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A sermon delivered Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 20, 2012.

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

Saying goodbye is terribly difficult. Remember when you were taken to your first Kindergarten class or perhaps to the First Grade. Likely your parents took you and made sure you found your classroom. After warm assurances by your teacher and the unexpected look of loss on the faces of your parents, you faced the music on your own. Maybe it was the first time you ever walked into a new world on your own. Did you cry? Did your mom cry?

Our reading from the first chapter of Acts is our season finale for the resurrection. We’re 40 days past the resurrection and Jesus is ready to depart. Caught between heaven and earth, Jesus gathered the disciples closest to him and led them up to a hilltop where he gave out last hugs and a word or two meant to hold them together for a few days yet. He gave them all a warm embrace and was lifted up into the sky where he disappeared.

You know how that works: Imagine releasing a balloon filled with helium into the air and you keep your eyes on it until that mysterious moment when it simply disappears and you can’t see it any longer no matter how good your eyes. Then, a voice interrupts your disbelief of not seeing him anymore startling you awake. You look over at the voice and see it’s an angel reminding you to go back into Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit to come.

A natural question any of us might have would be, “Why did he have to leave?” My goodness, he had conquered death itself, why the big hurry? Why not seize this opportunity to push the program forward in a more direct way? Jesus had trekked all over Judea teaching and preaching about the kingdom of God. Why leave now when the chance to give those sermons a boost was evident?

Better yet, why didn’t Jesus simply walk back into Jerusalem that morning and scare the bejeebers out of the religious leaders of the Temple who had orchestrated his crucifixion? Something along the lines of, “I told you I was coming back! ‘Tear this temple down and in three days I’ll rebuild it!’” Wouldn’t that have made a dramatic statement about the finality of the resurrection? To be honest, we’ve been waiting ever since the first Ascension that followed the First Advent … standing around waiting for Jesus to return as he promised.

I

The church in history has answered all those questions emphatically. The historic teaching of the church is that Christ left in order to assume his glory. The Apostles Creed speaks clearly about this:  “Christ ascendeth into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Later the Nicene Creed added this phrase:  “(and) of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The creeds conclude their Christological sections with the doctrine of the Second Advent: the First Advent was a coming in physical embodiment as a man; the Second Advent will be to come in glory. They reason Christ must depart in order to come again in full glory as Lord of all. So the short (orthodox) answer to why Jesus left is so he could be glorified.

The New Testament is full of the glory of the risen Christ. In fact, once you see this phenomenon, you’ll see it everywhere in the writings of the New Testament:  Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 24, NRSV).

Even Paul had something to say on this topic:  Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, NRSV).

We even sing about Christ’s glory in worship:

All hail the power of Jesus’ name

Let angels prostrate fall

To him all majesty ascribe

And crown him Lord of all. [1]

How about this one?

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,

God of glory, Lord of love;

Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,

Opening to the sun above.

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;

Drive the dark of doubt away;

Giver of immortal gladness,

Fill us with the light of day! [2]

We could easily make a musical shift in the sermon at this point and sing our way to a conclusion! The hymnals are full of songs of praise and adoration for the glory of God. Unlike many praise songs, it’s not about us, or our feelings on a matter, it’s about the majesty and glory of God and how that kind of adoration can alter the trajectory of our lives. It can bring about transformation and significant change. It can begin to alter the course of the world and change our perspectives on a great number of radically important things.

II

The New Testament doesn’t tell us so, but from the writings of the early church leaders, the Apostle John ended up leading the church of Ephesus. After he was banished to the island of Patmos, he returned to Ephesus where he died at the beginning of the second century of a natural death, unlike some of his peers who followed Jesus and were among the Twelve. While he was in Ephesus, he had an important pastoral ministry. He was influential in the Christian growth of Polycarp who later became the Bishop of Smyrna. Scholars argue over the details, but the connection between the two men is completely acceptable and only the mists of time cloud the certainty of the issue.

Irenaeus became a Christian believer from the faith of his family in Smyrna and was influenced by the preaching of Polycarp. Irenaeus could be considered the spiritual grandson of John. Do you see how important our connections are? He was “two degrees of separation” from Jesus of Galilee. It was Irenaeus who helped shape the earliest forms of Christian theology, the field of study that focuses on Christian thought and belief. Besides the gospels they and the other books of the New Testament Irenaeus helped shape the church’s belief through his writings.

When Jesus told the disciples who gathered with him on that hill overlooking Jerusalem for the last time before ascending into the clouds, he gave them marching orders: “… Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The ends of the earth included Irenaeus’ work in spreading the gospel to the lands west of Rome where he eventually served as the second Bishop of what is now Lyon, France. I love the line that’s ascribed to the writings of Irenaeus about the glory of Christ:  “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

So how does Jesus ascend into the clouds and achieve his glory? How is Jesus glorified, we might ask? If Irenaeus’ line is correct, then the logic must be accepted that Christ is glorified when we live as fully alive human beings.[3] Every time we fully determine we will live in a dynamic way accepting the presence of God in our lives, and fully connected to the movement of the Spirit in us, we become fully alive human beings. Every time we live fully, glory is released in Christ’s name.

III

Can we be fully alive apart from Christ? No. Apart from Christ we are incomplete, marred, broken, alienated, less than we ever could be. At the heart of the Christian message is the acceptance that we live short of our fulfillment because we are separated from God through our sin.

My friend Charlie Johnson explains it this way:  “Just as a parent must, from the very first day, begin the process of letting go in order for her child to grow, so also must Christ let go of us in order for us to unfold in healthy ways. For Jesus to remain with us incarnate would simply have been disastrous to our developmental health. He knew he had to go out of the picture in order for us to claim responsibility for our lives and our world. When we grow up and stand on our own two feet, when we give this life all the courage and decency we’ve got, when we give life our best shot, we become the glory of God.”

If Christ had stayed, those disciples would have remained small and scared. They would have remained hidden away from the world and its great needs. They needed the isolation before they were ready to receive the power of God’s Spirit. They were like little children standing in the shadow of their overachieving, over-performing parent. Jesus did what was best by leaving them. He did it for the good of the cause and for their good too.

We are “witnesses,” Jesus said as he left. Let us go out and tell our story to the glory of God while we can.

[1] Edward Perronet (1726-1792), All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, The Baptist Hymnal, Nashville: Convention Press, 1991

[2] Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, The Baptist Hymnal, Nashville: Convention Press, 1991

[3] Charles Foster Johnson, Second Baptist Church of Lubbock, “Why Did He Leave,” 5/31/92

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