Whatever happened to the Ascension of Christ and its celebration in the Christian Church? Here in South Africa, since it fell away as a national holiday, its significance has largely gone missing!
And this when the Ascension trumpets the fact that ‘Jesus Is King!’ He is Lord of the universe, supreme above all powers, the one who ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church…’ (Col. 1:15ff). As English theologian N.T. Wright reminded us recently, the ascension is virtually the only Christian festival that has no pagan analogue and has not been taken over by the pagan, materialistic forces that have wreaked havoc with Christmas and Easter. The shops don’t fill up with ascension gifts and cards saying, ‘Happy Ascension, Dear Granny!’ Wright suggests that perhaps we should be celebrating it more explicitly, although that might be risky in some instances.
Well, we did in a small way celebrate Jesus’ Ascension here in our city’s Western Suburbs, largely due to long-standing relationships between congregations and leaders. They even asked me to preach (for the second time in three years – they have short memories) despite my known stance on the institutional church!
For what it’s worth, let me leave with you some of the things I shared last Thursday from Acts 1:1-11 and more specifically John 14:15-21. Convinced that many believers in church pews around the globe are populated by spiritual orphans, I chose as theme ‘WE ARE NOT ORPHANS!‘ Yes, millions are orphans because the church system has left them un-mentored and un-discipled. At the same time millions of believers have never clearly understood the message of the Ascension! They have been fed a terribly futuristic diet of ‘pie in the sky when you die;’ boarding ‘the gospel gravy train to heaven’ and nothing happens in between (no discipling, no character change); a dispensationalist ‘boxed-in-Jesus’ who is so firmly seated at the Father’s right hand that he cannot possibly be in two places at once; and an ethereal heaven ‘up there’ where we’ll be forever polishing door knobs and strumming harps! (the NT seems clear that in Christ’s kingdom heaven largely ‘comes down’ to earth: Mt. 6:10, etc)
You see, in celebrating one who is absolute ‘King and Lord,’ we celebrate an eternal, relational, ever-present God. He relates within himself and to us as a trinitarian Being. Jesus himself declares ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day (of Jesus’ resurrection) you will realise that I am in my Father and you are in me, and I am in you’ (Jn. 14:16-20/NIV). As the waterfall feeds the forest (see pic at top of blog), the Ascension feeds the Body of Jesus.
We are not orphans because we have a Father (v. 16a)… a Father better and unlike any human father at best. His fatherhood is individual and communal. The apostle Paul writes in Rom. 8:15-17 (Life Through the Spirit) that by the ‘Spirit of sonship’ we cry “‘Abba, Father’ (a middle eastern term of intimacy and endearment akin to ‘Dad’or even ‘Daddy’). The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children… heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings (note all ‘gravy train’ passengers), in order that we may also share in his glory!’ Believe it or not, as a Jesus follower for over fifty years, I still have to remind myself every morning ‘Erroll, your Father loves you & is very fond of you,’ to use the terminology of Brennan Manning in his Abba’s Child recently worked through. The proverbial cherry on the cake was the Friday evening after Ascension Day, when an orphaned, octogenarian, long-standing neighbour who in times past has mixed her denominationalism with a solid dose of ancestor worship (and maybe still does?), appeared at our front door to say ‘Thank you Erroll for the message last night… I always told my family I was an orphan, but you made me understand that I am not an orphan because I have a Father in heaven.’ How great is his grace.
We are not orphans because we have a Counsellor… v. 16-17. With people’s lives as dysfunctional and messed up as they are, few think of approaching a professional counsellor, never mind one who is divine, all-wise, and totally understands. The problem with most believers and church leaders is that we are never still enough for long enough to actually hear the Spirit’s whispers and feel his promptings. Got the t-shirt…
We are not orphans because we have a Saviour, crucified and risen, residing in us. Jesus made clear that his disciples, after his resurrection, would see and know that he was in the Father, his followers in him, and he in them (v. 18-20). William Temple, commenting on Jn. 14, reminds us that Jesus’ ‘going’ is also a ‘coming.’ The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatian Church (pressured by legalistic performers), declares ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I (the old, sinful Saul) no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). He reminds the Colossian congregations (threatened by ‘New Age’ teaching) that God had specifically chosen them ‘to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!’ (Col. 1:27) Brennan Manning has also helped me, in recent days, to live in ‘the present risenness of Jesus.’ Every morning I recall the words of George Muller, ‘there came a day when George Muller died, utterly died…’ And then I rejoice in the risen Jesus within me: you may not believe it, but it’s months now since I last invoked God’s white-hot fury on the infamous taxi drivers of our nation who heed neither road law nor frailty of life (of course, my readers have probably never had such a temptation?)… Many of us are glad that this astounding truth of the risen and indwelling Christ is receiving fresh impetus among his followers around the world!
We are not orphans because we have an Equipper, who gives us significance (v. 15, 20-21). We are equipped by Jesus and his constraining love to obey his commandments: v. 21b, ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show (lit. ‘manifest’) myself to him.’ Amazing, isn’t it!? After the resurrection Jesus greets his disciples with his missionary mandate: “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.‘ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (Jn. 20:21-22). In Acts ch.1 Luke ties up Jesus’s Ascension with the Spirit’s empowering to be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!’ (v. 8) In these days of cheap, three-step evangelism we need to be aware that our mandate is intensely incarnational (cf. Jn. 20:21). Disciple-making doesn’t take place in the church gathering place (ignore the ‘church growth’ experts) but in the market place. Ultimately our witness means nothing if not underwritten by who we are and what we do. And our calling is to all people, those we like and those we don’t!
I’m simply astonished at the Ascension! I hope you are too. Our ascended King is coming soon in consummate fulness… in the mean time we are not orphans!
[after the message at our Ascension gathering, we unitedly prayed an old hymn by Charles Wesley – maybe you would like to take a moment to do the same, right now, wherever you are in the world, and let us know (under Comments) which part of the world, should you feel free to do so!]
Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell, or earth, or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.
Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners given;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to heaven.
Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.
O that the world might taste and see
The riches of His grace;
The arms of love that compass me
Would all mankind embrace.
His only righteousness I show,
His saving grace proclaim;
‘Tis all my business here below
To cry: Behold the Lamb!