Theme Christ risen, ascended and glorified
Sentence Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]
Collect Eternal God,
By raising Jesus from the dead
You proclaimed his victory,
And by his ascension
You declared him king.
Lift up your hearts to heaven
That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601]
Readings Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23Luke 24:44-53
Introduction: this post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day (in 2013, Thursday 9 May) or the Sunday after Ascension Day. It does however deal with Ascension Day readings on the basis that, most likely, Ascension Day is being celebrated on the Sunday afterwards.
Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53
I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.
In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.
The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.
Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).
Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.
Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.
This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.
Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.
The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.
There is a sermon in every verse of this passage!