On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s transition from earth to heaven. It’s an event that’s hard to imagine and maybe even harder to describe or illustrate.
I’m going to show you the earliest pictorial representation of it that we know about. It comes from the Rabbula Gospels, an illuminated version of the gospels created in Syria in the year 586.
It shows Jesus ascending to heaven, surrounded by angels who sing his praises and offer him crowns of glory. As he ascends, Jesus raises a hand in blessing. It almost looks as if he’s saying goodbye. In fact, he’s saying hello in a new way.
Every time I think of this story, I think of the Paul McCartney song recorded by the Beatles in 1967, “You say goodbye but I say hello.” The disciples think they are saying goodbye to Jesus. It is true that they are seeing the last of him in the bodily form that they have grown to love and revere. But he won’t be gone long.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” he has told them. “I am coming to you” (John 14:18). We’ll hear more about that next week, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Today, on this last Sunday of the Easter season, I want to wrap up this worship series that I’ve called “Living the Resurrection.” It’s about learning to live in light of the Resurrection. We’ve hardly looked at everything we could learn, but this sets us off in the right direction.
We began with the story of Thomas. He is famous for initially doubting that Jesus was raised from the dead. But when he saw the risen Jesus face to face, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
It is no sin to doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you can’t doubt something, you don’t need faith to believe it. If you’re not skeptical, then you live in a fantasy world called certainty. As Paul the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We live by faith, not by sight” (NIV). We live by faith, not by certainty. If you live by certainty, you live in an alternate universe that isn’t real. Certainty is the real enemy of faith.
That’s partly because even sight does not necessarily lead to faith. Sometimes we see and will still do not believe. Sometimes – maybe most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it. We have to trust something or someone as real before we can even recognize their existence.
To see the truth of the Resurrection and learn to live in light of it, we have to make the Resurrection of Jesus the lens through which we see the world. We need to put on Easter lenses and see with Easter vision. Our vision has to be transformed by our own personal experience of the risen Christ.
Our transformation also means learning to listen and to respond to his voice. Listening is more than hearing. Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what a particular noise is trying to tell you.
Like sheep who are lost without their shepherd, we respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd. We learn to recognize that voice through training and experience. The more we mature as Christ followers, the more God’s voice outside us becomes our own inner voice, so that eventually the shepherd leads us from within rather than from without.
All along the way, we have to abide in Christ, to stay connected with him the way a branch is connected to the grapevine. Christ is the True Vine and we are the branches. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from the vine, we can produce nothing. Separated from the vine, we wither and die.
But connected to the vine, we not only flourish personally but more importantly we bear fruit. We share our faith with others, in tangible as well as intangible ways, and in both ways helping to create other disciples.
We do it all in imitation of Christ’s love for us and for his heavenly Father. “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells us. So now he commands: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:9, 12).
The love Jesus is talking about is a sacrificial love. It means dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your own priorities, your own comfort, your own safety. There is no greater love than to give your life for your friends, Jesus says (John 15:13).
Referring to himself, he meant that literally. Referring to us, most likely he means what I call “everyday heroism” – those smaller day-to-day sacrifices of self that each of us can make that add up to a life of selflessness and service in the name of Jesus.
Some of us seem to be better at it than others. Some actually seem to come by it almost naturally. Maybe they were raised that way, and it stuck. Others of us have to fight our own self-centered inclinations every step of the way, and again and again we are surprised by how good it feels when we put others before ourselves.
In an era corrupted by Trumpism, some people seem to think that “Looking out for Number One” is the national motto. Others want to keep Jesus first. They follow that JOY motto: “Jesus, others and you.” That’s where real joy resides, putting Jesus first, others second and yourself third. I’ve always preferred to personalize it as “Jesus, others and me,” but JOM is a lousy acronym. JOY works much better.
When he spoke of his greater love, Jesus told his disciples that he no longer considered them disciples; now he considered them friends. I think that is just about the highest compliment he could ever pay them. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Jesus?
I have mixed feelings about that hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I love the title, but I think the music is sappy and the lyrics are anemic; they just don’t go far enough. “Got a problem?” the song says. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” I certainly have no problem with making our requests known to God. I do it all the time, as your pastor and as an individual.
But 166 years ago, when the lyrics were written, I wonder how many people understood prayer as conversation with a friend. Truly, I wonder how many people today understand prayer as conversation with a friend.
But that’s what it is. Or at least that’s what it should be. It is, first of all, a conversation: it works two ways. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you listen. Talking is easier than listening, of course. Secondly, prayer is conversation with a friend. That means you don’t have to get all puffed up with self-importance and use big words and fancy phrases. It does mean that you speak honestly and plainly. It also means that you listen carefully for what your friend has to say in response, even if that response is not what you want to hear.
Quakers call one another “friends” and form a Society of Friends. Originally, and for most Quakers still today, that means “friends in Christ.” Christian friendship has a special bond. We are friends not only in the human sense but friends also in a heavenly sense. We are friends “in Christ.” We are friends bound together by the love of Christ for us and for the world.
“In Christ,” we are able to pray to Abba, our Father in heaven, the way Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven. We have received a spirit of adoption as God’s children, Paul says. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we have received Christ’s own Spirit in our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).
Swiss theologian Karl Barth says that Jesus is the self-giving of God, and that Jesus in turn gives his life back to God. Jesus asks us to give ourselves back to God through our self-giving love for others. Just as he died for us, he asks us to die to self in the giving away of self.
We give more of ourselves as we are more closely conformed to the image of Christ – as we more fully “put on Christ,” as Paul says in Romans 13:14. As I outlined two weeks ago, it’s a slow process of lengthening in some areas, learning to extend ourselves, as it were; and pruning in other areas, cutting back our tendencies to serve self first and others later, if at all.
The end product, which we won’t likely see in our earthly lifetime but hope to see eventually, is no longer just me, but Christ who lives in me. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
We’re not just nice people, as some outsiders may think. We’re friends of Christ who are being remade in Christ’s image and someday will look just like him – certainly not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense that encompasses all that we are, both physical and spiritual.
“We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, comments: “This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity.”
God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us, being raised to new life for us and ascending to the heavenly throne of grace for us.
God continues to love us by residing within us by the Holy Spirit, working to change us from a pale human glory to a robust divine glory, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love the way Jesus loves, the way God loves, the way we first were loved and are being trained to love in return.
There is more to living in the light of the Resurrection than what we have said in the last six weeks, but we have learned a few things.
We have learned to seek the depth of true faith that resides just beyond our doubt. We have learned to see the world through the lens of Christ our Savior. We have learned to listen for the distinctive voice of our Good Shepherd. We have learned to stay connected with the True Vine. And we have learned that these things are all part of what it means to be friends with Christ and to be friends in Christ.
Friends, this is a new day. The Resurrection of Christ makes all things possible for those who trust in him. May we joyfully explore the possibilities in days to come.
This message was delivered May 16, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.