preached on the Seventh Sunday after Easter at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Baton Rouge
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Be of good cheer. The Lord is risen, but he has more than risen. He has ascended. He has taken his seat. He has established his throne. He has not just placed death under his footstool. He has taken his seat at the right hand of the Father. But what does this mean?
In contemporary Christianity, the full narrative of Christ is often unheard. We say he is risen. We give a day to it and industries work tirelessly to shore up their bottom line by overselling processed sugar and heart-shaped trinkets. As Christians, we know Easter. As Americans, we think we know Easter. But as contemporary Christians, we have much to learn and believe concerning the ascension and session of Jesus Christ.
Please turn in your Bible with me to the book of Ephesians chapter 1. I would like to read for us the whole chapter, leading up to the last few verses.
Eph 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Eph 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Eph 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
Eph 1:4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love
Eph 1:5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
Eph 1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
Eph 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,
Eph 1:8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight
Eph 1:9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ
Eph 1:10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Eph 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,
Eph 1:12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
Eph 1:13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
Eph 1:14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
And these last eight verses are only two sentences, and they are the capstone of the chapter:
Eph 1:15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,
Eph 1:16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,
Eph 1:17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,
Eph 1:18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
Eph 1:19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might
Eph 1:20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
Eph 1:21 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 one to come.
Eph 1:22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church,
Eph 1:23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
What is the risen Lord if he is not also the ascended Lord? What is the risen and ascended Lord if he is not also the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father? One of the greatest moments in the gospel story which we too often neglect is the Ascension and Session of Jesus Christ. And that’s precisely why as Christians we ought to have a liturgical calendar, why Ascension Thursday, this past Thursday, is an important part of it. But it’s too much a passing thought. As Christians, we know to celebrate Christ born in a manger. We are inspired by his miracles and ministry. We remember the betrayal, passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s often as far as the Christian imagination goes. We preach the cross; we celebrate Easter, and then we await Christmas. But what is the birth of Christ without the Ascension? What is the ministry of Christ without the Ascension? What is the passion, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ without the Ascension? We must study the Ascension and Session of Christ, and we must dwell upon the deep and wide implications of this important Christian doctrine.
The early Christians saw fit to ensure the ascension and session of Christ found their way into our earliest creed, the Apostles’ Creed. It states, “He descended to the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
The Church Fathers and what some call the Church Doctors did not neglect the ascension of Christ. St. Leo the Great in his Sermon 74, titled “On the Lord’s Ascension,” states,
“For this Faith throughout the world not only men, but even women, not only beardless boys, but even tender maids, fought to the shedding of their blood. This Faith cast out spirits, drove off sicknesses, raised the dead: and through it the blessed Apostles themselves also, who after being confirmed by so many miracles and instructed by so many discourses, had yet been panic-stricken by the horrors of the Lord's Passion and had not accepted the truth of His resurrection without hesitation, made such progress after the Lord's Ascension that everything which had previously filled them with fear was turned into joy. For they had lifted the whole contemplation of their mind to the Godhead of Him that sat at the Father's right hand, and were no longer hindered by the barrier of corporeal sight from directing their mind.' gaze to That Which had never quitted the Father's side in descending to earth, and had not forsaken the disciples in ascending to heaven.”
The reformers too taught well on the ascension. Martin Luther, the great German reformer, asks the question in his Small Catechism, “What does it mean that Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty?” Luther answers, “With this expression Scripture teachers that Christ, as true man, is not only present everywhere, but also now fully exercises His divine power over the whole universe.”
Luther then asks, “What comfort do we get from Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God?” He answers, “We know that the exalted God-man, Christ as our prophet sends people to proclaim the saving Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christ as our Priest pleads and prays for us before the Father and Christ as our King rules and protects His church and governs over all the world especially for the benefit of His church.” (page 511)
John Calvin, another great church reformer, in his Institutes states that there are several benefits imparted to us by Christ’s ascension:
- “…the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom, which had been closed through Adam.”
- “...[Christ] appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor.”
- “…faith comprehends his might, in which reposes our strength, power, wealth, and glorying against hell…He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth.”
Our own Anglican tradition continues in faithfulness. Thomas Cranmer in his “Homily on the Resurrection for Easter Day” says the Resurrection is “the very locke and key of all our Christian Religion and fayth.” (p. 356) He then goes on to say that the resurrection, the ascension, and the session are links of our faith which Jesus Christ sought fit to establish and confirm together, inseparable from one another.
The ascension of Christ does not mean Jesus Christ is absent from this world. It is quite the opposite. His ascension is not a retreat from this world but a further perfection of it. Alister McGrath in his book I Believe, Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, says it well,
“The doctrine of the ascension assures us that Christ has been exalted and glorified and that his power and glory can be revealed and reflected in our lives…The Christ who was exalted to heaven may also be exalted in our lives (Philippians 1:20). He is able to knock at the door of our lives (Revelation 3:20-21). We must not allow the limitations of our reason and imagination to impose restrictions on what the risen and exalted Christ can do!” (p. 74-75)
Likewise, the session of Christ matters greatly. By being seated at the right hand of the father, Jesus Christ is given special favor and status. By his perfect obedience, he is placed where no other being may be placed, at the right hand of the father, in glory and honor. And in being seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ intercedes for us. He pleads our case. And he is our only intercessor to the Father. When we look in Scripture at the priestly office, we see two duties: sacrifice and intercession. When we consider Jesus as our Great High priest, we see his sacrifice, once for all, in his passion and crucifixion. Jesus was perfect, spotless, and without blemish. He was without fault. And so he is our atonement. But what about Christ as our intercessor? This is the ascension and session.
John Frame, contemporary professor and theologian, asks, “What is the resurrected Christ doing—right now?” Frame answers, “He is interceding at the Father’s right hand. Even now, he is thinking of us, bringing our needs to the Father’s attention. Of course, Scripture also speaks of the Holy Spirit’s interceding (Rom. 8:26-27). The two persons act in unity to bring the believer’s needs before God’s great throne of grace. The Father willingly hears the intercession of his Son and his Spirit. The bottom line is that we can be sure that the Father will withhold no good thing from us. The whole Trinity is on our side. God is of one mind on our behalf, and if God be for us, who can be against us?” (p. 908)
If Easter tells us how we ought to die, how we ought to see death, the Ascension and Session of Christ tells us how we ought to live, how we ought to see all of life. Alister McGrath puts it perfectly. “But notice the effect of the ascension on the disciples. They don’t remain standing, rooted to the spot, completely overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus has returned to heaven. Their thoughts return immediately to earth—for there is work to be done. The ascended Christ commissions them to carry on his work on earth…Faith in the ascension does not mean any diminished interest in the world. It means a renewed commitment to that world and the new resources with which to meet its need and cares.”
Today, we live between the session of Christ and his second-coming. And this time is defined by one important feature: glad work. This glad work is an exceeding joy which follows a deep gratitude for God, his infinite kindness, and his reconciling us, his Church, to himself, in every conceivable way. We will rise from the dead, because he first rose from the dead. We will ascend to the heavens because he first ascended. We will be glad in this life, because Jesus Christ has been made glad to be seated at the right hand of the Father. McGrath states, “One of the main differences between a believer and a non-believer is their attitudes toward life.” And the ascension and session of Christ has everything to do with our attitudes. Our attitude toward losing a job. Our attitude toward rulers and governors. Our attitude toward cancer. Our attitude toward children and books and bugs and sports. Our attitude toward South Louisiana summer heat.
So, Christians, how are we doing? How is our interest in this world, in working, in making, in creating, in laboring for Christendom on earth as it is in heaven? At Easter, in the resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered death. In the Ascension and Session, Jesus Christ unbounds the world. A God who rules over the grave, also rules over the hearts of man; he rules over the nations of the world, and he rules over every square inch of creation. He rules over your company’s bank account. He rules over the college and housing bubble in America. He rules and reigns. So, men, cut your grass and brew your beers. Ladies, chop your onions and fortify your homes with flowers. Fathers, work long hours and don’t grumble. Mothers, soak your feet in a warm bath. Children, enjoy your ice cream. Christ has risen. Alleluia. But more than risen is our Christ. Christ has ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And all things, all things, are under his rule. Now hear the words of a fine English poet. “Easter Wings” by George Herbert.
"Easter Wings" by George Herbert
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.