Last Updated: February 2017
Easter is over (not really, but you know what I mean) and now we get back to the redemptive routines of ministry. The appropriate and massive effort that most of us pastors put into our Resurrection celebrations and the entire Passion Week Production is behind us. We and our staffs lay panting on the sanctuary floor after the crowds leave and the sound guy shuts down the P.A. We add the C.E.O.s (Christmas and Easter Only people) to our prayer lists and prepare for the dwindling attendance that usually accompanies summer’s long days and vacation schedules. Hmmm, what to talk about now …
Post-Easter Preaching – What Now? Remember the Ascension
Wait! There’s more! Actually, we haven’t finished the Easter reality until we teach on the ascension (Lk.24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11). When Magdalene jumped on the resurrected Jesus in the garden that first morning of the new creation, the Lord gently pulled her off, explaining that he hadn’t yet ascended. Apparently, there was another crucial event and Mary’s ecstatic hugs indicated that she didn’t yet grasp the importance of it. The ascension is the completion of the work of the resurrection because it is the point at which Jesus Christ sat down at the right hand of God the Father to take control of the redemption of the universe as a risen and glorified human (Matt.26:64; Eph.1:20-22).
The fact is that when we preach Christ it is not simply the gospel of the resurrected Christ, but the resurrected Christ who has ascended to the right hand of the Father, receiving all authority in heaven and on earth (See Matt.28:18, an often overlooked verse in the Great Commission).
When to teach on it?
In the ecclesiastical calendar, Ascension Day falls forty days after Easter, on Thursday. Many churches celebrate it on that day and many others set aside the following Lord’s Day as Ascension Sunday. But a lot of churches that do not pay much attention to the ecclesiastical calendar completely forget to mention it! I suggest to all of us non-liturgical types that we repent of this oversight and that we make the ascension the topic of our post-Easter preaching. I usually teach on it the Sunday following Easter because, even though the ascension itself did not occur for another six weeks, the momentum of Resurrection Sunday lends itself to a continuation of the account. And it seems far preferable to teach on it while resurrection is fresh in our minds rather than forgetting it altogether in the rush of our summer schedules.
Right-hand of God
There are at least three reasons we should preach the ascension regularly. First, it is the event that emphasizes the Lordship of Christ. When it says that Christ is now seated the right hand of God it means that Jesus, the God-Man, is the true authority in the universe today and forever. We should talk about this all the time, not least because it is precisely this authority that guarantees our free and forever salvation from sin and judgment (Mk.2:10; 1 Jn.2:1-2). Many pastors proclaim forgiveness in Jesus’ name but do so without the underlying reality of his absolute divine authority as Lord. The result is that discipleship to him becomes a sort of option, like “gospel 2.0,” available for those who are interested and have room on their hard disk, but not essential to the salvation program. Yet, that is not how Christ revealed himself to the first Christians. Jesus was Lord of all and that’s why his forgiveness was eternal and secure. Personal loyalty to him was woven into the fabric of the proclamation.
Still fully human
Second, the ascension reminds us that Jesus is still a physical human (though physical in ways we can’t quite understand), not a disembodied spirit (Lk.24:38-43). A young pastor friend of mine not long ago received a rebuke from an older sister in his congregation because he (correctly) pointed out that Jesus is still completely human, with a real body. This Christian lady had been in evangelical churches for decades and still was ignorant of the fact that Jesus didn’t just put on an “earth suit” and then shuck it off after he came back from the dead. She had a biblical view of the resurrection (that it is physical) but a platonic view of the ascension. I have found this to be a quite common misunderstanding among Christians who should know much better. A light mental mist on this spirit-materiality in the other dimension (See 1 Cor.15:35-49; Phil.3:21) leads to a dense intellectual fog when it comes to encouraging people about where they are going after they die. Teaching on the ascension gives us an opportunity to talk about the tangible nature of heaven, the New Creation, and eternal life.
Third, by preaching the ascension we can remind people of an aspect of the gospel that is widely neglected in some Christian circles—the material judgment to come. When the angels told the mystified disciples to stop gawking at the clouds after Christ’s ascension, they added that “this same Jesus you saw rise into heaven will return in the same way you saw him go.” This is a reference to what Jesus himself taught his friends in the Olivet Discourse and through many parables—that he would come back to judge the world physically and materially, in time and space. The future judgment, followed by the re-creation of the universe, is crucial to gospel preaching. If we do not preach the gospel against the backdrop of coming judgment on this age we take the teeth out of much of what Jesus taught.
It may also be helpful for us pastors to consider how important the ascension of Christ is for our pastoral theology. How much to we trust the risen Lord to run things in our ministries? But that’s a topic for another time.
Preach the ascension my friends.
Just a Thought,