Tag: pentecost

Podcast: Pentecost–God’s Uniting Presence

Pentecost_mosaic

On Pentecost Sunday, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, which is the story of the coming of the Spirit of God and the birthday of the Church. It’s an amazing passage with lots to say to us today. And, to make it even more special, each year our congregation wears red on Pentecost Sunday, making it a festive occasion. Here’s the audio of my message:

Podcast: Pouring Out The Spirit on All People

4627838_orig

Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:

Podcast: Living in the Power of Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.

Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.

Pentecost art

image

On Pentecost the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles. Debbie installed this multi-layered representation of the Pentecostal fire for our celebration of “the birthday of the church!”

A Better Sermon on Babel and Pentecost

I preached on Pentecost last Sunday as “Babel Revisited.”  In that sermon I repeated the conventional thinking that God punished mankind’s attempt to build a tower to reach to the heavens.  But listen to what Wendell Griffen says,

That interpretation of Genesis 11:1-9 is not fair to God.  Do we really think the Creator of the universe is threatened by a municipal construction project?    Are we dealing with a Being who is so insecure that a few people who put a city together and build a skyscraper get on His nerves?  If God is that petty, God should not be called good and gracious, but petty and tyrannical.

Instead of reading the passage to mean that cultural diversity is divine punishment, we should understand it to show how cultural diversity is part of the great redemptive purpose of God.  God is not threatened when people cooperate to construct cities and tall buildings.   One story buildings and rural settings are not entitled to divine favor.

What the passage truly shows is that God wants humans to be spread throughout the world and enjoy cultural diversity without being afraid.  If there is a condemnation in the passage—and I use the word if intentionally—it condemns the idea that cultural sameness is the way to salvation.  We are one people because we have a common Creator, not because we speak the same language or live in the same location.  Our oneness lies in who we are before God, not who we are physically related to by human ancestry and geography.  God loves our diversity.  God intentionally caused our diversity.  God is glorified by our diversity.

— from Babel and Pentecost by Wendell Griffen

I wish I had said that.  I will not think of Babel in the same way again.  Griffen’s interpretation gives even more meaning to the Pentecost event, as God’s means of bringing diversity together again to send us back out into the world with God’s message of hope and salvation.  Read the entire sermon here.

Judge Wendell Griffen is a former Arkansas appeals court judge; the first person of color to join a major Arkansas law firm; CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting; pastor of New Millennium Church; professor of law at the University of Arkansas’s Bowen School of Law.

Sermon: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 25, 2009.  This is the eighth in a 13-week series titled “Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed.” Today we look at the Holy Spirit.

I Believe in The Holy Spirit

25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  — John 14:25-27

The Third Person in The Creed

I had the opportunity to speak to students at Duke Divinity School this past week, and to meet Dr. Curtis Freeman, who is the director of The Baptist House at Duke.  Dr. Freeman and I had a chance to chat later in the afternoon.  In the course of our conversation, my sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed came up, and Dr. Freeman was curious as to how that was going.  He had read about my intention to preach on the Creed this summer, and emailed me that he was going to be speaking at a conference in Alabama at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — a Baptist university — on the Nicene Creed.  So, creeds seem to be more and more popular in Baptist life, not because we are in danger of adopting one officially, but because we believe the statements in the great creeds of Christianity.  He also told me that Duke Divinity was hosting Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, distinguished professor in systematic theology.  Dr. Freeman told me that Wainwright uses The Apostles’ Creed as his outline for his sytematic theology lectures.  Of course, he’s a Methodist, which explains a lot, but nevertheless, I’m not so far out in doing this series after all.

So, let’s get down to business today.  The Apostles’ Creed could be easily divided into three main sections:

  1. The section affirming belief in “God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
  2. The second second on our affirmation in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,”
  3. And, the third section, stating simply, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Two powerful lines in the Creed are devoted to God, and ten lines are devoted to Jesus.  The two lines about God use high content titles to describe God — Father, Almighty, Creator.   Those three words describe our relationship to God; God’s own pre-eminence over everything; and, God’s creative act.

The ten lines about Jesus walk us through his life from his relationship to God, to his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension back into heaven, his position at the right hand of God, and his sure return to judge the living and the dead.  Those ten lines cover a lot of territory, but they also tell a story familiar to us, and a story that forms the heart of the Christian faith.

At first glance, one might look at The Creed and think that there is only one line devoted to the Holy Spirit, and that line is not very descriptive — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  Period.  End of sentence.  But actually, a semicolon resides at the end of that phrase, connecting the Person of the Holy Spirit to that which follows.

In other words, our belief in the Holy Spirit acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the church, unites the saints, regenerates sinners, breathes resurrection life into transformed bodies, and sustains us in the life everlasting.

So, while we are going to talk about each of those things — the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting — when we do, we will also be talking about the work of the Spirit.

So, the Holy Spirit is not getting short shrift in the Creed, or in our attention in this series.  But today, we’re going to stop at the very short, but powerful phrase — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Who is The Holy Spirit, and How Did He (or She) Get Here?

Who, then is the Holy Spirit?  Well, if you read the popular work of inspirational fiction, The Shack, you remember that the author portrayed the Holy Spirit as a blithe female persona, flitting here and there in the blink of an eye.

We may not be ready to call the Holy Spirit “she” today, but by all means we should not call the Spirit “it.”  The classic understanding of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, or any of the other names the Spirit is identified by is that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Divine Trinity.

There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has always existed as co-eternal with God, of the same essence as Father and Son, and yet with unique ministry.

We encounter the Holy Spirit first in the first verses of Genesis, where the Spirit of God broods over the unformed earth.  The image there is one of a hen brooding over her chicks to bring them safely and carefully into full maturity.

“But,” you say, “I thought God the Father, Almighty was the creator of heaven and earth?”  God was, and here is where all this gets a little tricky.  It is very easy for us to talk about the Trinity, but very hard for us to explain the Trinity.

Perhaps this will help:  The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who encounters humankind here on earth.

  • So, when God creates the earth, and everything else, The Holy Spirit is the one who shows up to do the work.
  • When God sends his only Son to earth, The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who moves miraculously in Mary’s life so that she conceives Jesus.
  • When at Jesus’ baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” it is the Spirit who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
  • When God resurrects Jesus from the dead, it is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit who breathes the breath of life into Jesus’ transformed body.

And, so the Holy Spirit is now God with us, and that is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples in the passage we read today.

Just as God sends Jesus to the earth, to humankind, so God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth to be God’s continuing presence with those early disciples and with us today.

Our Problem With The Holy Spirit

But, we are often like the believers in Ephesus.  When Paul arrived there for the first time, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed.  Their reply was, “We haven’t even heard if there is a Holy Spirit.”  And here’s why 21st century Christians in America sometimes act that way:  we’re not sure we want the Holy Spirit.

That’s right, we’re just not sure we want to go there.  We as Baptists are pretty sure we don’t want to do weird stuff, like speak in tongues, heal the sick, and jump pews.  We’ll leave all of that to our Pentecostal friends, thank you very much.  So, the first problem we have with the Holy Spirit is a problem of weirdness.

And, there is a lot of weirdness that takes place when the Holy Spirit is around.  On the Day of Pentecost, weird things happened — the sound of a rushing wind filled the place where the apostles were staying.  Flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they spoke in languages they had never learned.  So, what was that about?

Well, while it sounds weird, several things were going on at once.  For the Feast of Pentecost, Jews from all over the known-world had stayed in Jerusalem since the Passover.  They came from a variety of cities, nations, and tongues.  And, so the speaking in “unknown tongues” was a reversal of The Tower of Babel story.  Once, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, man had tried to make a name for himself and build a ziggurat that reached into the throne room of God.  But God frustrated that effort by confusing their language, mixing up their speech so that they could not understand one another and could not finish the project.

But at Pentecost, God unscrambles that confusion by giving Peter and the other apostles the ability to preach in languages they had not learned, so that everyone who was there, no matter where they were from, understood and heard the story of Jesus.  So, when God does weird stuff, it always has a purpose.

But, that doesn’t mean we want to be weird, and besides the Day of Pentecost has come and gone.

Which brings me to our real problem with the Holy Spirit:  we think that the Holy Spirit only does the weird, the miraculous, or the extraordinary.

But Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Comforter.”  That doesn’t sound too weird, or even miraculous.  Jesus said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit was “with you, and shall be in you.”  The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in our lives.

I have often heard people remark during or after a particularly difficult time, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God are able to get through what I’ve just been through.”  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, comforting, strengthening, caring, and guiding.  That’s not weird at all.

But whether we are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit or not, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and the lives of all believers.

Get Used to The Holy Spirit Because He’s Our Down Payment on The Resurrection

Paul said that the Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment on our own resurrection.  In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul says:

21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The Spirit is the guarantee, the down payment, of what is to come.  God gives us himself as personal guarantee of the fidelity of His promises, His saving grace, and our eternal place with Him.

So, it would seem like we need to know something of the Holy Spirit, because after all, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of life everlasting.

The Holy Spirit Equips The Church

One of the primary purposes of the Holy Spirit is to give gifts to each follower of Christ.  Of course, the greatest gift is God’s gift of salvation, but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than just eternal life.  There’s life here in the body of Christ called the church.

Paul said that Christ is the head of the body, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to fit into the body.  Some have supernatural gifts, some have more everyday type gifts, but none of us is overlooked in the gift-giving of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to suggest to you today that we could do what Jesus did, some of you would think that I was either speaking rhetorically, or I was exaggerating.  But that’s exactly what Paul, and Jesus himself, said.  The key to that, though, is we don’t do it alone.  By bringing our gifts, and using them in concert with the gifts of others, the body of Christ carries out the work and ministry of Christ in this world today.  Feeding people, healing people, announcing the good news, befriending the friendless, demonstrating kingdom values — all these things are only possible if we live in the Spirit, and express the gifts the Spirit of God has given to each of us.

The Spirit Also Wages Spiritual Battle

But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This world is a long way off from being what God intends for it to be.  The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will “to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We are not close to having that prayer answered universally yet.

As a matter of fact, the Spirit is also fighting for us and the kingdom of God.  Now, we know how the story will end because Jesus has already defeated sin and death.  But have you ever watched those “nature-at-its-wildest” shows?  I saw a new one the other day called “Monsters of the River” or something like that.  The star was trying to catch some gigantic fish that lived in the Amazon, or a river pretty much like it.

The one thing they always say after they catch the gator, or croc, or in this case a fish that looked to me like the world’s largest catfish — the one thing they always say is, “Okay, be careful when we put him back in the water, because his tail can be deadly.”

And, that’s where we are today.  Satan is a defeated foe, the church knows its going to be victorious, but in his death throes, Satan’s tail can be deadly.

Paul said, “10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” — Eph 6:10-18 NIV

We’re in a spiritual battle, we’re to take the sword of the Spirit, we’re to pray in the Spirit — sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot for us in the realm of the unseen world, that we need to know about.

I am reading David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.  Augsburger is primarily speaking to those who will offer pastoral care and counseling to persons from cultures other than their own.  He told this story to illustrate the power of a world known to other cultures, if unknown to us:

In Indonesia, a man converted to Christianity from Islam.  He was troubled by a talisman — a gold coin — visible just below the surface of his skin, on the underside of his forearm.  He said that this talisman has brought him good luck, success, prosperity, and power in the past.

But when you examine his arm closely, you notice there is not scar or visible sign of how the gold coin got under his skin.  He says that a Muslim priest, a shaman of sorts, placed the coin on his arm, and then the shaman covered the coin with his own hand.  When he removed his hand, the coin was imbedded under the man’s skin.

The young man came forward during a worship service at his new church, asking the pastor for prayer for this talisman.  The pastor showed the young man’s arm, with the gold coin imbedded in it, to the congregation and asked them to pray that the power of the coin would be broken.

As the congregation prayed, the pastor placed his hand over the embedded gold coin, just as the Muslim priest had done.  As they prayed, the pastor removed his hand from the man’s arm.

The coin was no longer under the young man’s skin.  His arm is clear, scarless, and with no sign of the coin.  The pastor held up the coin in his hand as visible evidence to the congregation that the power of God was greater than the power of the coin.

That is a true story, and if we do not understand it, it is because the Holy Spirit works in ways beyond our comprehension or culture.

We do believe in the Holy Spirit for every time we weather a storm, bear a burden, survive a difficulty, or need comfort, the Spirit is there.  He is at work in our world, continuing the ministry of Jesus, at work in our lives through each assembly of believers called the church, and at work in the unseen world where the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness.

Sweet, Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us,
filling us with your love.
And for these blessings
we lift our hearts in praise,
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

Sermon: I Believe in the Ascension of Christ

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed series continues with this sermon, I Believe in the Ascension of Christ, from Luke 24:36-53.

I Believe in the Ascension of Jesus
Luke 36-53

36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44He 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.”

45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I 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.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

What Do You Do With The Body?

A favorite part of just about any murder mystery is what to do with the body?  You know how those stories go: first,  the murderer kills the victim.  The details of the murderer — is he or she an escaped convict, a deranged lunatic, a jealous lover, or a scheming con artist?; and, the victim — is the victim an unfaithful lover, a double-crossing partner, an innocent bystander, and so on — change with the particular plot line, but the basics of the story are the same — one person kills another.

This story is as old as Cain and Abel, and the problem of what to do with the body of the victim is as old as the murderous act itself.  Cain apparently buried his brother Abel in the same field where he killed him, and when God asked Cain “Where is your brother, Abel?”  Cain replies, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Nice try, but it didn’t work.  God tells Cain that the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground.  In other words, I know what you did with the body.

Same thing happened to Moses.  Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the bulrushes of the river, and eventually is raised in Pharaoh’s household.  But somewhere along the way, even though he looks and dresses like an Egyptian, Moses finds his Hebrew identity.  He is outraged at the treatment the Hebrews are receiving under Pharaoh’s regime, but there’s not much he can do about it. Until one day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.

Moses anger swells, and before he knows it, Moses kills the Egyptian.  Which is sure to be a big problem for him with Pharaoh and his henchmen.  So, Moses buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand to conceal his crime.  It doesn’t work, however, because someone saw Moses do it, and so he has to flee to the backside of the desert, which is a long way off.

But with the story of Jesus, we have a different problem.  The Apostles’ Creed has us affirm —

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried,
He descended into hell.

On the third day He rose again from the dead.

Now, the problem is this — Jesus has risen from the dead.  That’s Easter, that’s the resurrection, that’s the moment in which God breaks the power of sin and death, and the life of Jesus becomes the prototype for all humanity, for all life to come.

But, what do you do with the body?  The empty tomb is mute evidence that Jesus is not dead.  Jesus appears to the disciples for a period of 40-days between Passover and the coming of the next big Jewish festival, Pentecost.

But, this is a big problem now.  Jesus appears about 11 times to various individuals and groups of followers.  And, he is very much alive, not a ghost like they imagine in the passage we have just read.  In his appearances, Jesus does several things:

  1. Jesus encourages some of the disciples to touch him, Thomas being the first case in point.
  2. Jesus walks with the disciples.  The most famous episode being the walk on the road to Emmaus with two followers of Jesus.
  3. Jesus breaks bread with his followers.  Again, the road to Emmaus story.
  4. Jesus cooks breakfast.  He makes fish and bread, which is not something you would expect the resurrected Messiah to do.  But, it probably reminds the disciples of the time Jesus fed 5,000 with fish and bread, and this is just as real.
  5. Jesus eats with the disciples.  John has him eating fish, and so does Luke.
  6. Jesus speaks to the disciples and others.  Apparently he speaks in his normal voice, not some kind of heavenly booming bass profundo.
  7. Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
  8. Jesus blesses his followers.
  9. Jesus gives them instructions, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, the Holy Spirit.

So, Jesus does at least 9 things, and maybe more, that show he is a real, live person, not a ghost, a vision, or an apparition.  But, then what? What do you do with the body of Jesus, even if He is alive?

Getting Off The Stage

When I was in high school I got involved with the drama club, and we put on several plays of somewhat uneven quality, I must admit.  But, we learned a great deal about what actors call “stage craft” — the business of acting.  One of the big moments in any play is an actor’s entrance.  So, if you’re coming through a door, you make sure the door knob turns, or the door doesn’t get stuck, so your entrance is smooth and doesn’t become a sort of comedy of errors in itself.

But just as important as getting on the stage, is getting off.  Again, if you’re going through a door, you want to check ahead of time to be sure the door opens, or the knob turns, or whatever needs to happen, happens.  An actor wants his exit to be important, but not awkward.  If you aren’t in the right position on stage when you need to exit, things can get very awkward.

And, in one way, that’s where we find Jesus.  In a place on the stage of history that no one has ever occupied.  His entrance was to be born.  That, of course, was pretty dramatic in itself, for he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”

Pretty amazing stuff, and in terms of stage presence, Jesus had that too.  He went about healing people, feeding people, teaching, raising the dead, and training a band of followers who continually seemed not to get what Jesus was trying to teach them.

But, the story takes an distressing turn for Jesus’ followers.  He is opposed by religious leaders, eventually arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  Then, he’s crucified.  When he dies, he’s taken down off the cross, and buried.  And here is where the story might end, because all the other stories like this, or even close to this, have ended this way.  The hero gets killed, the body buried, and that’s the end of the story as his followers slip away into the darkness.

But not this story.  In this story, the hero doesn’t stay dead.  In some inexplicable, supernatural event, Jesus rises from the grave.  And, in case there is any doubt about His resurrection, the massive stone gets mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the grave, the grave clothes are lying neatly folded, and angels announce the news that “He is not here, He is risen from the dead.”

But, now what?  How does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak.  Most of us exit through the door of death, but for Jesus, death was just a revolving door — in and then out again.  How does this story resolve itself.

I suppose Jesus could have just hung around.  But that wasn’t the plan.  The plan from the beginning was that Jesus enters the human realm, does what only God-Incarnate can do, then goes back to his throne in the presence of God the Father, but in His place sends the Holy Spirit.  So, that’s the plan, but how does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak?

Who Comes Down Now Goes Up

We have the old saying, “What goes up, must come down.”  That’s called the Gravity Creed.  But, in Jesus case, what, or better, who came down to earth, must also go back up into heaven.

In the 19th century, theologians got really upset that Jesus ascended “up” to heaven.  Some even said that the idea of heaven being “up” was an outmoded, primitive idea which proves that the story about the ascension couldn’t be true.  Heaven wasn’t up, they said, and so Jesus would not have gone up to go back there.

Well, they’re batting .500 — they got it half right, in other words.  Heaven isn’t up.  Heaven is the presence of God.  Heaven is no more “place” as we know places than God is a man as we know men.  But we speak in the only words we know, and in the first century their idea was that the living were on the earth; the dead were in the pit, or the underworld, or the land of the dead which was under the earth; and, that heaven was above the earth.  Theologians call this a three-tiered cosmology, which is pretty much how we still think of life, heaven, and hell today — here, up from here, and down from here.

And remember, the Bible tells stories with a theological point.  Which doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go up, but it does mean that there is a deeper meaning to “up” than we might think.

The Significance of Up

The Bible uses this “up-and-down” language to represent a lot of theological ideas.  Here are some of them:

  • Adam and Eve are told to go “down” from the Garden of Eden after they sin.
  • The Tower of Babel is a failed attempt to “go up” to God and heaven.
  • Noah and his family are preserved by the ark’s ascent on Mt. Ararat.
  • Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to speak with God and receive the Law.
  • Mount Zion, the mystical dwelling place of God, is reached by “ascending” the hill of the Lord.
  • At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Jesus and three of the disciples go up on the mount where there Jesus is transformed, and speaks of his coming death with Moses and Elijah.
    • Moses has gone up to be with God on the mountain several times, including right before his own death.
    • Elijah is taken up by God into heaven by a fiery chariot.

So, the people of God revealed in Scripture understand that one goes up to God, and down to sin, death, and the grave.

One way or the other, Jesus is going up to God, to heaven, and to the right-hand of God for eternity.

Going Up Doesn’t Mean Going Away

But, just because Jesus goes up to God at the ascension, doesn’t mean Jesus goes away.  Jesus goes up, so the Holy Spirit can come down to Jesus’ followers.

Jesus has already told his followers that he’s going to send the Paraclete, the One-Called-Alongside, to help the disciples.  They’ve seen the power of God in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, and Jesus has promised them that they will do the same things, and greater than He has done.

Jesus has already breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  That in itself was a theological act, and act reminiscent of God’s act at creation, breathing into Adam the breath of life.  Only this breath of life was the life of the Spirit.

Jesus had told the disciples that all authority was given to him, in heaven and earth, and that they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

And, so they waited.  For days.  In fear.  In Jerusalem.  Uncertain what would happen, or if they would even know it when it did.

And then, all heaven broke lose.  The wind blows with a mighty rushing sound — the presence of the Spirit.  Tongues of fire — another manifestation of the Spirit appear on the disciples heads.  The disciples speak in languages they have never learned, a reversal of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel.  And Peter, inspired by the Spirit, says, “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of.”

The Spirit comes, the church is born, the followers of Jesus are empowered, Peter preaches and three thousand who had great doubts about the man called Jesus were converted in an instant and were baptized.

Going up doesn’t mean going away.

We Are Living The Story

We tend to think of all these things as past-tense:  Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus ascended back to heaven.  The Holy Spirit came.  End of story.

But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning for us.  The beginning for the church.  The beginning of witness.  The beginning of the faith.  The beginning of the good news which would be carried to all the world.  Jesus is alive, and what’s more, He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father.

It has pleased God, the Bible says, to put all things under Jesus’ feet.  In other words, Jesus is in charge.  Jesus reigns.  Jesus is the Lord of All.  Jesus sends the Spirit to us.  Jesus is still active in this world that he came to live and die for.

We are living the story of God’s redemptive love.  We are the present actors in this great drama written and directed by God.  Jesus the Messiah has made his entrance as the most helpless of humanity — a tiny baby.  He has lived his life as the most unusual of men.  He has died a horrendous death.  He as risen victorious from the grave.  He has resumed the mantle of heaven and ascended to his rightful place.

But here’s where it really gets good — He’s left us to represent him here in this world that he loved so much he gave himself for it.  And, we’re not alone.  He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us, gift us, guide us, and empower us.  We are living the story of Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, for the life of His creation.

That’s what the ascension is all about.  Not just a clever theatrical trick to get Jesus off-stage, but a dramatic theological transition, a moment that transcends time and space, where heaven received in victory the risen Christ, and earth received in gratitude His ever-present Spirit.

As we gather at His table today, He is present with us.  Theologians have argued for almost 2,000 years about “how” Jesus is present in the broken bread and poured out wine.  The church was split, denominations formed, and wars fought over the “how” of Jesus presence at this table.  But that misses the point.

Our concern today is not “how” Jesus is here.  Our concern today as we gather at this table is that He is here, and we are present with Him.  Had he not come, he could not have gone.  Had he not gone, he could not have sent the Spirit.  Had the Spirit not come, we would not be gathered here today.