ascension

Sunday After Ascension 2017

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A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 28, 2017

The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 4:7-11 – The Gospel, St. John 15:26-16:4

The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

  1.  Ascensiontide and waiting

Don’t just do something, sit there. The ten-day season of Ascension, or Ascensiontide in traditional parlance, is a curious place. We’ve moved past Easter. Jesus has ascended into heaven, and we are now waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. Waiting. Before Jesus left on Ascension Day, he commanded his disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father” for “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5). We are now in the period of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.

But this is not only a period of waiting. It is also a period of prayer. Acts describes the post-Ascension activity of the disciples:

They returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet…. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:12-14).

  1. To wait and pray is a standard posture in the life of faith. It is also frustrating and aggravating. We want to “do” something, be productive, and make something happen. Those are our words. The real reason we cannot wait and pray is that we do not really trust God yet and we want to control things. To wait and pray is to let go of control and trust.
  2. The biblical pattern of waiting.

There is a parallel between the Ascension and what happened when God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to meet God, just as Jesus ascended into heaven to the Father. Moses would come back down with Law or Torah. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit, through whom the law is not written in our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33).

While Moses was receiving the law from God on the mountain, the people had to wait for him at the bottom of the mountain. Moses was gone for a while, and the people became impatient. Exodus 32 says,

When the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod. 32:1).

Aaron made two golden calves for the people and they worshiped the calves and had a drunken, idolatrous party that brought upon them God’s judgment—because they could not wait for God and his promise.

Saul was rejected as king, and David was chosen in his place, in part because Saul did not wait for the prophet Samuel to come and offer sacrifice before a significant battle against the Philistines. Samuel had told him to wait, but when the enemy approached and the people became afraid, Saul acted in haste and offered the sacrifice himself. Samuel said to him, “You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue (1 Sam. 13:13-14).

  1. Waiting in the life of prayer

As we can see from these examples, when people do not wait and pray, things do not work out so well. We can do a thought experiment to understand why. Let’s say that, rather than the command to wait and pray, we were commanded to do whatever we wanted to do right now. Go, make your own happiness on your own terms apart from God. What would be the result? It would be the world we see today. People do not wait for God. Instead, they live for things in this world. And people in our culture have never been more discontented.

God calls to pray and wait because nothing we get right now can satisfy the inner longing of our hearts. God wants us to wait for him because he wants to fill us with himself, and he cannot do that unless we will wait and pray for him to come—for he will not come to us against our will.

Genuine faith keeps us in a posture of waiting and praying, for we can only get what we really want when Christ and his kingdom come. The good things we enjoy in this world give us a taste of the kingdom. They are sacramental signs of Christ. But genuine faith lets go of the things of this world when they become idols. The disciplines of the spiritual life can be understood as fighting for the balance between saying “yes” to the good that God gives us, and saying “no” to things that are not gifts and are, therefore, not from God.

We wait and pray for God to give us more of himself. This can be painful because our disordered desires cry out like spoiled children wanting to be satisfied now. This is the main reason waiting is hard. To make room for God, we must learn to say no to these desires, to put them to death to make room for the new life God wants to give us in the Spirit. As we say “no” to disordered desire and wait for God, we establish a new pattern that leads ultimately to fulfillment. This replaces the old pattern of fallen humanity, which demands fulfillment now, but is never satisfied.

  1. Praying for Pentecost

The good news is that we can have more of God in this world. We can, in the words of the Confirmation prayer, “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more until [we] come to thy everlasting kingdom” (297). As we pray in the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension:

We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before (BCP 179).

So, don’t just do something, sit there… and pray. During Ascensiontide, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us in a new way on Pentecost. Let us pray for a renewed experience of God’s grace and presence. Let us pray that God will stir up our spiritual gifts to serve others with greater zeal. Let us pray for new strength and virtue to fight the spiritual battle. If we will wait and pray, God will answer our prayer. As Jesus said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Lk. 11:13).

Ascension – Sermon

A Sermon for the Ascension
Given on the Sunday within the Octave of Ascension, June 1, 2014
For the Epistle, Acts 1:1-11 – The Gospel, St. Luke 24:49-53
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

A. The meaning and implications of the Ascension

1. The season of Easter has given way to the ten day season of Ascension. In the language of the Nicene Creed, the Son of God who “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary” has now “ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right and of the Father.” The words “came down” and “ascended” provide a physical image for truths that transcend the limitations our language. Heaven is not a geographic location. In the Incarnation Jesus left the realm or dimension of eternity and entered into the physical creation, which is bounded by time and space. In the Ascension, he went back from time and space into eternity.

2. The Son of God took his humanity and his accomplished sacrifice with him back into heaven. Thus, the Ascension effects a change in the very nature of reality. In the person of Jesus humanity has been raised from the dead and glorified. “In Christ,” humanity now lives and rules in heaven with the Father; and the sacrifice once offered for sin is now an eternal fixture in heaven.

3. The implications of the ascension for us result from the fact that we have been baptized “into Christ.” All that happened to him happens to us “in” him. Ephesians says,

God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (2:5-6 NKJ).

We experience this most profoundly in the Eucharist. We lift up our hearts—we ascend— to join in the angelic Sanctus. We experience again our union with God through the sacrifice of Jesus. We rule with Christ over the world through our prayers. As Revelation says, Jesus “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (1:5-6).

B. Ascension as experience before doctrine

1. Ascension is the central experience of our life in Christ. As our Easter epistle said, our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Whenever we pray we move from time and space into eternity. We go from the world that is passing away, where we feel fearful, guilty and anxious, into the kingdom of heaven, where our sins are forgiven and Jesus rules as Lord of the creation.

2. The experience of ascension is different than believing in the doctrine of the ascension. We often think of faith as a list of doctrines to which we give intellectual assent. Consequently, we may believe in the ascension, but we may not actually experience it. This is to get the Christian life backwards. Experience comes before doctrine in authentic faith. Our doctrine explains our prayer. The truths of the Catholic and Apostolic faith are merely

the right explanation and articulation of what the church experiences when she prays to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

3. We can observe this order in the Bible. Jesus first actually died, rose and ascended. Then the Holy Spirit led the church to rightly describe what happened. The church first experienced union with God in Christ through the Spirit on Pentecost. Then the church explained the experience by writing gospels, epistles and creeds. When we “believe” that Jesus is the ascended Lord and Savior but do not habitually experience his power and forgiveness, we are like a man who becomes an expert in the mechanics of an airplane, but who never actually flies.

C. Prayer as Ascension

1. To ascend with Christ through prayer is the central activity of faith. Through prayer we move from this fallen world into the kingdom of God. Through prayer we remember again the truth that the world constantly denies: Jesus is Lord. Through prayer we experience again the truth the world makes us forget: Our sins are forgiven and we the children of God.

2. As we return to prayer again and again—at the altar of God, in daily prayer and in constant contemplation—these truths take ever greater root in us. We experience Jesus as Lord, more and more, through his sovereign ordering of our lives. We experience, more and more, the truth that our sins are forgiven and we are accepted by God. Through our practice of prayer over time, faith moves more and more from the head to the heart. As faith takes deeper root in the heart, it produces in us the fruit of joy and peace and fills us with a confident hope.

E. Growth in prayer

1. Our progress in the faith is directly linked to our progress in prayer. We don’t need to be convinced that Jesus is Lord. We need to experience his power in our lives. If I prove to you that Jesus is Lord using various Bible verses and philosophical arguments, you may come to believe that Jesus is Lord. But if, through your practice of prayer over time you begin to see and experience how Jesus is bringing order and beauty out of the chaos in your life; if you begin to overcome temptation through the power Jesus gives you; if Jesus directs you to use your gifts in new and fulfilling ways, then you will know Jesus as Lord.

2. We don’t need to be convinced that our sins are forgiven. We need to experience the grace of God. If I convince you that the sacrifice of Jesus fulfills the various Old Testament rituals and the cross is the once for all time sacrifice for sin, you may belief that Jesus is the savior of the world. But if, through your practice of prayer over time the grace of God begins to touch and heal the deep wounds in your life, then you will know Jesus as savior.

3. For most people today growth in the life of prayer means making time for stillness and silence. We need to establish a pattern of living through which we regularly get off the treadmill and ascend with Christ. A prayer book prayer expresses it this way:

By the might of thy Spirit, lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou are God (595).

4. The Risen Christ has ascended into heaven where he rules as Lord and Savior. It is our great privilege, as those who have been baptized into Christ, to ascend with him. It is our great privilege, not just to believe in our heads that Jesus is Lord and Savior, but to know and experience his power and grace each day through prayer. 

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Ascension – Sermon

“[Jesus] being assembled together with them, commanded them to that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).

We are now in the ten day season of Ascension, which began last Thursday, when our Lord ascended back into heaven from whence he came at the Incarnation. The Ascension is unique among the events that are listed in the creeds because we don’t actually see it. We do see, in our lessons from Luke, our Lord ascending into the cloud. But we don’t see what happened after his disappeared from view and returned to the Father.

In the eyewitness biblical accounts, we see the Incarnation, the Epiphany, the Cross, the Resurrection and the descent of the Spirit. These events can be seen because they all took place within the dimension of space and time. But the Ascension took place in heaven, in eternity, in the dimension of reality not accessible to those bounded by space and time.

To see what happened in the Ascension, we have to turn to the portions of Scripture where prophets were given a vision of heaven not normally accessible to the human eye. One such passage of Scripture is chapter 7 of Daniel. Daniel writes,

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (7:13-14).

St. Luke tells us that Jesus disappeared into a cloud. Daniel tells us that the cloud bore Jesus, the Son of man, to the Father, the Ancient of days, where he received from the Father universal dominion. Because he conquered sin and death through the cross, Jesus, the Son of Man, or descendent of Adam, received back the universal dominion that the first man, the first Adam, lost through sin.

Another passage where we see the results of the Ascension is in Revelation. St. John was called up into heaven “in the Spirit.” He writes, “I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). John’s vision reveals that Christ, the Passover Lamb who died for our sins, has ascended to heaven. He now continually presents his sacrifice before the Father.

Daniel and John tell us that the Ascension is greeted in heaven with great fanfare and worship. However, St. Luke tells us that after the Ascension the disciples entered into a season of prayer. They were joyous, to be sure. They were “continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53); but they were, nonetheless, in a state of anticipation. Our Lord ascended into heaven to be crowned with many crowns, to be worshipped by the whole host of heaven. However, he instructed the church on earth to do a curious thing: wait and pray.

In the aftermath of the Ascension the first disciples returned to the upper room to wait and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost. Though Christ has ascended, though he has led captivity captive, though he is seated on the throne of his glory, his followers must wait and pray to discern what their new ministry will be and to receive the power from God to carry it out.

This is a pattern for the Christian life—one that is a frequent source of frustration for us because we are impatient. Jesus is Lord of all creation. The table seems to be set for all manner of good things to be accomplished now. But God requires that we also wait and pray before we are able to experience his power in our lives and participate in his work in the world.

The first disciples were to wait for Pentecost. That was the day appointed for the Spirit to come in fulfillment of the Law. If they had tried to act before the Spirit came to indwell and guide them, their actions would have resulted in failure—like the Israelites who attempted to enter the promised land after God told them they would have to wait forty years (Numbers 14:40-45). Pentecost would also be a day when pilgrims from around the world would be gathered in Jerusalem. It would be a day of unique opportunity for proclaiming the gospel. Thus they were to wait and pray for two things: the coming of the Spirit, and the right moment of opportunity.

As a church, we observed an extended season of fasting and prayer from the end of last year through Lent. We believe that God is placing before us great opportunity for ministry. Sometimes we get impatient. Sometimes we want to know why can’t just do it all now. Why does it take so long to build? Why does it take so long for the things God puts before us to come to fruition?

The Ascension helps us understand why. We can only “see” heaven through prayer, when we ascend, with Daniel and John, in the Spirit. It is only as we spend extended seasons of time in prayer that we are able to see things from the vantage point of heaven and discern God’s will for us. It is only in response to our prayers that God sends us the Spirit in new ways so that we can do his will (Luke 11:9-13).

When we act hastily, without prayer and the guidance of the Spirit, our actions become fruitless. I’ve seen churches come up with great action plans for marketing and outreach that never produce any significant results. There is nothing evil about the plans. The plans seem sensible. They just aren’t God’s plans. They are not developed and discerned through extended seasons of praying and waiting upon God. They lack the guidance of God’s Spirit.  Consequently, they bear no significant fruit.

The ten day period of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost will result in the coming of the Spirit, a sermon by St. Peter that will convert thousands and an outbreak of fruitful ministry in Jerusalem and beyond.  When we wait and pray, there comes a time to act. The difference is that prayer aligns our actions with God’s will; and the Holy Spirit, who comes in response to our prayer, makes our actions fruitful.

The ministry of our church is a product of waiting and praying. Sometimes we have waited and prayed for years before God opened a new door of opportunity and sent us the Spirit is a new way so that we could do what he called us to do. But God is always faithful. As Isaiah writes, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (40:31)

Our Lord has ascended. He sits on his throne as universal king. Let us be faithful to wait and pray for the Spirit to come to us in a new way so that we may know and do the will of God.

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Ascension – Sermon

The most ancient confession of Christian faith was to say, “Jesus is Lord.” When the early Christians said this, they meant that Jesus has sovereign authority over the world. The One who had been arrested, beaten, crucified and buried demonstrated his power over all things by rising from the dead and ascending the “right hand” of God.

In the ancient world, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” was heard in contrast with the confession  that “Caesar is Lord.” The various Caesars claimed for themselves the titles “Son of God” and “Savior of the world.” They demanded obedience of their subjects and expected the people to trust them for security and well-being. The confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a direct threat to the claims of Caesar. This is why many Christians were killed for their faith. Either Jesus was the world’s true Lord and Savior or Caesar was. Neither church nor state allowed its citizens to make the contrary confession.

In the contemporary world, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t always carry the same weight. We tend to view such confessions as personal opinions rather than claims about the nature of the world. To say, “Jesus is Lord” often carries the meaning that Jesus is Lord for me, without any sense that my confession has implications for anyone else. This reflects the perspective of our times that there is no ultimate truth. Therefore, each is entitled to his or her own.

This is highlighted by the question asked by some evangelists: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” While this is meant to emphasize the personal decision to follow Jesus, it implies that what Jesus is for me he may not necessarily be for the whole world. He may be my personal savior is the same way I have a personal assistant or a personal trainer. Each has a certain authority and competence, but all are subject to my personal willingness to let them work in my life.

This accounts, to a significant degree, for why the witness of the church is not particularly powerful in our time in the western world. The Lord Jesus is presented as one who may help us manage life, as one who may be called upon in time of crisis, as one who may comfort us in times of need. But he is not always confessed and followed as Son of God and Savior of the World.

It is an interesting meditation to consider what would happen if life threatening persecution broke out in America. How many of us would be willing to die for the confession that Jesus is Lord? However, in reality, our challenge is different. The devil  attacks our faith in more subtle ways. The chief way our faith is attacked is by the tendency to separate faith from the real activities of life. The Lord Jesus is not denied. Rather, faith in him is rendered innocuous.

This dualism may have been institutionalized by a former president who comforted our Protestant nation by assuring the people that his Romans Catholic faith would not in any way influence the way he ran the country. The assurance carried the implication that his faith would have just the same influence as the people’s Protestant faith had on their real lives–not much. Thus, faith becomes a private thing that is not allowed to touch what we actually do.

This separation of faith from real life is a patent rejection of the Ascension–not to mention the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection. For if the Lord Jesus ascended in order to “fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10); if “all authority in heaven and earth” has been given to him (Matthew 28:18); if he was given “dominion, glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14) then no part of life be separated from the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

We may never be dragged before the magistrate and asked to burn incense to an image of a king. However, we confess or deny that Jesus is Lord all the time by what we do or fail to do. As Jesus said, “Why do you call me Lord and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). We confess or deny Jesus is Lord by our presence or absence in his church on the Lord’s Day. We confess or deny that Jesus is Lord by tithing or failing to tithe. We confess or deny that Jesus is Lord by our commitment to or neglect of the life of prayer. We confess or deny that Jesus is Lord by our treatment of the least of his brethren. We confess that Jesus is Lord by doing what we do as business people, teachers, lawyers, accountants, artists, laborers, mothers and fathers as unto the Lord and not unto men, seeking first the kingdom, not merely temporal rewards. We confess that Jesus is Lord by obeying his commandments, especially when obedience is costly. The confession or denial of the truth that Jesus is Lord cannot be kept as a private thing. The evidence is there for all to see.

Of course, there is a major challenge to our confession that Jesus is Lord. There is injustice, oppression and the killing of innocent people. There are tornadoes, floods, natural disasters and tragedies. Indeed, the world seems to be falling apart. How we can say that Jesus is Lord? How can we say that Jesus is in control?

In fact, Christian faith provides the most reasonable way to understand what is happening. The ascended Lord Jesus was himself subjected to the injustice and tragedy of life in this fallen world.  The life of Jesus reveals that God is able to save his chosen through the real pain of life. The cross was the raw material for the Resurrection. This teaches us that our pain is part of the process by which we are being remade into the image of Christ. Jesus is Lord precisely because he is able to bring order and beauty out of the chaos and disorder of this fallen world. What looks to the world like the pain of death is, in reality, the birth pangs of God’s new creation. Jesus really is in control, working in all things for good for those who love him and are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Jesus is Lord. He is not merely our private or personal Lord and Savior. He is the Lord and Savior of the World. “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). The two angels at the ascension said, “This same Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven.” For, “He must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Jesus is Lord. He calls each of us to be faithful  servants, in thought, word and deed, in everything that we do, as we wait for him to come again, renew the creation and raise us from the dead–“according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all unto himself” (Philippians 3:21).

 

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