JESUS’ ASCENSION MEANS IT’S TIME FOR MINISTRY

5.13.18 Ascension

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Ephesians 4:7-16

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.

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THE ASCENDED JESUS HAS A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FOR US

5.28.17 AscensionA

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(image from paramentics.com)

 

THE FESTIVAL OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Luke 24:44-53

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

 

They saw something so significant, and this was too important to keep to themselves.  That’s what a witness is and that is what a witness does.

Normally a key witness with inside information is very valuable. Their testimony is essential in gathering evidence that can help in a trial or an investigation.  Our government has a way of taking care of people who have this valuable information.  It’s called the witness protection program.  If the testimony is significant, then the witness will be protected.  It gets pretty intense, too! Witnesses are given new identities, free housing, job training and employment, medical benefits, and round the clock surveillance all because their information is that valuable.   They need to be kept safe or else their testimony will be lost.

But here we are today seeing Jesus leave his followers.  The conqueror of death, left his witnesses in a situation where there were plenty of people who wanted them dead.  Does that sound like a good witness protection program? Should Ascension really be one of the big festivals of the church?

Don’t get me wrong, going away parties can be fun.  You get to remember the good times and share stories.  And Jesus certainly has provided us with plenty of good times.  He gives us quite a brief summary this morning: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”

Over the past 6 months we seen it all.  Jesus carried out everything in the plan of salvation to save us from sin and death.  Think back to when we were getting pounded by blizzards.  Think of the message that God shared with the world: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 

Do you remember the Magi, Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, his glory on the mount of Transfiguration?  Do you remember the next mountain, one just outside of Jerusalem, called Calvary?  Do you remember how he knew exactly what would happen in Jerusalem, but he rode the donkey because he is the kind of humble king who comes to save us?  Do you remember the miraculous meal he gave his disciples (and us)?  Do you remember what we were doing here about six weeks ago? The Son of God let a bunch of cruel soldiers nail him to a piece of wood like he was a criminal.

But’s that not where the journey ended.  Because just a little over a month ago, 170 people gathered in this sanctuary for the best day of the year to hear that Jesus came back from death.  The women led us out to Jesus’ empty tomb to marvel again at the complete and total triumph that he won for us. We are free from sin, free from death, free from the devil.  We witnessed it all over the past 6 months. God has made us witnesses ever since he planted this saving faith in our hearts. We saw the greatest person who ever lived and the greatest victory parade that has ever taken place.  And it was all for us.

But then reality might be sinking in just a little bit today.  It normally does at a going away party.  You remember the good times, but then… you have to say goodbye.  We all witnessed Jesus come and now we are all standing there with the disciples as he says goodbye.

So, why are we celebrating?  You might wonder how could the disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy?  Are we really supposed to be happy that our Savior is gone? I think sometimes it can feel a little bit like we are witnesses of these things, but that we are now left all alone to fend for ourselves in a world that wants nothing to do with steadfast Bible-based Christianity.  The protection for us witnesses does not seem to be working out too well.

I mean, where is Jesus when I need him?  Where is he when people start asking questions about my faith in him, my priorities, or my church?  Where is Jesus when I have really hard questions?  Where is Jesus when times are tough? Where is Jesus when loved ones are getting sick or hurt or even dying?  Where is Jesus when there is struggle and strife between his followers?

It can be hard to be a witness when this program seems to be failing.  When I feel like I’m all alone in the fight against sin and the devil, I can easily give in.  It can be hard to be zealous when I just don’t know what to say or when to say it.  It can be hard to speak with joy and confidence when I think no one is going to back me up.  It just might not sound like the greatest witness protection program for Jesus to up and leave his witnesses all alone.

But before we complain that life is too hard, before we start to blame God when things don’t work, before we start thinking there really isn’t much protection for us, maybe we should take a step back and view the situation as Jesus sees it.  Think of his view from heaven.  Can you see any enemies that Jesus still has to conquer?  Can you find any of Jesus’ witnesses who are working in a place that Jesus cannot protect them?  There is a reason Jesus left this earth and went back up to his throne.

Remember what Jesus said: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  2000 years ago, Jesus ascended because he had finished the job he came to do. He fulfilled every word that God had promised.  Christ conquered all of our enemies once for all.  Our sins were destroyed forever on the cross.  Death was defeated by an empty tomb.  Hell was overthrown by a perfect King who is now preparing our home in heaven.  The devil can prowl around all he wants, but his head has already been crushed.  He’s all bark and no bite.  His only weapon is trying to tell lies, but we have The Truth on our side.

The world cannot hold us confined to run around in an endless maze of disappointments.  Jesus tells us to take heart because he has overcome the world.  And Paul reminds us our citizenship is in heaven; this world is just a motel. The sinful nature that lives inside each of us has been drowned in Baptism and is fighting a hopeless battle against the Holy Spirit who called us out of darkness into the light of life.  This is the day we celebrate the coronation of the Prince of Peace to his rightful place on heaven’s throne because he had completed all his work.  He didn’t leave anything undone.

The next time you feel like you are all alone, the next time you feel like you are hopelessly fighting a losing battle against sin, and the next time you lack confidence to stand up for your faith in Jesus, take a look around.  Do you see Jesus anywhere?  No.  You would if you were still lost in your sins.  You would if your home in heaven wasn’t already paid for in full. Your King has not left any battles for you to fight on your own.  Your King has not left any enemies that can crush you.  Your King has provided the full proof witness protection program when he died for all sins, rose from the dead, and kept his promise to clothe his witnesses with the Holy Spirit.

How this witness protection program still continues to work is quite astonishing when you think about it.  Jesus commissioned a few fisherman, a tax collector, a former Pharisee and just a couple others to be witnesses.  None of them were the religious nobility.  None of them were trained public speakers.  Not one of them had anything more than you do.  They had God’s Word and the Lord said they were his protected witnesses. The group started joyously in Jerusalem and the good news spread.  The Spirit brought a few thousand more to faith.  They joyously joined in the mission work.  Some of the apostles were killed, but the news still spread even more because death cannot hold back Jesus.  Some groups tried to change the message just a little bit here and there, to make it more sensible, logical, more human, but their heresies were exposed and the truth of Jesus still spread in this world like wildfire.

Jesus sat on his throne and empowered his small group of followers to boldly witness about him to all nations.  They didn’t know when or where or how Jesus would send the Spirit to bring more people to faith, but they knew it would happen… if they went and witnessed.  And so, the gospel of Jesus spread to Greece and Rome and Spain and Asia and Africa and Europe and then eventually the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus came over to America.

Jesus protected his witnesses all the way, so that at some point his grace also found you and found me. His witness protection program really works.  He gives each of us new identities as God’s children.  He gives us a free and eternal home in heaven.  He gives us on-the-job training through his word to do his work. And he watches over us every minute from heaven.

You see, that’s what ascension started.  That’s how our King works.  Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstresses, soldiers, cooks and clerks to be his witnesses.  He uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  He uses you and me.  He uses things like a Bible and Baptism to change lives forever.  It’s a witness protection program that seems so simple and we could even say weak, but it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.  It’s always about the power of King Jesus.

Part of Jesus’ witness protection program that he provides are those who preach and teach and lead the mission work.  Jesus is still watching over his church, by sending pastors and teachers to spread this good news.

Jesus provides the workers, but do you know where he gets them from?  Do pastors and teachers just appear out of thin air?  The answer is no.  When I was born did I have a big sign on my forehead so that my parents would know that I would end up as your pastor at Our Saviour’s?  Again, no.  Then, how does Jesus keep his witness protection program going?  How does he find servants for the ministry of the gospel?

Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstress, soldiers, cooks and clerks.  Jesus uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  Jesus gets pastors and teachers from all walks of life to lead the work.  You see, it’s a cycle.  Jesus continues to use us in his ways as his witnesses.  And when you’re a witness, you tell what you see.

That’s what I get to do on a full-time basis.  It’s literally the best life on earth. To serve the Lord as a witness and to preach and teach and encourage other witnesses is a privilege and honor.  To be a part of this victory parade is humbling and exciting and difficult and awesome and heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Jesus began this witness protection program when he ascended and it is still going strong, because he is in charge.  Can you be a witness?  You already are, because when he spoke his name over you, God brought you into the program.  Can your children or grandchildren be full-time witnesses in ministry as pastors and teachers? That’s kind of how it works.  Jesus made it this way, and I think he knows what he is doing, don’t you?

Look what it did to the disciples.  They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.  That’s what the Ascension does. It shows us our King who is ruling all things for us.  It shows us his death-defying power that saves us forever.  It shows us the home that we have with him.  It shows us that we are witnesses of it all.

God grant it.  Amen.