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.