(Read Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26)
Happy Ascension, everybody. Actually, Ascension Day was Thursday, so I'm sure by now you're tired of people saying "Happy Ascension" to you and of all these department store sales and the Ascension lights, our Ascension trees, the Ascension bunny.
Honestly, I don't think I've ever paid attention to Ascension Day in my life. There are lots of reasons it gets skipped by. For one thing, it's always on Thursday. For another, for me at least, it's been hard to see why I'd give it special attention.
I get Good Friday, when Jesus died for my sins. I get Easter, when he rose victorious over death and hell. I get Pentecost, when he sent his Spirit. Ascension can seem like a bit of a downer. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, "It's seems like the day we were left behind." My son has asked several times, sometimes curiously, sometimes just in total frustration, "Why can we not see Jesus?" It's one of those unexpectedly hard questions because I want to see Jesus, too.
The Ascension and Jesus' kingship
So, thankfully, I got to preach on it, which means I had to actually think about it for more than five minutes. The Bible talks about Ascension in a few different ways. Hebrews emphasizes it as the entry of the high priest, Jesus, into the true sanctuary of God, heaven, where he shows himself as the final, ultimate, and perfect sacrifice. That's one of the reasons we emphasize "sat down" at the right hand of God: Priests stood when they did their duties, and they had to keep doing them, day after day after day. Jesus sits. Jesus says, it's done.
More often, the Bible talks about Jesus sitting at the Ascension as him sitting on his throne, at the right hand of God. This is the moment when the King returns to rule. For us it looked like a leaving. For Jesus, it was a returning to his Father.
So we see signs of that in today's readings. In Revelation, we hear Jesus telling that he is coming soon to judge: "I am the root and the descendant of David," in other words, I am the kingly Messiah. I am coming soon; I have ascended as King, and I will come again to bring my kingdom into its fullness. We see this in the Psalm we read: "The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice!" and then this great line, "All the peoples behold his glory." We'll get back to that in a second, because even though it's in the Psalms, the peoples beholding his glory is the answer to Jesus' prayer that we see in the Gospel reading tonight.
Let's talk about that King thing for a second. In his book, Practicing the Resurrection, Eugene Peterson notes, "[In the story of the church] Ascension is the opening scene that establishes the context for everything that follows: Jesus installed in a position of absolute rule: Christ our King. All men and women live under the rule of Jesus. This rule trumps all other thrones and principalities and powers."
Awesome. But totally hard for me to comprehend. I just don't have enough experience with royalty for this image to click, you know? But the Bible says, you know what, that's okay, because Jesus, he's not like those other kings anyway.
Psalm 68 is probably one of the best Ascension texts in Scripture.
(Read Psalm 68:18-19)
So, very cool! God ascends, frees the captives, receives gifts even from the rebellious, cleans things up, and then God daily bears us up and is our salvation. Amen? Amen.
The Ascension is a gift to the world
It gets cooler when Paul quotes it in Ephesians: "There is one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it [Psalm 68] says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to people."
Wait, no, Paul, it doesn't say that. It doesn't say he gave gifts to people. It says he received gifts from people.
Paul, I think, would just smile, and say, "Yes." God does receive our gifts, but what's important about the Ascension isn't the gifts that we bring to the king—every king gets gifts at his coronation—but only this One, this always and forever King, gives gifts to the people when he takes his throne.
Paul would probably say, "Look, right here in the Revelation text that is printed in your order of worship, where we all of a sudden we go from 'The Spirit and the bride say [to Jesus], 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.' Then, quick turn: 'And let everyone who is thirsty come.' We're not talking about Jesus coming any more. We're talking about when Christ comes, he says 'Come.' And he says, 'Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.'"
The Jesus who is going to return to judge the nations and wipe out injustice and come with his angel armies is still the same Jesus who throughout his life on earth kept giving and giving and giving and giving—feeding the 5,000 even though he knew people were going to misunderstand what he was doing, turning water into wine even though he didn't want to start doing those kinds of things yet, healing the sick when he was tired, giving his own life on the Cross, and giving, giving, giving. Jesus keeps giving after his resurrection. He ascends to heaven and keeps giving. On Pentecost he gives the Holy Spirit. He deserves everything, but he just keeps giving and giving.
Most of you know that. You know that he gives you good gifts. You've been forgiven; you've received his grace. You've been given so much, but do you get that the grace is way, way bigger than forgiveness? Did you hear what he said in the John? John 17:22: "The glory that you have given me I have given them."
The "them" is you, "it's those who will believe in me through the word of my disciples." So that's not you metaphorically or indirectly. You're one of those who have believed in Jesus because of the word of Jesus' disciples. The glory that the Father gave the Son, the Son has given to you.
Okay, that is crazy. That's grace that's way, way beyond just being forgiven for my sins. There's a long way between having the wages of sin canceled out and "The glory that the Father gave the Son, the Son gives to you."
This all happens, this point at which you are glorified because Christ is glorified, that happens at the Ascension. Just like the Cross was a gift done for us and for the world, just like the Resurrection was a gift for us and for the world, just like Pentecost is a gift for us and for the world, the Ascension is a gift for us and for the world.
(Read John 16:7, Hebrews 6:20, and Hebrews 9:24)
The Ascension of Jesus is the ascension of humanity to the throne
Think about this: When Jesus sits down at the right hand of the Father, it's the first time that human flesh, the dust of the earth, is on the throne of God, so the Ascension of Jesus to the throne is the ascension of humanity to the throne.
Athanasius, the African who shaped a lot of the way the church was able to talk about the Trinity, put it this way, referencing John's "in the beginning was the Word," says at the Ascension, "It is not the Word that is improved. For he had all things and has them always. But the human race, which has its origin in him and through him, that is the one who receives the improvement. Because of us, he asked for glory."
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: "By ascending bodily into heaven, he showed us that flesh and blood are good, not bad; that they are good enough for Jesus, good enough for heaven, good enough for God. By putting them on and keeping them on, Jesus has not only brought God to us; he has also brought us to God."
Let me say this as an aside, because I know that some of us struggle with our image of God the Father. Jesus asks for glory, and he gets it from the Father, and he passes it on to us. I want to be clear that the Father is in on this plan from the beginning, actually, from before the beginning, and he is all for it. The Son is not tricking the Father into giving us glory. John 17:24 says, "I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world." Then look at the phrase right before that, verse 23: "You have loved them even as you have loved me," or, different translation, "You have loved them EXACTLY as you have loved me." The Father glorifies the Son because he loved him before the foundation of the world; and the Father glorifies us through the Son because he loved us before the foundation of the world."
There is a point to all of this glory that we've been given. There is a purpose. There is a job to do with it. Jesus in his prayer says it about five times here: "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one."
The Ascension's purpose is to create oneness
Why the Ascension? What's the purpose of enthroning and glorifying humanity? Jesus repeatedly answers: "So that they may be completely one."
This oneness, too, has a purpose, just as our glory has a purpose: "they may be completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
That, in turn, has a purpose. Why care whether the world knows that the Father sent the Son? Why care whether people know that God loves them? Jesus explains that saying, "I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
The knowledge leads to the indwelling of God and his love. Remember, the glory came "because you loved me." Now you have this virtuous cycle: the gift of love leading to the gift of glory, leading to the gift of unity, leading to the gift of knowledge, leading to the gift of love leading to the gift of glory, and more and more and more and more and more. And the ultimate gift of all: Jesus himself in us! The Ascension is not about him leaving us. It is about those four words: and I in them.
The Ascension shows Jesus is still in control
What does this actually look like? Love, unity, knowledge, the indwelling of Jesus, awesome stuff, but how do we get it out of our heads? We have a story, Acts 16. This is what it looks like. This is what it looks like to be one so that the world may know.
"One day, as we were going to the place of prayer;" that's not a great place to start. We need one of those intro things they have on TV, like, "Previously, on Acts: 'You will be my witnesses,' 'We are not drunk as you suppose,' or 'Silver or gold have I none.'" Okay, no, I won't do the whole book.
Let me sum up a bit. Two missionaries, Paul and Silas, already very major people in the life of the early church, have already had one major missionary journey; they're partly into their second and they're high-tailing it to Europe, basically, Macedonia in Greece, because Paul had a vision of a man from there saying "Come help us!"
They finally get to Phillipi, their first stop in Europe; it's a Roman colony, and then they look for a synagogue. There's none; it's a fairly big city but it doesn't even have the 10 Jewish men who are necessary to have a synagogue. So they go down to the river, where Jews meet if there's no synagogue. There are still no men, but some women were meeting for the Sabbath. Paul preaches, and a woman named Lydia says, "Wow, what you're saying makes perfect sense, I want to be a Christian; please baptize me and my whole household." She's not even an ethnic Jew. She's what's called a "worshiper of God," but she's from the Asian side of what's now Turkey, from the city of Thyatira, she's probably pretty wealthy as a merchant of purple goods. She had a big enough home to accommodate Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy plus her whole household and probably had a home back in Thyatira too.
Basically, the missionaries are keeping a low profile, preaching among the women gathered at the river. That's where the story picks up: "We met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling." The "spirit of divination" here is literally translated: Spirit of a python, and basically the python was the dragon snake that was very closely associated with Apollo. It was a fortune-telling spirit and these fortunes were probably accompanied with very manic behavior.
Luke doesn't say how much "a great deal of money" was, but there's an ancient work called Alexander the False Prophet, written by the satirist Lucian, and Alexander had a similar divination scheme going on, with a snake, and he charged one drachma and two obols per question. A Greek drachma was about the wage for a day's labor. Lucian says, you know one drachma and two obols doesn't sound like much, but Alexander was pulling in about 70,000 to 80,000 drachmas a year "for so insatiable were the people that they would send in perhaps ten or fifteen questions at a time." So figure that the slave girl was probably earning her masters about 200 times the average wage, while of course they kept her in slavery and possibly did some very cruel things to encourage the kind of manic behavior that made fortune-telling more sellable.
What's interesting is that Paul and Silas do not cast out the demon "for several days." It's not clear why, and what's also interesting is that the demon speaks the truth. The girl follows Paul and Silas around and says, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." All truth is God's truth, but we can never partner with the forces of bondage and deceit.
So Paul—I love this, "very much annoyed"—casts the spirit out of the girl in the name of Jesus. Maybe he's tired of being interrupted by the demon, or upset with the enslavement of the girl, or maybe he's annoyed because he knows that this is going to seriously change his mission in Philippi.
As always, the gospel of Christ upsets the economic system. Setting captives free does not make captors happy. The Greek word that's used here: "Her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone" — is exelthen, the same word as "the Spirit came out." John Stott puts it this way: her owners saw that Paul had exorcized their income.
So Paul and Silas face the same reaction that Jesus faced when he cast the demons into the herd of pigs in the Gospel of Luke and that Luke records a few chapters later in Acts 19, when the silversmiths in Ephesus realize that the gospel is bad news for the sale of Artemis idols. They incite a riot. Here it's a nationalistic race riot: The merchants get the Philippians all riled up by saying, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe."
The local leaders probably weren't thinking, "Oh, yes, Rome does indeed ban conversion to non-recognized religions." They were probably thinking, "Okay, the guys with all the money in town want us to do something about these outsiders or we're going to have some serious disorder, and that will attract Caesar's attention, and we don't want that, so what's a little flogging of these Jews if it keeps the peace? Tomorrow we'll let them out of jail, get them to leave town, and everything goes back to normal." That's what they do: They whip them, strip them, beat them, throw them in prison, and put them in stocks that were a form of torture and not just captivity.
At midnight, so way after they've been whipped, and way after they probably should have fallen asleep, after even the jailer had fallen asleep, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suffice it to say that the prisoners were probably shocked that Paul and Silas were rejoicing and that Paul and Silas were singing because they really understood the meaning of the Ascension: Jesus was still in control.
Then comes the part that gets our attention: God shows his power: He sends an earthquake, the chains fall off, the doors open, and Paul and Silas miraculously escape into the night, thanking God for answering their prayers.
Wait, no, sorry. That's the story that makes sense, but that's not the story that happened. Paul and Silas pray, God sends an earthquake, the chains fall off, the doors open, and Paul and Silas … stay. In prison. Just hanging out. Um, Paul and Silas, uh, you know, when you pray for something, and God gives it to you, you might want to take advantage of it. Go!
Paul says, "Ah, but you misunderstand. We were always free. We're just here to take that gift of freedom and pass on the gift, in the same way that Jesus, 'when he ascended on high, he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to people.'" Paul knows that he's free and that the jailer is captive. They also know that if they were to leave at that point, the jailer would die. Paul and Silas had no need to get their freedom at the expense of someone's life, because they had already been freed at the expense of someone's life: Jesus'.
So the earthquake gives the jailer the opportunity to be free, not Paul. That's why Paul and Silas don't flee, and that's why the jailer asks, what do I have to do to escape, what do I have to do be rescued, what do I have to do to be saved? They answered, "Believe on the Ascended Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. The jailer, then takes them and washes their wounds. He is cleansed, and he passes on that gift by cleansing. Then after feeding them at his home, he apparently takes them back to the prison.
Now the story continues beyond our reading: The magistrates come by the next day and say, "Okay, you can let those men go," and Paul says, "Actually, no. We're still not going." Okay, so an earthquake has freed you, the magistrates have freed you, what's it going to take?
Paul says, and here's the direct quote, verse 38, "They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out." The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens.
I'll interrupt here by quoting Cicero: "To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination." So, way bad news for the magistrates here. They've broken the law. They're facing captivity. They're facing punishment. And again, Paul passes on the gift: He's not going to pay them back for the evil they've done. He's going to release them from that consequence—and he has a very smart plan here. Verse 39: "So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed."
Why didn't Paul say, "Hey, I'm a Roman citizen!" before he was bound and beaten? It would have saved him a lot of pain; it's not that the pain was no big deal; he keeps bringing it up. By mentioning his citizenship after his flogging, he has the Philippian leaders in his debt, and he passes that benefit on to the Philippian church that would probably have otherwise suffered significant persecution. By making the magistrates personally and publicly escort Paul and Silas from prison to Lydia's house, the whole city and those slave owners knew: It's not going to be quite so easy to mess with these Christians. The church was elevated to a place of power in that city. (Power's a scary word, but remember that at the Ascension, Jesus' chief promise is "you will receive power." It is the power to be witnesses.)
So the words of the Psalmist are fulfilled: "The Lord preserves the lives of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart."
So as Paul and Silas leave Philippi, what kind of church do they leave behind? Probably more than just these three coverts: Lydia, the slave girl, and the jailer. Luke wants us to consider these three converts as representative. Lydia, a very rich woman. The slave girl, who had nothing at all, penniless and exploited. The jailer, a very middle-class government worker. A church, in other words, that transcended all economic classes.
Or let's look at them this way: Lydia, from Thyatira—not Jewish, but definitely Middle Eastern, an Asian immigrant. The slave girl was almost certainly Greek, probably a local. The jailer was almost certainly a former Roman soldier because these kinds of regular government jobs were always rewards for those who'd served in the Roman army. So you have a church, in other words, that transcended Philippi's ethnic boundaries.
Lydia found Jesus through a rather intellectual discussion of the Jewish Scriptures. The slave girl found Jesus in a dramatic act of power and deliverance. The jailer found Jesus in a totally unexpected act of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It was a church, in other words, that transcended spiritual types, spiritual needs, Enneagram numbers, Meyers-Briggs personality types, or however you want to put it.
Rome thought they had united these kinds of people under Caesar's empire, but no: The Philippine merchants were able to exploit the city's divisions by appealing to nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, religious bigotry. Have you ever heard of the Jewish prayer, "Blessed art thou, O God, for not making me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman"? Luke says, hey look who makes up this church: a Gentile, a slave, and a woman.
The church says we are not united by Rome or by Caesar. We are united by the Ascended Christ and in the Ascended Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, between slave and free, between women and men. We are "completely one, so that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son and has loved us even as the Father has loved him."
So, finally, a few questions: Do you understand that Jesus has given you his glory? Do you understand that that glory is so that we may be one? Do you put as high a priority on unity—across economic lines, across ethnic lines, across spiritual interests, across political lines or other opinions—as Jesus does?
Second question: If you're praying to be released from some kind of prison, some kind of captivity, have you thought about what happens afterwards? How are you going to use your freedom? How are you going to pass on the gift you've been given? What has God given you that you can give to someone else, and keep this cycle of giving going? Asking that question isn't to make some kind of deal with God; it's not: "If you free me, then I'll pay you back and make it worth it." It's to be prepared: When I am freed, because I will be freed, my freedom is not for me alone.
We are in Christ and Christ is in us so that we may be one, so that the world may believe and know God, so that the love God has for himself can come into more of us, and God himself may come into more of us. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
Ted Olsen is Editorial Director for Christianity Today and a member of Church of the Savior, an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois.