By Linda Rex
May 16, 2021, ASCENSION SUNDAY—With spring fully sprung and temperatures here in Tennessee beginning to move into summer intensity, we find ourselves in a new place on the Christian calendar—Ascension Sunday. This event is actually celebrated on Thursday, May 13th this year, but we at Grace Communion Nashville take time on the following Sunday to remember this special event.
The event of Jesus’ ascension is a very important one, as the gift of the Holy Spirit would not have come if he had not ascended. After his resurrection Jesus retained our now glorified human flesh, bringing it into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We find that all human beings now are welcome to participate by faith in Christ, enabling them to experience God’s life and love now by the Spirit and in glory when Christ returns to establish the new heavens and earth.
During the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus took time to instruct his disciples, giving them understanding of how all that he had been and done was the central theme of the Old Testament scriptures. Christ then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit, and sent them out to be witnesses to everything that he had done while on earth. In his final moment, he lifted his hands and blessed them, as the high priest would do when the reconciliation was complete.
Even today, as Christ’s followers, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, showing and telling others about the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for our salvation. We are called to open ourselves up to be filled with the Spirit—growing in our relationship with God through the Word of God, prayer, gathering together for fellowship with believers, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We live as those who are sent, actively participating in Christ’s mission in this world. And we go in Jesus’ blessing.
As I was reflecting on all this recently, the Lord brought to mind something he had led me to years ago when I first was wrestling with the call to pastoral ministry. I was shown how the body of Christ today, specifically in our denomination, was being called to rebuild the church on the new foundation we had been given in Jesus. I encourage you to take the time this week to read the book of Haggai. The prophet Haggai wrote shortly following the exile to those Jews who had returned to their homeland. They had rebuilt the altar and were offering sacrifices. They had set the foundation for the temple. But there the work had stopped.
Haggai was directed by God to ask his people, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate? … Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:4-5 NASB) He showed them how they were preoccupied with taking care of their own interests and concerns, and were neglecting the restoration of the temple. God’s priority was preparing the way for the coming of his Son to earth, and for that to be accomplished the way he desired, the temple needed to be rebuilt. Haggai was sent to remind the people to get their priorities centered on what God wanted do. And then God moved in them by his Spirit to act accordingly.
In some ways, I’m concerned that too often, we as believers have neglected to move on beyond setting the foundation of Jesus Christ in our lives and offering up worship on an occasional Saturday or Sunday. We have all the trappings of religiosity but we have lost the substance—life in Christ that reflects both his grace and his truth. Too often we have neglected God’s priorities and plans, preferring to seek our own agenda, including those things which distract us from keeping our kingdom focus. Is our focus on what God prefers—his kingdom and his righteousness? Jesus said if we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all these other things will be added.
Jesus told the woman at well in Samaria that our worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, that it is much more than religious rites and rituals or having a particular location of worship. Jesus Christ is the place of worship now, where we are called together in unity, to worship God and serve him. When Christ defines our identity and our relationship with God and one another, that says something about how we are to live and treat one another. As followers of Christ, we need to move beyond the religious trappings which anyone can imitate into the reality of life in Christ—something only possible in the power of the Spirit, with the living presence of Jesus in us and with us. It should be evident to those around us that we are Christ’s disciples, by our Christ-like love for one another, no matter our church denomination or fellowship preference.
Going back to our story—when the work on the temple began, those who had seen Solomon’s temple grieved the lost of the majesty and wonder of the former building. Haggai asked, “Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” (Haggai 2:3 NASB) In the same way, the disciples kept expecting Jesus to bring about his kingdom in the sense of using his might and power to destroy the existing government and install a theocracy. But Jesus told them he had something else in mind. We need to remember that God’s kingdom work in this world may look a lot different than we expect. What Jesus plans for the body of Christ may be a lot different than what we prefer. The church of the future very well may look a lot different than the church we remember—and we need to be okay with this.
Finally, the most important message which Haggai gave his people was one that we can take to heart today. Just as when Joshua was entering into the promised land and was told to take courage, God encouraged those who were rebuilding the temple. “ ‘… take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” (Haggai 2:4b-5 NASB) In the same way, Jesus told his disciples before he left them and ascended that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, he told them, go and make disciples. He promised he would never leave them, but would always be with them—and he was, by the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20).
What a marvelous thing the ascension is! Now we are participating in a real way in what God is doing in this world, all because this Jesus, who was God in human flesh, died and rose for our salvation, and now dwells forever in the presence of the Father bearing our humanity. By faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit sent from God and are each empowered to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today as he brings about renewal, healing, and transformation. We have been given both a hope and a future. We truly are blessed.
Holy God, thank you for reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing, and to trust you to know what is best for us as we move into the future. Grant us the passion and the courage to do the hard work of sharing the good news of your love and grace, of building up the body of Christ. And give us the endurance to weather all that we may have to bear as we do this. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, of all you have done for us through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.” Luke 24:44–53 NASB