Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Why Does the Ascension Matter?

Ephesians 1:15-23

 We are drawing to the end of what I consider to be the “heart and soul” of the Christian year.  Or course, the Christian year lasts as long as the calendar year.  But the real heart of it is the succession of the great Holy Days of the Church that run from Christmas to Pentecost and tell the story of God’s work of salvation.  

 The Christian year begins with Advent that builds to Christmas, Jesus’ birth.  After Christmas, there is Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the Mount of Transfiguration, which revealed him to be the Son of God and anointed one.  Maundy Thursday and Good Friday tell the story of his suffering and death on the cross.  Easter Sunday tells of his resurrection from the dead.  And the final chapters of this story are his Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost.  There are, of course, Christian holy days in the rest of the year.  But those ones do not focus on the story of God’s work of salvation.  

 One of the things that I find interesting is that different traditions of the Church focus on different holy days.  For example, if you were to ask most Protestants, “What is the most important day of the Christian year?”  Most would answer Easter.  But if you ask that question in other Christian traditions, you’d probably get different answers.

 In Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christmas and Epiphany are emphasized.  The emphasis is on God “making a new start” in Jesus Christ.  In Roman Catholic theology, Good Friday is very important.  The suffering and death of Jesus is very meaningful.  That’s the reason why a Roman Catholic cross almost always is a crucifix, a depiction of the crucified Christ, whereas in most Protestant depictions, the cross is empty.  In Pentecostal traditions, obviously, the day of Pentecost is very important.  And for the Anabaptist traditions, which would include Brethren churches and Mennonite churches, the Ascension is very important.  

 To be perfectly honest with you, I had never really thought of Ascension Day as a Christian holy day until I went to seminary.  Sharon and I went to seminary in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, which is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  Whereas around here every town has a Methodist Church, there every town has a Brethren or Mennonite church.  

 In the same town as our seminary was a little grocery store that we really liked called “Dutch Way.”  One random Thursday in May, we went to go to the store after classes and found it was closed for “Ascension Day.”  We’d never heard of anyone being closed for Ascension Day, but as we quickly found out, in that area, many businesses closed for it because it was considered a high holy day in those traditions.  We see it a little bit around here now that we have some Mennonites in the area.  

 For those traditions, Ascension Day is very important.  It’s a day to remember that loyalty to Christ is supreme; no other loyalty should rival our loyalty to Christ.  Now I don’t necessarily agree with all the ways that those traditions apply that truth.  For example, some Anabaptist traditions not only will not serve in the military, they also will not vote in elections.  And of course, some of these traditions also practice non-participation in “modern life.”  I may not agree with those things, but I have a great respect and appreciation for their stand.  I’m glad they view the Lordship of Christ in such a high regard, and we could learn a lot from it.

 And we should also remember that we have a share in that tradition.  The United Methodist Church, as it exists today, is a merger of the Methodist and EUB Churches, and EUB stood for Evangelical United Brethren Church.  

 I find that the richness and variety of expression of the Christian Faith is a reminder of the richness and variety of God’s work of salvation.  We can’t point to just one thing and say, “This is God’s work of salvation.”  God has done so much to save us, and we can appreciate in a number of ways.  

 With that in mind:  Just what does the Ascension mean for us?  

 Beginning in verse 19 of Ephesians 1, Paul uses four different Greek words for the idea of God’s power or strength.  And the supreme example of God’s power is that he not only raised Christ from the dead, but he also raised him to the right hand of the Father, to the highest throne.  In verse 21, Christ is said to be enthroned above four different types of spiritual powers or authorities.  He is far above them, above all rulers or authorities or powers or leaders.

 In the mindset on the ancient world, there were a plethora of spiritual powers at work in the universe.  There were spirits in various places, spirits in various things.  As one ancient writer said, “there is a spirit on every high hill and under every green tree.”  And all these spirits held sway or influence over human lives and over events.

 And there was also the power of Fate.  Most ancient peoples believed that their lives were ruled by the power of Fate.  The stars were seen as celestial spirits.  If you happened to be born under a “good star,” your life would be easy and enjoyable.  If you were born under a “bad star,” your life would be filled with trouble.  

 That was their understanding of human life:  ruled by spirits, run by Fate.  And people lived in fear.  But they did believe that there was a way that humans could have at least some measure of control over all these powers.  They believed that a lower god or lower spirit could be controlled by a higher one.  So if you could appeal to a higher power and gain its favor, then

you could be safe from a lower god.  So in Greek mythology, you might appeal to Zeus to save you from Poseidon, and so on.

 But God’s word of encouragement to us is that it is Christ who is seated on the highest throne.  Christ who loves us is over all other powers and authorities.  So we have no reason to fear.  No we may no longer believe in the same understanding of the world that they did in ancient times.  We may no longer believe that there are spirits all over the place.  We may no longer believe in Fate, though that doesn’t seem to stop even Christians from reading horoscopes!  But the point is still there.  The one who has saved us is seated on the highest throne, far above all other powers, earthly or spiritual, so we need not fear.  

 The other side of the Ascension is that if Christ is seated on the highest throne, then he should have the highest authority, the greatest loyalty in our lives.  Nothing should be higher in our hearts or in our lives than Christ.  

 Now we all have no choice but to live with multiple loyalties.  We all have other things in our lives, other than just Christ, who expect our loyalty.  Our spouses and families expect our loyalty.  Our workplace expects our loyalty.  Our friends expect our loyalty.  Our associations, the organizations we belong to, expect our loyalty.  Our nation expects our loyalty.  We have no choice but to live with these multiple allegiances. 

 The crux of the matter is this:  To whom do we give the greatest loyalty?  It’s easy to live with multiple loyalties until they come into conflict with each other.  

 What do we do when our place of employment asks us to do something unethical, maybe even illegal, to further profits?  What do we do when our nation embarks on a course that is contrary to our values?  What do we do when our family expects us to choose loyalty to them over loyalty to God?  What do we do when the organizations we belong to interfere with worship of God?  

 The real question of the Ascension is this:  What do you do with Christ on the highest throne?  Do you enthrone him in the highest place in your heart?  Or do you give him a lesser throne so that you can keep something else, maybe yourself, in the highest place?  

 The assurance of Christ’s authority over all other powers, Christ’s protection of his own by virtue of his place on the highest throne, is only ours if we have come under his Lordship in the fullest sense of it.  

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