Newsletter Article for the May edition of The Hillside Messenger
“Easter and the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ”
Eastertide in the church’s calendar of liturgical seasons represents the time from the Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection until his ascension into heaven. It is a time during which the risen Lord Jesus showed himself to his disciples on a number of occasions, of which only a few are recorded in the Gospel accounts. A single verse in the Prologue to the Book of Acts indicates this:
To whom also he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
(Acts 1: 3, KJV)
Acts 1:2 records that the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit gave commandments to the disciples before his ascension into heaven. One of these was the Great Commission to preach the Gospel and baptize people of all nations, making disciples of them and teaching them to observe all he had commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Another was the command that they should stay in Jerusalem, waiting for the promise of the Father, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5). Repentance was to be an essential part of the Gospel, and so it was to be preached, together with remission of sins (Luke 24:47). The disciples would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the Lord Jesus Christ, to share the nature and purpose of his sufferings, the truths of his resurrection, his ascension and future second coming to judge the world, as well as the doctrines and commandments that he taught.
The Lord’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, and his teachings and commandments to them during this period, amount to his preparation of them to act as his witnesses in the world, multiplying the number of disciples and growing the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church was to strengthen, empower and embolden them for the tasks of witnessing, sharing the Gospel, preaching it, teaching new disciples the Christian faith and persevering in doing all this in the face of opposition and even severe persecution. Ultimately the Holy Spirit strengthens Christians to bear witness even if they have to suffer and die because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we consider the faith of the early Christians, we shall certainly be impressed by the vigor of their witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, by their supreme loyalty to him at all costs, by the fervor of their devotion to him, and by their love for one another. If we read and study the passages in the Gospels and the Book of Acts that refer to this time between Easter and the Ascension, we shall surely perceive that our Lord did not found a Church which he intended to fade away on this earth. He founded one which would grow, increase, and be strong in its love and faith. He did not leave his disciples with a recipe for church failure and dying of faith, but with the faith that would lead to a living, growing Church. He intended the Church to grow by the continual witness of his disciples in word and deed, by their life and teaching.
Almost two thousand years later the universal Church not only exists, but is constantly growing, although there are branches of the visible Church on earth that are not growing as they should. Each of us should examine himself to see whether we are living the Christian faith as we ought to. St. Paul commands this in 2 Corinthians 13:5 (KJV):
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
This verse directs us to examine our lives, to see if we are living according to the Christian faith as we have received it. This is the Christian faith as recorded in the New Testament, as read about and preached in churches. Are we being obedient to all that the Lord Jesus Christ commanded his disciples, as written in the Gospel accounts and in the teaching of the Apostles in their epistles? Nothing must be permitted to choke our love for the Lord Jesus Christ or our loyalty to him and faith in him. The secularism, materialism, hedonism and individualism of the present age are insidious, in that they try to infiltrate our thinking in so many ways, attempting to persuade us that this is a world in which money, work and pleasure rule, a world in which there is no place for God or for the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These pervasive ideologies eventually all contribute to the idea that there is no purpose or relevance for Christian witness, since each individual must be left to exercise his own freedom of will in choosing his own religion, philosophy, or belief system. This even affects the Christian tradition of parents teaching the faith to their children, and bringing them up in the knowledge of God. When that tradition breaks down, and the breakdown of faith is aggravated by increasing cultural divisions between older and younger generations, the conditions are right for diminishing communities of Christian believers in those parts of the world where these ideologies hold sway.
Traditional Christian communities such as our own must return to the first principles of Christian worship and witness in order to reverse a tendency to decline, and instead grow. One of the great principles each of us must embody in our lives is repentance. We must set the example of repentance in all areas of speech and conduct, so that when we call others to repentance our witness may be authentic and powerful. At the same time, we must set an example of forgiveness by forgiving everyone of all wrongs we have suffered at their hands. We must see to it that we have no sin festering within us which will affect both ourselves and the Christian community to which we belong. We are saved by grace and faith alone, but God calls each of us to practice righteousness in our lives. This is well expressed in the Easter Anthems (pp. 162-163, Book of Common Prayer, 1928), which combine 1 Corinthians 5:7, Romans 6:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:20. In the first of these quotations we read:
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
A little further on in the Easter Anthems we encounter a similar exhortation:
For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Such verses do not imply that righteousness is only a matter of God regarding believers as righteous, but they do imply that sincerity, truth, righteousness and being dead to sin must all characterize the Christian life. The Church has brought these Scripture passages together in the Easter Anthems to remind us all of the moral and spiritual meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection for the way we conduct our lives in this world. “Dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” means that we have yielded ourselves wholly to the Lord Jesus, and that sin has no more place in our lives. Once we have committed ourselves to the Lord in this way, we must live the rest of our lives in wholehearted love for God and love others as we love ourselves. This is the position from which we can share Christ’s Gospel of repentance, grace, faith and forgiveness authentically and effectively.
The Lord Jesus Christ’s ascension into heaven leaves the disciples continuing in prayer, praise and worship, as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The ascension of Christ shows the power of the resurrection of Christ and of the Gospel with which the Church has been entrusted. He entrusted this Gospel as a sacred deposit, a treasure for the earth to guard for as long as she continues on earth. She has this Gospel in order to keep it uncorrupted and undefiled in passing it from generation to generation. We have a responsibility as members of the Church not only to teach and preach the Biblical Gospel, but to communicate it so well that all who receive it learn how they must in turn teach it to the next generation, so that they will deliver it in its purity to the following generation, and so forth. Never did Christ intend for one generation to hold on to the Gospel without passing it on; nor did he intend for it to be adulterated or corrupted with false doctrines in its transmission. Each of us must return again and again to the riches of the written word of God as the Church has received them, praying also in the Spirit always, so that our knowledge of the Gospel we share may grow in clarity and grace, and that we may always be ready to account for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).
In conclusion, can you affirm that you are a faithful witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and a faithful guardian of the Gospel given us in the Holy Bible? If so, will you ask God to help your witness grow to bring others to salvation in Christ Jesus? If not, will you now repent, pray for forgiveness, and ask God to help you as you commit yourself to Him, His Church, and His service?