Based on Acts 16:25-34, Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26
We are almost finished with the great 50 days of Easter. Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus (which actually occurred on Thursday – 40 days after Easter Sunday). Next Sunday is Pentecost – the birth of the Church of Jesus the Christ. Next week we need to “rock the red” in honor of the flames of the Holy Spirit that came down on the assembled disciples. That’s a week in the future, however, this week we need to focus on Jesus’ return to His God and our God. Though the Ascension is only mentioned in Mark, Luke and Acts – a total of a handful of verses in the whole of the New Testament, it has captivated artists since the early 400’s. Hundreds of works of art, including most of the major painters (e.g., Rembrandt) have painted the scene of Jesus being raised back to heaven. Why did this event, which is barely mentioned in the Bible, engender so much art; why is this event so important, anyway?
Glad you asked that question! The Ascension of the Christ puts an end to Jesus’ earthly ministry and inaugurates His ministry of mediation for us at the right hand of the One seated on the throne (as John of Patmos puts it). The Christ being raised also emphasizes the divinity of the Christ in a way that just disappearing and reappearing (as he had been doing these last 40 days) would not. Finally, He fulfills the promise He made in John 14 that He goes to prepare a place for us and will come again to take us to be with Him. As John Calvin put it in his Institutes, “…The Lord, by his ascension into heaven, has opened up the access to the heavenly kingdom, which Adam had shut. For having entered it in our flesh, as it were in our name, it follows . . . that we are in a manner seated in heavenly places, not entertaining a mere hope of heaven, but possessing it in our [covenantal] head….” Another way of putting this is the statement the angels made to the disciples in Acts 1:11, “…Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up at heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….”
Our scriptures for today describe how we can come to understand our unity with the Christ and how through that unity we can call on Him at any time. It also helps us understand the final word of the Bible, “maranatha” which means, “Come, Lord Jesus” as we patiently and longingly await His return. Let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that God not only came to us, but is coming back again…
In the Gospel of John we are in Chapter 17 which is an extended prayer by Jesus for His disciples. Jesus is asking God to take care of the disciples and to protect them from evil. As we pick up the prayer in today’s reading, Jesus extends His prayer to bless all those who will come to believe through the words of the disciples and the work of the Holy Spirit. He asks for unity of all believers of the Christ – the unity of all believers with each other and most importantly through Jesus with God. All this Jesus did as a last act before His betrayal.
Paul and Silas are in trouble in Macedonia – specifically in Philippi. Paul became frustrated by a slave girl who followed them around and told everyone (because she had a spirit of divination) who they were as followers of “the Most High God”. Paul got fed up and he told the spirit to come out of the girl – and it did. The owners of the girl can now not make money off her spirit so they have the two apostles severely flogged and thrown in the deepest part of the jail – ankles in shackles. Paul and Silas, instead of moping about in this dark place were praying aloud and singing hymns at midnight and all the prisoners were listening. A great earthquake happened and all the doors were opened and chains were unfastened. The jailer, who thought everyone had escaped was about to kill himself, but Paul saved him. The jailer asked how he could find salvation, and they told him the good news. The jailer took them to his home, cleaned their wounds and fed them. Then the jailer and all his family were baptized.
The final verses of the Book of Revelation have Jesus telling John of Patmos that He would be coming back soon. He reminds John, as He prayed to God for the disciples prior to the Crucifixion, that He is God – alpha and omega, first and last, beginning and end, the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star. He invites all of the righteous in Him to wash and come to the waters of life. He also says that He is coming again soon…maranatha!
How do we begin to put these three seemingly disparate and unconnected scripture passages together into a cogent whole? I think it is to understand the passages from John through Acts to Revelation as a continuum. Jesus/God/Holy Spirit are the connections that make this all work. Jesus prays openly to God before He becomes the Christ that the disciples would be made one in love – that they would come to understand that they were not separate from Jesus. Jesus is taken up in the Ascension, after reminding the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming shortly. The angels tell the awestruck disciples that He has been taken up and will come again in similar fashion. Paul and Silas, though they were beaten severely and shackled in the bowels of the Philippian jail, feel this oneness and know for certain that they are not abandoned. These are the people that Jesus prayed for – the ones that would come after the disciples – that they would know the unity in and through Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit’s power. John of Patmos utters the Aramaic word that we all utter at one point or another in our lives…maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! It is what we and all the believers in the Christ who have come before us have wished for – that the promise be fulfilled in our lifetimes. Even though the Christ has not come back yet, He is available to us always as He was to Paul and Silas and all of the anointed. A humble belief and the patient and persistent inward journey to our God-image is what it takes to have this unified relationship with Jesus. Yet, most of us have never had this kind of training – this kind of understanding of what Jesus prayed for and what God has already granted. Through the Incarnation, God became human while retaining divinity. Through the Resurrection, God forgave our sins once and for all – thus removing any barrier to our complete unity with God. As Paul and Silas show us, faithful disciples of the Christ can access Him when they need Him. We do this through our prayer, devotion, study, worship and sharing of Holy Communion – the latter where the Christ comes again offering unity with us. While we await his final victory at His second coming, we can become unified through all these means of grace. Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, come to us again today though the sacrament of Holly Communion, unify us with each other and with you through this holy mystery; and return fully in your glory soon. Amen! 0000000000000