April 25, 2021 (Apostles' Creed #7); Sherrad Hayes, preaching.
God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. The ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is the exclamation point to Christ’s saving work for humanity and all of creation. Christ’s saving work is indeed one, unified act of salvation: from his birth – his taking on our human nature to his life – his proclamation of good news to the captives, forgiving sinners, healing the sick to his suffering and death – his payment of the penalty of sin to his resurrection – the inability of death to hold the one who made life in the first place to his ascension into heaven – his exaltation as sovereign, Lord, King of all creation. Each movement in Christ’s saving work is intertwined, woven into one emphatic statement that this Jesus of Nazareth is indeed who he has always said he was, the promised Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, very God of very God. Jerry has been preaching through a series on the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient statement of the Christian faith that we recite most Sundays as a representation of the teaching of the Apostles themselves. It is not in itself Holy Scripture. It is not in itself inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it is what the Christian Church understands as the teaching of Scripture, the teaching 2 of the Bible. And it is also a help for us to read, to interpret the Bible rightly. Timothy George, the Baptist theologian (who was the founding dean of the divinity school where I had the joy of going to seminary), would often use the analogy of the Creed as a kind of guardrail. It is not the road on which we drive when thinking about and understanding who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. The road is the Bible. But a guardrail is helpful because it keeps you on the road! The Apostles’ Creed helps to keep us from veering off the road and crashing into some ancient heresy: like believing there are three gods instead of One; or that Jesus wasn’t fully divine; or that Jesus wasn’t fully human; or that there are separate gods of the Old and New Testament. These are dangerous errors corrected by many saints who came long before us. They passed on to us as what the Apostles taught and believed, as what Scripture itself reveals to us and teaches to us through the Holy Spirit. Scripture and the Creed teach us this: “[Jesus] ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” This is the seventh sermon in this series on the Apostles’ Creed. And though I commend the other sermons to you (and you can find them on Facebook) the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is worth reflection in its own right. In fact, it has its own day of commemoration on the Christian calendar (like Easter and Good Friday and Christmas). It is not this Sunday - it’s not on a Sunday at all, in fact – but a few weeks from Thursday, exactly forty days after Easter. Because it is forty days after the resurrection that Luke records the ascension as taking place at the beginning of the book of Acts. We tend to neglect this day, even in churches that closely follow the church calendar and regularly use the lectionary, to our loss! The ascension of Jesus into heaven carries with it the fullness and richness and depth of all the other holydays we look forward to every year. 3 Indeed, Luke considers the ascension important enough that he gives an account of it twice! He gives the first at the end of his Gospel and the second at the beginning of the book of Acts. Paul, as we read earlier in Ephesians 1 (17-23), describes the ascension of Jesus to heaven and his seating at the right hand of the Father as the demonstration of Christ’s power and rule over all creation as the head of all things, our King. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus’ entrance into the heavenly places as a fulfillment of his role as our Priest, interceding for us and on our behalf before the Father. John, in his Gospel, tells us that Jesus’ ascension to the Father is the way by which Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit, so that we can continue to hear the voice of our Prophet, Jesus, in ways that even the Disciples weren’t able to understand when they talked with Jesus face to face. (I mean, the Gospels tell us the Disciples really didn’t understand that much while Jesus was around!) The ascension of Jesus, emphasized in many places throughout the New Testament, demonstrates that Jesus fulfills the threefold office of the Old – he is our perfect Prophet, our perfect Priest, our perfect King. Here in Acts 2, we have Peter coming to the climax of his first sermon, the first Christian sermon, on the Day of Pentecost when he and the other disciples received the Holy Spirit in power. And in that power, he delivers a sermon of such power that when he finishes, in the verses right after our passage today – he doesn’t even have to ask for an altar call! This is unlike so many altar calls (maybe you’ve been a part of one) where the preacher turns the service into a hostage situation, and no one can be dismissed until someone comes forward. But Peter doesn’t even have to send out the invitation. Once he starts talking about the ascension, the crowd is cut to the heart. They cry out to Peter, without prompt, “What shall we do?!” Because ascension is the last thing you expect to happen to a human being who died. It’s certainly not something I’ve seen or experienced with someone who’s died, at least not 4 physically in the same way the Bible describes Jesus as going up bodily into heaven. It’s not something you see every day. In fact, when the disciples do see it (as we’re told at the beginning of Acts) they just keep staring up into the clouds dumbfounded! An angel has knock them back down to earth by asking them, “Hey, why are you just staring up into heaven?” No when someone dies, we expect them to go to the dead. We even symbolize this in part when we bury their body in the ground. And this is in part the thinking behind the part of the Apostles’ Creed that comes right before the resurrection and ascension: “He descended into hell. (Or maybe a better way of putting it, he descended into what the New Testament writers called Hades, what the Old Testament calls Sheol, what sometimes some translations like the NIV gloss into “the realm of the dead.”) In an act of pure grace to me, Jerry took that part of the Creed last week. And I didn’t have to preach on it! So thank you, Jerry. But however we understand the particulars of Christ’s descent to the dead – which both the Creed and Scripture affirm – Peter says emphatically that God did not abandon him there. He didn’t stay dead! This is what Peter says in verse 31, right before the start of our passage in Acts 2 this morning. Instead of Jesus’ body receiving corruption, there is exaltation. And just as Peter and the apostles were witnesses to that resurrection and exaltation, as he describes in verse 32 – we are witnesses to Christ’s resurrection and exaltation too. We are witnesses not because we have seen it with our eyes (at least not our physical eyes, like the Apostles). No, we see by the Holy Spirit. We see by the same Holy Spirit poured out onto the Apostles the day Peter preached this sermon on the Day of Pentecost. And the reason we receive this Spirit is because of Christ’s ascension described in verse 33: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”5 Christ’s ascension into Heaven is not a sign of his absence from us. It is a demonstration of Christ’s abiding presence with us through the Holy Spirit. It is the beginning what the theologian Willie Jennings calls the “revolution of the intimate.” However, we understand Paul’s metaphor of the church as “the body of Christ” – and it is indeed a beautiful, powerful metaphor – we must never imagine it to be saying that Christ no longer has a body, a physical body. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that Jesus has ceased his work in the world and it’s just all up to us now. No. That is not the message of the ascension. And thank God it isn’t because, as we have consistently shown, we tend to make a real mess of things when left up to our own. And this is true even as – especially as – an organization that calls itself the “church” of Christ. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, did not ascend into heaven like Jesus. At least not in body as Peter emphasizes in Acts 2:34. But David, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, prophesied about it. Peter in verses 34 and 35 is quoting from Psalm 110, the most quoted passage in the New Testament. Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand is the demonstration of Jesus’ power in fulfilling Old Testament promises – not a power that he had at one time, not a power that he’s waiting to take up at some future date – but a power that is power right now, a present and current power, a power that extends throughout all of creation, from planets circling suns millions of light years away to this very room. There is not one atom of creation where Jesus is not Lord. And it is in the power we have the true hope that our loved ones who trusted in Christ and died are not with the dead but are with Christ right now, in the presence of God. That is not good news for God’s enemies. That is not good news for those who oppose the Creator or who oppose the Son, the promised Messiah. “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Though under subjugation now, we know all too well that many of God’s enemies persist. Our lives bear witness to that, especially over 6 this past year. The enemies of God may be in the midst of death throws and have no ability to make a lasting impact into eternity. But those the death throws land as blows on us even now. We suffer the consequences of sin generally: a fallen world, abuse, neglect, sickness, grief, death. And yes, we suffer because of sin we ourselves commit or are complicit in. We must never forget that sin is never just something out there, but it is creeping at our door. It is concrete. It is something we do that harms us and harms others created in the image of God. Several times in Peter’s sermon he calls out the crowd. “This Jesus, whom you crucified.” The cross is glory for us, certainly. It is not God’s plan B, but God’s design all along. The cross is not something that was subjected to Jesus unwillingly – he freely laid down his own life! But that does not mean that in crucifying Jesus real human persons intended it for evil. Doubtless, there are many people in the crowd there at Pentecost who had nothing to do, physically at least, with the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as none of us – unless any of you are 2000 years old! – had anything to do with crucifixion physically. But the consequences of our sin and the need for the atoning work of the cross really do mean that we stand with the crowd – the whole crowd – that Pentecost Day as Peter looks at … us … squarely in the eyes and says, “This Jesus, whom you crucified.” But beloved, what you and I intended for evil – even the evil that is the killing of God’s own Son – God has intended for good. It is because God raised Jesus from the dead, it is because God has exalted him up to heaven, it is because God has seated him at his right hand, it is because God has made him Lord and Christ – Ruler of the Gentiles (instead of that earthly emperor Caesar), the promised Messiah for God’s chosen people – it is because of all of these things that we can look back on the cross of Christ not as a symbol of our condemnation but as a 7 symbol of our salvation in Christ. It is because of the ascension of Christ into heaven that we can look at the cross not as a reminder of our evil, vain attempts to kill God’s relationship with us but as the demonstration of God’s persistent, unchanging, fierce love for us. “What shall we do?” the crowd asks Peter. “Repent,” Peter says. Turn to God. Be baptized – and for those of us who have been baptized, remember your baptism, not just as a past event but as a present sign that in the triumphant, ascended Lord Christ, you are marked as God’s own forever. Receive the Holy Spirit – and for those of us who have received the Holy Spirit, lean on that Spirit, rest in that Spirit, and know that the Holy Spirit who lives in you is the seal that marks you as a child of the King of kings. The one who rules know at the right hand of the Father. Who is coming again. Who even now is making all things new.