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Sunday After Ascension 2023
Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47; 1 Peter 4:12-19; John 17:1-11
Jesus Christ is king. It often feels as if this is not the case. We all struggle. With our sin, with the evil we see around us, with money, with life. We see the ravages of sin around us: mass shootings have become normal; the homeless crisis in Spokane, often deeply linked with the opioid crisis, confronts us with the omnipresence of human misery; our leaders, at all levels, often seem more interested in winning points than with actually productively leading. Yet, for all of that, Jesus sits on his throne, the Son who has received the whole world as his inheritance. This is the promise of the Ascension.
John 17:1-11 is the first section of a chapter known as the “High Priestly Prayer” of Christ, a discourse unique to John where Jesus prays to the Father to protect his people, and that they may be one. But that unity is not an isolated value, rather, it is a unity that flows directly out of the love the Father and Son have for each other, our worship of them, and our participation in the mission of the triune God to the world. That is what this passage is about, the core identity-markers of God’s Church: Worship, Community, Mission.
Jesus begins by asking the Father to glorify him, as he has glorified the Father. Jesus the Messiah has glorified the Father by fulfilling the mission he was sent on, to gather in the Church and to give them eternal life. What is eternal life? To Know God, in the fullest sense of that word. And in Jesus, God is fully made known, the Father known in the Son, who both interdwell one another. Jesus fulfilled his mission (vs. 4), and so doing glorified the Father. Think about the significance of this for a moment: The source of eternal life, the way we receive that greatest of divine gifts, is through a relationship. It is not a legal decree, a perfectly performed set of rites, a life that is ethically spotless. As important as those things may be, no, eternal life is fundamentally the fact that we know God, we have met him in some way, shape, or form. It is, in the words of John 17:21, that we may in the Father and Son the way that they are “in” each other, communing with the divine, received and participating in the divine life of the triune God. Think: Is it more powerful, in our human experience, to hear about a person, or to meet them? I remember when I met JI Packer, an Anglican theologian with whom I disagree about a few things, and yet to this day that meeting has stuck with me. I had read his books, and knew his reputation, but the deeply rooted, abiding humility of the man when I met him made a far greater impact on me than any of those things. To have even 5 minutes to get to know him made all the difference, revealed far more about him than any book could, and even in my often fairly deep disagreements with him theologically, I know I met a man who knew God more deeply than I.
Now, Jesus asks the Father to receive the Son back at his side, sitting at the right hand, so that he can receive back the glory Christ surrendered when he became incarnate, and rule the world over which he has been given authority. From there, Jesus asks the Father to protect his Church in vs. 11. This is not a protection from all hardship or evil, but a prayer that we, the Church, would remain steadfast, knowing the Father through the Son. And what is this purpose of being kept in the name of God? That we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one (which we find later, in vs. 20). The Son glorifies the Father by making him known, which is his mission, and calls us to do the same, which we do by becoming and remaining one. Worship, supported by Community, flowing into Mission.
Jesus is about to reveal the Father, making God known most fully in the events that follow. Namely, he makes his deity known at the Cross. The authority given to Jesus (vs. 2), the glory that he had before coming to earth (vs. 5), are won via the greatest act of self-sacrifice in human history: Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus will glorify, that is worship, his Father by dying in order that he might resurrect, so defeating death and Satan. Then Jesus will be glorified by ascending into heaven, where he will intercede for us, pray for us, prepare a place for us, and ultimately, he will return from there to complete the transformation of the world. From there he rules, and there, in him, we too are present with the Father (Eph. 2:6).
This is what is accomplished in Acts chapter 1. Jesus ascends, meaning he is translated back to the realm of the Father, whatever that may mean, and thus even in his continuing human form intercedes for us and is watching over us. To confirm the glory of Jesus, he is concealed by a cloud; this is how God always conceals his glory in Scripture: the smoke guiding the people in the Exodus, a cloud settling on Mt. Sinai’s peak, the incense used in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; all point to the incredible, unfathomable glory of God, the glory that shakes creation and destroys us upon seeing it. And yet, that glory is present in Jesus Christ, the simply human, whose face was looked upon by many. That glory, the glory of God, the immense and inexpressible existence of God was contained, like an atomic explosion somehow put back into an atom, its split repaired, found in the carpenter of Nazareth, Jesus, the incarnate Lord. What is the importance of the Ascension? Only your salvation and help in this present darkness. Only the rule of Jesus Christ over all things, and his intercession for us all as our high priest. Only the guarantee that as he was received into the Presence of the Father, so will ours, which have been filled with His Spirit. The Ascension is the crowning glory of Jesus’s work in his incarnation; the Ascension is the mission of God.
We are the Body of Christ, the body of the Ascended Lord. We are a people who sit even now at the Father’s right hand with Jesus. That is who we are. Kings and Queens, even in our poverty, our weakness, our frailty. Like a fishing reel, Jesus keeps pulling us in, that one day, come our death or his return, we truly will be present with him. That is our faith, our hope, and the very root of our love. May it ever so be, Amen.
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