Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sermon: Ascension

1 May 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 24:44-53 (Acts 1:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

This is the time of year for graduations. And as we all know, when they call graduation exercises “commencement,” the schools are saying that graduation isn’t the end, but the beginning.

Our Lord Jesus is giving the disciples their “diplomas” in the form of ordination. He has been their teacher for three years. He has revealed the kingdom to them. But now He does something different: “He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” – for indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ appears all over the Bible: “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.”

And the disciples need to really understand how to read the Bible with Christ at the center before they can go out and preach. Thus, after years of study, of listening, of watching Jesus perform miracles, of seeing Him pay the price of humanity’s sin, and having observed His rising from the grave, He now gives them the last pearls of wisdom that they will need as preachers – the ability to see Jesus in the Scriptures, in all the Scriptures, for the sake of the Gospel, for the very reason to declare the forgiveness of sins to all who repent and believe the Good News.

For this is what is needed for these preachers in order that the “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.”

And these apostles are not only preachers, but also “witnesses” – in Greek “martyrs” – “of these things.” Our Lord Jesus, having completed His ministry of reconciliation of sinners to the Father, having destroyed death by way of death, having fulfilled the ancient prophecy that the vile serpent’s head should be crushed by our Lord’s nail-pierced feet, our Lord Jesus sends out His new graduates armed not with a degree or diploma, but with a “Promise.” “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you.”

He gives these newly-inducted soldiers of the cross their first marching orders. They are to stay in Jerusalem until God the Holy Spirit is sent to them. In preparation for that reception of the Holy Spirit, which will endue them with power “from on high,” our Lord leads them out to where He will leave them, in Bethany, and he lifts up His hands, just as the priests did in times of old – only these priestly hands are also the pierced hands of the sacrifice. He uses those hands to bless them.

The Lord’s earthly ministry has been completed. He returns to the Father to reign from His right hand until He returns again at the end of time. The apostles worship Him as He is taken up to heaven.

The Lord’s ministry is now their ministry. They have been commissioned to preach and teach, to baptize and absolve, to administer the Supper to repentant sinners, and to withhold the Supper from unrepentant sinners. They are to shepherd the flock, feed the sheep, bear witness to the Lord, proclaim the faith, and confess the Gospel before friend and foe alike.

Ten of these eleven will die for the faith as martyrs. Only St. John would not shed His blood for the kingdom, though even John will suffer for the Gospel. But these eleven, soon to be joined by Matthias, and then to be joined by Paul, would become the rock of the ministry upon which the Lord builds his Church.

We confess in our creeds that the Church is “apostolic.” Think of what comfort that is, dear Christian brothers and sisters. We are merely receivers from those who came before us. The apostles have witnessed everything we need to know for the forgiveness of sins. The evangelists have recorded everything we need to know for communion with God. The holy church proclaims all that we need to know for eternal life.

We are not called to add or detract, but to be “witnesses.” We stand in the long train of the apostles. We are but links in an unbroken chain that binds us to our Blessed Lord, a chain that also connects us with Christians unborn to a church that extends forward in time even unto eternity!

That which the Lord gives the eleven He gives us: namely the gift of understanding the Holy Scriptures, to see where all of the Bible proclaims Christ. He has given us in our generation the very same gift of ordained ministers and preachers as He gave the world at His ascension. He gives us the very same Promise, the very same Gospel, the very same treasure of doctrine, the very same joyful Christian life of communion with the Triune God, a life of justification and forgiveness, a life of sanctification and good works. He gives us this same “power from on high” to ordain, to preach, to baptize, to absolve, to bind, to loosen, to comfort, to confess, and to live forever in the eternal kingdom.

And we, just like the eleven look wistfully at the sky, praying “Come, Lord Jesus, Come quickly!” even as our fallen world crumbles around our feet.

And like the eleven, we too are encouraged by the preaching of the angel: “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

We have work to do, dear brothers and sisters. There is no time to gaze into heaven. We have been entrusted with the Gospel and commissioned to see to it that it is proclaimed unto every creature. We have been charged with the responsibility to ensure that baptisms are carried out, the Word of God is preached, the Supper administered, and the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed without ceasing until the Lord comes back again.

And just as the eleven, it is our joyful duty to be continually in the House of the Lord “praising and blessing God” both now and unto eternity.

For this graduation is indeed a commencement. The ascension of our Lord begins a new phase in the life of the world and in the ministry of the church. We too partake in that commencement. We too are the recipients of the Promise. We too have a role to play in the kingdom of God. We have far too much work to do, dear brothers and sisters, far too much to do to be looking into the heavens and feeling sorry for ourselves that Jesus has not yet returned.

For today, just as much as ever, there is a need for the Gospel to be heard in Salem, in Gretna and all Lousiana, in the United States, and even to the end of the earth. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.


Bishop Surf said...

Fr. Hollywood,

The Ascension icon you have here contains twelve disciples. Is it safe to assume that the one on the right reaching his hand up is the artist painting himself into the scene and thus providing balance with an even twelve? Btw, where do you find these great images?

Bishop Surf

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Bishop Surf:

That's an excellent question! To tell you the truth, I hadn't noticed the "extra man" in the icon. It's a representation of the traditional Byzantine icon for the Ascension, and I'm sure there is a good interpretation for it out there somewhere.

My guess is this: twelve apostles are shown to symbolically capture their "twelveness" (calling to mind the foundation of Israel on the 12 tribes, and the Church's foundation on the 12 apostles) - even though Matthias had not yet been appointed. Again that's just a theory.

I found the image by doing a GIS - Google Image Search. Go to google, and plug in your search words. When you get your list, you can click on "images" at the top.

One word of warning: unless you change your Google settings to "moderately safe" or however it is worded, you will get a lot more than religious iconography - even when your search words are entirely innocent. So be careful.