Sermon for Sunday, May 23/June 5
Seventh Sunday of Pascha: First Ecumenical Council
Acts 20:16-36; John 17:1-13
Glory be to God the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, on the seventh Sunday of Pascha, we commemorate the 318 God-bearing fathers who gathered at Nicea in 325AD to set the record straight that Jesus Christ, the Creator of the ends of the earth, is God the Word and always has been.
Today is also the fourth day of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. This feast, like most great Feasts of the Church, has an “octave,” that is, it lasts seven days and then on the eighth day we give up the feast. So we’ll keep singing Ascension songs – and not saying the prayer “O heavenly King” to the Holy Spirit – until this coming Friday, the leave-taking of Ascension and the day before Pentecost Eve.
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You know, the ascension of Christ is not an epilogue to the four Gospels. We’ve walked a road of repentance through Lent, we’ve grieved together with the Mother of God at the Cross of the Lord, we’ve celebrated with the apostles the joy beyond reason of the Resurrection. And now it’s Ascensiontide, which can seem like an afterthought. There are no Ascension eggs, no Ascension Day Parade, and most of us did not get the day off.
But the Ascension is the peak and climax of the Resurrection story. We’ll see why in a minute. Here are a few facts we need to know about the Ascension of Christ:
First, the Lord Jesus Christ continues his work after the ascension.
The Apostle Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles by saying, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up…” The small but important word began signals that the Lord’s ascension does not mark the end, but the continuation of his work as Lord and King. Luke’s second book is “all that Jesus began to do and teach… Part 2.” So instead of “the Acts of the Apostles,” maybe a better title would be, “the Acts of the Lord,” which he works from his throne of mercy and glory in the heavens, according to his will, through his people, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of the divine dispensation.
Second: The ascended Lord Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit to his people.
After his resurrection the Lord told his apostles, “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49.) In his Pentecost sermon Peter explains, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out what you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33.)
The Lord promised in Joel 2:28, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” and this promise is fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ from the heavens. The ascended Lord sent the Spirit to be present with his people (John 14:16), so they might “receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon [them], and be witnesses to [him] in Jerusalem and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8; 4:31), and to transform believers, so that “we all, with unveiled face, reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18.)
I’m going to put a pin in that and come back to it next week, or else I’ll end up preaching on Pentecost all morning, and then where will we be next week…
Third: The Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ is his heavenly enthronement as the King, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the King of Kings.
At the Lord’s ascension he is enthroned as the true King of the earth and heavens, fulfilling his plan from before the foundation of the world. In Genesis 1, the Persons of the Trinity say to one another:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion…” So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over … every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).
David sings in the Psalms:
What is man that thou dost take thought of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor to rule over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:4-6).
Now at last, in the Ascension, those words are fulfilled.
By the way, when David asks, “What is man that thou dost take thought of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” Hebrew and Aramaic use “son of” as a way to describe a person’s character. The sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 3:6) are disobedient men. You'll remember the sons of the prophets, the prophetic men who were with Elijah and Elisha (e.g. 2 Kings 2:3-7). In Luke 10:6, a son of peace is a peaceful man.
And a son of man means a truly human person: one who is Man. “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent” (Numbers 23:19). “The Lord looks down from heaven; he beholds all the sons of men” (Psalm 33:13mt).
So when the Lord Jesus calls himself “the Son of man,” 81 times in the Gospels, he is literally saying that he is a man, a human, a member of our race. But here is why that expression was scandalous to the religious authorities.
In the Creed, we confess that Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” The Lord was taken up to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9–11). And when Stephen testified before the temple priests, he “looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”
They stoned him because they knew the prophecy of Daniel:
I saw visions in the night, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came up to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him. And to him was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom is a kingdom which will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13–14).
This prophecy in Daniel, 500 years before Christ, is when the name “Son of Man” began to be applied to the promised Messiah. This is also when it began to be revealed that the King, the son of David, will in some way be glorified together with God.
Meanwhile, John the beloved disciple saw the same vision:
Then I looked, and I heard the voices of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory, and blessing.” And I heard every created thing which is in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, or on the sea, and all the things in them, saying, “Blessing, and honor and glory and power, be unto him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:11-13).
God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11).
The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at My right hand, until I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet. (Psalm 110:1mt; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:13).
The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated through the enthronement of Christ in the heavens. One of our own kind – a human being in union with the Godhead – the Son of Man, has taken his seat as God on the throne of heaven, and he will return to bring his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Fourth: The Lord’s ascension is his return to the Father.
Before and after his death and resurrection, Christ declares that he was sent by his Father and must return to his Father: “I came from the Father and I have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28; cf. 13:1,3).
Remember, he said to Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
There is a great mystery here. (A mystery is something that is revealed to be true – not explained, not figured out, but demonstrated in the Spirit and with power.) Christ came to earth and returned to his Father. But he never ceased to be one of the Trinity; even as a man, hungry and thirsty, the Lord was never less than God the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. There’s a hymn in the Octoechos, which deacons and priests recite as we cense the altar. All at one time,
In the grave with the body,
in Hades with thy soul, as God;
in paradise with the thief,
and on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
was thou, O Christ, the uncircumscribable.
And yet the Lord returns, physically, to his Father, like a soldier returning home after a hard-fought victory.
In today’s Gospel, we heard him say, “I have glorified thee on the earth. I have finished the work thou hast given me to do. And now, Father, glorify me together with thyself, with the glory I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:4-5).
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).
Fifth: The ascended Lord Jesus Christ is our heavenly mediator and high priest.
“There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men: the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5,6). We intercede for one another all the time, but none of us is the unique High Priest and Mediator that Christ is; we are called to be mediators in the likeness of Christ. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Remember too that the exalted Lord Jesus is now in the Holy of Holies as priest, interceding for his people as our High Priest. “Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died and is risen, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us” (Romans 5:34; cf Hebrews 7:25, 8:1).
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).
Finally: The ascended Lord Jesus Christ will return as King and Judge.
In Acts 1:11 two angels explain to the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The kingdom of heaven will one day be fully realized on earth.
I saw heaven standing open and behold a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True, and with righteousness he judges and wages war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns. And he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. The armies of heaven followed him on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike the nations. And he will rule them with a rod of iron, and he treads the winepress of the wrath of God Almighty. On his vesture and on his thigh a name is written: King of kings and Lord of lords. “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according to his works. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. (Revelation 19:10–16; 22:12-14; Psalm 2:9).
Here is the ultimate fulfillment of “Let thy kingdom come, let thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Have you ever wondered why the Apostles in the book of Acts don’t preach a Gospel that says “Believe in Jesus so you won’t go to hell”? Instead, whenever they preach, their outline ends up with “God sent us the King he promised, but we nailed him to a tree. But death couldn’t hold him; he rose in three days, and we are here to announce his kingdom.”
In about two weeks it will be Juneteenth. You know that when the Confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865, slaves in the south were now free citizens of the United States. But in Texas, nobody told them. Free men and women, citizens of this country, remained in chains, oppressed by an illegal, illegitimate authority. Then on June 19, 1865, the US Army came to Galveston, to enforce the victory. Men and women, suffering in chains, at last heard the good news that they were slaves no more.
What a vision of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God! “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20). “From the days of John the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11:12). And “how lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news – announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness, preaching salvation, and saying to Sion, ‘Thy God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).
Christ has ascended and sat down at the right hand of the Father. Sometimes I look at a doctrinal truth, and I feel like someone has handed me an unfamiliar power tool. What are we supposed to do with this?
I was taught to preach a sermon with one “Therefore” in it. Leave folks with one new thing to know and one thing to do when they get home. Nevertheless, I’ve got three Therefores for you this morning. If you can take home any of them and put them to use on Monday, then may God bless your struggle.
First: Remember that the Lord is right now enthroned in the heavens, and “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears attend to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12). Jesus is not in a Bible story off somewhere in Galilee; the King is walking alongside you, closer to you than your breath. There is never a diaper he doesn’t see you change. There is never a morning where your job or your health or your kids make you too tired or frustrated to pray, that the Lord and King doesn’t see and understand. “Therefore be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).
Second: You who are in pain today – your body hurts, you’re walking with grief, there is a ton on your shoulders that you can’t tell anybody about: Remember that you have a High Priest who experiences your struggle with you. (Hebrews 4:15). “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18mt). You cannot insult or surprise the Lord when you pour out your fears and heartbreak. In the Psalms, King David says, “My soul is overwhelmed. How long, Lord? How long? …Why are you so far so far from the voice of my weeping?” (Psalm 6:3; 22:1). And the King says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Your brain and mine may not be able to work up a feeling of connectedness – but the reality is that the King of mercy hears every word. He is no stranger to suffering, and he’s familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3). You have the ear of the Ruler of heaven and earth.
Finally: The news is full of heaviness and injustice and spiritual poison. Talk radio and TV news and social media could not be better engineered to tempt you to despair, fear, conviction of your own rightness, and helpless rage.
It’s a revolutionary act of rebellion against the spirit of this world to exercise hope. “In this world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus promised, “But be of good cheer; for I have overcome the world… These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace ” (John 16:33).
“Put not your trust in presidents, in sons of men; in them there is no salvation… [Rather,] blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; he who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:3-7mt).
Living under a tyrannical regime that was about to imprison and kill him, St Paul wrote,
Look for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous in good works (Titus 2:13-14).
Exercise hope in a glorious future. The Lord who ascended into the heavens “shall come again in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). He will return as king to reign. He will abolish injustice, end suffering and destroy death, and set up his kingdom of righteousness and peace. “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). What was promised to the thief – “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) – is the inheritance of all mankind, and of you particularly, who are called, washed, anointed, and made partakers of the King’s table.
“For the Lamb who is on the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them to fountains of living water; and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
To the glory of God the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.