The Ascension of our Lord is an often overlooked holiday, but it’s an important one. I think I first encountered this holiday when I served as a teacher in Indonesia. Despite the fact that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, they celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, as Christianity is recognized (tolerated?) as one of their official religions. Anyway, Ascension Day marks the fortieth day of Easter, and recalls the story of Jesus ascending to heaven, as recorded in Luke 24 and Acts 1. So, considering that Ascension Day is not observed by some churches, why is it important? I turn to one of the Reformed confessions of faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, to answer that question. The teacher asks, “How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?” The answer: “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of the Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven—a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting God’s right hand.” So as you can see, Ascension Day is a very significant day for Followers of Jesus. What I find especially significant is the hope it brings, for in a few weeks will celebrate Pentecost Sunday, when we recall how our Lord sent down the Holy Spirit in his place, so we can grow spiritually and carry out his mission in the world. As we learn in Acts 1: the Holy Spirit makes us witnesses. So, let us worship our risen Lord, who ascended to heaven for our benefit.
Today we continue to reflect on the worship of our Triune God. In my last blog post, I talked about the Call to Worship. We are a gathered people. God calls us to worship him in Spirit and in truth. So for all those who respond to his call, God blesses. These words of God spoken near the beginning of the worship service are often called the Greeting. We haven’t always included a Greeting in our worship services, but we’re doing so more often these days, as a reminder that God himself is present with us in the sanctuary. And he reveals his presence through his word. For example: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV) As James K. A. Smith writes, “So having been called, we are welcomed. The yearning for God that is implanted in us as creatures is not an instigation to strive after a deity who refuses to be caught; rather, the Creator in whom we find our ‘rest’ is only all too eager to welcome us into communion. Like the father of the prodigal son who daily ventured to the end of the lane, looking for the wayward one to return, embracing him upon arrival, so God calls us and welcomes us a the very beginning of worship.” (Desiring the Kingdom [Baker Academic], 168) Actually, this is one of the elements of worship that struck me the first time I attended a Reformed worship service. As I heard the Greeting it became abundantly clear that God was the focus of my praise. The worship service is a gathering of Christians for fellowship, but even more it is a gathering of Christians to worship the Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we find our help and salvation. “In short,” writes Smith, “God’s welcome is a gracious way of reminding us of our utter dependence, cutting against the myths of self-sufficiency that we’ve been immersed in all week long.” (169) Let us continue to worship our Triune God!
We generally shy away from witnessing. It’s a difficult task—or is it? I think it’s pretty clear that we’re still called to be Christ’s witnesses. But what exactly does that look like? I like what M. Craig Barnes says in his book, The Pastor as Mino Poet (Eerdmans): “Witnesses don’t really do very much. We have somehow twisted the term to make it more creative than Jesus intended it to be when he gave the Great Commission. Often when pastors call their congregations to witness, what they really mean is that it is the laity’s responsibility to convert their neighbors and friends. But that is asking too much. Only Christ converts. When the risen and about-to-be-ascended Christ tells his disciples ‘You will be my witnesses,’ he implies that he will continue to be the creative force for salvation in the world and that his disciples are now sent out as apostles who witness this work alone. The witness merely sees and speaks about what he or she sees. Ask any courtroom judge, and you will be told the last thing we need is for the witness to be creative. . . . That is not to say, however, that it is easy to witness the work of Christ. It takes a lot of time and hard work to learn how to recognize it.” (63) I like Barnes’ perspective on witnessing. We know we’re called to be Christ’s witnesses, but we often feel overwhelmed in doing it, like it’s an impossible task. But the task of witnessing is really about paying attention to what God is already doing and naming it. So, what is God doing in your life? Or in the life of your neighbors? This is what you’re invited to speak of when the opportunity comes. And then let Jesus do his work of changing hearts. After all, only Christ converts people.
Last Sunday we talked about being Jesus’ witnesses. According to the New Testament, the death and resurrection of our Lord is such good news, it is to be announced to the world. This is what the first Christians sought to do, and this is what we still seek to do if we take the Gospel seriously. The question for genuine Followers of Christ is not: Am I called to be a witness? but How can I be a witness? Last week we talked about the challenge of being a witness for Christ in a secular Western world, where God is largely set aside. So, how do we witness in this sort of indifferent and sometimes even hostile world? We see the apostles in Acts 5, for example, as speaking out boldly and compassionately about Jesus. Should we be as bold in our witness today? I suppose so, but we may need to be a bit more subversive in how we do it. That is, very few people today will listen to a sermon preached on a street corner, or will receive the gospel when you knock on their door as a stranger. I think the better way is to witness through prayer. By this I mean first of all praying for people that you are seeking to befriend. Our family prays for neighbors every Thursday night. In doing so, we trust the Lord will continue revealing himself to them, and that he will prepare the way for them to meet Jesus. Then we go out and try to connect with our neighbors in conversation. The other day I was connecting with one such neighbor, and after a few minutes of talking about Easter, etc., she told me her daughter is struggling. So, I offered to pray for her daughter, and there was an immediate response of gratitude. There was no gospel proclamation in this situation, but these things take time, and eventually I hope I’ll be able to give her the gospel through my personal testimony and example. . . . How do you witness for Christ? I welcome your response.