I saw this image on Facebook on Thursday, which was Ascension Day. A classic painting of Jesus ascending above the bewildered disciples has had a caption added:
The Feast of the Ascension: celebrating the day that Jesus began working from home.
I rather liked that. I wondered whether devout Catholic politician Jacob Rees-Mogg might ponder it the next time he leaves snarky notes on the office desks of civil servants who are working from home.
What do we make of the Ascension? When I try to explain the event to congregations, I usually suggest it is what John Calvin called one of God’s accommodations to us. He rose into the sky to get the message through to disciples who thought heaven was ‘up there’. Although Professor Tom Wright now says that the Jewish concept of heaven was that it was an invisible realm next door to this life and therefore the crucial part of the story is that Jesus disappears from sight.
But be that as it may, what does the Ascension mean for us? I’m going to divide that into two halves.
Firstly, it’s about the finished work of Jesus.
Hebrews 4:14 tells us that Jesus ‘has ascended into heaven.’ But what does he do there?
Two other parts of Hebrews tell us something that this section doesn’t, and they both use the same expression. In both chapter 10 and chapter 12 we read, ‘He sat down.’
It’s like he gets to heaven, he goes in the front door, finds the sofa in the living room, and takes the weight off his feet. Job done. Now he can rest.
In other words, the Ascension tells us that Jesus had completed all he was sent to Earth to do. Through his life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection he has achieved his goal. Salvation has been won. It is available to all. The task is being passed to the disciples and any day now the Holy Spirit will equip them for that.
Compare it if you will to the account of the crucifixion in the Gospel according to John. As he is about to die, Jesus cries out, ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30) When he said ‘It is finished’ he didn’t mean, it’s all over, and my mission has failed, but the very opposite. For the Greek word that English Bibles translate as ‘finished’ means ‘finished’ in the sense of ‘accomplished’. Jesus is saying, ‘Mission accomplished!’ and the Ascension confirms that.
Jesus has done everything we need for salvation. The Cross is sufficient, the Resurrection proclaims it, and the Ascension ratifies it. To come into a relationship with the living God and to live as a disciple of Jesus requires only what he has done for us. At the Cross, the guilt we carry and the sentence we deserve for our sins are taken away and laid on Jesus. At the Cross, evil forces are conquered not by violence but by the suffering love of God in Christ. At the Cross we are set free.
It has all been done. Finished. Mission accomplished.
So one thing we must not do is attempt to add to what Jesus has done. Sometimes when we feel particularly guilty we think we have to do something as an act of penance to earn the favour of God. But as Martin Luther discovered when he studied the New Testament more fully than he had been taught as an Augustinian monk, the word is not ‘penance’ but ‘repentance’. And even then we do that in response to what Jesus is offering us.
Similarly, some people think they have to live a good life in order to win God’s favour. This is at heart an act of pride: ‘I did it myself’ – or even worse, in the words of the dreadful song, ‘I did it my way.’ But the fact that Jesus has done it all is meant to humble us. We cannot save ourselves. That’s the point. Everyone must come to that realisation, whether they are of high rank or low in human society, that we come in humility to Jesus and depend entirely on him for salvation.
On this day when we celebrate Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the Father, I want us all to realise afresh that our relationship with Christ is described in the words of the hymn:
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy Cross I cling.
What is faith then? It is not stretching out our hands to offer God something from our lives that we think or hope might make us acceptable to him. Instead, it is an opening out of our empty hands to be filled with all that Jesus has to give us from what he has done for us at the Cross.
John Wesley knew this. Last Tuesday was the anniversary of his conversion at Aldersgate Street, when he found that the assurance of God’s love simply came directly to him from God, not from all the labours to which he had devoted himself up until then.
Therefore, if you are ever the kind of person who says of yourself, ‘I’m trying to be a Christian,’ I want to ask you to put that language to bed from today. Either you are a Christian, or you are not. Being a Christian isn’t a boast, it isn’t a matter of personal superiority. It’s a matter of holding out those empty to hands to receive the finished work of Christ.
Secondly, the Ascension is about the unfinished work of Jesus.
Wait a minute Dave, you’ve just been at pains to say that Jesus finished his work. How can you now say his work is unfinished?
Glad you asked. And I hope this is provocative enough to keep you listening. One part of his work is finished, the work I’ve just been describing, to make salvation an offer to all.
But another part of his work is unfinished. And it’s described in our reading. Hebrews calls Jesus our ‘high priest.’ What does a priest do? A priest offers sacrifices for the people – but we’ve covered that in my first point about the finished work of Jesus in speaking about his death. Jesus our high priest offered himself as our sacrifice.
But a priest does something else for the people. A priest prays for them. This is something that Hebrews will refer to three chapters after our reading:
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:25)
Two circuits ago, and elderly Local Preacher prayed for me every day. But he died. My parents also prayed daily for me. But they have both died while I have been here.
However, I am not short on the most powerful prayer for me in my need, because Jesus intercedes for me. And he does the same for each of you. Be encouraged! This is his priestly work.
And furthermore, he understands, because as our reading says,
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Don’t you find that encouraging, too? I often tell mourners at a funeral that when I am going through a bad time in my life I don’t necessarily find it helpful to have well-meaning Christians come up to me and tell me exactly what they believe about why God has allowed this. I want to lay my hands on such people – but not in the sense of healing!
The people I find most supportive when I am walking through troubles are those who have been there themselves. They understand.
One of my favourite examples of this is that about five years before I met Debbie I had a broken engagement – or, as my sister called it, a narrow escape. One day when I was grieving the break-up of my relationship, two friends called Sue and Kate turned up on the doorstep.
‘We’ve come to take you out for a pub lunch,’ they said.
I don’t remember the food from that meal. What I remember is how both Sue and Kate shared about broken engagements they had been through. They understood. They could support me.
Because Jesus has been through human weakness and faced temptation, he can do all that and more.
If you are facing sorrow or crisis right now, I encourage you to re-read the Gospels. Look for the stories where Jesus too goes through the ringer. Then recall that because he has been there too, he understands what you are facing, and can pray like no-one else to the Father for you.
This is how our ascended Lord spends much of his time. This is his unfinished work. It will continue until he appears again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and to take us to our eternal home.
In conclusion, I’ve always been disappointed how Methodist churches treat the Ascension as a minor festival or even as a non-existent one. It is so important. It has much to teach us and encourage us.
I hope we will all leave today rejoicing in the finished work of Christ, who has sat down at the right hand of the Father, having completed everything necessary for our salvation.
And I hope we will also all leave today encouraged by the high priestly work of Christ who identifies with us and intercedes for us – his unfinished work.
May both of these great truths be strong foundations for our worship and our witness.