By Linda Rex
May 29, 2022, ASCENSION Sunday—The past few years I have been slowly working toward a divinity degree. Last week I started a new course with Grace Communion Seminary called Church Planting and Development. As I was writing a reflection paper last night, it occurred to me that the timing of this class fits right in with where we are on the Christian calendar.
Indeed, this Sunday we are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ascension, a significant event in God’s story. Here we focus on the spiritual reality of the fulfillment of an essential part of Jesus’ mission here on earth, him having been sent by the Father to bring all humanity home to eternal fellowship with the Triune God. It was necessary for Jesus to live, die and rise again as God in human flesh in order for all of us to be included in his own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. It is in Jesus’ ascension that the mission of God to restore our relationship moves into the realm of the Spirit, who is sent so that each of us individually can participate by faith in what Christ has done.
Luke’s gospel version of the ascension event, Luke 24:44–53, gives the impression that it all happened on the same day as the resurrection. However, when he describes the event in Acts 1:1–11, we see that all these things happened over a period of forty days following the resurrection. The disciples and others were given many opportunities to experience firsthand the risen Lord, to talk and eat with him, and to hear him expound the Old Testament scriptures which spoke of his coming and his mission. At the end of this time, he blessed his followers and ascended to his Father’s side.
In Acts 1, Christ’s followers stood there for a while after being blessed, looking up into the sky. This makes me ask: I wonder how long they stood there before the angels spoke to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” I can imagine Jesus, having already made the transition into glory, saw them standing there still trying to see him and he finally said to the angels nearby, “I think you’re going to have to tell them to quit looking for me and get busy.”
But this does speak to what we as the body of Christ have often done when it comes to the whole idea of the ascension. It’s as though we believe Jesus is done with his project, has gone home, and we just have to wait until he comes back. Faith in Christ and salvation become all about us being good people who live good lives until Jesus returns in glory. And we miss the point of it all—God bringing all of humanity back into relationship with himself through Christ in the Spirit.
What had Jesus told the disciples to do? He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit. Then they were to go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them, and include them in Christ’s mission to the world. Jesus came as God in human flesh to draw all of humanity up into right relationship with God in the Spirit. He’s still on that mission. Having been sent by the Father, he has returned home and sent the Spirit to continue his efforts. We, as the body of Christ, are set apart to participate in that mission of reaching out to all the world, sharing the good news and making disciples or new followers of Christ. Our unity and our love in the body of Christ, the church, are meant to testify to the presence of the kingdom of God here on earth by the Spirit, a kingdom in which all people are welcome to participate.
Even at the end of John’s apocalypse, he points out the reality of the body of Christ, his bride, being on mission with Jesus. He writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17 NASB).” Our role is to join with Jesus in the Spirit to say to the world around us, “Come.” Anyone who is thirsty is welcome to come. The water of life is available to everyone now in Christ, so every is able to drink if they so wish. And the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church, is called by God in participation with Jesus by the Spirit to freely offer that water of life to all.
And, if this seems to be an intimidating prospect, consider the indicatives which went with Jesus’ command to preach the good news and to make disciples. First of all, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus has ascended to his Father’s side and has received all authority and power and glory in his exaltation as the risen Lamb of God (Ephesians 1:15–23). Secondly, he has promised to be with us until the end. And thirdly, he has sent the Spirit, the One who empowers us to do the ministry and mission Jesus has called us to. God is doing the heavy lifting—we just get to join in with what he is doing through Jesus in the Spirit.
As Luke explains, our mission to the world begins where we are, and moves in ever-widening spheres of influence as we respond in faith to the voice of the Spirit and move out, sharing the good news of God’s love expressed to all of us in Jesus Christ. What is your current sphere of influence? Are there people God has placed in your life that you have conversations with and do everyday activities with? These are opportunities for the gospel. And sharing the good news is what Jesus has called us to participate with him in doing.
When I think about how far God has brought me in this journey of faith, I see that we have traveled a longways together. But I also see that I have only begun to really understand what it means to live on mission with Jesus, and to be a genuine follower of Christ. It is so easy to be distracted with the concerns of everyday life. And so easy, too, to place my focus on how well I am doing in my own relationship with God, rather than on remembering that others need to hear the good news too, and need to experience the joy, unity, and love of the body of Christ for themselves. Oh, for the heart of Jesus for others!
May we remember today, and every day, to pray for the people in our lives, to ask Jesus for opportunities to share the good news, and for the courage and faith to do so. May we quit looking up at the sky and be busy doing what Jesus has called us to do—to move out on mission with him, sharing the good news of all God has done for us in sending his Son and his Spirit for our salvation.
Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done in sending your Son and your Spirit for our salvation, for drawing us up into life with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to move outside of ourselves into genuine relationship with the people around us, and give us the inspiration, courage, and wisdom to share with them all you have given to us through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ ” Acts 1:1–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/why-look-at-the-sky.pdf ]
By Linda Rex
PROPER 8—I did not write a blog last week as I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending the GCI Southeast Regional Conference. I attended this event with fellow pastors Jan Taylor and Mike Gass, as well as our outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier. We joined with fellow pastors in learning about what it means to be a healthy leader and a healthy church, and how GCI (Grace Communion International) is obeying Christ’s call to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to follow wherever he leads.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, the narrator Luke tells how Jesus responded to different people who sought to be his disciples. When one person said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus told him that unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah did not have a place to rest his head. The price of discipleship often includes the loss of physical places we count on for comfort and personal safety.
Jesus said to another person, “Follow me.” Jesus had given this same command to Matthew as he was sitting at his desk collecting taxes and Matthew had left behind all his financial abundance and job security to follow Christ. When Jesus told the fishermen to follow him, they left their boats and families behind and simply followed Jesus. They left behind all that was comfortable and known in order to follow him.
But here, this man asked if he could first bury his father. In that day according to social expectations, it was the duty of a man to bury his father and give him an honorable burial a year after his death. This man, if he was the firstborn, may have been expecting a double inheritance, so he may have wanted to protect his future expectations. Either way, he wanted to wait till these personal and financial responsibilities were resolved before following Jesus. But neither of these reasons were sufficient to disobey Jesus’ simple command, “Follow me.”
Jesus replied by telling him to “allow the dead to bury their own dead.” He was being invited to truly live—to be in intimate relationship with Jesus. By dying to his past life and following Christ, he would begin a new life—a new path of discipleship. And Jesus’ instructions to him were, “Go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” The king of the kingdom was present in Jesus and this man’s calling was to let everyone know right away that this was so, not to wait until he had all his personal affairs in order before he did so. (Luke 9:51–62)
His calling is not any different than God’s calling to us today as believers. And it is God’s calling to the members of GCI. We are called to radical discipleship—to leaving behind what was before and embracing what God through Christ in the Spirit is leading us toward. We are to proclaim the kingdom of God, no matter the cost, even if it means leaving behind those places and practices we count on for comfort and personal safety. In following Christ, we cease our dependence upon our physical abilities and future expectations, and trust in the provision and future God has for us and is leading us into by his Holy Spirit.
To often we are like the man who told Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” We find a lot of reasons not to simply do what Jesus by the Spirit tells us to do. It is easy to allow the things of this life, our comfortable relationships, our social obligations, to distract us from simply following Jesus and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom.
Family relationships are important and should not be neglected. We are to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. But the kingdom life Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is a radical shift from self-centered living into a Christ-centered existence in which our choice is moment-by-moment to follow Jesus wherever he goes, no matter the cost. Radical discipleship includes changing the way we think, talk, and live.
And radical discipleship also includes sometimes changing the way we do church and the way we act as spiritual leaders within the church. The way we do church can become so comfortable that we cease to grow and change or allow new people the opportunity to grow and change with us. Members of our churches and denominations may begin to so resemble the culture in which we live they lose their distinction as followers of Christ. Leadership can become about prestige, financial abundance, power, and authority rather than about Jesus’ simple path of humble service and self-sacrifice. Churches can become social clubs, exclusive and untouchable, or they can become so gracious and free-spirited that no one ever hears the truth about Jesus and his costly path of discipleship.
As GCI follows the lead of the Holy Spirit and continues in its growth of Christ-likeness, we will continue to be called down the road of discipleship where we must make the choice to follow Jesus in new and challenging ways. We may need to leave behind those comfortable, easy ways of doing church and embrace new, transformational ways of embracing our church communities and the people we encounter there. We will be called to quit hiding and stop running away from our responsibilities to share the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere we go.
This is the call to discipleship—a discipleship in which we were meant to call others into the same radical discipleship we were called into as Jesus said to us, “Follow me.” What that calling is for us individually and as a church is unique—we listen to and obey the Spirit as he moves in our midst and within our communities. We join Jesus in his daily work to let all people know the good news of God’s amazing love expressed to us in him. And we enjoy the journey, for we are caught within the love and life of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit.
Thank you, Jesus, for calling us to follow you. Give us the courage and faith to do so, no matter the cost and no matter what the future may bring. Enable us by your Spirit to embrace all the new you are doing while holding fast to what you have taught us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension. Grow us up into all that you are. By your Spirit and for Abba’s glory, make your body, your churches, specifically our GCI churches, into places of life, healing, and renewal. Make us all a clear reflection of your glory and grace. In your Name we pray, amen.
“And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:59-60 NASB