Acts 1.1-11 ::: Matthew 28.16-20, Mark 16.19-20, Luke 24.50-53
West Point has many family graveyards dating back to the early 1800s. If you happen to visit any one to these sites you’ll see names and dates with an occasional word or symbol like a finger pointing to heaven and the words “Gone Home” engraved on a stone. But what do these markers mean to us today? To many of us they remind us of family members who have died. We often take flowers on special days like Mother’s Day. The stones remind us of our mortality, and the hope of leaving our mark on the world around us – a legacy to give and an inheritance to bequeath. The stones remind us of our destiny to die and be buried among the dead. But today we celebrate a different kind of legacy and inheritance that has been bequeathed to us in the Ascension of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into the heavenlies to be seated with God to rule and to reign over heaven and earth, the seen and unseen realms. This is not something new for most of us. We hear the story of the Ascension yearly from the pulpit. We even recite it when we recall the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed. Remember that line? “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But reciting the line doesn’t guarantee that we grasp the importance of this event. Rote learning is a way of memorizing by repetition. The idea is that we could quickly recall the meaning behind the words we recite. We know there is value in rote memorization of the creeds. But surely, there’s greater value understanding the meaning behind the words.
Today we look specifically at what the Ascension means for us. Most of us have a general idea of what Easter means for believers. Our sins are forgiven and we are given the opportunity to be restored in right relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We kind of get what that means. But it is in the Resurrection that God the Father began his work of redeeming his Son. It is in the moment of God the Father reaching his right hand down into the abyss and causing Jesus to be raised from the depths of sin and death that we are given the first glimmer of our own redemption.
When the Father raised Jesus, it was the first step to Jesus’ reign as King. When the Father draws Jesus to himself in the Ascension, the Father seats him with honor at his right hand and gives him all the power and authority to rule. This is a Trinitarian decision. And, it is together that the Father and the Son send the Spirit of Jesus upon the earth to continue the work of drawing all peoples to himself. It is at the Ascension that Jesus is seated in his leadership role as King.
Most of us understand the value of celebrating Christmas, the Incarnate Babe. And, most of us understand the importance of Holy Week and Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some of us understand the importance of Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit. It is at Pentecost that the Father and the Son rule together and send the Holy Spirit. But only a few realize the importance of the Ascension. Theologian Thomas Oden explains that for Jesus to truly experience exaltation he had to experience death, resurrection, ascension, and session. No one part of this process can be left out.
Most in the church are educated well enough to understand that in Jesus death we have victory over sin. Jesus is the symbol of the last sacrificial lamb. Most realize that in the resurrection those who believe have victory over death. We have the opportunity to have eternal life. But few Christians realize that it is in the Ascension that Jesus is opening the pathway to new life. Theologian Steve Seamands points out that the Ascension provides for believers three significant insights which I have named presence, position, and participation.
First, it’s about presence. The Ascension restores Jesus into the presence of his Father. As Jesus returns to his Father’s side the relationship between Father and Son is restored to what it once was at the beginning of time and space, an intimate, face-to-face relationship. This intimate relationship is the desire of every yearning heart who believes. The dividing wall between heaven and earth has been broken. The veil in the temple has been torn asunder from the top down. Jesus has entered into the most holy place.
Second, it’s about position. Because Jesus has been seated with all power and authority at his Father’s side, he is able to reign over both heaven and earth, the seen and the unseen realms. When God stretches out his mercy to change the course of history across the stories of the Bible, his right hand is the symbol that is most often used to describe this action. So when we talk about Jesus being seated at God’s right hand, it means Jesus is in a position of power and authority unique to God the Father. It is a bequeathed power, his inheritance.
Third, it’s about participation. Jesus’ final words, his benediction, to his disciples is one of participation. Jesus commanded them to “go and make disciples.” The ascension initiates the bequeathing of the inheritance. Jesus has given the disciples his last will and testament. He has also instructed them not to go out and start spending their inheritance until they have received it. The Father’s promise, the Holy Spirit, is the inheritance. The disciples have to wait 10 days after the ascension before the Holy Spirit comes, but they are faithful to wait, and they fully gain their inheritance.
Perhaps your argument is that …that’s all well and good but that’s over and this ascension business has nothing to do with us today. Hear me now! It has everything to do with us today. We are short changing ourselves if we miss the importance not only of Christmas and Easter, even Pentecost, but if we miss what the Ascension means for us we miss a critical teaching essential to the New Testament. We can’t skip over it.
The Ascension is like a last will and testament. At the Ascension both earth and heaven offer their witnesses to this important event. There are two heavenly witnesses at the scene to testify on behalf of heaven. These two heavenly witnesses attest to Jesus ascending into the clouds. They are heaven’s final witness to the life of Jesus upon this earth until the final consummation. To be sure the Ascension provides the necessary instructions on how the inheritance is to be spent. If we move from Easter to Pentecost without the teaching of the Ascension then we miss receiving the keys to the Kingdom.
I once heard a story about a young man who graduated from high school. This story was in a “Dear Abby” column in 1990, but it’s most likely some 50 years older. If heard it with several different twist, but the general meaning remains the same.
A young man from a famous family was about to graduate from high school. It was the custom in that affluent neighborhood for the parents to give the graduate an automobile. “Bill” and his father had spent months looking at cars, and the week before graduation, they found the perfect car. On the eve of his graduation, his father handed him a gift-wrapped Bible. Bill was so angry that he threw the Bible down and stormed out of the house. He and his father never saw each other again. It was the news of his father’s death that brought Bill home again. As he sat one night going through his father’s possessions that he was to inherit, he came across the Bible his father had given him. He brushed away the dust and opened it to find a cashier’s cheque, dated the day of his graduation — in the exact amount of the car they had chosen together.
When you think about your own experience with God, do you know what Jesus’ legacy is for you? Have you heard what your inheritance is? If you are waiting until you die to live, then you are certainly missing a great deal of what Jesus died to give you. Jesus ascended to give you a new life that includes presence, position, and participation. He ascended so that you could enjoy a rich relationship with the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit. He ascended so that you could have victory upon this earth in both the seen and unseen realm in ways we cannot always understand. He ascended so that you could participate in the Kingdom of God through intercession and service in love of God and neighbor.
It’s about legacy. Jesus doesn’t have a tomb stone with a quip about what kind of a man he was while he was living here. There’s no burial plot for us to go visit him where his bones remain in the ground. No, he is in heaven. But he has chosen to leave us more of a legacy than any other living being on earth with his sayings and his teaching in the Bible. His words are no carved in stone hewn by human hands, but he will carve his word on your heart if you let him.
It’s about inheritance. Jesus doesn’t have land or monies to bequeath to you, but he does offer you the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. The riches gifts are given to those who believe.