Ambassadors of Heaven
Ambassadors of Heaven
I began last Sunday with a question: What’s the significance of Ascension? I want to ask another question this morning: What’s the significance of Pentecost? As I said last week, it seems that most Christians in the West have almost completely forgotten the significance of the Ascension. For the better part of two thousand years it was one of the most important celebrations of the Christian Year, but now it’s a blip on the calendar—hardly anyone bothers to show up for Ascension Day services. For most of us Ascension is just a marker that Jesus isn’t physically with us here on earth anymore—he’s gone to heaven and the Ascension lessons tell us how it happened. If you ask why it’s significant that Jesus is in heaven, maybe we remember that Jesus said that he was going to heaven so that he could send his Spirit. If we can answer that much it’s a good sign—all is not lost! But it still shows that we’ve lost the big picture of God’s story of redemption and recreation.
As we saw last Sunday, the most important reason for Jesus ascending to heaven is that it means that he’s taken his throne and that he will reign from there until, as St. Paul says, every last enemy is put under his feet—until every enemy of God and his people, of his kingdom and his new creation has been conquered. And if Jesus is reigning, that means that his kingdom is here and his kingdom is now. This is what the Old Testament points to throughout its pages. It’s what the New Testament affirms about Jesus and his coming and his mission. And yet we’re blind to it. North American Christians have been fed a steady diet of sensationalist books and TV preachers who tell us that the kingdom will come some day in the future. We’ve heard a steady diet of people asking how the kingdom could possibly be here and now when there’s so much evil around us. And yet the fact that Jesus ascended should tell us otherwise. King’s don’t take their thrones without their sovereign rule being inaugurated and that’s as true of Jesus as it is for earthly kings.
As I’ve thought about this I’ve come to suspect that one of the major reasons we’ve missed the reality of God’s kingdom is that we haven’t fully grasped the mission of the Church—of God’s new creation here on earth. We pray every day, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but we never fully grasp just what we’re praying in those words. And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. So back to the question: What’s the significance of Pentecost? Why is Pentecost important?
The best place to start is our Epistle from Acts 2 this morning. St. Luke tells us there of this amazing thing that took place as the Holy Spirit came in a rush of wind and fell on the disciples in something that looked like tongues of fire. Suddenly they were praising God in other languages. Jews from all over the empire were there and heard these Galilean men telling of the mighty acts of God in their own languages. None of these visitors was quite sure what was going on. Some of them thought the disciples were drunk. And that’s when Peter stood up and gave his first sermon. He began with Joel’s prophecy as he walked the people through the Old Testament and then explained how Jesus, in his death and resurrection and then in his ascension not only fulfilled those prophecies, but how Jesus actually fulfilled Israel’s failed mission. As he says in verse 36, “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
It’s an amazing picture Luke gives us, but as we read it we probably missed the really significant little note he gives us right at the beginning. In verse 1 Luke begins by telling us that all this happened “when the day of Pentecost arrived”. And we think, “Well, of course…this is why we refer to that day as Pentecost!” What a lot of people don’t realise is that it wasn’t Luke or the Church that decided to call that day Pentecost. That day was already called Pentecost. That’s what the Greek-speaking Jews called the day fifty days after Passover—“pente”, “fifty”. In Hebrew it was called the Feast of Weeks—specifically, seven weeks after Passover. And the connection between this Jewish festival and what happened on that day Luke tells us in Acts when the Spirit descended on the disciples is important.
Passover and Pentecost go all the way back to the beginning of Israel’s story in the Exodus. Remember back to the first Passover. The Lord sent his angel to take the lives of the firstborn of all Egypt. But he made a provision to spare the firstborn of Israel. He gave Moses instructions for the people: Each family was to slaughter a lamb. They were to eat the lamb and they were to paint its blood on the doorposts of their home. When the angel of death saw the blood of the sacrificed lamb he would literally “pass over” that home and spare those inside. The next day the Lord led his people out of their bondage in Egypt. He rescued them again as he parted the waters of the Red Sea so that they could escape Pharaoh’s army and he led to Mt. Sinai in the wilderness where he gave them his law. The law he gave to the people through Moses was the charter of his covenant. To be God’s people is to manifest his glory and his faithfulness to the world. That was Israel’s calling and it had been ever since the Lord had called Abraham: to be a light to the gentiles so that the nations might know the glory of the Lord and be drawn to him. The Lord wrote his law on tablets of stone so that Israel would know what to do to fulfil her mission and ministry—that she would know what it is to live in covenant with the Lord. God rescued his people, leading them in an exodus from their bondage to the Egyptians and on the fiftiethday he met them and gave them his law. That was the origin of the feast of Pentecost. And that was its significance for Israel down through the years. At Passover they remembered how God had rescued them. Year after year they sacrificed lambs and painted the blood on their doorposts to remind them of the way in which the Lord had saved them. And every year, forty-nine days later they commemorated and celebrated the giving of the law that taught them how to live as the Lord’s people.
All of that’s packed into that statement Luke makes in Acts 2:1 about the day of Pentecost having come. And that points to the meaning of Pentecost as we remember and celebrate it as Christians. On that last Passover Jesus went to Jerusalem. As I said on Maundy Thursday, the Gospel writers seem to indicate that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples a day early, which meant celebrating it without a lamb. Things were different that year. That night he was arrested and while the people of Israel sacrificed their Passover lambs, Jesus became the true and once-for-all Passover lamb. He was crucified and died for the sins of his people. And on that first Easter morning he rose from the grave, not only conquering sin and death, but leading his people in a new exodus. This time is wasn’t an exodus from human slavery, but an exodus from slavery to sin and death.
For forty days Jesus taught his people from the Law and the Prophets, showing them all these connections. He gave his people a new mission. And yet it wasn’t a completely new mission. It was the same mission that Israel had had all along: to manifest the glory of the Lord to the nations and to call them into covenant with him. But this time the Lord was equipping his people as he never had before. He had promised through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). This is what humanity needed all along. The law was external—written on stone tablets. What humanity needed was a new heart, a new life, given and made possible by the indwelling Spirit of God. And so, at his ascension, Jesus gave his disciples their mission: go out into the world, proclaim the good news—the message that Jesus is Lord, that there is a new and eternal King, make disciples of the nations, and baptise them into the God who loves and redeems his rebellious people. But this is also why he told them to go to Jerusalem and wait. The exodus made Israel God’s people. In fact, we see throughout the Old Testament that it was in the Exodus that the Lord adopted Israel and called her his firstborn. But being adopted is different from being given the tools needed to actually live as part of the family.
Think about that. Imagine being adopted into a family, but not being told the house rules or the family expectations. That was what Israel needed to live the Lord’s adoption. And that’s the purpose that the law served when it was given at Sinai. It was the family rules. And just so with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is now the Lord’s firstborn. He has taken Israel’s role on himself and through as we pass through the waters of baptism in faith—our own Red Sea experience—we are adopted as Jesus’ brothers and sisters into the Lord’s family. But we need to be equipped to live as members of the Lord’s family. And so on the fiftieth day after their exodus, after their rescue from slavery to sin and death, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his people. Instead of external tablets of stone, he gave his life-giving and empowering Spirit to breathe life into his sons and daughters that they—that we—might truly live as his people, as his family.
That day was a commissioning too. Pentecost mirrors Jesus’ own baptism. Think back to the beginning of the story of Jesus’ ministry. He was baptised by John and as he came up out of the waters of the Jordan River the Holy Spirit descended on him and the Lord spoke from heaven: This is my beloved Son; in him I am well-pleased. At Pentecost the Lord did the same thing for the Church. He spent his Spirit not only to indwell us, but to commission us to carry out the mission that Jesus began. On Pentecost the Lord declared to his Church, to all those who are in Christ: These are my beloved sons and daughters; in them I am well-pleased. And as Jesus was sent from his baptism into the wilderness to suffer Satan’s harassment and to triumph over him in the power of the Spirit, so from our baptism at Pentecost, the Church is sent out into the wilderness: to charge into the darkness with the light of Christ, to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord and that he has conquered sin and death and Satan. We’re not called to go timidly into the world to offer people a new option on the smorgasbord of world religions. No, we’re to charge into the territory of Satan and of Caesar to proclaim that there is a new Lord, that the kingdoms of Satan and of Caesar are coming to an end and that Jesus is Lord. Our message is one that we should be taking not with timidity and fear, but with power and authority. Ascension and Pentecost give us the assurance we need that Jesus reigns, that his kingdom is here and now, and that however bad things may look today, he will with absolute certainty subdue every enemy and return on the clouds the conquering king at the end of the age.
There’s no reason to be afraid. There’s no reason not to have confidence in our mission. Ascension and Pentecost should be reminds of that. Last week we sang those words of the old hymn “See the Conqueror”:
Thou hast raised our human nature
In the clouds to God’s right hand
There we sit in heavenly places
There with Thee in glory stand
Jesus reigns adorned by angels
Man with God is on the throne
Mighty Lord in Thine ascension
We by faith behold our own
We by faith behold our own
In his Ascension Jesus gives us assurance. He in his resurrected and exalted humanity has raised our humanity and this earthly realm to heaven. That’s one half of his final promise to restore heaven and earth. And Pentecost embodies the other half of the promise: In sending the gift of the Holy Spirit to indwell his people, the Lord has sent heaven to earth. Humanity has risen to heaven with Jesus and heaven has descended to earth with the Holy Spirit and so we know that heaven and earth cannot remain separate forever. One day they will be restored. All that remains is for Jesus to subdue his enemies.
In the meantime, brother and sisters, we the Church have been made the temple of the living God. Think about what that means. In the beginning God created a garden temple where he and his people lived in fellowship with each other. Men and women lived in the presence of God. Our sin broke that fellowship. Sin and death drove us from the garden. Sin and death forced apart earth and heaven. The tabernacle and the temple were built as model of that garden temple in miniature. They became the centre of Israel’s life, because in the temple God and human beings could find fellowship, even if it was a limited and broken fellowship. Then Jesus came and he became the temple himself. In his incarnation he united humanity to God and in giving his Spirit to us, to the Church, the Lord had made us his living temple. In us, thanks to Pentecost, God is made known to fallen and broken humanity. In us the new creation has begun. And in us the Lord is working to restore his fallen and broken world to himself.
And what’s our mission? How do we shine the light of Christ in the darkness? Brothers and sisters, just as Israel was given a new set of “family rules” to show her how to be light in the darkness, we as God’s new Israel have been given the same. Not a legalistic set of dos and don’ts, but a call to live as Jesus did. We’re called to manifest faith and to manifest hope and, most of all, to manifest love to a world with no faith and no hope and that’s filled with fear and hate. We’re called to live out the manifesto, the charter given by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: hungering and thirsting for righteousness, showing mercy, making peace. We’re called to show the world that Jesus has given us a new way of living. In fact, it’s not a new way. It’s the old way that was lost when we fell into rebellion and sin, but now it’s back and it’s possible because this time it’s not a set of rules carved on stone; it’s a new being and a new life imparted to our hearts by the very Spirit of God living in us and giving us his new life.
Brothers and sisters, there’s an awful tendency to forget all of this when we turn Pentecost into a private experience. Pentecost is about the people of God being equipped by the Spirit to live as his people, not just privately, but publicly—not for the sake of ourselves, bur for the sake of the world. Pentecost is about the Spirit bearing fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, it’s about the people of God being changed and renewed in our hearts that we might proclaim that Jesus is Lord. And we do all this as heralds of the kingdom. As I said in our Bible study on Wednesday night: this idea of “gospel” or “good news” in the New Testament brings together two meanings. For the Jews “good news” brought to mind the language of Isaiah. “Good news” meant a messenger coming to a people languishing in exile; a messenger sent to tell them that their enemies had been defeated and that the Lord had returned to Zion. To Greeks and Romans, “good news” brought to mind an imperial herald, sent to the far reaches of the empire with the message that a new Caesar had ascended to the throne. In Jesus both of those meanings are brought together. In Jesus we have a new and eternal King; in Jesus the Lord has returned to Zion to dwell in the midst of his people. The power of Pentecost is the power and life of the Spirit given to us to proclaim his kingdom and to live it before the eyes of the world.