St. Luke 24:49
by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.
You may be too young to remember pop beads—the plastic multi-color beads that could be snapped together to make bracelets or necklaces of any length. They could be all one color or completely random depending on your whim. There was no “right way” to connect them. Children’s stacking toys were completely different. The set we had was made up of round cups, each one slightly smaller than the one before so that they could be stacked like a pyramid, or one could be inserted in another to make one box. But to stack or insert them correctly they had to be in the correct order. Our boys just thought the stacking cups were one more thing to set up so it could be kicked down.
Now the various parts of God’s work of salvation are like those cups. Some people think the Bible is like random pop beads—just separate things that happen with no connection whatever—and the mark of a good Bible teacher or preacher is to come up with new and creative ways to connect them. But the Bible is really more like the stacking cups. The Bible tells us about God’s great acts of salvation that are all accomplished by Jesus Christ, and they all come to their climax in the work of Christ on the Cross when he cries out, “It is finished!” Each one builds on the other, but they also all fit together so that Christ’s work of salvation is really only one thing—like all the stacking cups that can be collapsed and fit inside each other to make one cup.
As we are moving through the Church Year we came last Thursday to the celebration of the Ascension of Christ—that he truly, physically, literally, and without benefit of a space suit and breathing apparatus left the ground and slowly disappeared through the clouds and went into heaven. That was his victory procession as he re-entered heaven to the shouts and cheers of angels and redeemed sinners, sat down on his throne, and was crowned rightful king of all creation. That is the climax, the pinnacle of all the stacking toys, but it is really all of a piece with every other act of salvation.
Are we redeemed by the incarnation and birth of Christ? Well, of course we are, but would the incarnation save us if Jesus had not lived a perfect life and died a sinless life? Of course not! But would the death of Christ for our sins been effective if he had not risen from the dead; if he had remained under the power and influence of death, and if, in fact, his grave and bones had been really excavated outside Jerusalem as was reported in the news a few weeks ago? Of course not! And would there be any salvation for us if, after a few more years of life, he died as an old man somewhere in France with his wife, Mary Magdalene, and children gathered around him, as was asserted in the book and movie, The Da Vinci Code? Of course not! His birth, miracles, death, and resurrection would all be fruitless and worthless without the crowning achievement of his mighty ascension.
Many Christians, because in their worship they do not say the creed, never even mention or think of Christ’s ascension as being important to their Christian life. But the very opposite is the case. Without the ascension there would be no Christian life, and it is well worth our time to remind ourselves that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Having won the victory, he is now enthroned in the place of power and authority from which he lavishes his blessings on his Church.
There can be no salvation for you and me unless he is truly the reigning King. If this part of our faith is not also a literal fact of history, then our faith is in vain, we are still in our sins, and as St. Paul says, “We are of all men the most miserable.” If there is no ascension then let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
The belief that Jesus at the end of a long and productive life went back to heaven where he is now seated on his throne is not just an odd piece of theological lumber that we stack in the woodshed just in case we need it to patch something up, but that we could safely dispense with if we weren’t such traditionalists. If Jesus did not ascend into the heavens, then the whole house of Christianity will come tumbling down. This is the one plank that holds it all together. The ascension is God’s stamp of approval, if you will, on all the work that Christ did on earth. It was God’s final, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
One very important fact to remember, one that also has huge practical implications for us, is that when Jesus ascended into heaven he took our humanity through the gate, and now in our nature he rules over all. To put it another way, where he leads, we will follow. It would never be possible for us to get to heaven, much less force open the gates, in our own strength. But now that Jesus has taken us, so to speak, into the heavenlies, our place is assured forever.
God is worthy of our worship, and the Ascension is the proof of God’s power: it reveals his glory to us. Therefore, worship, joy, praise, and blessing should be our first response to God.
In celebrating Jesus’ Ascension we aren’t merely celebrating a historical event that’s dead in the past: like our celebration of the Declaration of Independence, our historical celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is an ongoing reality for us. In celebrating the Ascension, we do more than just gaze up into heaven: we enter into the heavenly places. When we respond to Jesus Christ with worship, praise, joy, and blessing, we are seated in the heavenly places with Jesus Christ.
What did the disciples do after gazing up into heaven? They started there, as they should have, but they didn’t stay there. They were not to spend the rest of their lives gazing into heaven. There’s a reason why the Acts of the Apostles is called the Acts of the Apostles: if it had been called the Gazing of the Apostles, there may not have been much to write about! There was something for them to do, after they have gazed up into heaven and worshiped.
The same Lord whom they worshiped in his Ascension now had to be worshiped by faithful obedience to all that he had commanded them to do. The same Lord who ascended told them to go and do something: to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then to preach the Good News to the world. After having seen the vision of Christ and worshiping him, they were to go out and fulfill the Great Commission, to go and preach the Good News that Jesus Christ has died on the Cross for your sins, that he rose again with the power of God, that he has ascended into heaven where he reigns over heaven and earth and is preparing a place for you in heaven, and that therefore you must be baptized and faithfully obey all that he has commanded you if you want to be his disciple.
After gazing up into heaven, therefore, they obeyed Jesus Christ, first by going to Jerusalem and waiting for the Holy Spirit, and then by going and turning the world upside down for Jesus Christ, the Ascended One.
So what we are to do after gazing up into heaven? The same thing the apostles did. We, like Christ, have work to do here on earth. Luke begins Acts by telling Theophilus that in his Gospel he wrote about all that Jesus Christ began to do and to teach. His implication is that the book of Acts, and our lives, are the rest of what Jesus Christ does.
Jesus Christ has ascended (and we have ascended with him), and we do his work here on earth because we are his body on earth. We are the Body of Christ, and we are the Bride of Christ, truly united to him and seated with him in the heavenlies. When Jesus ascended, he sat down at the right hand of the Father. Why? Because he has begun his rule as the King of kings. Being truly united to him and being his Body here on earth, we are to live out this rule and bring others into it. This is exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, by thy will being done by us on earth as it is in heaven and by faithfully feeding on Jesus Christ our daily Bread.
When Jesus Christ ascended, he ascended that he might intercede for us as our High Priest. Being united to Jesus, and being his priests who minister with him, we have our priestly work of prayer. We are to pray as he prayed, and so he left us his Prayer, which we are to pray every day. And we are to live in prayer, a life of prayer, filled with prayer, in which even our work becomes a prayer offered to God.
Finally, Jesus ascended into heaven so that he could send the Holy Spirit to do his holy will through us. Only if Jesus goes to the Father, and only if he sends the Holy Spirit, will we be able to do his will on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us, and we do the holy will of the Father as Jesus did, we show that he is our King, and we show that his kingdom has come and that King Jesus is ruling in our lives. Having the Holy Spirit, we live as his dedicated, worshiping disciples, gazing up into heaven. And having the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from the sniveling, cowardly disciples who are holed up in the upper room for fear of the Jews to those heroes of the Acts of the Apostles who continue to do and teach what Jesus began, turning the world upside down in the process!
In the Ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ ascends that we might ascend with him. And so we gaze into heaven, loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, loving him for who he is and what he has done.
And after we have gazed, we return to earth to have him do his holy will through us, as we love our neighbor as ourselves.
In the Ascension, our heavenly and earthly missions of worship and work become one, for in the Ascension all the stacking cups fit together, and heaven and earth have kissed.