Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What did Jesus' Ascension Accomplish?

When April and I moved out to Ambridge Pennsylvania so that I could attend Trinity School for Ministry it was very difficult. We were leaving behind our home, family, friends, and jobs. We didn’t really know anyone where we were going. The people, the seminary, and the region were all new and strange to us. Eventually, however, it began to feel like home. Our first child, Helen, was born while we were living there and we made many dear friendships with people from the seminary and the parish where we served. We may have come as strangers, but three years later, after graduation, it felt like we were leaving home all over again. It was especially difficult, because we knew that we might never see many of those friends again.

Goodbyes are hard.  It is never easy to leave behind those whom we have come to love and admire. We have all had this experience at one time or another, which is why the story of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples inspires such pathos.

Imagine how difficult saying goodbye to Jesus must have been for his disciples. They had been through the devastating experience of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. They mourned his death and they were overcome by amazement and joy when he returned to them raised from the dead. When Mary saw the resurrected Christ she clung to him. She didn’t want to let him out of her sight. Even on that occasion Jesus told her, “Do not cling to me. I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He knew that his work was not yet done, and that he would once again need to say goodbye to his friends.

Sure enough after a period of 40 days in which he appeared, taught, and fellowshipped with his disciples, it once again came time for him to depart. He wanted to comfort his disciples in their grief.

Although saying goodbye is never easy, the sorrow of it can be tempered by the knowledge of what is to come. When my fellow seminarians and I said farewell to one another it was bittersweet. There was sweetness because we knew that we were all moving on to do what God called us to do, and what we had been preparing many years to do.

Jesus’ departure too had a grand purpose. We must not diminish its importance. Tonight I want to highlight three great outcomes that were accomplished through Jesus’ Ascension.

First, in ascending into heaven, Jesus presented his completed sacrifice before the Father. The atonement for sin is not finished until it is presented before God in the Tabernacle. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as our high priest, the one who offers the perfect, once-for-all, sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. He writes,

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.”

What does this mean? First, it means that Jesus is our priest and mediator. Just as Moses climbed the mountain to intercede for the people before God, Jesus ascends into heaven to make intercession for us with his Father.  Second it means that Heaven is the true tabernacle of God. Moses made a copy of the heavenly tabernacle he was shown on the mountain top according to God’s instructions. The high priest would enter that tabernacle in a cloud of incense to present God with sacrifice. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that in passing through the clouds of Heaven, Jesus Christ entered the true heavenly sanctuary and there presented the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

When the priest came into the sanctuary, he would wear twelve jewels on his vestments representing the twelve tribes of Israel. He was symbolically bringing the people with him into God’s presence. In a similar way, Jesus brings us all into the presence of God with him. He is our representative and the human nature he presents to the Father is perfect and righteous. Jesus stands in heaven as the pledge of the righteousness and justification he has purchased on our behalf.

The second accomplishment was that Jesus ascended into heaven in order to begin his reign as Lord and King of the universe. He told his disciples, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth is given to me” and he ascended into heaven to claim that authority and sit down at the right hand of God. Jesus is not only interceding on our behalf as a priest, he is also reigning as a king.

Jesus’ ascension is like a warrior king returning to his throne after he has won a great victory in a far off land. He is welcomed with shouts of celebration. Having conquered his enemies, his reign can begin. Saint Paul says, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” He extends that rule through the ministry of the church who is commissioned to announce his lordship to all nations.

Finally, Jesus’ ascension prepares the way for the Holy Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. He told them, 

“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

It is interesting to note the origins of our popular expression “goodbye.”  It originated as an old English term, “Godbwye,” which is a contraction of the phrase, “God be with ye.” Spanish contains a similar farewell, “vaya con dios,” which means, “go with God,” or “a Dios,” (Adiós) “to God.” Isn’t that interesting? In saying goodbye to someone we are actually asking God to bless them with his presence.

Jesus had to say goodbye to his disciples, but he did not leave them alone. Nor does he leave us alone. He gives us the gift of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes us present to God through his glorified humanity, and the Holy Spirit makes God present to us in return. We are in Christ and he is in us through the power of the Spirit.

As we have demonstrated, Jesus had to depart this world, but his Ascension brought innumerable blessings to us. Therefore it is fitting this day not to mourn Jesus’ absence, but to give thanks for what his presence before God, his reigning on the throne, and his giving of the spirit means for us and for our salvation.