Because of a "glitch" the mp3 recording is only almost nearly complete. Apologies for that!
Text: Mark 16:14-20
Date: The Ascension of Our Lord + 5/17/07
For forty days after his resurrection our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples a total of at least eleven times recorded for us in the New Testament. He appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared to teach us that he is with us whether or not we can see him. On this, the fortieth day of Easter, our Lord appeared to his disciples one last time. This time, however, he didn’t just disappear. He bodily ascended upwards into the sky until a cloud hid him from their sight. This action meant that he would no longer be appearing to his disciples in visible, bodily form because we no longer need him to do that. We have their eyewitness testimony and the Holy Spirit by Whom Christ lives in each of his disciples. We have heard the account of his ascension this year from both St. Luke and St. Mark. Tonight I would like to draw your attention to just two details of the significance of the Ascension of Our Lord for us and for all Christians. First that the Ascension is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesy from Psalm 68:18 where David writes, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train.” Second is the commission of Our Lord, as St. Mark has it, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” with the promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
When David wrote, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train,” he prophesied how the coming Christ would establish a new and everlasting kingdom. But no, Peter, James and John, it is not the earthly kingdom of old Israel [Acts 1:6]. As Jesus said before Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Likewise we are told that those who belong to this kingdom, while we are “in” the world are not to be “of” the world, that is, our citizenship is in heaven and we are but strangers, aliens and sojourners here as we wend our way through a world still struggling and dying in spiritual darkness. Our only hope is because of that phrase, he “led captives” in his train. The “captives” are none other than sin, death and Satan. The King James Version translates the phrase, “thou hast led captivity captive.” Sin, death and Satan are our greatest enemies. Sin holds us captive. Death holds us captive. Satan holds us captive and we cannot free ourselves. But this is why Christ came, to take hold of death by the throat, to take away our sin, to snare, bind and bar Satan from accusing us anymore before the throne of God. He did this by his holy life and his suffering and death on the cross. That Christ is risen means that now even these, sin, death and Satan, are subject to his rule. Christ ascended on high and rules at the right hand of the Father in majesty in order to set free and release those who were slaves of sin, captives to death, that we may be truly free and liberated from sin, from death and from Satan.
This means that, though sin still so easily besets us, in Christ we no longer are enslaved or controlled by sin but are enabled to live holy lives in the forgiveness of our sins. It means though the last enemy, death, still claims our bodies outwardly, we have the promise of the resurrection, new bodies for old, eternal life the way God originally intended us to be, only better even than the Garden of Eden. It means that even though Satan still madly wars and attempts to take down as many with him to his final demise as he can, by means of the mighty Word and deliverance of Christ our King he and his hordes can no longer overpower us. “We tremble not, we fear no ill…This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He’s judged; the deed is done” [TLH 262:3].
The second meaning of Christ’s Ascension is in the command, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” This is the way St. Mark has it. Matthew tells of the purpose and method, “making disciples” by means of “baptizing and teaching.” St. Luke says a little more about how we are to do this, namely, witnessing or testifying by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mark says only, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
The Christian Church is to “go” to the world, for one reason: because the world will not come to her. The Church continues the earthly ministry of Christ, preaching, teaching and healing, seeking the lost. Salvation comes to a person in no other way than through the Word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Proclaim the gospel,” says Jesus, the good news of liberation from sin, death and Satan by faith in Christ alone. For all the changes and differences from generation to generation, of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, of philosophies and world views, in times of war and times of relative peace, in all the estimated 6,912 known languages of the world (ethnologue.com), each and every Christian is here called by Christ to speak up, to announce or herald, to put into words, to converse with everyone about salvation, that is, the deliverance from sin, death and Satan that is by faith in Jesus Christ. This is what we mean by the phrase, the priesthood of all believers. To be a priest does not mean that each Christian can go directly to God for him or herself. It is a priesthood meaning that each Christian can go directly to God for his or her neighbor, to intercede, pray for and witness to our neighbor.
This is the work we call “evangelism.” “Evangel” literally means the Gospel, “the Good News” of Christ. “Evangelism” means the myriad of ways the Good News is brought to people. Evangelism is part of the reason we exist as Christ’s people and the way in which Jesus continues to seek and save the lost through the Word of the Gospel proclaimed through our mouths. As we say in the Augsburg Confession:
"Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight."
The witness and work of evangelism belongs to each Christian as the priesthood of all believers. In addition to the priesthood of all believers, however, as the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Those gifts are identified as “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,” those set apart, ordained or authorized and sent to proclaim the Gospel publicly in and to the Church, as our Augsburg Confession continues, saying,
That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. [AC IV and V]
Tonight we praise and thank God for the victory of Christ over sin, death and Satan for the life of the world, and we hear again the command to make this victory known to everyone. This task takes both pastors and laity, both the priesthood and the office of the ministry. Pastors and people are to honor, support and encourage each other in this work according to the calling and vocation of each. It is nothing less or else than the devil’s work when he pits pastors and people against each other—the over-emphasis of the ministry resulting in tyranny, the over-emphasis of the priesthood of all resulting in anarchy. As our Lord said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” Then He said, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:25-28]. May those called, ordained and sent as pastors continually grow in their appreciation and honor of all the people of God as the priesthood of all believers. And may the people of God likewise grow in their appreciation and honor of their pastors. For, as the Apostle Paul said, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” [2 Cor. 4:5].
To pastors and priesthood together, then, the blessing of the Book of Hebrews: “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you [and me, and us all] with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” [Hebrews 13:20-21 (ESV)].