Text: Acts 1:3-11
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May 8, 2016
Last Sunday there were no bands playing. The latest missiles and army tanks were absent. Soldiers were in their barracks. No one stood in the reviewing stands atop the Kremlin overlooking Lenin square. The revolution was over. May Day came and went unobserved.
Last Thursday, most of Naples churches, including St. Paul’s were empty. There were no processions or parades. Most of us men were making a mental note to call the florist before the end of the day to send a plant to our mother or to order a corsage for our spouse.
We remember what is significant. Ascension Day has become a forgotten festival because the Ascension has become a dying doctrine. In a few minutes we will affirm the faith of the Church. Among the things we will say that we believe is the clause “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Perhaps it is time for us to take a second look and make the observance of this event a day to remember.
The biblical story places the Ascension forty days after the resurrection. Our Lord’s ministry opens and closes with a forty-day period. At the beginning God reveals the divine will for Jesus, and discloses the character of his ministry. The temptations were inducements by Satan for Jesus to seize for himself a different kind of mission than the one that God had disclosed. Our Lord resisted the temptation and follow the path chosen by His Father. At the end of his ministry, Jesus is himself the Revealer, showing himself alive to his disciples. He disclosed God’s will for them and the character their common life was to have as the Church.
This period also reminds us of the forty-days Moses spent on Mt. Sanai when God revealed to him His righteous law. At the end of the forty days, Moses descended the mountain to lead God’s people from Egypt to the land of Promise. At the end of the forty days of temptation Jesus left the desert to call his disciples and begin his mission. Now forty days beyond his resurrection, his work on earth is completed. He withdraws from the disciples and goes to the Father.
In the heavenlies our Lord is still at work. That work affects us here on earth in at least four ways: From the right hand of the Father he speaks to: A) our anxieties; B) our loneliness; C) our ignorance, and D) our need for authority.
A: To an age of anxiety, Ascension Day reveals our Lord seated on the king’s bench as our eternal Advocate. Satan, our adversary, seeks to accuse us of falling short in the court of God. But Christ is seated at God’s right hand interceding for us. Because Christ is our lawyer, the “anxious bench” of guilt, and the “mourner’s bench” of repentance are transformed by the “mercy seat’ of joy. If you are feeling anxiety this morning, it is undoubtedly because, consciously or unconsciously, you are relying on your own efforts to be seen as worthy in the sight of God. Remember our Lord is presenting His case on your behalf. He is the best defense attorney you can have.
B. Our age of anxiety is marked not only by a sense of guilt, but also by a sense of insecurity. Will we have another collapse in the stock market? Will our resources outlast our medical expenses? Will our health hold reasonably well as we age? Combined with these anxieties comes a sense of loneliness as we see one by one our friends and loved ones go to be with the Lord. In response to this epoch of loneliness, Ascension Day reveals Christ seated in the Bishop’s Chair as our eternal pastor.
In the patristic period the chair was the symbol of the pastoral office and was associated with the episcopate. In early Christian literature scholars often find drawings of the seated Christ with the Bishop’s mitre on his head. St. Peter is said to have described Jesus as “the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.” The Jesus of history although twenty-one centuries distant from us in time, thousands of miles removed from us geographically and separated from us by a vast cultural chasm, is our pastor still because of the Day of Ascension.
Because of it, He can fulfill his promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Because of it, our Lord is close to Christians of all ages, of all locations and cultures and can enter into a personal relationship with each one. Because of it, he can keep his promised appointment to be with the two or three who are gathered together in His name.
The Ascended Lord permeates congregations with His presence, and transforms them into His spiritual body. He listens to the prayers of the faithful and speaks to them through the scriptures. He regenerates the hearts of sinners and leads them to baptism, and by his ascension turns the breaking of bread into the blessed communion of his last supper.
As our Lord comforted a tearful Mary in the garden on Resurrection morning, so he testifies to our troubled hearts and wipes away all tears from our eyes.
C: To an era threatened with the spread of false teaching, Ascension Day shows our Lord seated at the teacher’s desk as the Instructor of the Church. Sitting signifies teaching. During his ministry Jesus sat to teach. At Nazareth’s synagogue, for example, after he had read from the Prophet Isaiah, he sat down to give his sermon. When he gave the sermon on the Mount, he sat down to give it. When the crowd gathered at the seaside, he went and sat in the boat to teach them.
Throughout antiquity, the chair was a universal symbol of instruction. Even today, seasoned professor’s “sit” in the Chair of Biblical Studies or Theology, or Church History. When the Pope speaks an “infallible” word, he does so from the chair. In a way I shall always regret that I “retired” from Wesley Seminary rather that Asbury. Asbury gave their professor’s a chair at their retirement dinner.
Our Lord is seated that the right hand of the father, the Defender of the Faith, the Educator of the Flock. As Educator of the Church, he has given us the Holy Scriptures and sent the Holy Spirit to interpret them. By the Spirit, through the Scriptures He instructs and inspires His people and continues His teaching ministry that he began in ancient Galilee.
Part of this ministry is to call pastors and teach for the church as he first summoned the disciples by the seashore. St. Paul had this in mind when he wrote: “Christ ascended far above the heavens that he might fulfill all things, and his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry for the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith.”
Sitting is an ancient symbol of power. A country’s capital is called the seat of government. When our congress is seated, it has the authority to pass laws. The person is power is said to be in the driver’s seat.
In the book of the Revelation of John, the triumphant Christ is portrayed as the Lamb who sits on the throne while the defeated Satan is described as a restless roaring lion roaming about the city streets. Ascension Day affirms that our Lord is in control!
Because of Ascension Day, Christians can confess that Jesus is Lord of the Universe. On the Mount of Ascension our Lord declared: “All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. The Kingship of Christ is confessed by Christians and we believe will be demonstrated to all humankind at the end of history. Until then in a world that is filled with unrest, acts of terror, riots and wars we can take comfort in the knowledge that our Lord is ultimately in command. Ascension Day is an annual reminder that our Lord will return to consummate His kingdom.
Meanwhile, the waiting Church is to work, witness and worship. That is what the first disciples did. What better way for us to engage in ministry than by making Ascension Day a day to remember.