It has been two-millennia since Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. Since then, a lot has changed. On the other hand, we are still in the same situation as the early church: Jesus is still up there, and we are still down here. What that means for us is this: Because we still await Christ’s return, the original call and practice of the church is still in effect.
As far as experiences go, it would be hard to top being one of the original disciples and see Jesus ascend into heaven (Acts 1:1-11). Christ was crucified, dead, and buried; he rose from the grave. For forty days Jesus appeared on and off to his disciples. Then the day came when he ascended to heaven, in full view for all the disciples to see. All those powerful experiences of being with the risen Lord and seeing him ascend into the clouds! Now what? How do you top that?
In the spiritual life, we move back and forth between moments of genuine inspiration and the sheer routine of our daily mundane lives. Both uplifting mountain-top experiences and the hard slog of walking through the valley are important. The trick is to channel the energy from one into the other. We need to work out rhythms of grace that connect expectant prayer with the action of being witnesses.
Prayer and witness – both are necessary for the church; and, are closely tied to the risen and ascended Christ. The ascension of our Lord Jesus means Christ is exalted above everything. His glorification translates into our sharing with him in his glory. The ascension means Jesus is in charge. By his authority he has made us prayerful witnesses and given us the means of carrying-out that job.
Jesus and the disciples, even after our Lord’s forty days with them after the resurrection, were not on the same page. The disciples were anticipating a restoration of David’s kingdom. Their vision for the future was a great apocalypse in which Jesus, as the ultimate mixed martial arts champion, would beat up all their enemies. Then, set up a political kingdom just like King David of old.
However, Jesus had a different agenda. Instead of creating an immediate utopia where the disciples would be in charge and in control, Jesus bluntly told them that knowing God’s timetable is not in their pay grade. The disciples were commissioned for a job, which did not include gawking at the sky and figuring-out when to expect the end of the world.
Although we understandably and deservedly want peace and justice now, Jesus avoided handing out prophecy charts detailing when that would happen. He essentially said to quit thinking about that stuff; it is really none of our business. Instead, our business is being witnesses of Jesus. The angels came along immediately after Jesus ascended and said to the disciples to stop standing there slack jawed. Jesus is coming back and, meanwhile, there is a job to do – to be witnesses of Christ’s redemptive events. And, the strength of that witness will come from the Holy Spirit. So, hang tight in prayer.
I will share with you my understanding of what it means to be a “witness.” I was once called to an emergent situation with an actively dying patient. The patient’s spouse and parents were present. In the space of two hours I watched them in the throes of grief. And I provided all the spiritual support I could. The situation had similarities to many emergencies I have attended, with one exception: I noticed that I was different. I did not “do” or “say” a lot. Mostly, I was present. I remember the feeling, at one point, of helplessness. In some ways I was. I certainly could not fix a thing. Yet, I saw my role in a new way this time around.
I distinctly remember the sense of bearing witness. There was an entire world outside the patient room that knew nothing of this family’s intense grief. But I knew. I watched the whole thing. I was present for all the struggles of the medical team, the tears of the husband, the grief of a Dad, the angry questions of a mother toward a God that she didn’t know how to approach – who seemed aloof and capricious. I was there for it all. And I still carry those folks and their story in my heart. That was enough.
Yes, it was enough. This was the first time I ever said that after such a situation. I had this very settled sense that the role of bearing witness to the events in front of me, being a witness, was a blessed and sacred responsibility. Billions of people on planet earth did not know the grief of these people. I did. I was there. There is something both mystical and necessary about this understanding of being a witness with active prayerful observation.
I wonder if that is how the disciples felt after Christ’s ascension. Perhaps my experience is what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Maybe it is serving in the special role of observing the suffering of Christ, his resurrection of the dead, and the ongoing work of the Spirit.
God is, I believe, the ultimate witness. When no one else sees, God sees. Where there is grief, he is present. Wherever pain, hurt, and brokenness exists, God is there bearing witness to it all. Sometimes he is gracious to invite me into the scene to witness it along with him. Jesus is our Immanuel – God with us. And that is enough for me.
In the book of Acts, praying and witnessing was a consistent pattern that the early church practiced. They prayed about whom to choose as leaders and bore witness to the Spirit setting individuals apart for the work of gospel proclamation and service to the church. They prayed for the Holy Spirit to come on people and bore witness to miraculous signs of the Spirit’s work. They prayed for the courage to preach and heal and bore witness to the saving work of God.
As the book of Acts unfolds, we see Peter imprisoned for being a witness. The church went to prayer. Peter was released, and when he showed up at the prayer meeting the believers at first did not believe it was him. Even with their little faith they were able to witness God answer their prayers (Acts 12:1-18). It was at a prayer meeting where Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the Spirit to bear witness in other locations (Acts 13:1-3). While traveling from city to city, Paul constantly devoted himself to prayer and listened to the Spirit (Acts 16:1-35). People came to Christ because of prayerfully listening to the Spirit and the obedient action that followed by Peter, Paul, and the other believers giving witness to how the risen Christ saved their lives.
This was all possible because of the risen and ascended Christ. There is not one square inch of all this earth that Jesus is not Lord. This means we can be alive with devotion to prayer and to being witnesses in this world for Jesus. Just as a cup of coffee needs a warm-up, so our prayers need to be refreshed so that God’s purposes will be accomplished. And his purposes are that all of creation comes, in a real and practical way, under Christ’s lordship.
As God does his gracious work of gathering people into his kingdom, we have the wondrous privilege of bearing witness to his merciful and transforming power. The psalmist actively observed God’s activity in the world, and gave this witness:
God is setting the lonely in families;
leading out prisoners with singing….
When you, God, went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel.
You gave abundant showers, O God;
you refreshed your weary inheritance.
Your people settled in it,
and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor. (Psalm 68:6-10)
What does the ascension of Jesus Christ mean for us today? That we belong to God and have the wondrous privilege of prayer and witness in a world that so desperately needs to connect with their spirituality.
You were dead through the trespasses and sinsin which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
In the wake of recognizing and remembering Ascension Day, Christ’s ascension to heaven, we must linger a bit with the implications of that great redemptive event for us. Today’s New Testament lesson from the letter to the Ephesians is a wondrous place to do some holy loitering.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church and gave them a theological explanation of their true position as Christians. They were once located in the realm darkness, the place of disobedience and selfishness. Now, however, as believers in Jesus Christ, they have been relocated to the realm of light, the place of love and kindness. This major relocation project is the direct effort of God’s merciful initiative. Jesus descended in his incarnation and lived at the garbage dump with us. Christ’s life and death delivered us from that putrid existence. Jesus ascended to heaven. He did not leave us in the dump.
The rich theology which Paul expresses to the Ephesians is so robust that he makes up new words just to try and communicate it. Through God’s gracious action he “made us alive together with Christ,” “raised us up with him,” and “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul took words and smashed them together to create new compound words to try and communicate the amazing reality of the Christian’s position in Jesus Christ. In English, we need to use several words to translate Paul’s original compound words.
Paul used new words because he was expressing a new reality. Ascension is more than Christ’s own – he, spiritually, takes us with him. We belong with him. Our union, our intimacy, with Jesus is so vitally connected that what happens with Jesus happens with us. With Jesus as the Head of the Church, and we as the Body of Christ, there is absolutely no separation between the two.
The implications of this understanding are tectonic:
Since God’s action was done out of love, our spiritual DNA has love written all over it. We no longer feel as if we must manipulate, cajole, or twist arms to be noticed and have our needs met.
Since God is rich in mercy, we have a new place to live – with Christ – and no longer hang out in the shame lounge drinking cheap wine and smoking nasty cigars.
Since God has given us new life in Christ, we are aware of our position and now can deliberately choose to participate with him in a mind-blowing, gut-busting, heart-exploding divine/human adventure beyond what we could ever have imagined. We no longer are in the position to create selfish agendas and ignore the common good of all humanity.
Since God has picked us up, cleaned us up, and sat us down next to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the triune God showing kindness to us and so many others. We no longer have a truncated worldview which sees only pain and heartbreak.
Since God has orchestrated deliverance from the old life; since Christ has achieved that deliverance for us; and, since the Spirit has awakened us – we now have a new life thoroughly imbibed with the medicine of faith, the healing power of hope, and the elixir of love. With grace binding our lives together with God, no more judging, blaming, shaming, nor hating need occur anymore.
Since we belong to God, we enjoy all the love of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the vigor of the Holy Spirit. We have risen above all the terrible muck of sin and given a new place to live. Since Jesus ascended, we ascend with him. Praise be to God!
As people, we live into who we believe we are. We are the precious children of God, redeemed and adopted into a divine family. May we live up to our position in Jesus Christ.
Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from returning to the pig pen of an old life. May I be ready in both body and soul to freely choose things which belong to your purposes of love; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginninguntil the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While stayingwith them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have 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, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set 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, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted–up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV)
Jesus was taken up to heaven in what Christians celebrate as the “Ascension of the Lord.” It is hugely important for followers of Jesus because it means that Christ is now presently sitting at God’s right hand offering continual prayers on our behalf to the Father. We have an advocate, a champion who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. This is no small thing. On top of it all, Christ’s ascension means that Jesus is the universal ruler; he commands a kingdom which will never end. Yes, it is a big deal.
So, why does a day set aside on the Christian Calendar celebrating the Lord’s mighty and redemptive ascension over all creationgarner such little attention from many churches? Perhaps the clue is the disciples’ response when Jesus ascended. The picture that Luke paints for us in the account of our Lord’s ascension is a group of guys looking up into the sky slack-jawed and shoulders hunched. It took a couple of angels to come along andask them what in the world they were doing just standing there. Now is not the time to stand and gawk at the clouds, the angels insisted. Jesus will come back when he comes back. You aren’t going to know when. So, now is the time to get busy with what Jesus just told you two minutes ago to do: Tell everyone about me.
The Ascension of the Lord is a deeply theological event; it is freighted with major implications for our prayer lives; and, it means that Christ is the King to whom we must obey. And he is coming again. In the meantime, there is to be no cloud-gawking. Instead, there is to be a well-developed and well-cultivated connection with Jesus which proclaims good news that Christ died, rose from death, and ascended to heaven for mine and your forgiveness of sins and a new clean slate on life.
Believers in Jesus are not to be found standing and gawking at the clouds waiting for the Lord’s return, as if we are in some earthly holding tank until heaven. Rather, we are to bear witness about the person and work of Jesus.The Ascension of the Lord means we are God’s people blessed with deliverance from the realm of sin, and the hope of Christ’s coming again. The Church everywhere recognizes together the rule and reign of the Lord Jesus.
The world as we know it shall eventually come to an end. Until that time, Christians since the time of the ascension have been proclaiming Christ crucified, died, risen, ascended, and coming again. This is a day of joy and celebration for us. Jesus is our ascended and glorified king!The fate of the earth is with the benevolent and mightyRuler of all. Jesus is Lord, and no other human leader is. Thank you, Jesus.
The Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 49, states:
Q: How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A: First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Amen.
Click Ancient of Days sung by Ron Kenoly for an oldie but goody on this Ascension Day.