A sermon based on Ephesians 4:7-16
Sunday, May 28th, 2017 – Ascension Sunday
It's quite alarming, really: How high the divorce rate is… among socks. J
It's that time of year again—summer on the Kenai—or as we know it, "Tourist Season." For the Guenthers that means a whole lot of house guests between now and mid-August. And with the guests coming and going it's almost inevitable that some of them leave something behind. That's where we end up with divorced socks—one of a pair that we never bought left behind at our house while it's ex travels north perhaps to travel thousands of miles south so the two will never meet again. We've had favorite toys left behind. We've had fishing gear left behind. We've had boots and coats with no discernable owner to sit in our garage for a year or two before we finally donate the lost items.
Of course, sometimes our guests leave something behind on purpose: They leave behind a card expressing their gratitude. For a longer stay, they'll sometimes leave behind cash or a gift card to restock the fridge they helped empty. Or they'll leave behind a bottle of wine to express their thanks to us, their hosts.
Jesus was like a tourist in a sense. He came to visit this earth as a guest for a while. Never leaving an area the size of the Peninsula but once (heading to Egypt as a child—about as far as it is from here to Anchorage), he relied on the hospitality of others most of the time. But when his time here was done, when it was time for him to leave, he didn't take everything with him but left gifts behind.
This morning as we celebrate Jesus' ascension, we pause to look at what he left behind. He left us his victory. He left us his grace. He left us gifts of pastors and teachers. He left us his Word.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."
9 (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Can you imagine if one of our guests from Wisconsin Lutheran College placed a thank you note on the kitchen table this morning and I walked over there, picked it up, and tore it in half and tossed it in the garbage saying, "Yeah, I don't want to read that. I don't care what you have to say." How rude! How thoughtless! That guest would rightly think I was a jerk and a terrible host.
But in a certain sense, isn't that we do to Jesus with his gifts? He gives us grace to forgive us, but we would often rather wallow in our sin. He gives us his Word to strengthen our faith and help us to grow up, but we'd rather crush candy or binge watch Netflix than read it. He gives us pastors and teachers that we disrespect and neglect. He gives us opportunities to serve and work to do and we say, "Yeah, I don't really want to do that. I don't care what you have to say."
When Jesus came to visit us, descending here to the lower, earthly regions from heaven itself, we were terrible hosts. We neglected him. We mistreated him. We killed him. And I say "we" because we are included in the humanity that still mistreats him, that sins against him, that neglects and mistreats the gifts he left behind. And we do it right in front of him since he "fills the whole universe," and there is nowhere where he is not.
And of course, if a guest left me a gift certificate and I tore up the envelope that held it right in front of them, I would rightly forfeit the gift and lose it! And that's what we all deserve from God: to lose the gifts he gives for our infantile and immature sins and for our rebellion against him.
"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…" Instead of getting what we deserve, we get grace. We get God's undeserved love and the gifts that express it.
The first gift is the victory he won for us by his work here on earth: "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."
In ancient times when a conquering general returned home, a parade would be thrown in his honor. His enemies would be paraded through the streets in a cage to declare his dominance over them and his total victory. And the spoils of war would be tossed to the people who came out to the parade. Christ's ascension demonstrates his victory. He could ascend back to heaven because his work on earth was complete. That work? To be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
"What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?"
Jesus left his heavenly home to live among us in these lower, earthly regions. He lived as a guest here, that he might keep all of the "house rules" that we could not. He lived a perfect life in our place and took our sin on himself. And he paid for every one of them. Talk about our conquering hero! And his ascension proves that the work is done. We are forgiven! We have peace with God! What a wonderful gift!
But what is our ascended Savior doing now? Did he ascend just to vacation and take life easy now that his work is done. No. Jesus is still at work ruling over all things for our eternal good. And he can do it perfectly because he is God and, "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." You can trust that he is ruling all things everywhere for our good. What a wonderful gift!
What else did he leave behind as "parting gifts" when he returned to heaven? "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…"
I admit, it's a bit awkward for me to preach on this verse and in essence tell you that "I am God's gift to you." But when I reflect on the pastors who baptized, taught, and confirmed me, who absolved me of my sin and strengthened me in my faith… when I think of the teachers who patiently taught me not just to read and write, but to read the Word and write a sermon, well… I have no trouble saying that called workers are God's gift to his church. And what a good encouragement Paul gives to remember that they are gifts our ascended Savior left behind.
After all, if Jesus were still walking the earth, though I'm certain he would be a better preacher and teacher than me or any called worker I know, how many people could you pack into a synagogue in Israel? But by leaving earth and by leaving apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teacher behind, the Gospel can get around the globe like some reverse virus healing spreading to heal souls everywhere! What wonderful gifts God has left his church!
The next gift he left behind is his Word of truth, meant to strengthen us and mature us to keep us in the faith and to equip us to share the faith. "Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." Speaking the truth (that is, the Word of God) in love, we mature. We grow up. And we strong to defend the Kingdom and to extend the Kingdom.
It would be odd if I decided to use the socks left behind at our house. That would just be weird. But it would be equally odd if I didn't use the gift cards or enjoy the bottle of wine left behind with the intention that I do use them—if I just let them sit and collect dust.
So, dear friends, let's use the gifts that Jesus left behind for us to use. First, rejoice in the victory that our Savior won for us—that in spite of the way we've neglected and rejected his gifts, he's forgiven us in Christ. His ascension proves that that work is done! Next, rejoice that he is filling the whole universe and working all things for our eternal good. Then thank him for the gift of pastors and teachers. Come to worship and Bible class, pay attention to the devotions and chapel services, and honor those servants of Christ. Maybe even write a thank you note to the pastor that baptized or confirmed you or the teacher who helped you grow in your faith. Let them know what a gift from God that they are. And finally, be in the Word every day. Read a Meditations devotion or a chapter of your Bible and get that Word of truth that you might, "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ…"