May 13, 2018 – Celebration of Ascension
Leaving So He Could Stay
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Epistle reading. And [God the Father] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Here ends our text.
A salesman and a business woman were seated next to one another on an airplane flight to LA. The business woman was reading the newspaper when the salesman noticed the article she was reading. To pass the time the man struck up a conversation. He pointed to the picture heading the article and asked, “Have you seen Jesus yet?” The woman replied, “No, we tried to get tickets to hear him speak when he came through Chicago, but it was already sold out.” The man said, “We saw him about ten years ago in Detroit on his last tour of the U.S. He was quite an orator. My wife and I even considered joining the church he started there.” “What’s a church?” the woman asked. “Well, I guess it’s a gathering of followers. But the church in Detroit kind of petered out after a few months. After Jesus left town to continue his tour, there was no head to keep it going.” The man went on, “That’s what happens to most of his churches. I guess when you only get around to them every ten years or so, they die out. He’s got a pretty big following around Jerusalem though, ten thousand people or so. That’s his main base of operations.” The woman asked, “Has this guy Jesus ever written any books on what he has to say? I’d like to get a chance to read him.” The salesman replied, “No. You’d think he would, but he’s never published.” After a pause the salesman asked, “So what’s taking you to LA?” The business woman replied, “Got a corporate meeting bright and early on Sunday morning. I hate those Sunday morning meetings. Traveling on Saturday makes for such a short weekend.”
This conversation between the salesman and the business woman is, of course, fictitious. But it gives us a glimpse of what things could have been like if Jesus hadn’t ascended into heaven.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he showed himself alive to his disciples for forty days. They were so glad to have him back. They wanted him to stay with them forever. They wanted to be able to hold on to him, see him, and touch him. They wanted him to look into their eyes and speak to them. Of course, this would have been great for the disciples, but how about for us?
During his three year ministry when Jesus visibly walked the earth, he preached to tens of thousands of people around Judea and Galilee. But after his ascension into heaven, he left only a small following. When Peter stood up among the brothers to discuss the replacement of Judas, there were in all about 120 people in the New Testament church. Let’s think about that a moment. 120 people over a three year ministry. That’s about forty converts a year. Now most pastors would be thrilled at that number. I’d take forty a year. But remember, this is Jesus. He’s the greatest teacher and preacher ever. Besides that he could perform all those miracles. Most pastors don’t have in their arsenal raising the dead at a funeral for publicity. But Jesus did. And yet only 40 converts a year. If Jesus hadn’t ascended into heaven but stayed visibly on earth, appearing physically before people to speak and interact, how many converts would he have at that rate? Over a lifetime ministry, maybe a few thousand. Of course since Jesus would never die, his earthly ministry would have continued even to our day. But Christians still die. Jesus would have been continually starting over with the next generation. And so his church on earth would probably never have grown to more than ten thousand people or so at any one time. Ten thousand in a world of billions. That’s only one Christian in every city the size of Indianapolis. Would that one Christian have been you?
I remember watching variety shows when I was a kid. There was always the guy who spun the plates. He’d get one plate spinning on a stick and then start another one going. He’d get more plates spinning, but he’d always have to go back and keep the other plates going. He ran all around the room, keeping all those plates spinning, maybe twenty of them. But there was a limit to just how many plates he could keep spinning. Sometimes a plate would begin to wobble and before he could get to it, it would crash to the floor. Now that would have been Jesus if he hadn’t ascended into heaven. Starting churches, running from church to church in his physical body to keep them all going. Of course there would be a limit to the number of churches. Now after his resurrection, Jesus as true God did things with his body that we can’t. He could pop through walls when the doors were locked, appear and disappear before his disciples wherever he wanted. But even if he did that, appearing physically before people every week all over the world, how many churches could he keep spinning? Would yours be one of the churches that crashed to the floor because Jesus couldn’t make his rounds fast enough? Or would you even be in the church? Would you have had a chance to hear Jesus preach just once, or would the tickets have been sold out? Not enough Jesus to go around. Would you have ever heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and been saved eternally if Jesus hadn’t ascended into heaven?
But we don’t have to worry about what if, because God had a plan. From the foundation of the world God chose and elected you for salvation. His plan, first of all, was to send a Savior, his own Son Jesus Christ, to suffer and die for the sins of the world. But God’s plan didn’t end there. He also had a plan to bring that message of the Gospel to you, that through the power of the Holy Spirit you might believe in Jesus and be saved. But how would God do it?
Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, his disciples asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Would this be God’s plan? Set up a political, earthly kingdom where Jesus would reign on earth forever? A kingdom that at it’s zenith under king David was smaller than the state of Maine? A kingdom that had virtually no impact on the rest of the pagan world? No. Jesus had more in mind than a kingdom the size of Maine. He had in mind as his kingdom the entire world. He had you in mind. Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” God’s plan was that his disciples would bear witness to all that Jesus had done for our salvation. They would give their testimony of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
But how would this be accomplished? The disciples along with the apostle Paul certainly traveled far. They went to what was then considered the known ends of the earth. Mostly the Roman empire. But what about the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe? What about Australia, the Americas, and Vanderburgh county? Within a generation, the disciples were martyred for their witness. They died. But their witness lived on. While Jesus never published, the disciples did. We have in the four gospels the witness of the disciples which has been carried to the ends of the earth. The witness of the disciples was taught and preached and proclaimed by each succeeding generation of disciples to the ends of the earth, until it came to you.
This was God’s plan. But not all of it. When Jesus ascended into heaven he was not retiring. He was not just passing the baton on to his followers. If he had, the Church under the head of sinful men would have soon petered out. But when Jesus ascended into heaven, God the Father seated him at his right hand of power to reign not over Maine but all of heaven and earth. [God the Father] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Jesus ascended into heaven to be the head of his church in heaven and on earth. Jesus ascended into heaven so he could fill all things. Jesus ascended into heaven so that he could be present everywhere in his body for the benefit of his church. When Jesus ascended into heaven, a cloud hid him from the disciples’ sight. They could no longer see his physical body, and neither can we. Jesus is hidden, but he’s still here. Yes, Jesus did leave the sight of the disciples. But he left their sight so that he could stay with all of us. So that he could be present in all his churches. He left so he could stay. Jesus told his disciples he was with them always to the end of the age. Specifically in the Great Commission, in the making of disciples by baptizing and teaching, even when the disciples had passed away. Because Jesus ascended into heaven, he is with us now. He’s with us in his preached word today. He’s with us in holy baptism. And he’s present with us in his body in his holy supper. There is enough Jesus to go around.
Now did God’s plan work? Well, look around. Look next to you and in front of you in the pew. Look down at your hands and feet. You are in Christ’s church, his body, of which he is the head. Look around the world at all the Christian churches. Not thousands, not tens of thousands, but billions of people in his church. Those churches aren’t dependent on individual pastors who come and go with time. They’re not dependent on sporadic physical appearances of Jesus, showing up in the pulpit every decade or so. They’re dependent on the ascended and reigning Jesus Christ, who fills all things, who is present, active, and preaching in all his churches every week wherever two or three gather in his name. Because Jesus ascended into heaven, he keeps all his plates spinning no matter how many. He keeps his Church on earth going and his Church in heaven growing. He keeps you in his Church on earth until, like him, you ascend to his Church in heaven. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.