Christ rose from the dead. Resurrection is celebration. It is the biggest party day in the world! It should be! It should eclipse Christmas. We should be giving gifts! Children are saying yes! I mean giving gifts of hope!
Resurrection should be the biggest party day in the world! Because it celebrates victory over sin and death. There is no more important victory. Resurrection is celebration.
But what happens next? Christ goes up to heaven and disappears. That’s anticlimactic. We call it ascension, going up. Another way to say disappear. How do you celebrate that? Should we celebrate it?
We should celebrate it. The disciples here celebrated it. After Christ disappeared, rather than freaking out they worshiped. But why did they celebrate the disappearance of Christ? Shouldn’t they be sad?
End of June I have the privilege to represent our New Hope Presbytery, 32,000 presbyterians in 134 congregations in the bi-annual General Assembly of PCUSA as a commissioner. I will be studying a lot and then voting on important issues, which I will be sharing with you in time. Now what is great is they are paying for my flight to Portland. What is not great is that they will work me to death. Our Executive told me to get all the sleep you can get before, even on the flight, there is lot of work.
Now I am telling my wife that I am going to Portland to work. And she is saying you are happy to go because you will be all by yourself without kids for a whole week. Now I cannot deny that I am happy about it, but I still have to pretend I am sad that I won’t be with the kids for a whole week.
But these disciples are happy that they can’t see Jesus anymore?
What exactly are they happy about?
We celebrate Christ’s birth and we have songs about it! Silent night. We know that song was not a song made my parents because when a baby is born, it is not a silent night. Can you imagine Joseph singing silent night as Mary is in labor? Joseph would have been kicked out of the manger.
We celebrate Resurrection, and we have songs about it “Oh Happy Day!”
But Ascension, we don’t have any songs. No contemporary ones anyways.
We don’t know what to do with ascension. Even in our gospel summation, we say, Christ died and rose again! Although we see in the Creed that ascension is an essential summation of the gospel story: Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the return.
So ascension is important. But still, what are we to make of it?
Even now, you guys are thinking, this is going to be a boring doctrine sermon.
No. Ascension is not doctrine. It is one of the main plot of Christ’s story. And just as Christ’s life and death and resurrection has everything to do with our life today, so Christ’s ascension has everything to do with my life today, as a Christian student, mom, dad, man or woman.
As a matter of fact, this event has most practical implications for daily living. Because with the disappearance of Christ begins the story of the disciples. It has everything to do with how we are to follow Christ.
Even more, if we don’t get ascension then we will end up with a wrong sort of discipleship. Without ascension, there would be nothing unique to the Christian life. Christianity would simply be another religion of the world. But the fact that Christ disappears to heaven makes Christianity a living movement and not a religion of tradition. So ascension has everything to do with your marriage, your work, your career choice, your everyday living, because it has everything to do with what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Christ.
Suspicion of Ascension
So what is ascension?
The first stumbling block on ascension is it sounds a bit suspicious to us. Or at least it did for me when I first read it in a children bible, with the Christ floating up to heaven, on clouds, and that image is still stuck with me. It felt like a great way cover up for when people started asking, well where is this resurrected Jesus now?
-Well he ascended!
Ascension just sounds like something made up by the disciples for the fact that they can’t point to the resurrected Jesus. But this is cynical view, which is not an honest view always.
We see Jesus here explaining that actually his ascension was always part of the plan of God.
This is exactly what he did for resurrection. People thought resurrection is made up to deal with the unexpected death of Jesus. But Jesus goes through scripture to say, look, right there, messiah is to die, and buried, there is even a specific prophecy that he would be buried in a rich man’s grave.
Resurrection can’t be simply an ad-hoc, on the moment made up story. It was always part of God’s plan.
But so is ascension. It was part of God’s plan by his ascension, send his disciples as witnesses in the authority of Jesus.
That sentence, as simple as it is, captures the plan thus the purpose of ascension.
That is our mission flows out of Christ’s ascension. That is our understanding of the Church is grounded on the ascension of Christ. Without ascension there is no Church, there is no witnesses, there is no us, there is no greater purpose in our lives except to birth, consuming and dying.
But because of the ascension, Christ sends us out, and Christ sends us out with authority.
Christ ascends to send us out.
Apostles simply means, being sent out. Those sent out by God are apostles. You are sent out. You are apostles. That apostleship is an extension of ascension. Christ goes up to send us out.
To see the deep connection between Christ’s ascension and our apostleship, consider what would have happened if Jesus did not ascend.
If Christ did not ascend but stayed on earth with the resurrected body, what would the disciples have done? Would they have gone out?
No. They would have stayed wherever Jesus stayed. They would have camped around him.
Peter begged to stay up on the mountain of Transfiguration, that he would do all the labor of making a lodge when he saw Jesus’ cloth shine, as Mark puts it, whiter than any bleach can make. Now that glory paled to the glory of the resurrected Christ, like moonlight next to sunlight.
Peter and the disciples would have created a tight circle around Jesus. They would have formed a hierarchy around the resurrected Jesus. Those nearest him would be the most important. They would not have gone out. They would have stayed put. They would have stayed in Jerusalem, where Jesus resided, because that’s where all the power would be.
We read the story of the Road to Emmaus last week. The two disciples’ eyes are opened and they finally see that the fellow traveler who opened their hearts to scripture was Jesus. Then Jesus disappears. This is mini-ascension, pre-ascension, the disappearing act before the great disappearance.
What would have happened if Jesus did not disappear? What if Jesus stayed? The disciples would have stayed, would have rolled out a sleeping bag in front of this bedroom. They would not have let Jesus out of their sight. But because Jesus disappeared, they left where they met Jesus to go and tell their friends that Jesus is alive.
Christ ascends to send.
A Buddhist monk and a religious professor in Duke University told me that Christianity is the only missionary religious movement. Christians went out to everywhere, there was no desert to inhospitable, no jungle too isolated, no empire to formidable for the Christians for Christians went everywhere because Christ was no longer in Jerusalem.
For if Christ did not disappear. Then where ever he resides becomes the holy ground. And Christianity would have become like all religion, a land based religion.
Consider the two other monotheistic religion, Judaism and Islam. They serve as a case study of the hypothetical situation of what would have happened if Christ did not ascend.
For Jews where is God? The Temple. So to build a temple, they invaded Canaan, removed the tribes there by genocide, and built a temple in the heart of Jerusalem then Jerusalem became the center of Israel and Judaism. It became a land based religion.
Even when the temple got razed, Jews believed that the way back to God is the way back to Jerusalem.
So Daniel prayed looking West to Jerusalem.
And when they got back, they built a temple.
And when they lost it again in 70AD in a failed revolution against Rome, they were dispersed, but they never lost hope for this land. And now that they have the land they will fight with tooth and nail. And while people have right to land, their right to land is driven by religion. The holy thing to do is to occupy this holy land. And that holy zeal had driven some to do unholy things.
When the presence of God is somehow claimed on earth, then religion becomes land based. And when it is land based, it is no longer missional. Growth is only imperialism.
In Islam. Where is God? Mohammad, God’s last and holy prophet. And how did Mohammed claim his authority as God’s holy prophet in this earth, by grabbing land. And Mecca became a holy land. So Muslims must now always turn to Mecca to pray, as Jews turn to Jerusalem to pray.
But Mohammed died. What happens now? Where is God now? In his successor. The Caliphate. This is why the division between Sunnis and Shiites is so intense, because it has to do with presence of God. Though Mohammed died, presence and authority of God is passed down to his successor. Sunnis think it was Abu Bakr, chosen by the community. Shia think it was Ali, son-in-law. And one of the ways this authority is proven is the occupation of land. So the expansion of Islam was a political empire. It was a land based religion so it only way to claim truth is to occupy.
This is why ISIS is so dangerous. Their claim to land is their claim to be the Caliphate, the successor of Mohammed.
It is ironic, that Jews claim God to be so holy he could not have become a man still claims some real presence of God. Islam who claim God to be so great that no man could be the Son of God, still claim some real presence of God. While Christianity has the audacity that a man is also the Son of God, but through ascension says, he is not here.
In contrast to these two very similar religion stands Christianity. Christ at the height of his glory, disappeared. You can no longer locate him.
But consider the first apostles. They went out without swords. Joshua went out with sword. Mohammed went out with sword. They had to. Their religion cannot exist without land. Christianity in its start never went out with a sword. That is unique. And they can do it because it was not a land based religion. God did not need land. God, in Jesus went up. He is not here! And because he is not here they can go everywhere.
Because it is not land based, it can be missional.
If it is land based, it is not missional. It is occupational.
So the church starts in Jerusalem. But when the church in Antioch grew and they started sending people, Antioch became a center. And when the church grew in Rome, Rome became one of the centers. And there was absolutely no struggle about the movement of authority.
Think about how fluid the movement of power was in the early church in just few generations. It would be like in U.S. the capital city shifting from Washington D.C. to Raleigh to Sanford in a single generation. Power cannot move that fast.
For Judaism there is Jerusalem. For Islam there is Mecca. For Christians there is? There isn’t, and there shouldn’t be.
Well, yes there is. Rome. The Roman church has a curia. Even Swiss guards. That only proves my point. The Church got land and guards to protect the land when they willfully forgot that Christ ascended.
What is the official, theological title of the pope? Pope is the vicar of Christ. Vicar means “earthly representative of God or Christ.” The Church denied the ascension of Christ. Christ did not disappear. Christ appears in the form of the Pope. And soon as that statement was made, all the trappings of land based religion happened. The Church got land. The Church got a throne. The Church even had a standing army.
That was the Church’s grave sin, we need to repent of and continue to repent of. I say we and not the Roman Church only because there were never two churches. We protestants forget that. We were all one family. Protestants protested and there was bitter divorce but for 1,000 years we were the Roman church. And we participated in it.
And we must repent of the sins of our fathers because that is the only way we can repent of how we commit the same sins today.
We Americans do it by promoting the fastest growing churches in America. These large churches with larger than life pastors. And we believe that God is at work in those places and we congregate around those places. It is a subtle way to deny the ascension of Christ, that Jesus is not here on earth.
This is a negative way of putting it. And it doesn’t sit well with us who say Christ is here. But we cannot fully appreciate Christ’ presence if we do not first acknowledge Christ’s absence. Before we can make the positive statement and have it be something positive for us, we have to first say the negative statement. Christ is not here on earth but in heaven. Christ is not in Rome. Christ is not in the Western Civilization. Christ is not in the United Sates. Christ is not in the mega church. Christ is not here. This frees us from the idolatry of my place.
Then where is he?
18Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.20Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Christ is not anywhere on earth. But Christ is with the community of disciples that go and make disciples.
Here is the beautiful paradox. The disciples know Christ is not in Jerusalem. So they no longer need to camp out in Jerusalem. So they obey Christ and go out. And when they go out and do the last will of Christ, they find Christ.
Christ is not here. That also means Christ is everywhere. So we can go everywhere. And that everywhere can be here.
No place is central. Every place is holy. This what the disciples fully grasped with the ascension of Christ. Christ was not in Jerusalem. Christ was in everywhere disciples made disciples. So when the church in Antioch took off, they recognized it as a holy place. There was no battle between Antioch and Jerusalem, unlike the Shia and Sunnis.
What does it mean for us? We don’t have to claim manifest destiny, that our country, or our culture, or our church is greater because Christ is here. But that also means we don’t have to envy any other country, or any other church, or any other city, or any other family, or any other self. Where you are. Right here, it is holy. Christ is not there. Christ is here, now.
This is why the gospel of Matthew has Jesus says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I will be there.” For Christ has ascended so he is present in the smallest gathering in any place!
Leslie Newbigin, a great intellect, was asked to address a large crowd of pastors. And he started that address by saying, “Our Lord promised, where 2 or more are gathered I will be there, but he did not promise he would be there where 2 or 3 thousand are gathered.” It was a witty humor but there was also a deep theological insight. Because human think that in crowd, Christ is more present, Christ is more real in the great conference. It is a subtle denial of Christ’s ascension. Christ is not more real when there is 3,000 and there are great lights, and there are great speakers speaking through great speakers. Christ is not less real when it is just you and your co-worker praying, when you and your spouse are praying, when you bless your children, when you call and pray at 6 am.
This past week, thanks to the Presbyterian Church offering PCUSA pastors a free 3 day stay at their humble retreat center at the Black Mountains near Asheville, our family took a small break. And by humble I mean hard twin beds, no desk in the room, and no TVs. Our kids were shocked there was no TVs saying, “How can this be a break.” And so in the evenings they played board game with other pastor’s kid which, they admitted, was way more fun.
Well, the last day I woke up and checked my phone and it was 3:55am. Way too early, I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t. And I had a thought, “Could it be, that Christ called me out to this mountain, woke me up this early, because he wanted to commune with me and this holy place at this holy time?”
So I brushed my teeth, put on my clothes and walked to the chapel, which had a small wooden communion table and a celtic cross hung right above it, both in a small alcove with three spotlight lamps. I went to pray and the light did not get brighter, my lips did not suddenly speak in tongues. There was only a spider that inched closer which I was about to whack it to death but stopped. I was disappointed. But then another thought came to me, “I don’t need an emotional spiritual experience to know Christ is here. Because Christ who ascended is already here. I don’t need evidence that this is holy place. This has always been a holy place. All I need to do is worship.”
Throughout this week. Practice stopping and recognizing Jesus who ascended is here by simply saying, “I worship you Jesus.”
As a church, I no longer want us to be dependent on Sunday Worship for our spiritual nourishment. If Sunday Worship is the worship place and time, then you are denying Christ’s ascension. Christ is not here. Christ is everywhere. You should be worshiping every day. And every day, you can experience the intimacy of Christ you experience here. Christ is not just here. Christ is everywhere.
Right now, let’s practice that. (Closing eyes, praying, singing).
Christ ascends to empower us with the authority he reclaims.
Christ’s ascending means absence to be present.
Christ’s ascension is also a claim of authority. It is that king-motiff. When their minds were opened through Jesus teaching of scripture, they saw that Jesus going to heaven was not just a disappearing act. It was Jesus ascending to his place of rule. It was an ascension of the King.
Christ’s ascension is absence, but it is not abnegation. It is a claim of his throne as the Lord of All.
Now it is true that we wait for the return of the King. But the return is not Christ’s coronation. In fact, Christ’s return could not be understood as the return of the king unless Christ has already been made king. Christ’s ascension is his coronation. Ascension means Christ if firmly in control. Firmly ruling.
Christ reigns now! Christ has power now. Christ has all authority.
19I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come.22God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. 23And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.
We are empowered because the reigning Christ is with us here. This is why Jesus says in the authority of my name. His name now carries all authority, because he is now the king, and all other powers now must recognize the new king in town.
Christ who is present when 2 or 3 are gathered is the Lord of the universe.
And now here is where we truly live out that authority. We don’t long for the powers of this world because we already have power, the name of Jesus who sits on his throne.
Why would we seek the powers of the world, the swords or guns of nations, when we have someone with far greater power? Why seek the power of money and fortune when we have some with far greater wealth?
We saw the amazing historic movement that Christianity spread without military might. Christians went without swords. How? Not simply because they knew Christ told them not to carry a sword. But they believed with all their heart, that they had all the power in the world because they went with the authority of the Lord of the Universe. Christ is on the throne. When you believe it, you don’t long for any other power, you don’t envy anyone’s power, you don’t fear anyone’s power.
When Stephen is being stoned, he did not suddenly lose faith. For when he looked up to heaven, he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Jesus is still the Lord of all.
Practically speaking. If you remember this truth, then you will witness. You will talk of Christ if you know Christ is with you and Christ is Lord and you are experiencing it, then you will naturally talk of Christ.
We had dinner with Keun’s family, few days before he boarded a plane to be deployed. His brother-in-law Ron was their grilling chicken. Ron was soldier and now works in Pentagon. Tara his wife owns a company Afghanistan helping with redevelopment. Both had many adventures to share. But somehow it seemed no matter what the subject or the topic was, we kept going back to politics. Ron threw up his arms and said, “Okay, no more politics!” because he lives in Virginia and works at the Pentagon, and everywhere he goes, all he hears is politics. And Keun, who had lived in Maryland, added, “Yes, everywhere, in the restaurant, in the metro, in Starbucks, in bus stops. The only place you don’t hear politics is the club.” Then someone added, “but if you go to the bathroom…”
Everyone in Virginia and Maryland talks about politics because they surround the White House which is the seat of power of America. It is where the President lives and makes the decisions. And someone knows someone, at the least, who works in connection to all 3 branches of the government.
So even that proximity to power makes everyone talk about politics.
Now what if we truly believed that Christ ascended. What if we believed that Christ who ascended is reigning, and that wherever we go we have his authority, we would witness.
Lot of our talk, naturally would be of Christ.
Pay attention to what you talk about most.
That is the little false kings and queens.
If you talk about Kardashians, then you think they have power.
If you talk about who succeeded, then you think they have most power.
If most of your talk is gossip, and it is always those people, that family, then you believe they have power.
How do we correct it. Worship Christ regularly. Recognize his authority. And when the time comes, practice it by simply opening your lips. Trust me, you will not speak perfectly, but you will speak of Christ.
Paul and Silas was in prison in Philippi, some 3,000 miles away from Jerusalem. What if Christ did not ascend? What if the resurrected Christ was still in Jerusalem?
But Christ ascended. So off they go, every place they stop, they talk about Christ. Is there anything more important? Is there anything worth our attention? Is there anyone more powerful than Christ.
They don’t talk about the Emperor much because Emperor isn’t much compared to the power of Christ. Everywhere they go they are talking about Christ.
And in some cities, they get into trouble for it. In Phillipi, they get whipped and imprisoned. After all, this was the city where Emperor Augustus consolidated his power. And that emperor blessed the people oof the city with Roman citizenship. They literally worshiped the Emperor. But Paul and Silan said worship Christ alone! So they got the whip and the dungeon.
Now they are in a dank and dark dungeon, their hands and feet chained. They could not do anything with their body. They could not bow to pray. But their lips were not shut. So they sang.
They sang songs they learned, or made in worship. That’s all they needed to worship, sing, Christ’ story in melody. They did not sing to pass the time. They worshiped. Then suddenly the earth began to tremble and the bars that signal the powers of this world were blown open. Because where two or more are gathered, I am there, and Christ, he is the ruler before whom even the earth trembles!
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit,
Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.