Preached at Redeemer Church on May 17, 2012.
See a previous Ascension sermon here.
John 16:7 – Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
We began the service by celebrating the glory of the Ascension, and that’s very, very good. But I want to take a step or two back from that celebration with one simple realization, and then, maybe, work our way to celebration again. This is what I want to remember:
Jesus left us. Notice: Jesus left us.
It’s not the whole story, no. He has promised to come back, and he resides with us by his Spirit. But his absence is a big part of the story: it’s 2000 years big–100 tides of dying generations. He left, and we don’t have him here to walk beside, to eat with, to see.
I want those things profoundly.
I want to see Christ and hear his voice.
I want him to come back.
It hurts here without him.
I love him.
I want him to come back.
Jesus, whose touch heals sickness,
Jesus, whose words heal souls,
Jesus, whose prayers satisfy needs,
Jesus, whose body bore my shame and guilt,
Jesus, who knows me,
I ask –Why did he go? How can this be good?
Stop. It is good. We must start by saying, “it is good.” When I believe that Christ is perfectly good, I must believe that what he does is worth trusting. If he left, then it’s good for him to have left, no matter how puzzling it may be.
But let’s hold that puzzle in our minds for a while: I ache for Jesus, and I trust that he should be gone. My ache, and his absence, must be worth the good we gain from his departure, whatever that good is.
Let me put it this way: Christ’s embodied presence is so surpassingly good, so manifestly desirable, and so suited to our needs, that there must be an absurdly good reason for us not to have it. Whatever that reason is, we know that it’s magnificent–more magnificent, even, than Christ’s present physical presence would be. Why else would he have gone?
That changes this discussion a little. It is still true that we’re a little bit like children left somewhere alone, or like separated lovers. That pain doesn’t leave. But it’s precisely that pain that persuades us that we’re following the tracks of something wonderful when we ask, “Why did Christ go?” Inasmuch as his absence hurts us, we know that there’s blessing in it. Because Christ is good, it must be a generous pain, and a kind absence.
So I’ll change my question. Instead of asking “How can this be good?”, I’ll ask, “What’s the secret wonder of Christ’s departure? What good is there to be found in it?”
That’s our project tonight. Let’s pray for guidance.
I think there’s a lot of value to sitting down with this question (like most questions) and putting some good, hard work into prayerfully mulling over it, without scrambling for what someone else has said the answer is–without even opening the Bible, initially. God likes it when we think hard about him, and the Bible wouldn’t have gone and gotten itself written if it weren’t for people who sat around and mulled.
That kind of independent thinking isn’t good because I think that I’ll come up with better answers than the ones inside this book, however. That’s absurd. No, it’s mostly good because it might get me–or you–to the same place that the Bible gets to, but with some deeper understanding of it; or because it’ll teach us better questions to ask of the Bible when we get to it. After prayerfully thinking on your own for a bit, you might learn to ask, “Was the way that Jesus preached qualitatively different from the way the apostles preached? And did his departure allow the apostles to preach the way they did?” in addition to simply asking, “Why did Jesus leave us?” That’s very, very helpful. It can speed and deepen your Bible study, and it can add structure to your conversations with the Holy Spirit.
That’s what I did to prepare for this sermon, and it’s what this (and every) sermon should be for you: it should be preparation for deeper personal Bible reading.
And when you do go back to your Bibles with today’s big question bumping around in your heads, here’s a great place to begin: John, chapters 14-17. In every gospel account, Christ spends time warning his disciples that he’ll leave them, but here in John he fills pages and pages telling his disciples why he’s leaving them, and preparing them for his absence with teachings and prayer. We’ll start by zooming in on one audacious verse together, but take note: you should go read the whole passage quite soon.
By the time we get to chapter 16 verse 7, Jesus has been telling his disciples that he’s going to leave them for quite a while. They’re disoriented. They hate the idea of Jesus leaving them, and, in desperation, are scrambling for figurative interpretations of his words rather than literal ones. This misunderstanding is partly their fault and partly Christ’s plan, but in both cases, it’s remarkable that he turns to them and says, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away.” To their advantage? I don’t think that word means what you think it means, Jesus.
His reason? “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” OK, so, according to Christ, it is better for his disciples to lose his presence and gain this Helper than to continue walking beside him without the Helper. He believes that it’s more important for his disciples to have the Holy Ghost than it is for them to be in his company.
That’s remarkable, and, for me, less than intuitive. But it does resonate with the way God has worked through his people. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but sometimes watching the life of Christ is like watching a replay reel of the greatest hits from Old Testament narratives. Matthew is particularly keen on these, taking pains to chart the ways in which Jesus’ story mirror’s Israels history, like when he is taken to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide, or when he picks twelve disciples (like the twelve tribes of Israel). Paul’s in on the project too. He points out that Christ is a new Adam, or compares his baptism to Noah’s Flood.
Now, when it comes to Christ’s ascension, there is really only one major Old Testament correlate: Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a whirlwind. Like with Jesus, Elijah’s ascension takes place with his primary disciple as witness and –here’s the rub– as beneficiary. When Elijah’s getting ready to leave, he tells Elisha to ask for something from him before he goes. Elisha asks for “a double portion of [Elijah’s] spirit.” And, when he sees Elijah ascend, he’s granted it. He picks up the cloak that Elijah drops for him, and, mourning, goes out to minister to Israel with Elijah’s authority, raising the dead and feeding the hungry.
[As an aside, Elijah’s ascension isn’t the only time we see him pre-figuring Christ or Elisha pre-figuring the apostles. If you’re interested, go check out the account of Elijah calling Elisha. It’s startlingly close to many of Jesus’ conversations with his disciples.]
Christ’s ascension, it turns out, works like Elijah’s did, too. In John 14:12, the beginning of Jesus’ teachings on his own ascension, Jesus tells his disciples, ” whoever believes in me will do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” Just as Elijah’s departure empowered his disciple with his spirit, so Christ’s departure would empower his disciples with the Sprit of Christ.
So. In this way, we see that Christ’s ascension and his disciples’ receipt of the Holy Spirit are part of a beautiful pattern that God had been hinting at for a long, long time. It fits perfectly in God’s big story, and should become a narrative focal point for us as we seek to understand his world.
But it’s still hard for me to understand. Why is Christ’s departure (or Elijah’s for that matter) necessarily connected to the empowerment of his disciples, or the passing on of his ministry?
I’ll be blunt: Jesus doesn’t tell us crystal-clearly. But he does give us some pretty big clues–clues that, when followed, can lead to a magnificent picture of the Messiah’s ministry and of his plan for the redemption of the world.
Let’s start with what I think are the biggest clues in this passage. In John 16:4-15, Jesus describes the work that the Holy Spirit will do, and throughout the passage he suggests that the work he’s describing stands in contrast to the work that he, Christ, has done. He sees their jobs as different, and he sees his job making way for the Spirit’s. Let’s look.
In verses 8-10, he says that the Holy Spirit will “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”
Take a step back: This description depicts the Spirit as the world’s great, crotchety, firey evangelist, telling the old story of sin and holiness and salvation’s sharp edges. It’s lovely. But let’s consider it as a work that’s distinct from Christ’s. Apparently, Christ didn’t think of this work of evangelism as his work. He doesn’t see himself as the one to “go into all the world and make disciples.”
This shouldn’t be all that shocking. Think, for example, of Christ’s explaining to the Syrophonecian woman that he was sent “to the lost sheep of Israel.” His job was not the job of evangelism. Christ wasn’t a preacher of the good news.
Why? Christ didn’t preach the gospel like the Holy Spirit does, because Christ was the gospel. Jesus is the good news come into the world: the means of salvation, the goal of salvation; the object of salvation, and, through his death and resurrection, the subject of salvation. His job here was to act the gospel. To be the gospel. To complete the gospel. Then and only then, when the gospel was completed, when the good news was all put together, could it be properly, joyfully, convictingly preached.
This is the first major connecting point from Christ’s big clues to our big question. One of the reasons why Christ had to leave before the Holy Spirit could possibly be poured out on his disciples was that the gospel would have been incomplete without Jesus’ reunion with his Father in glory. Since Christ’s job was to effect and act out our salvation, to become the model who we all would follow, and to become the good news his Spirit would preach, he had to finish the story. He had to say, in effect, that salvation ends with “happily ever after.” Jesus’ present, human communion with the Father is the assurance, pre-figuration, and down-payment of our coming human communion with the Father. Jesus had to ascend so that we could see that our hope is in heaven at the right hand of God. Only then could our whole story be told. And since Christ ends up being our whole story, we need a new Guide to help us tell about it.
Alright. Let’s look at a second part of the passage from chapter 16, at a second big clue, and then we’ll move toward closing up. This is long, but trust me: with these two clues, we’re only scratching the surface.
In verses 12-15, Jesus continues his description of the unique and necessary work of the Holy Spirit. He says, almost wistfully, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
You can hear, in these words, Jesus’ deep, deep longing for his disciples to be filled with a knowledge of the truth, a truth that they “cannot bear” while they are still with him.
You see, Jesus is out to make siblings of us, not servants. He is King, and he will be King, but he wants to be a King of freemen, and the firstborn among brothers. This freedom, this fraternity, this growth into the knowledge of the glory of Christ and his Father is the characteristic not of disciples, or followers, but of apostles, of representatives. Christ has in mind for his followers to come to knowledge of his glory by becoming representatives–images–of his mission and nature. We’re supposed to learn by being like, by receiving within ourselves the glory of God. And that’s the sort of project that clearly requires the indwelling of God. That’s why the Holy Spirit’s uniquely necessary here. We need him to glorify Christ in us.
And here, again, is our connection to today’s big question: This learning by means of representation, learning by means of Spirit-empowered imaging, necessitates a removal from the thing we are representing. When Christ is around, there is no need for him to be represented, especially by his close disciples. (Think of the time when he returns from prayer to see them attempting to cast out a demon. He comes on the scene and they’re suddenly superfluous.) But if his disciples are only going to be able to learn the depths of his glory by representing him, and if that representation is only achievable by the work of his Spirit, then he must leave and pour his Spirit out on them. It’s the way to make all humans into the sorts of companions he longs for, the sort of people who can inhabit his kingdom, the sort of people whose desires are in perfect alignment with his, of whom it could be said, as in verse 22, “when I see you again, your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” They will be capable of perfect, fraternal, free relationship with him, and through him, with Father God.
Alright. Now. To close, let’s put the two things we’ve learned together, and we’ll find a third great thing. 1. Christ had to ascend in order to complete the gospel. 2. Christ had to ascend in order to train us to be his brothers and sisters. The preaching of the gospel and the transformation of God’s people are the work of the Holy Spirit, and they are also the true substance of Christ’s holy Church. Christ’s Ascension is the necessary prerequisite to any sanctification, and the necessary preface to this beautiful new body that marches through time and space: Christ’s Church, bound together by the Spirit in pursuit of the knowledge and experience of the glory of Christ. The Ascension allows this thing we’re doing now: this sweet fellowship, this proclamation. It makes our bumbling attempts at corporate Christlikeness possible. It makes our ministry more meaningful. It’s the groundwork, friends, for the Church. It’s should be no surprise that Pentecost is just around the corner.
The Ascension: our happily ever after.
The Ascension: our opportunity to practice being Christ-like.
The Ascension: the act of God that made way for the fellowship of believers and the building up of the Bride of Christ.
This is why, friends, Christ truly said, “It is to your advantage that I go.” This moment we celebrate today is the initiation of the Church of God, and the beginning of our opportunity to know, to preach, and to be transformed by the gospel.