray to Jesus. Jesus possesses the power to make all things happen in heaven and on earth. Next week you are going to hear about the wonderful call Jesus has for His Church. How he wants to bless the world, through us.
One of the serendipities that came to me this week as a result of rereading the accounts of the resurrection and ascension in Luke was this: 2 men in dazzling white clothes. They were there after Jesus ascended and said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
When you read Luke’s account of the empty tomb, he records this: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen…”
There is another place in Luke’s gospel where two there are two figures in dazzling white that appear with Jesus. At the Transfiguration the two figures are Elijah and Moses. We have always thought the two figures in dazzling white clothes at the tomb and at the Ascension were angels. What did Luke think? Could he have had a divine inspiration that Moses and Elijah were given a role to play beyond their earthly lives that included the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension? We’ll never really know, but I love those kinds of wrestling with new possibilities for how God works.
The Ascension of Jesus is part of God’s unfolding plan. We who are on this side of the Ascension and Pentecost can rejoice that Jesus returned to heaven in order that he might return in an even greater way. We rejoice that he is present today in the form of the Holy Spirit, and that he works his power and mercy in the world through us.
Thanks be to God. Amen!