The obligatory guest—you know, that loveable yet odd relative or friend that gets invited to every significant family function, party, or celebration but no one knows exactly how they fit in? Do you have one in your circle? The Christian faith has an equivalent—the Ascension. Christians confess this event in the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds (and others). We know it’s in the Bible. We have a day marked to celebrate and remember it (Thursday, May 5, 2016 and often celebrated the following Sunday). But it can often be left off to the side, doing its own thing, muttering to itself while Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are whooping it up.
But for St Augustine, the Ascension isn’t the outsider at the party. The Ascension is the party thrower! The feast of the Ascension, says Augustine, is what confirms what is good and beautiful about all the rest of the events. Without the Ascension, the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus would have been useless. Why? Because the Ascension is the coronation of Jesus; the affirmation of his reign and rule over the whole creation. Without the Ascension, there is no Gospel. If Jesus isn’t King, then his birth is relatively meaningless, his cross ineffective, and the resurrection underwhelming.
Therefore, not only must we preach the Ascension. We get to preach the Ascension. But if you’re like me, then you haven’t considered the Ascension’s centrality. But with the right lenses, it becomes a vital part of the whole Christian narrative. With that in mind, here are five Ascension truths and corresponding passages that may spark the preaching at the Ascension party.
- The Ascension is the affirmation of humanity’s role in creation (Gen. 1-2; 2 Timothy 2:11-13). Human beings were created in God’s image, to reign over creation as God’s vice-regents. The Ascension of the Incarnate Jesus of Nazareth shows us that this role has not been lost. From the Ascension onward, a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, is co-ruling the universe with God. And we are to reign with him.
Preaching Points: The value of human beings; the destiny of humanity; leadership in creation; union with Christ.
- The Ascension shows that Jesus accomplished his mission (Heb. 10:12-13; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-3). Luke’s two volume work, Luke-Acts, uses the Ascension as a kind of conclusion-introduction hinge. This is not because Luke thinks his readers will forget the Ascension. It is because the Ascension has a dual role. First, the Ascension is the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Just as Moses blessed the people before his death (Deut. 33), so now Christ blesses the people before his Ascension. (The second purpose of the Ascension hinge is #3 below.) The Ascended Jesus is sitting at the position of honor next to the Father because he has accomplished all that the Father has given him to do.
Preaching Points: the forgiveness of sins; the accomplishments of Jesus; the victory of our King.
- The Ascension is the foundation of the church’s mission (Acts 1:4-11). Just as Luke concluded the ministry of Jesus with the Ascension, so does he launch the ministry of the church with the Ascension. The ministry of the church is the extension of what Jesus began to do and teach. The disciples are not to keep looking into heaven after Jesus, they are meant to be waiting expectantly for the Holy Spirit.
Preaching points: Inspire the missional nature of the church; remind of the solid foundation of the church’s mission; encourage not to be stuck “staring after Jesus,” but to be active in his name.
- The Ascension helps to shape our ethics (Col. 3:1-11). Paul uses crucifixion language when he encourages us to put to death sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, and evil desire. Why ought we to put these things to death? Because Christ is above and we are to set our minds on him. The crucifixion is the means of death to sin; the Ascension is the reason. The Ascension of Jesus—his place in God’s presence—is the foundation of godly living. Our lives are not simply wasted efforts, but investments in Christ for his legacy and glory to be extended through us.
Preaching Points: Godly living; Christian ethics.
- The Ascension captures the paradox of the Lord’s presence and absence (Col. 3:3-4; Heb. 2:5-9). The world does not always look like it is under the reign of Jesus Christ. As the author of Hebrews says, “we do not see everything in subjection to him,” yet goes on to say, “But we see him…crowned with glory and honor.” Likewise, while we can sometimes sense the presence of Christ, at other times Christ feels absent. There is a both/and reality: Christ reigns and yet everything does not look this way; Christ is present and Christ is absent. Paul does not shy away from these tensions, however. In fact, the absence of Christ, his hiddenness, becomes protection for the Christian (Col. 3:3). This paradox deepens the Trinitarian theology, meaning, and mystery of the sacraments. Christ is present in the sacraments in ways like no other events. Christ washes us by the Spirit in baptism and nourishes us with his life by the Spirit in communion. There is mystery at work in these events; they are not il In light of the ascension of Christ, they are theological.
Preaching Points: Theology of baptism and communion; existential tensions of Christian faith; eschatological hope
Jesus once preached about a son who became the guest of honor at a celebration. The story’s frequent title, the prodigal son, is actually a misnomer. Truly, it is not the son who is prodigious; it is the father! It is similar with the Ascension. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost—they are all celebrations, it is true. But it is the Ascension that provides the song, the joy, and the party location. May the Ascension move from being an odd event that receives a brief nod in one sermon, to being the foundation, the joy, the reason for your preaching Jesus as the Christ!
Author’s note: This article is further developed in He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press), co-authored with Rev. Dr. Tim Perry