St Barnabas and St Michael’s ,14th August 2010
The Apostles Creed
On the third day (Jesus) rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Do you celebrate Christmas? What about Good Friday? Or how about Easter Sunday? If so, I won’t have to spend too much time on the next line of the creed, “On the third day He rose again”. But what about Ascension Day? Did you celebrate Ascension Day this year? Did you go to a service on the day? Indeed can you remember when Ascension Day fell this year?
Of all the Christian festivals we celebrate each year it strikes me that Ascension Day is something of Cinderella. Over the years I have held services at various times in various formats to attract more people, but we have only ever gathered a small handful of people in either the side chapel at St Barnabas or the lounge. Of course, there are good reasons for this. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, right in the middle of the working week, and it’s hard sometimes for people to attend. But I think the problem with Ascension Day runs deeper than that. If we look at the Ascension at all each year, it is normally tacked on to the end of the Easter story, almost as an afterthought. Jesus rises from the dead, appears to His disciples over the next forty days and then is taken up to heaven. Full stop. Time now to move on the next sermon series.
But as you can see from the section of the creed we’re looking at today, the ascension of Jesus is in point of fact a hugely important part of Christian faith. Go through any major section of the New Testament and you will find at some point or other reference to the fact Jesus is raised and now seated at the right hand of God. The ascension of Jesus, just as much as the cross and the resurrection, shaped the thinking of the early church, and was hugely significant for their life together and their witness. So today what I would like to do is to give you three reasons why you too ought to celebrate Ascension Day.
First of all, the ascension of Jesus proves that Jesus completed His work on earth.
That is the point which comes out so strongly in John’s account of the crucifixion, which you looked at last week. Consider for a moment these verses from John 19:28-30: Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. What did Jesus mean when He said, “It is finished?” Was it, perhaps, a cry of despair – it’s over, my life’s at an end, I can’t go on any more? Or was he referring, maybe, to the drink of wine – I’ve had my fill, that’s enough? No, that word which is so often translated “It is finished” actually means something like, “I’ve done it!” It is in fact exactly that same word “completed” which we find in verse 28 – so I’ll leave you it up to you to work out why we have two different translations of the same word in the same place.
Jesus’ final words on the cross, at least according to John, were actually a cry of victory. Because, strange as it might seem, by dying in this way Jesus had finally and faithfully fulfilled the task He had come to earth to do. You see, right even before the beginning of the world, Jesus knew one day His mission would be to born as a child in Bethlehem, to grow up as a man in Nazareth and one day die for the sins of the world in Jerusalem. You can only wonder why God chose to act in this way. But the fact is, He did. And when His Son Jesus Christ gave up His Spirit it wasn’t the death of a failed religious teacher or martyr. It was the death of the Son of God who paid the price for all our sin, all our shame, all our shortcomings.
And it really is important to recognise that Jesus died for all our sins. After all, there are plenty of people who believe, at least in theory, that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The only problem is, they cannot believe that Jesus died for their sins. They know they have done some terrible things in their time, they have said some terrible things in their time, and you certainly wouldn’t like to know what they have thought at times. Yes, Jesus may be a Saviour, but how can He be my Saviour? Well, if that’s true of you, then listen to this: Jesus went back into heaven because there was no more work on earth for Him to do. He didn’t come to do just half a job, just to save some good people, or people who had only lived honest, upright lives. He came to die for the sins of the whole world. Including mine and yours and yours. Jesus loves prostitutes and drug addicts and down and outs just as much he loves vicars and bishops and churchwardens. After all, what were the words He spoke to the thief on the cross? I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. No matter who you are, what you have done, in Christ there is a gateway to forgiveness, to peace and to eternal life. Do you believe that?
But there plenty of other people who find the idea of the cross far too simple. Yes, again they recognise that Christ is a Saviour, indeed they may say that Christ is their Saviour. But surely, they would say, it can’t be simple as that, can it? Isn’t there something you have to do in order to be saved? Maybe make sure you receive Holy Communion weekly or even daily. Maybe try to do as many good deeds as possible. Maybe give yourself up to some vocation or calling. Because God wants us to do good, doesn’t He? Yes, but hear this very clearly, there is a world of difference between being saved for good works, and being saved by good works. Of course we can’t simply accept Jesus as our Saviour and carry on as before. We have to be willing to find out God’s will for our life and do what He says. But if we think we can somehow earn our way into heaven, then what was the point of the cross? If there is something we have to contribute in order to gain eternal life, then why did Jesus have to die in this way? If you believe you have to be good enough to get into heaven, you are saying that actually Jesus didn’t complete His work at Calvary, that He was mistaken when He said, “It is completed” and gave up His Spirit.
No, the ascension of Jesus proves that Jesus died for all our sins, and that the way to eternal life is through faith in Him alone. It is not so much the extra bit tacked on to the Easter story, as it’s wonderful and glorious conclusion. It’s why we can sing with the saints throughout the ages, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”. Because the ascension ushers in the age of grace where from that point, as Paul says in Romans 10:9, if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Full stop. End of argument.
Secondly, the ascension of Jesus paves the way for the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes people say, why did Jesus go into heaven? Wouldn’t it be simpler if He had stayed on earth and carried on His ministry here in person? Well, Jesus Himself answers this question in John 15:7: I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. You see, if Jesus had remained on earth, He would still have been restricted by the limitations of time and space. Our faith would have become dependent on meeting Him in bodily form for ourselves. It is hard to see how the Christian faith would have become the worldwide movement it is today where daily people in almost every part of the globe come to put their faith and trust in Him.
On the other hand, because Jesus has now ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, He is now able to send His Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of all those who come in faith and trust to Him. The Holy Spirit, you see, is the gift of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus to all people everywhere. And let me just once again stress that also includes you. After all, I find people so often get confused about the work of the Holy Spirit. They may know and love the Lord Jesus. They may have a living and active faith. But they are far less certain that they really do have the Holy Spirit living in them. The Holy Spirit is for Christian leaders, or people who have miraculous gifts, or can speak in tongues, isn’t it, right? Wrong. The Holy Spirit is the gift of God to anyone who believes. We may not feel His presence, we may not be given a spectacular gift, but the Holy Spirit living in us is the proof and guarantee that Jesus Christ has accepted us and given us new life.
Of course, you may well say that it’s all very well, but surely it would have been better for Jesus to leave some visible presence behind on earth? The short answer He has. Believe or not, you are it. You see, the Holy Spirit is not just the gift of the ascended and glorified Lord Jesus to individual believers, it also His gift to the church, His body. We are to be the visible presence of Jesus here on earth, His arms, His feet, His mouthpiece. And it’s when you understand this – and we will return to this point next week – then you begin to see what church is really all about. Church is not simply a club or society of people who believe the same thing, or a place where we happen to gather in worship. Church is a group of people who are called to share in the risen life of Christ and make Him known in the world.
Listen to what the apostle Paul says to the church in Colossae, chapter 3:1-2: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Because that is where our focus as a church should be. And if you ask what this means in practice, it means letting the Holy Spirit work in us and through us, changing our attitudes and priorities, so that the most important thing is serving the risen Lord Jesus Christ. That, you see, is the point of our worship Sunday by Sunday. Not simply that we feel better as a result, or that we keep the show on the road. But that as the Holy Spirit comes upon us in our gathering, we are transformed and changed into being ever more effective witnesses for Jesus. For one person that might mean obeying a call to a particular form of ministry. For another it might mean giving generously and sacrificially to a certain project. For another it might mean having the strength to persevere in the face of a particularly difficult situation. But however the Spirit might work in each of our individual lives, the overall result will be to give glory to Jesus and show others that we are indeed His risen body sharing in His resurrection life.
And thirdly, building on from these other two points, the ascension of Jesus gains us access into the Father’s presence.
Do you have a particular verse in the Bible which sums up for you what the Christian faith is all about? For me, it’s Ephesians 2:18: For through him (that is Jesus) we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Now that word access is really quite a special one. It refers to access to a royal throne room, a special place of privilege where only the few might dare to go. And of course without the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the throne room of the Father remains locked and barred and bolted to anyone who tries to draw near. That’s why human religion and philosophy and mysticism can in the end never deliver. They may promise a great experience of God but they will always disappoint. They can never actually get us in touch with the one who made us and cares for us.
Yet, on the other hand, if we believe and trust in Jesus, the door is always open. Why? Paul gives the answer in that tremendous passage from the end of Romans 8 that is quite rightly dear to so many Christians. Verse 34: Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Just try and take that in for a moment. Christ Jesus is right hand of God interceding for you. Isn’t that amazing? So that when we come before our Heavenly Father in prayer, we are no longer sinners excluded from His presence but dearly, dearly loved children adopted into His family. Because that is what we become when we turn in faith and repentance to Christ and receive His gift of the Holy Spirit. We have a precious, new identity which the world can never take away. We have the privilege of knowing, at least a little of God, not as an angry, distant tyrant somewhere out there but as a Father who welcomes us with open arms, who is preparing a huge heavenly party for His prodigal sons and daughters that have turned back to Him.
Now we find the idea of God as Heavenly Father an immensely comforting one and rightly so. I certainly testify that I wouldn’t have got through the last few months as I did without His amazing love and care for me. But the danger is, because we find the idea of God as Heavenly Father so precious and so special, we can end up subtly changing our message. By saying that God made us and therefore we are His children. That He loves all of us equally and will accept us no matter who we are. Because that’s the message the world wants to hear. They like the idea of God as a warm, cosy being. But the problem with that message is that it leaves Jesus out of the equation.
A true, Bible-based Christian faith affirms that, yes, we are God’s children, but we are lost without the cross of Christ. Yes, God is our Father but only if we turn to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. And it is faith in Jesus that one day will be, as Jesus Himself makes clear in our gospel reading, of crucial importance. You cannot, as the creed makes clear, believe in the resurrection of Jesus without also believing that one day he will judge the living and the dead. And because this is such an important point we will return to it in our final sermon on the creed.
But for now, I hope that you can start to see at least why celebrating Ascension Day is so important. It tells us that Jesus’ earthly work was completed, and that He paid the price for all our sins. It tells us that the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to everyone so that together we can become Christ’s body here on earth. It tells us that from now we can call God Father and have access into His royal throne room. So when June 2nd 2011 comes around, will you mark it as a special date in your diary? And will you find some way of meeting regularly with other believers in order to celebrate your new identity as children of your Heavenly Father and members of Christ’s risen body, the church?