A sermon on Luke 24:44-53 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on May 24, 2020, Ascension Sunday.
Inhabiting the House of Hope Built by Jesus
We have been talking this Easter season about how Christian faith is marked with an “already-not-yet” tension, and today, as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, we come to the place where that tension is really at its height. John Chrysostom says here, “In the Resurrection [the disciples] saw the end, but not the beginning, and in the Ascension they saw the beginning, but not the end.”
The Ascension marks the end of the Apostles’ time with Jesus on earth and it begins the worldwide ministry of the Church of Jesus. As we begin to look at our passage from the Gospel of Luke today, you can see Jesus preparing the disciples for this. In vs. 44-49, he reminds them that they are witnesses of the finished work of the Messiah – and that this Gospel must be heralded out to all the earth. But first, they most clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now today, I want us to focus in on verses 50-53, the description of the Ascension itself, asking along the way what it means for us today to be marked by the hope of the Ascension. As Reine Bethany says, we are sort of like those who inhabit the house built by a carpentry crew:
“Once the builders get the house up, they leave, and the people come to live in the house. As long as the builders are around, the people can’t move in. Jesus had built the church. It consisted of his disciples. Time for him to ascend.” (Reine Bethany, as quoted in Fifty Days of Glory by Mark Pearson, pgs.183-184)
What does Christian hope look like in the time between the Ascension and Jesus’ promise to come again? Verses 50-53 show us four marks.
What Does It Mean to Be Marked by the Hope of the Ascension?
50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
It includes recognizing the blessing of Jesus upon his people (v. 50).
Look at verse 50. As Jesus ascended, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. The word for blessing (εὐλόγησεν) literally means he spoke “a well word” – he spoke a blessing over his disciples and, with them, the entire body of Christ, as he departed. What else but the blessing of Jesus could explain the success of Christian mission in the world? Nothing.
One of the things we believe as Anglicans is that Jesus has never left or abandoned his church – he’s kept it through every age, throughout all the shifting sands of time and culture. Ephesians 1 tells us that the church is forever being filled, sustained, renewed and nurtured by him as his Body. Saints, we endure because of the blessing of Jesus.
This challenges our mind set. Rather than viewing our church as just kind of limping along, we should see that God is for and behind our success, our blessing, our fruitfulness in ministry and that he has equipped us and given us every good spiritual gift to accomplish the mission He’s sent us out on.
So the first mark of Ascension hope is seeing the firm blessing of Jesus upon the gathering he himself has created.
It includes recognizing the absence of Jesus (v. 51).
Look at verse 51. It says that “he parted from them and was carried up…” When it says that he was carried up, literally, it means that he was put asunder and disjoined from them. In Jesus’ Ascension, there is Real Absence, even as we know him present in the Word and Sacrament.
One of the questions Crosby (our five year old) most often asks me is Why can’t I see Jesus? If we’re honest, maybe we ask that question, too. There is a tension in Jesus’ Ascension. Having finished his work, he leaves.
After his Ascension, the Christian life is marked by faith, not by sight. It is real and yet incomplete. There is space for longing.
Moreover, the mission of the Church is marked, not by Jesus’ direct presence, nor by forced methods of conversion to Christianity, but by the persuasive work of the Holy Spirit, convincing men and women of the authenticity of the Faith we proclaim.
Greg Goebel, writing on the tension of Jesus’ absence, puts it this way:
“We have a hard time with this tension. We tend to ignore the absence of Christ and act as if things are already made new. But there is a problem with that. We still have a sense of longing. Like the martyrs under the altar in the Revelation, our souls are crying out “How long, O Lord?” It is normal, and natural that we would feel a sense of incompleteness and longing. It shouldn’t surprise us, but it does.
One reason it surprises us is that we tend to be triumphalist. We talk and act as if heaven has already merged with earth, and Christ has already returned. We expect things to be perfect, if only we pray enough or try hard enough. And yet they won’t be perfected until later. We have to wait. We have to be at peace, even as we seek to be a presence of love to this broken world as wounded healers.
This sense of longing will be with us until we are fully re-united with Christ. But in the midst of this longing, he speaks peace to us. “My peace I leave with you…not as the world gives.” Jesus knew that we would miss him. He knew that we would live in the tension of the already but not yet. He knew that we would sense his absence, even though we experience his comfort now.
So he gives us the gift of peace within that tension. We can settle into the tension of the now, knowing that we are not alone, even as we wait. Our task is to be at peace with the world as it is, while seeking to bring the transforming love of Christ into it.” (Greg Goebel, “Ascension Day and the Real Absence of Christ”)
In the Ascension, there is a good and right homesickness that we feel from time to time as Christians. That longing is good and right as long as we are in the world.
It includes recognizing the place of Jesus (v. 51).
Look again at the end of verse 51. Yes, in the Ascension Jesus is, in a sense, absent, but look where he goes! He returns to heaven, there to reign. There to present his finished work before the Father. There to intercede for us, robed in our flesh. There give the promised Holy Spirit! He is at his post for us, saints. As Mark Pearson says, “The Ascension was not escapism for Jesus.” (Mark Pearson, Fifty Days of Glory, pg. 176). Jesus does not say well, it’s been nice, but I’ve got people to see and thing to do! No rather,
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea
A great High Priest whose name is love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
By the way, apologetically speaking, when people ask why Jesus had to leave, we simply have to trust the answer Jesus himself gave! We also have to look at the outcome of his promise – what he said would happen, did! The world has been filled the message of the Gospel, and will continue to be so filled because the Holy Spirit has been poured out.
It includes recognizing the worth of Jesus (vs. 52)
Look at verse 52. It says they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. What an unlikely picture – a group of Jewish men worshiping a man. Why? Because he really is who he claims to be – true God and true man. In the Ascension, we now Jesus Christ for who he really is – the Lord of Glory who came into our midst and returned to that glory.
What does this teach us? Well, listen to Mark Pearson’s words here: “Christian life is best lived in the balance between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, that is, between Christ in glory, seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and Christ right here on Earth, in our hearts, wherever two or three are gathered in his name, and in the Eucharist. Some people opt mostly for the transcendent Christ of glory expressed in stately hymns, solemn processions, formal liturgies, triumphal art, and soaring church buildings. Other people focus in large part on the immanent Christ right here, the dear, sweet Jesus who “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.” … We need both because both are true. … ‘The Lord of the universe is my friend, and my Friend is the Lord of the universe.” (Mark Pearson, Fifty Days of Glory, pgs. 174-175).
These are the four marks of Ascension hope: receiving the blessing of Jesus, yet recognizing his absence, realizing his place, and seeing his awesome worth. If we, as a body and as individuals, have these four marks upon us, then we are fit to run the race of this already-not-yet Christian life. We will endure in joy and we will persist in the mission Jesus gave to his church. More on that come next week as we conclude the Easter season with Pentecost Sunday!
For now, we give all glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – now and always! Amen.