Newsletter Article for the May edition of The Hillside Messenger
“The Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit”
The resurrection appearances of the Lord Jesus Christ to the disciples over a forty day period (Acts 1:3) following Easter Day were important to them as eye-witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. The teaching of the Lord during this period and his physical appearances to them strengthened their faith in him and in his resurrection. But the physical presence of the Lord Jesus Christ with the Apostles and other disciples did not last forever – it paved the way for his ascension into heaven, and his everlasting spiritual presence with all the faithful.
St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel contains no account of the Lord’s ascension into heaven, but after instructing his Apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to observe all his commandments (Matthew 28:19-20), Jesus assures them (and really all the faithful), “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20b, KJV). Another possible translation of the phrase translated here as “the end of the world” is “the close of the age,” which means the end of the present age before the Messianic age begins, in which the Lord Jesus Christ rules forever. Such an assurance of the Lord’s presence with his people would not have needed to be made, if Jesus had not ascended into heaven, but continued to appear to the Church through the centuries. The implication at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel is clear. The Lord Jesus Christ will always be with his Church spiritually, though he has ascended into heaven. The Lord’s final teachings and commands to his Church on earth impressed on it the fact that all of them were witnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and of the Gospel which they were to preach to all people.
Just as there comes a time, for some young children sooner than others, when the bicycle no longer has training wheels, and one must learn to balance and ride on one’s own, so for those Apostles and disciples, the time came, when Jesus was no longer physically with them, but ascended into heaven. He had told them it was necessary for him to ascend into heaven, so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. He taught them plainly in John 16:7:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.
The Comforter, or Paraclete (one who is summoned to help a person), is sent by the Lord Jesus Christ and given by the Father to every believer in Christ to strengthen him for the work and ministry of being an effective witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his everlasting Gospel. In the widest sense, the Holy Spirit is the Helper of every believer in Christ, their Guide (John 16:13; 14:17; 15:26) and Teacher (John 14:26).
Now the Church observes these Festivals of the Ascension and Pentecost, or Whitsunday, not so that an ordinary, sinful life may be continued without Christ, but so that believers may bear witness to the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ by the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, who enables them to walk with Christ in the newness of life. The new life given by the Holy Spirit was shown in the thousands who obeyed the call of St. Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, and were added to the Church (Acts 2:37-41), and it was shown repeatedly in the preaching of the Apostles, Evangelists and Deacons, in various different ways, and such life has been evident in the Church ever since, but not always to the same intensity, since the Gospel has not always met with the same sincere obedience as it did in the early days of the Church.
But as we continue to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel today, let us be found conforming our lives to this prayer of the Bishop for a confirmand in the service of Confirmation “Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that he may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom” (p. 297, Book of Common Prayer, 1928).
What, then, must we do to increase daily in the Holy Spirit more and more? It is certainly not by becoming busier with the affairs of this earthly life that we increase in the Holy Spirit more and more, nor by praying less, nor by reading and obeying Scripture less, nor by being more careless about the call to live a devout and holy life. On the contrary, we must practice the presence of the Lord more and more in our lives. We all need to love God and our neighbor all the more day by day. We need to rejoice in the Lord daily, as Philippians 4:4 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16 teach us, and our prayer life needs to be expanded and strengthened. Here is one of the most inspiring passages in connecting rejoicing in God with being filled with the Holy Spirit:
And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ephesians 5:18-20, KJV)
The present imperative middle or passive verb, “be filled,” implies a continuous process of being filled with the Spirit as believers rejoice in God through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, which need not always be sung aloud, but may be sung in our hearts to the Lord, as we give thanks to God for all things. Rejoicing in the Lord is a daily activity in which we must engage intentionally. In this way the Holy Spirit, who inspires our prayers and praises will fill us.
Walking with the Holy Spirit is walking with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) found that the risen Lord Jesus Christ, whom they did not recognize until he broke bread with them in their home, transformed their understanding of the Holy Scripture of the Old Testament that they knew, so that they understood what passages prophesied his passion, death and resurrection. If we are to increase daily in the Holy Spirit, we must expect him to transform our understanding of the Bible as we have it, and of all those passages which teach us about God and how he wants us to treat the poor, the orphans, the widows, the aliens, and all who are in need, including people of different cultures and nationalities. If we are to be effective witnesses of Christ and his Gospel, we must be able to reach out to all people with the love of the Lord.