Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1–11 | Psalm 47 | Ephesians 1:15–23 | Luke 24:44–53
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Who’s really in charge?
Just over four months ago, nations around the world were in shock: violent protesters had stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington, in order to disrupt their country’s transition of power. Egged on by then President Trump, who claimed that the election was stolen from him (a claim he maintains to this day despite the persistent lack of proof) … chanting his name, this massive gathering tried to seize control of their nation’s future… to force their political will to be done.
As shocking as this event was, it’s shockwaves are still ongoing, with many still choosing to perpetuate what is being called “the Big Lie”, the claim that Trump actually won their election, and that he’s the one that truly deserves their ultimate loyalty. Clinging to his claims of power, and desperate to avoid what he sees as the humiliation of defeat, Trump keeps grasping after the influence and attention that he craves… and all kinds of people are eagerly following his destructive lead.
Sadly, we know this kind of behaviour, though shocking, is not unique. History has many stories to share of ruler’s desperately clinging to power, and perpetuating all sorts of lies and atrocities to do so. Again and again, people have sacrificed their integrity, the common good, and the lives of others in order to be in charge: to be the ones who get to say “my will be done on earth.”
But this week, Christians around the world tell a very different story, we offer a different account of who’s truly in charge. This week we mark the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, and celebrate the ‘Big Truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. That he has been lifted up above all earthly authority, and reigns over heaven and earth, at the right hand of God the Father.
Of course, from the very beginning, this message has been a contested claim. There are many who argue that our devotion and loyalty should lie elsewhere, and even those of us who claim to believe in the truth of the Christian faith might still find ourselves serving other so-called ‘lords’ in our daily lives. How much are our actions and choices driven solely by things like power, or pleasure, or money, or security, or personal freedom, or family? All things created to be good, and to be received with gratitude, but that can also be turned into idols… into objects of worship, commitments that can end up consuming our lives instead of building them up.
Truth be told, if we are to step back and look at a lot of our own motivations, we might be more than a little shocked to see how little God’s kingdom factors in. We might see within our own hearts that craving to be the one in charge… to get to say, at some level, “my will be done on earth.”
But the Good News we Christians celebrate today calls us away from that impulse… from the seduction of the self-centredness we see at work in the world. This Good News speaks of a Saviour who has come to lead us another way… to rescue us, and reign forever as our Risen King of Kings. The central claim of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, is that the One who gave His life on the cross to save the world has been raised from the dead, and now been given all authority on heaven and earth. That His kingdom has begun, even if our world refuses to recognize it. And that His kingdom is at work even now in the lives of His people, empowering us to live God’s way… and enjoy the blessings of His reign.
In a very real sense, the Ascension is the completion of the triumph of Easter; the overcoming of death, with humanity now sharing in the life of God… united together once and for all in the risen body of Christ. It is the final step of Jesus in His journey of redemption: The One who came down from heaven, who humbled himself and took on our human existence, who willingly gave Himself to suffer and die for us all… was raised from the dead as the firstborn of God’s brand new re-creation, never to die again, and bringing up His resurrected body to the right hand of God… ruling as the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Without His ascension, His resurrection would not have fulfilled it’s full purpose, not simply to undo the cross, but to fully overcome death itself, and reconcile us to the Living God.
The theologian (and one of my old professors) Tim Perry puts it this way in his book He Ascended Into Heaven: “The Ascension is the sign of Jesus’ victory - his exaltation… Luke wants to leave his readers in no doubt about one simple fact: Jesus left his disciples not through death on the cross, but through conquering death on the cross. The proof of his victory was not only his Resurrection but also his Ascension. It’s not that the Resurrection is less important than the Ascension. It is that, in some way, they are one continuous divine act. Resurrection is the beginning of ascension; ascension is resurrection completed.” The purpose of Easter morning was for God’s new creation to begin in the body of Jesus, and from there to spread out into all of creation. He was not raised just to bring a godly man back to earthly life, or so He could one day escape this broken world, and leave His body behind… He was raised so that heaven and earth might be united forever, first of all in the flesh of the Risen Lord Himself.
This longish quote from NT Wright might help to shed some light on the significance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus: “People often think that ‘resurrection’ simply means ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’, but in the Jewish world of the first century it meant a new embodied life in God’s new world; a life after ‘life after death’, if you like. But the new body which will be given at the end is not identical to the previous one. In an act of new creation parallel only to the original creation itself, God will make a new type of material, no longer subject to death, out of the old one. In Jesus’ case, of course, this happened right away, without his original body decaying, so that the new body was actually the transformation of the old one. For the rest of us, whose bodies will decay, and whose bones may well be burnt, it will take a complete act of new creation.
The new body—and this is the point—will belong in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. (At the end of the book of Revelation, heaven and earth will finally be joined together into one, so there won’t be any shuttling to and fro; the two dimensions will be fused together at last.) At the moment our bodies are earthly only; Jesus’ new body is at home in both earth and heaven.”
I know that’s a lot to take in, especially if we’re not used to thinking about these kinds of things, but this claim is the heart of the Good News of Jesus that the Christian Church has proclaimed from the beginning: in Jesus, the Risen Lord, God’s new creation has begun, reuniting heaven and earth once and for all.
In his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension Jesus Christ has won the ultimate victory: He has conquered death, the powers of sin, and the forces of spiritual darkness, overcoming the divide between the Living God and His creation… reconciling all things together in Himself… who was raised to begin His reign as the King of Kings.
For that is the other side of the message of the ascension: the One who was raised has been given all authority in heaven and earth… who did not cling to power, or flee from humiliation, suffering, or even death, but faithfully said to His Father in Heaven “not my will, but yours be done”. The One that Christians claim is truly in charge, who deserves all our love and loyalty, is our Risen Redeemer. The One who came not to be served, but to serve, and to save.
How do we begin to talk about and respond to His reign? What are some ways we can take part in Christ’s Kingdom here and now? Our Scripture readings today, in speaking of His ascension, can help us start to wrap our heads around this wonderful truth.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are meant to go together: they’re two parts of one narrative, written by the same author, and the story of Jesus begun in Luke finds it’s fulfillment in Acts, with the ascension standing as the bridge between the two halves. In Luke, Jesus fulfills His earthly ministry and mission, and ascends to heaven not in order to rest, but to rule… to continue the work of God’s Kingdom through His faithful witnesses, believers empowered by the Holy Spirit to share His Kingdom with the world… the story which unfolds all throughout the Book of Acts.
But the ending of Luke’s Gospel, and the beginning of Acts, would have us remember that this is all a part of God’s Great Rescue Mission at work all throughout the Scriptures, and from the very beginning. That the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to people like Abraham, Moses, David, and that we cannot cut off the story of Israel from the life of the Church. Living in God’s Kingdom calls us to step into the story of Scripture… to seek to understand what God has been doing all along, and opening our hearts to listen to His Holy Word, as His Kingdom spreads from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
These same Scriptures, both old and new, will also remind us that the claims of God’s kingdom remain contested claims. Both Israel, and the New Testament Church faced all sorts of temptations to follow after other forces claiming their allegiance, and so we too will have our own temptations in our turn. The Scriptures remind us as well, that if we stand firm in our faith, we’re likely to face not just temptation, but opposition. As Jesus Himself was rejected, persecuted, and put to death, those faithful saints in Israel and in the New Testament all had their share of sufferings too. We also can expect times of conflict and trouble will arise if we push back against the ‘so-called lords’ fighting for our loyalty… if we choose to be true to our Risen King, and don’t go along with the crowds.
We’re also reminded that we are not left to stand for God’s kingdom on our own strength: in Christ, God’s Holy Spirit has come to protect and empower us… enabling us to endure even the darkest times we may face, guiding us when we can’t seem to see our own way forward, and filling us with the abundant blessed life of God: the power of His holy love; the joys that outlast our sorrow; the riches of God’s mercy and grace, the comfort and peace of His presence; the freedom from the fear of death, and from the grip of sin; the knowledge that we belong forever in the family of God.
Next Sunday’s the Feast of Pentecost, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit, to unite us to Jesus, our Saviour King, and empower us to share in the life of His gracious Kingdom.
But even today, may God’s Holy Spirit fill us with the hope that builds up our faith. May we take up our part in the story of His Kingdom, revealed in the Scriptures and at work even now. May we serve as faithful witnesses to all that He has done to bring God’s mercy, forgiveness, and new life to the world. And may the way we live each day point to the One who’s truly in charge: to Jesus Christ the Risen and Ascended Lord of all. Amen.
 Tim Perry, He Ascended Into Heaven: Learn to Live An Ascension-Shaped Life (Paraclete Press: Brewster, MA, 2010), 7.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 300.