Friday, May 18, 2007

Sermon: The Ascension of Our Lord (20 May 2007)

The Ascension of Our Lord: 20 May 2007
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Ephesians 1:15-23/Luke 24:44-53)
The Feast of the Advocates

Almighty Father, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

If I were traveling abroad and ran into some serious legal or bureaucratic problem, I would immediately contact the American Embassy. The embassy is an outpost of the United States on foreign soil: a place where our flag flies, where our language is spoken, where our laws prevail, where our rights are protected. In a real sense, it is the United States brought forward into another place.

The ambassador, working in and through the embassy, is the representative of the government and people of the United States, the incarnation, in foreign territory, if you will, of the United States. And, the ambassador is the chief advocate for the interests of the United States and its citizens, the one who comes along side to help those in difficulty, to plead the case of those wrongly accused, to make quite sure that foreign powers know that they are dealing with a United States citizen – with all that implies.

Diplomatic relations are typically reciprocal; there is an exchange of ambassadors between two countries – a tangible expression of goodwill and a pledge of mutual respect. In the case of formerly estranged countries, an exchange of ambassadors signals a normalization of relations, the end of hostilities, a putting to rights of what went wrong between them. If the nations are still on war-footing the ambassador may be sent as an emissary, an agent of peace and reconciliation.

Today the church celebrates the Ascension of Our Lord. It actually falls on Thursday, forty days after Easter, but many, perhaps most, churches celebrate it the following Sunday – today. It has always seemed to me a strange celebration, akin to a going away party – bittersweet. A dear friend is leaving and a relationship is changing. You celebrate what was but may not be again, happy for the birth of the adventure but sorry for the death of the familiar. Or maybe it’s like the high school graduation I attended this week – an even mix of laughter and tears. Jesus’ disciples were almost certainly conflicted: what a roller coaster of emotions they had been on! First the Triumphal Entry – a pinnacle of acclaim – followed in five days by betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Three days later the Resurrection – unexpected and almost unbelievable joy – followed by forty days of appearances, leading the disciples to hope that the return of the kingdom to Israel was immanent. And then the Ascension – another goodbye: no kingdom, no Jesus, just clouds and an empty sky and back to Jerusalem and the Upper Room, alone again. Laugh or cry? It’s hard to tell.

In this midst of this ambiguity it helps me to think of the Ascension of Our Lord as the Feast of the Advocates – as a celebration of the establishment of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors, of the normalization of relations between estranged parties – between God and man. And before Christ, we were estranged from God, separated from him by our own choosing – enemies (Rom 5:10). But – thanks be to God! – Christ made the peace.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (Col 1:19-23a, NRSV).

Through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, the hostilities have ended; God and man have been reconciled. But the reconciliation must still be ratified by the exchange of advocates – ambassadors – and by the establishment of embassies. We need a man at the court of heaven – a representative, an incarnation, if you will, of humanity – a chief advocate of our interests, someone to plead our cause. Whom shall we send and who will go for us?

Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him (Luke 24:50-52a, NRSV).

And now? Now Christ is seated at the right hand of God,

in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20b-23, NRSV).

And this same Christ, this same Jesus, is our ambassador with God, our advocate with the Father.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2, NRSV).

Our advocate – the one placed by God above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Our ambassador – the one placed by God as head over all things, for the church which is his body. The position Christ holds, he holds for the church, for his body. He is truly our representative at the court of God, the incarnational presence of humanity reconciled to God.

Jesus can serve as our representative, as the ambassador and advocate of humanity precisely because he is man. The incarnation was not temporary; “flesh and blood” was not a disguise Jesus wore for a time and then set aside to take up again his unencumbered divinity and reign in heaven. No. In his ascension Jesus carried his humanity – our humanity – into the presence of God, where we shall be for ever with the Lord. For the writer of Hebrews Jesus’s continuing incarnational ministry is crucial. Though he uses a different analogy – high priest instead of ambassador or advocate – his meaning is the same. Like an ambassador the high priest represents man before God and God before man. Jesus can do this uniquely because he alone is fully God and fully man.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16, NRSV).

Jesus has passed through the heavens – in both incarnation and ascension – and now ministers on our behalf at the throne of God. Because of his presence there – and only because of his presence there – we may approach God boldly, confident of mercy and grace. He is our high priest, our ambassador, our advocate.

What about reciprocity? We have our ambassador, Jesus, at the court of God, advocating on our behalf. But what of God? Has he an ambassador on earth – someone to represent his interests in having a holy people and a creation put to rights? Yes; on the night of his betrayal, Jesus assured his disciples that God would indeed send his ambassador.

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (John 14:15-17, NRSV).

But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:5-15, NRSV).

The Holy Spirit is God’s advocate on earth – the one who pleads God’s cause and promotes God’s interest. God will have a people – a holy people, a kingdom and priests. God will have a world put to rights – a world of righteousness instead of sin, of life instead of death. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, acts on God’s behalf to create this reality by the transformation of people and the renewal of the world. The Holy Spirit seals us as God’s own and proclaims to the powers and dominions of this present evil age that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven – with all that implies. The Holy Spirit assures all creation that its present groaning is the prelude to birth, that it, too, will be born again – as a new heaven and a new earth, subject no longer to futility. All this is God’s cause. All this is God’s interest.

Reciprocity between nations usually involves the balancing of competing interests, with each nation trying to maximize the benefits to its citizens. But not so the reciprocity between heaven and earth. The Holy Spirit pleads God’s cause and promotes God’s interest, yes. But, we are God’s cause; we are God’s interest. The Holy Spirit is God’s advocate to us, but also God’s advocate for us. For those in Christ, for those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there are no competing interests: that which is “best” for God – that which is his good and perfect will – is also that which is best for us and for all creation. And so we pray,

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

And there you have it. The Ascension of our Lord marks an exchange of ambassadors between earth and heaven, between man and God. Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, is our advocate before the Father’s throne in heaven. The Holy Spirit, breath of God, is God’s advocate within us. The Ascension of our Lord – the Feast of the Advocates.

There is yet one advocate, one ambassador, to consider – an ambassador of a different kind, an emissary of reconciliation and peace between estranged parties.

So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17-21, NET).

We are the ambassadors of Christ through whom God is pleading with the world, “Be reconciled.” We are advocates of God before the world and of the world before God. We are the emissaries of God speaking words of peace, holding out the promise of the end of hostilities through the death and resurrection of our advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. We are the disciples of Christ gathered on the mountain longing for a kingdom, the disciples to whom Christ said,

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8, NRSV).

Witnesses. Ambassadors. Advocates. In his final commission and in his Ascension the Lord appointed us to this ministry. And if you don’t feel quite up to the task, don’t worry overmuch; neither did the Twelve. They just stood there, mouths agape, scratching their heads, staring blankly into the sky until two men – we have every reason to believe they were angels – reminded them that Jesus would return one day and that in the meantime they had work to do. And so do we. Our work – as theirs – starts with worship, with a celebration of the Ascension of our Lord, the Feast of the Advocates. And we return from that worship with great joy, to take our place as Advocate beside our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, to the glory of our God and Father.


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