Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sermon: Ascension

25 May 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 16:14-20 (2 Kings 2:5-15, Acts 1:1-11, John 16:5-15) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In the 1920s, the Pope introduced a festival into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church called “Christ the King.” Interestingly, this feast happens on the same Sunday we Lutherans celebrate the Reformation. Some church historians believe Rome did this to steal some of Father Luther’s thunder. Whether this is true or not, who knows? But in reality, the Church has always had a “Christ the King” celebration – that of Ascension.

Think about it. What do we confess in the Creed? That our Lord “ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” In other words, Jesus took up his heavenly throne when he ascended. And, as we further confess in the Creed: his “Kingdom will have no end.”

The Ascension is really a celebration of King Jesus and his otherworldly, eternal Kingdom!

To us Americans, the notion of a king is a foreign concept. But in a kingdom, the source of power is not the people, but the Crown. Of course, the monarch doesn’t oversee every government office and sit in on every departmental meeting. The king has ministers, servants, who not only act and speak on behalf of the Crown, but who report back to the king as well.

And while the king chooses to work through ministers and ambassadors, make no mistake, it is certainly the king who runs his kingdom. Ministers who speak without authority are put to the sword. Ambassadors who act outside the wishes of the Crown are likewise executed. For the king is far too important to personally deliver every letter, sign every document, and hear every judicial case. And yet the Crown does all of these things – once again, through ministers, servants of the king.

In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples have just been made ministers. They have received their marching orders from the Crown: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” They have been charged with preaching and baptizing, with a ministry of Word and Sacrament.

They are further instructed to cast out demons, to speak the Gospel every language, and to not fear the old enemy, the serpent. Neither are they to fear the poison of their foes. For these apostolic servants of the Crown travel under safe conduct orders from the King of the Universe. They are to lay hands on the sick, and give them life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives them the authority (and the command) to forgive sins on his behalf. And they have already been commanded to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

And having received their commissions, the King goes to his throne room. The apostles stare at the sky, perhaps dazed and confused. What now? Angels appear and tell them to quit staring into space. Just as their King ascended, so too will he return. Hint hint. Get to work! You are ministers, servants of the King. You have been given your orders, now go!

And the Church has been carrying out the wishes of her King ever since, and will continue to do so until he returns again in triumph to close out space and time and create a new heaven and a new earth. But meanwhile, we find ourselves, like the apostles, stuck between the two comings of our King.

But the Lord does not leave us alone. We still spread his Kingdom and carry out our orders by his power. As our gospel text says: “They went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” Jesus continues to govern his eternal Kingdom, working through his ministers. He has given them the Holy Spirit, guiding them, instructing them, empowering them, sanctifying them, and growing the Church as he, the Holy Spirit, sees fit.

So today really could be called the Festival of Christ the King!

And notice how many times Jesus is addressed as King in this festival season. On Palm Sunday, he rode into David’s Royal City in a regal procession on a donkey – just as did King Solomon at his coronation. “Hosanna! Long live the King!” the people cried out. They were hailing their King as he came to claim the throne.

At his trial, Jesus faced down the pretender to the Throne of David: King Herod. The True King would not even speak to this illegitimate puppet, refusing to recognize his kangaroo court. Pilate insisted that the placard above Jesus on the cross read “King of the Jews” – not “claimed to be king” as the Jews wanted. The Roman soldiers placed a purple robe on him and crowned him with thorns – and though they did this to mock, their actions confess the truth, that Jesus is truly a King – and not just any king. For as Jesus testified to Pilate, his Kingdom is “not of this world.” Indeed, how puny is Judea to the Creator of the Universe. What a speck of dust the mighty Roman Empire is to the God who created all things! What a tiny sliver of Jesus’ Kingdom is the entire world! For his Kingdom is the universe, spanning all time. Not a single atom is apart from his reign.

And while his Good Friday throne was a rude and shameful cross, this is the kind of coronation he accepted. For a good King will lay down his life for his subjects. And being sovereign even over death, this King did not surrender his throne upon dying, but rather took up his life again, proclaimed his royal victory to the conquered in hell, and then appeared to his subjects in a victory parade that lasted 40 days. But when this period of jubilation came to an end, the time came for the King to put his government in place. And so we find ourselves where the apostles are in our text – serving our King as he reigns, and awaiting his triumphant, final royal visitation.

Meanwhile, we continue to carry out our orders. We preach, we baptize, we make disciples. The Kingdom of God is governed by the Crown, our triune God, even as Jesus reigns from on high, and as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens us. Every subject has his part to play in the kingdom – whether being a faithful spouse, a father who exercises sacrificial headship over his family, a mother who nurtures and protects her children, or an obedient son or daughter. Everyone is placed by God to advance the Kingdom: white collar workers, blue collar workers, professionals, artists, pastors, teachers, those who fix things, and those who create things. We offer our meager abilities to our King, and unworthy as we are, our Monarch governs us like no other.

For he shares his Kingdom with us, making all of us co-regents, promising us all thrones to rule with him. He becomes part of us, in a mystical union with himself as we commune, as his body and blood become one with ours.

And notice how we interact with our Sovereign when we come to his court, here in his very palace – the sanctuary. We come as humble servants. We speak in hushed tones. We bow in his royal presence. As the psalmist writes: we “kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” When your pastors serve at the altar, they genuflect, that is, bow the knee, even as Paul proclaims to the Philippians: “Every knee shall bow.” While it may look like a quarterback taking a knee to stop the clock, this is in fact an ancient act of submission to our very-present King, our God who is here with us. For there is no need to stop the clock, for to the Christian, time no longer matters. We are with Christ in eternity, for he has begun his eternal reign, and we commune with him and with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” What else can we do in his presence but kneel?

We begin our service in begging the King’s royal pardon, after which the minister proclaims the royal forgiveness. After this, we sing: “Lord have mercy” – which is the ancient way of asking the King to throw gifts to us. Instead of asking a pretend carnival king to “throw me somethin’ mistah!” in this sanctuary, we are so bold as to ask the real Rex to give us his true and eternal gifts – and instead of pot-metal doubloons and trinkets, he graces us with eternal life!

Next, we sing a hymn of praise to our King: “For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, alleluia!” We read the royal commands and letters of pardon from our King. We hear the King’s minister speak on behalf of the King, followed by an acknowledgment of our beliefs about the Kingdom. We go to the King’s court to ask petitions, followed by the offering of gifts to our King, and then we prepare for the royal banquet.

We recreate the royal entry into Jerusalem as we hail our King with cries of “Hosanna.” We address him: “Blessed are you, Lord of heaven and earth.” And then the King dines with us. But we don’t merely eat with him, we are given a holy meal that unites us with him in flesh and blood. As the ancient Eastern liturgy says: “Holy things for holy people.” This King has not come only to rule over us, but to invite us to rule with him!

For this is a Kingdom like no other! This is a Kingdom “not of this world,” a Kingdom that can never be washed away with a storm or gone with the winds of warfare. This is a Kingdom that has no end, and we are more than mere subjects – we are in fact more than conquerors. For the Church, the Kingdom of our Lord, transcends time and crosses the grave. It overcomes all evil, and stares down the gaping gates of hell.

The Lord has ascended on high to take up his throne, and we ascend with him, to share in his glory, to partake in his holiness, to be united with him forever as an eternal bride and conquerors over the devil himself. Indeed, God became man so that man might become divine.

Thanks be to our ascended King for sharing his reign and glory with us, his beloved. Thanks be to him for sending us his Holy Spirit. Thanks be to him for giving us the name that makes us worthy to stand before the Father. All glory and honor, power and might be to our King, even as we await his triumphant royal return to bring all of the universe into eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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