7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
On a day when America takes time to recognize mothers, we are taking time for this festival called the Ascension of our Lord. You might think that the two have absolutely nothing in common, that there is no possible way that these two days could ever correlate. One is about love and sacrifice and selflessness and care and serving, and the other is about Jesus leaving this world to take up residence at his rightful place on heaven’s throne.
But maybe you noticed something as I read through Ephesians 4. Jesus’ ascension is also about love for his people, the sacrifice he made for us, and how his completed work means we now have something to offer others. There is a word for this kind thing that shows up right in the middle of verse 12 in Ephesians 4: διακονίας. That’s the Greek word for “ministry,” or “service.” When Christ ascended he had some work in mind for us to do.
That’s how it dawned on me that the two are very similar. Mothering is a service in a way that it is selflessly serving children for their good. It is loving care for children so that won’t be tossed back and forth by the waves of life. It’s helping children grow and mature the right way. That is exactly what Christ’s triumphant return to heaven means for us, his church. Jesus’ ascension means it’s time for ministry.
As we discuss this ministry we have received from our ascended Lord, I want us to answer three questions: 1) what does Jesus give us for ministry? 2) who does Christ give us for ministry? 3) what is the purpose of this ministry?
If Jesus going back to heaven means that he has left us to do his ministry work, doesn’t that sound kind of hopeless? Why would a perfect God leave this very important work up to imperfect rebels like us? But for one it means Jesus is done with his saving work. He came and did everything that God had promised he would. He completely finished the work of defeating sin, death, and the devil to open up heaven for us. We have to also remember that Jesus promised to be with us to the very end of the age. It’s still his church and from heaven he rules all things for our spiritual and eternal good. His grace will not leave us.
Paul says “to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” Now it would be nonsense for us to think that we have earned these gifts or achieved them by personal performance. Grace cannot be earned or deserved in any way. Grace is not based on your performance. Jesus, the one who descended to earth to be the Savior from sin, the conqueror of hell, the crusher of Satan, he loves you and has an endless supply of grace for you because of who he is and what he has done.
His grace also supplies everything you need for this ministry. Paul quotes from the Psalms to prove this point. “When he ascended on high…he gave gifts to his people.” What are these gifts we’re talking about? God’s gifts are the things and abilities he gives you to serve him, to be involved in ministry, to care for others.
He might give some of us talents in music or abilities with our hands to build or fix things. He might give some of us administrative minds for group work and others jolly personalities to be warm and caring. He might give some of us courage and optimism to press on and stand up against negative doubts and worries. He might give some gifts at one time in life and then change the gifts at another time. But the key that Paul wants us to know is that Jesus gives every one of us gifts. It’s personal for each of us so that we can serve him and one another.
Now, it doesn’t make much sense at all that Jesus would ascend to heaven to watch over his church and give you the gift of being a good communicator so that you will use that gift to spread gossip and rumors. It doesn’t make much sense that Jesus would give you a knack for fixing things so that you would only fix your things. That would be similar to a mother neglecting her children’s basic needs. Jesus would never give you gifts and abilities for sinful or selfish purposes.
And yet as he looks over his people today, does he see his gifts being used properly? Does he see his gifts being used faithfully and regularly? Or is it easy for us to fall into the devil’s trap and treat our abilities and talents that come from the throne of God as if we can do whatever we want? If gifts come from God’s grace, then shouldn’t we use them for his glory? He doesn’t owe us these things, gifts are from his hand so that we use them as his children should. If we don’t do use his gifts properly then he certainly has a good reason to remove them from us, wouldn’t you say? If a mom is going to neglect her children’s basic needs, those children will be removed, right?
But the amazing thing is Jesus still has grace for us in this ministry. We may prove too often that we are selfish, but Jesus proves his grace all the more. He rolls the selfishness away by continually providing the gifts we need for his ministry, to serve him and others.
Now, the next question is who does Jesus give for ministry? We’re on verse 11, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.”
Jesus was thinking of you when he ascended, because he knew that you would need more than certain talents and abilities. He knew people would need a regular diet his Word and sacraments to create and strengthen faith all over the world. Jesus knew that only his Word and sacraments could have the power and comfort to accomplish his saving work. He knew that his word had to spread. And so Jesus provided servants to do just that. Today, we call them pastors and teachers.
These representatives and servants are trained and sent from Jesus through his church to serve his people. No, that doesn’t mean there is some divine factory somewhere that miraculously churns out pastors and teachers every year. Well, I take that back; actually there is. It’s your homes and congregations just like Our Saviour’s. That’s where God finds his next generation of called servants for his work. He watches over your homes and finds boys and girls who love him and his Word. He finds ways of instilling the desire to serve when kids see parents serving in ministry with their talents and abilities on committees or helping out at events. He finds ways to motivate kids when called workers carry out their service with the joy of Jesus every day. He prepares kids just like ours at our Lutheran prep schools and high schools, our Martin Luther College, and our Seminary. And then Jesus does something incredible. It happened yesterday at MLC and Thursday, May 24th at the Seminary. He’s going to give these servants places to serve his people. It’s incredible how he takes care of his church. Ever since he went home to heaven he has given gifts to his people and given servants to serve his people, because Jesus works through us, his people. He gives pastors and teachers the powerful gospel message with his powerful promise to work through our feeble efforts to feed and nurture and build his flock.
Now these servants are not perfect. I can personally attest to that. But that’s what makes it easy to be a pastor and teacher. I personally know what sin is and I personally fight temptations just like you. I know the burdens of guilt and the problems of sin very well, and I know the solution can only be the grace of Jesus, his death and resurrection. I know how Jesus can change lives because I know what he has done for me. By God’s grace, as your pastor, I get to see his Word work in your lives, too. I get to see God’s law crush sinful pride and self-righteousness. I get to see God’s gospel soothe the aching heart and restore the broken spirit. I get to see how God’s Word gives you the humility and confidence to fight against sin and how you use your gifts to serve our Savior. With apologies to mothers, there is no greater job on this planet than to be a servant of the Savior Jesus.
That being said, it doesn’t mean I’m on some kind of pedestal. I’m not closer to God. I’m not better at serving. I’m a sinner who has been trained and called to serve in this ministry full-time. You are a sinner who is just as vital to the ministry even if you aren’t serving full-time. You are a child of God, and the last time I checked that means you get to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You are a part of the service, the ministry, that God carries out through his church. You are a crucial part of the body that needs all the parts to work properly.
That leads to the last question: what is the purpose of this ministry? Why did Jesus ascend to give us gifts and abilities, to give us servants of the gospel? Paul answers that for us: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”
Ministry is all about serving God and one another. See when you have a ministry it’s not about a church building or list of projects or finances. It’s not about a pastor or teacher. It’s not about this talent or this ability. It’s not about emotional worship or the biggest, best events. The ministry is about Christ. It’s about serving Christ, who is the head, and serving others, those who are either in the body of Christ with us – we call that the Church – or those who we pray might join us in this body of Christ.
If you want this body of believers to be strong and grow, it takes work. As Jesus sits on his throne in heaven he gives you gifts, and he wants you to use those gifts. That’s ministry. That’s service to our King. And that kind of ministry never stops. As Paul says: speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. The truth is we don’t earn or deserve anything from God, but that didn’t stop God from loving you and giving you his own Son. The truth is Jesus is the Savior for us. He is the conqueror for us. He is the ruler for us. He is the head and by his grace we are the body. That’s the truth at the center of our ministry. And so we work together as the body by doing what the head tells us. We use his Word of truth and his gifts with his servants to accomplish his ministry.
That’s how the body of Christ is built up. And it’s a beautiful thing when it’s working. Sometimes it means larger numbers of people and sometimes it doesn’t. Certainly, we want to reach more people, but growing in ministry can happen as each body member gets stronger in faith and uses their gifts more. Paul says it this way: From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ministry happens when each part does its work.
Growing in ministry also happens as we band together to fight off all the errors and assaults that come our way. Using God’s Word and serving one another in love will strengthen us to defend our ministry against the devil, the world, and our sinful natures. As that ministry work is done: then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.
Kind of sounds like what a mom does, she helps her kids grow so they won’t be tossed back and forth by the storms that come in life. Today, thank God for moms. But don’t forget to thank Jesus for ministry, the service that we all have to do. Jesus gives us the gifts, the talents, the abilities to carry out his work. He gives us the servants like parents and children but also full-time pastors and teachers. And he gives us the real purpose for all our ministry: to equip all God’s people so that the body of believers is built up. That’s not just a job for a caring mother. Because of Jesus’ ascension we all get to be a part of ministry. God grant it. Amen.