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A Peep from the Peak: Ascension Sunday Arbury Road Baptist Church, Sunday May 12, 2002 6.

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A Peep from the Peak: Ascension
When Sarah Dowerday climbed to the top of Mount Reiner in Seattle, Washington, she
became an inspiration for physically challenged people all over the world. Sarah was
born with only one leg; but nothing would stop her from ascending to the heights. As her
foot touched the summit of the mountain the CBS camera crew that had accompanied her
asked her how she felt. And Sarah replied: “Once you have experienced the peak, your
life is never the same.”
Life would never be the same for the apostolic band once they had seen their Master
ascend to heaven. It was the peak, the apex, the climax of their experience with the Risen
Lord. “Once you have experienced the peak, your life is never the same.” During this
liturgical season of Lent and Easter, we too, like the apostles, have walked the via
dolorosa to Calvary, we have peeped into the empty tomb, we have encountered the
Risen Christ in the Upper Room, we have met him as a stranger on the road, we have
been warmed by his word and have recognised him in the breaking of bread. And today,
40 days after Easter, we arrive at the peak of our experience with the Risen Lord. We
watch him ascend into heaven—and with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we
proclaim “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He shall
come again to judge the living and the dead.” The Feast of the Ascension is the peak of
the Easter season, the apex of our Christian belief. “Once you have experienced the peak,
your life is never the same.”
There are many reasons why we ought to think of the Ascension of Christ as the peak of
our Christian faith. Luke, who is the only evangelist reporting the event of the ascension
thought so. Indeed, it functions as the hinge that binds together his two-volume work: his
gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s gospel ends with the ascension; Luke’s acts
of the apostles begins with the ascension. Luke is telling us that the ascension is the
central and decisive midpoint between the Acts of Christ and the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
“If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to
you” (John 16:7). And so, true to scripture the church in its liturgical calendar continues
to regard the Ascension as a postlude to Easter and a prelude to Pentecost.

Moreover, for Luke, the Ascension is not merely a transition but a profound theological
truth in itself: so much so, that he cleverly uses it to reiterate and recapture the highlights
of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. The two men in white robes who explain to the
perplexed disciples the significance of the ascension (Acts 1:10-11), remind us of the two
men in dazzling clothes who explain to the perplexed women the significance of the
empty tomb (Lk 24:4-6), and the angel who at the beginning of Luke’s gospel explains to
the perplexed shepherds the significance of Jesus’ birth (Lk 2:9). The Jesus who is about
to ascend opens their minds to understand the scriptures (Lk 24:45), just as he interpreted
the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:24:27). The message of
repentance and forgiveness of sins that the ascending Jesus commands them to preach
(Lk 24:47) recalls the message of repentance preached by John the Baptist (Lk 3:3) and
Jesus himself all through the gospel (Lk 13:3, 5). The promise of empowerment by the
Holy Spirit for mission (Acts 1:5), points back to Mary’s empowerment by the Holy
Spirit for conception (Lk 1:35), Jesus’ own empowerment by the Holy Spirit for ministry
A Peep from the Peak: Ascension Sunday Arbury Road Baptist Church, Sunday May 12, 2002 6.00
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(Lk 4:1,14), and to John the Baptist’s prophecy that the Messiah would baptise them with
the Spirit and with fire (Lk 3:16).

Even the responses of the disciples in the ascension story recall their earlier responses in
the gospel of Luke. The presence of the women at the scene of the ascension (Acts 1:14),
reminds us of the women at the empty tomb (Lk 24:22,24) and of the ‘women standing at
a distance’ from the cross (Lk 23:49). A tiny note about the Mount Olivet being ‘a
Sabbath day’s journey away’ (Acts 1:12) from Jerusalem implies that the law-abiding
disciples returned to Jerusalem to observe the Sabbath ‘in the temple’ (Lk 24:53). This
points back to the law-abiding character of the disciples throughout the gospel (Lk 1:6, 8-
9, 2:21-25, 37, 39, 41-2). We see this underlined in the comment that the women ‘rested
the Sabbath according to the commandment’ after the burial of Jesus (Lk 23:56). The
disciples return with great joy after the ascension (Lk 24:52) recalling the great joy
promised by the angel to the shepherds (Lk 2:10), and the joy they experience when the
risen Jesus meets them (Lk 24:41). The ascension also weaves together the mission
manifesto of Christ with the mission mandate of the Church. The mission manifesto of
Christ was the kingdom of God, and now the parochially obsessed disciples (kingdom to
Israel) are given the mission mandate to take the news of the kingdom to the ends of the
earth. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ mission begins and ends in Jerusalem; in the Acts of
the Apostles, the church’s mission begins in Jerusalem but ends in Rome. The apostles
are obedient to Jesus’ command to preach the gospel starting in Jerusalem and going to
the uttermost parts of the earth. And so, Luke also uses the story of the Ascension to
reiterate and recapture the response of the disciples to Jesus as well.

“Once you have experienced the peak, your life is never the same.” The ascension is not
merely the peak because it reiterates and reinforces gospel highpoints but because it takes
us further back to the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. The Old Testament, which, for most
part, had not developed the idea of the resurrection, nevertheless regarded the ascension
of its greatest saints into heaven as the peak of their relationship with God. Enoch
‘walked with God’ (Gen 5:22) and Elijah was ‘taken up by a whirlwind to heaven’ (2Kgs
2:1). Jesus’ final priestly benediction as he is lifted up into heaven is meant to recall the
blessing given by the saintly high priest Simon II in Sir 50:20.

Thus, in a sense, the ascension becomes the logical corollary to every major Christian
doctrine: particularly the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the second
coming. Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us that because Christ humbled himself and
took the form of a slave, because he became obedient to death on a cross (Phil 2:5), God
exalted him and gave him a name above every name (Eph 1:20). ‘He descended into hell’
says the creed summing up 1Peter 3:19. The ascension is the reversal of that—because of
the incarnation and crucifixion and descent into hell, Christ is exalted to the highest
heaven and crowned as King. The ascension of Christ also proves that he was truly raised
from the dead with an incorruptible body. And just as Jesus was taken up into heaven, he
will also come back in glory. Alleluia! Oh, let us stand at the peak and dwell on this
marvellous truth that our lives may never be the same.
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The Western Church is in a hurry to go on to Pentecost and to talk about what the spirit-
empowered church would soon do. But the Eastern Church patiently and lovingly dwells
on the mystery of the Ascension and asks: what has Christ done and what is Christ doing
by his ascension?

We are only too familiar with the answer to the second part of the question. What is the
ascended Christ doing? Well, of course, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father
as the Letter to the Hebrews (7:25) tells us. But what has Christ done by his ascension?
Greek Archbishop Athengoras (of blessed memory) wrote:
“Christ ascended… to where He was before…which means that Christ had entered the
former glory, which He occupied as God. Now, however, He occupied it not only as God,
but as God-man. Thus he perfected and glorified the human nature with which He was
united. This shows what is the destiny of humanity. Man near God is perfected and
glorified in a greater measure than before his departure and alienation from God’s
friendship and benevolence. Thus in the Ascension of Christ we celebrate the
reinstatement of man nearer to God. This is what we call theosis or the divinization of
man.” (Eph 2:6, John 17:21, 2Peter 1:4). The Western Church has only understood
salvation partially: a deliverance from something sinful and distorted. The Eastern
Church has a fuller understanding of salvation as deliverance both from something sinful
— to something holy, perfect and divine. The Western Church also focuses only on the
salvation of the human being. The Eastern Church believes that with the return of Christ,
not only redeemed humanity but all creation will be restored and consummated.

Thus ascension celebrates the completion of the Lord's work for our salvation, the pledge
of our glorification with Christ, and His entry into heaven with our human nature
glorified. Since the disciples were "filled with great joy", we who are his disciples should
experience this joy, and should hasten to the temple and remain there continually blessing
God. No other gospel ends with such beautiful words. It is this continual worship that
will empower us and will fill us with a deep longing for the continual indwelling of the
Holy Spirit. And once you have experienced the peak, your life will never be the same.
And the world will never be the same. Amen.