Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension

The Rev’d Adrian Stephens

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; 1 John 5.9-12

We are within something of an in-between time. The Ascension of our Lord has happened, and the promised Holy Spirit is yet to arrive. This does not make Jesus out of reach, for we will always find him in our prayers, and we are well aware of the power of the Holy Spirit. For the disciples so long ago, there is an hiatus. They have watched Jesus ascend into heaven, and they are waiting for the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus, to appear among them. Not only to appear but to bring power and knowledge; faith and understanding.

At the time of the Ascension of our Lord, as recorded in the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke speaks of the disciples being challenged by an angel, “Why are you staring into heaven?” The angel proceeds to tell them that Jesus has ascended to the Father and when the time is right, he will return to earth. In the meantime, there is much to do.

This is a dilemma for the disciples. They have questioned Jesus concerning his promise of power and they have assumed that he will return to them immediately; and not only will he return immediately, they will be granted political power over all nations. The disciples anticipate a great political power, they appear to expect a new kingdom for them wrested from the surrounding nations.

For this reason, they are desperate to know exactly when Jesus will return. Our Lord corrects them by explaining that it is not for them, or anyone else, to know the day or the time. Only the Father knows this. The message is plain, the disciples are not to concern themselves with the second coming for they have a specific role to fulfil. The disciples are to take the message of salvation in Christ to the ends of the earth.

Through prayer and action, the disciples are to reach out to the community to bring the testimony of God to the attention of every person they meet. The disciples are to be witnesses of the resurrected and the ascended Jesus. We believe that at the time of the Ascension our Lord, who emptied himself of the glory of the Godhead to become human, has returned to his former glory with the Father. Throughout the gospel record we find that Jesus prays with the Father on a regular basis. His behaviour and his prayer blend into one cohesive unit.

The 17th chapter of the gospel of John is one long prayer between Jesus and the Father. In that prayer our Lord is both teaching the disciples and he is praying for them. In the prayer he states quite clearly that “As you have sent me into the world, so have I sent them into the world.”

Jesus prays that the disciples may be protected. He points out that just as the world has hated him so will the world hate the disciples. So, the first enemy of the disciple is the society that wants no part of Jesus, nor will they accept salvation in him. The second enemy from which the disciples are to be protected is that of the temptations of the devil. We know already that Judas has succumbed to the selfishness of the world and has betrayed Jesus. Jesus prays for the protection of all who will call themselves his disciples. This promise of protection is for us who will call ourselves disciples of Jesus.

Jesus prays that his disciples may be united. “Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” We try very hard to see the church of our Lord as being united. We pray that we may be one church and that there will be no disagreement among us. We could be forgiven for thinking that this prayer of Jesus has failed. We see so many different branches of the church around us. When I was in the parish of Mount Barker some years ago; back when it was still a village in the Adelaide Hills, I tallied up 16 different Christian churches. The question to ask is this, “Does a difference of theological expression and understanding indicate that there is disunity in the church of our Lord?”

I suggest that this is not the case. Every member of a worshiping group who believes in salvation in Jesus Christ, and who accepts Jesus as being the Son of God, is a valuable part of the unity of Jesus’ followers. When we think about it, we will discover that we have far more similarities than we have differences. It is a sad fact that many people concentrate on the differences rather than the similarities.

Jesus prays that his followers may be delighted. He prays that his disciples will know joy. This is interesting because Jesus is well aware of the gruesome challenge that awaits him. There can be no real joy in crucifixion. Of course, Jesus is not speaking of occasional party style joy. He is praying that his disciples will know the fullness of his joy. He is praying that we will know the fullness of Joy that life has to offer, together with the joy of knowing that our faith in Christ will open the door of the kingdom of God, and that we will come to stand before God, forgiven and reconciled. This is an exciting and fulfilling promise, and it is in this that we are to be joyful. The anguish and pain that we may experience in this life is as nothing when compared to the joy of salvation in Christ. Yes, we experience pain and anguish, hurt and disappointment, but with Christ we overcome it.

Jesus prays that his mission may be completed. He is not asking God to take his disciples out of the world. What he is asking is that the mission given to him by the Father may be fulfilled by the people to whom he passes the baton. It is the role of the church, it is our role, to take the message of salvation in Christ out into the world. There is a reward for this. Jesus wants us to be where he is so that we can see his glory. This is a promise which takes us into a future that surpasses this earthly realm. It is a promise of eternity.

We look to the death and resurrection of Christ to be reassured of this promise. Just as our Lord was raised from the dead so will the people who embrace the testimony of Jesus be raised from the dead.

This prayer by Jesus is offered immediately before his arrest. Judas has earned his thirty pieces of silver and he has betrayed Jesus. Some defend Judas by suggesting that he wanted to force Jesus to show his hand and to overthrow the oppressors. Others debate whether Judas might be innocent because his betrayal of Jesus was prophesied. I have a little sympathy for these arguments. But, in the final analysis I have to accept that Judas was paid blood money to betray Jesus. He was not forced to do it, but he chose to do it. It is in the choosing that we find the sin, not in the prophecy.

So, what does all of this mean for us? It must mean several very important things for us. Our Lord is reaching out to us in love. We can feel the love in this prayer for us. We can recognise his love for us in the words he prays to the Father. It is in love and trust that he encourages us to reach out in his name so that all the people we meet and know may have the opportunity to respond to this same divine love.

Importantly we are to accept that the testimony of God is far greater than the testimony of the world. The promises of the world, the promises of society, are insignificant when compared to the promises, the testimony, of our Lord. And this is the testimony, “God gave us eternal life and this life is in his Son.”

John concludes his letter in this way: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”