Jesus Christ ascended to heaven nearly two-thousand years ago, and since that time much in history has changed; yet, on the other hand, we are still in the situation of the early church: Jesus is still up there, and we are still down here. Because we still await Christ’s return, the original call and practice of the church is still in effect for us.
As far as experiences go, it would be hard to top being one of the original disciples and see Jesus ascend into heaven (Acts 1:1-10). Christ was crucified, dead, and buried. Then, he rose from the grave. For forty days Jesus appeared on and off to his disciples. Then the day came when he ascended. All of those redemptive events of Jesus and those powerful experiences being with the risen Lord, and actually seeing him go to heaven. Now what? How do you top that?
In the spiritual life, we move back and forth between moments of genuine inspiration and the sheer routine of our daily mundane lives. Both the uplifting mountain-top experiences and the hard work of walking through the valley are important. The trick is to channel the energy from one into the other. We need to work out rhythms of grace, daily liturgies that connect expectant prayer with the action of being witnesses in the culture.
Prayer and action – both are necessary to the church. And both are closely tied to the risen and ascended Christ. The Ascension of our Lord Jesus is important because it means that Christ is exalted above everything. His glorification translates into our sharing with him in his glory. The Ascension means that Jesus is in charge, by his authority he has given us a task to do, and he has given us the means of carrying-out that job.
Jesus and the disciples, even after our Lord’s forty days with them after the resurrection, were not on the same page together. The disciples were anticipating a restoration of David’s kingdom; in other words, their vision of what was going to take place is that there would be a great apocalypse in which Jesus would beat up all their enemies and set up a political kingdom just like King David of old.
But Jesus has a different agenda. Instead of creating a Jewish-Christian utopia where the disciples would be in charge and in control of the world, Jesus bluntly told them that knowing God’s timetable is not in their pay grade. The disciples were commanded and commissioned to do a job, and that job was not to gawk at the sky and figure-out all the blood moons so that we can anticipate when the end of the world will happen.
Yet, we keep trying to predict the time. Like the original disciples, who wanted to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority, we are tired of all the effects of sin in the world and all the people, institutions, and governments that are opposed to Christian ways of thinking and acting. We are anxious for Jesus to return and make everything that is wrong, right again. We deservedly want peace and justice.
But Jesus didn’t go there, and he essentially said to quit thinking about stuff that is none of our business. Instead, our business is being witnesses of Jesus. The angels came along right after Jesus ascended and nicely said to the disciples to stop standing there with their mouths open and understand that Jesus is coming back and there is a job to do – and that job is to be witnesses of Christ’s redemptive events. The power for being witnesses will come from the Holy Spirit; therefore, prayer is a necessary and essential practice (Acts 1:14).
Jesus is Lord over all creation. He is Lord of the church. He is Lord of our families. He is Lord at our workplaces. There is not one square inch of all this earth that Jesus is not Lord. What this means for us, since Christ is Lord of all, since we possess the Holy Spirit, we can and should live our lives devoted to prayer and to being witnesses in this world for Jesus. The kind of prayer that Jesus is looking for from his followers is prayer that expects God’s promises to be fulfilled; prayer that is united in spirit and in purpose; and, prayer that is persistent. That kind of prayer characterized the early believers, and that same kind of prayer is required from Jesus our Lord. Just as a cup of coffee needs a continual warm-up, so our prayers need to be frequent and constantly refreshed so that God’s purposes will be accomplished. And his purposes are that all of creation comes, in a real and practical way, under Christ’s lordship.
Prayer is not all we do. Jesus has also told us to be witnesses. Jesus is Lord, and so all persons must submit to his lordship through obedient action. This task is far from finished. According to The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, we know of 11,646 distinct people groups on this planet. 6,734 of those groups are less than 2% Christian and most of them have no churches, no Bibles, no Christian literature, and no mission agencies seeking to reach them. That, by the way, is in the neighborhood of about 3 ½ billion people. The Center also cites that 1 out of 5 non-Christians in North America do not personally know a single follower of Jesus. What can we do? We can pray. We can witness. We can pray for spiritual power. We can witness by loving our neighbor as ourselves and telling a simple story of Jesus.
Let me give you an example. My wife used to work at a company in which she befriended a Hindu woman from India. She was from the highest caste in India, and looked the part – she literally looked like an Indian Barbie doll. Whenever I saw her I thought I should bow in her presence because she carried herself like a princess. She had never experienced an American Thanksgiving. So, Mary simply invited her to a Thanksgiving dinner out our house with our family. As we typically do each Thanksgiving, we all took turns going around the table and describing what we were thankful to God for. When it came time for this lovely Indian woman to speak she said: “I am thankful to be here and to know you all. It is evident that your God is very personal and precious to you, and I have never known that people could have such love for a God they do not see.” That, my friends, is one way of being a witness – having a large enough ‘inner space’ to invite another person very different from myself into my life to see the unseen God.
Christ’s Ascension means that Jesus is Lord, and I am not! Therefore, we as Christians and as churches are to submit to King Jesus and do what he has commanded us to do. And he has given the church a mission: be witnesses to the risen and ascended Lord. May it be so.